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05 Sep 2018 12:07 PM | Silvia G. (Administrator)

Watchdog: Communication breakdown delayed review of
Cuba health 'attacks'

Failure to inform the correct State Department office led to a delay of special panel to assess the incidents.

by Josh Lederman / Sep.04.2018 / 5:34 PM ET

WASHINGTON — A communications breakdown within the State Department delayed by more than half a year the creation of a special panel to assess the response to mysterious health "attacks" on U.S. diplomats that led to brain injury, according to a report from congressional investigators obtained by NBC News.

The Government Accountability Office report, which has not been publicly released, determined that the unit of the State Department responsible for setting up the special panel first learned of the incidents from reports in the media in August 2017.

That was eight months after the medical staff at the U.S. Embassy in Havana started evaluating U.S. government workers who reported incidents.

The State Department’s medical unit, Western Hemisphere Affairs bureau and Diplomatic Security service were all aware of what was happening but failed to inform the State Department management office responsible for initiating the establishment of an accountability review board. In the meantime, 80 workers were medically evaluated and 16 found to have brain injuries. More were discovered later, including after new incidents were reported.

By law, the board must be set up within 60 days of an incident that seriously injures a diplomat abroad. Its mandate is to look into whether the government responded appropriately. Examples of past high-profile review boards include the one that investigated the U.S. response to the attacks in 2012 attack in Benghazi, Libya, that killed four Americans.

Congressional investigators determined that the State Department currently has "no policy" in place to ensure that information flows to the management office that starts the process of setting up the board. The State Department agreed with that conclusion and pledged to make improvements, the GAO report said. The State Department declined to comment because the congressional report hasn’t been made public.

The new report comes as concern about the incidents, deemed "specific attacks" by the State Department, has increased after a U.S. diplomat working in China was determined to have also been injured by a similar phenomenon and developed a brain injury.

"Improving its security programs at U.S. diplomatic posts is all the more imperative given recent reports of similar incidents, such as in Guangzhou, China," the report said, referring to the State Department.


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