A bipartisan, bicameral group of lawmakers introduced legislation on Wednesday that would authorize added financial support for U.S. officials who have suffered brain injuries resulting from “Havana Syndrome,” a mysterious set of symptoms known to have afflicted scores of American personnel over several years.
The measure would allow the CIA and State Department to provide financial assistance and other benefits to injured employees according to internally established, “fair and equitable” criteria, according to the legislation’s text.
Individuals suffering from “Havana Syndrome” have reported a range of neurological symptoms, including vertigo, dizziness, ear pain and popping, nausea and intense and persistent headaches, and some have been diagnosed with Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI). The syndrome gets its name from early instances of the illness, which sickened more 40 U.S. embassy and intelligence officials in 2016 and 2017 in Cuba.
Since then, dozens more U.S. officials – which include diplomats, intelligence officers and military personnel who served in overseas posts in China, Russia and elsewhere– have come forward with similar symptoms. Some incidents have been reported on U.S. soil. Lawmakers of both parties have said in recent weeks that the number of cases has been “increasing,” and CBS News previously reported that new incidents among intelligence officers have continued to arise in 2021.
There are different theories about what may be causing the symptoms. An assessment completed last year by the National Academies of Sciences said they were most likely the result of “directed, pulsed, radiofrequency energy.” The U.S. intelligence community has not reached a consensus on their origin, including whether a foreign actor might be behind them, according to the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. The Biden administration has launched an intelligence review and is coordinating an investigation of the incidents across multiple agencies.
Some individuals who have suffered symptoms insist, however, that they were victims of an attack by a hostile power and most often point to the Russian government. The mystery surrounding the cases’ origin and the diverse range of symptoms involved have meant some who fell ill struggled to access medical care and, in some cases, have said they felt marginalized by their employers.
In a statement accompanying the bill, Republican Senator Susan Collins of Maine said the injuries U.S. diplomats and intelligence officers had endured were “significant and life-altering,” and called the fact that some were unable to obtain adequate financial and medical support “an outrageous failure on behalf of our government.”
Co-authors of the Senate measure include Virginia Democratic Senator Mark Warner and Florida Republican Senator Marco Rubio, who lead the Senate Intelligence Committee, as well as Democratic Senator Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire.
House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff, Democrat of California, also introduced a companion bill, which was co-sponsored by Ranking Member Devin Nunes, Republican of California, and House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Gregory Meeks, Democrat of New York.
“There’s no higher priority than ensuring the health and safety of our people, and the anomalous health incidents that have afflicted our personnel around the world are of grave concern,” Schiff said in a statement.
Marc Polymeropoulos, a former senior CIA officer who ended his career early after struggling with symptoms that first struck him during a 2017 trip to Moscow, welcomed the legislation, saying out-of-pocket costs for some victims who sought private medical care had been “exorbitant.”
“Along with the stated commitment of CIA Director Burns and the administration to aggressively pursue this issue, justice for the victims is now getting closer at hand,” he said.
A CIA spokesperson said the agency “appreciates the legislative efforts to provide additional resources for the care of affected individuals. We remain committed to continued and robust engagement with oversight on these anomalous health incidents.”
Burns has previously said in public testimony that he would have “no higher priority” than ensuring proper access to care for agency officers who had fallen ill, and has reinvigorated a task force charged with overseeing the effort.