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Biden Signs Legislation To Compensate Victims Of Mysterious ‘Havana Syndrome’

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President Biden Friday signed a new government program to compensate CIA officers, State Department diplomats and other federal officials who suffered traumatic neurological injuries that the intelligence community has yet to uncover, launched by attackers they cannot yet identify.

With no ceremony and little public comment, Mr. Biden signed the Havana Act, authorizing Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken and CIA Director William J. Burns to provide financial support to workers who have suffered brain injuries. The act is named for what has come to be known as “Havana syndrome,” a series of unexplained injuries whose victims were first identified five years ago at the US embassy in Cuba.

But Mr Biden’s silence on the new law — he made a statement but avoided a public ceremony where questions could be asked — was telling. While some officials are convinced that the syndrome is the result of attacks and that one or more rival powers are responsible, intelligence agencies have yet to reach definitive conclusions, despite the appointment of multiple task forces to identify the cause and possible countermeasures.

There is a widely held belief, supported by a study by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, that the cause is focused energy, possibly microwaves, presumably aimed at embassies and residences. But even that is just the leading theory, and while Russia is the prime suspect, it’s not the only country with the technology to carry out such attacks. The CIA and the National Security Council have created an outside panel with access to classified information to help find a cause.

“We are using all of the US government’s resources to provide first-class medical care to those affected and to get to the bottom of these incidents, including to determine the cause and who is responsible,” said Mr. Biden. the law. “Officials, intelligence officers, diplomats and military personnel around the world have been affected by anomalous health incidents,” Biden said, but stopped using the word “attack.”

Jen Psaki, the White House press secretary, did not go into details Friday when asked whether the episodes posed a threat to the American public, or specifically to Americans traveling abroad.

“We take every reported incident seriously and what we want to do is ensure that our national security team uses all available resources,” Ms Psaki said. “Without an attribution and an assessment of the cause of the onset, I don’t want to go any further.”

The president’s signature came just as the episodes seem to be increasing in frequency and some have become bolder: a CIA officer who traveled to India with Mr. Burns a few weeks ago became the latest victim, in an incident that echoed found at the White House because his travels hadn’t been publicized, and because targeting a member of the CIA director’s travel group — if that’s what happened — seemed particularly provocative.

The India incident came after two dozen or more cases were reported in Vienna, which is home to three US embassies (two of which are affiliated with United Nations agencies), as well as negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program. It is also the working area of ​​spies from all over the world. And over the summer, Vice President Kamala Harris’ trip to Vietnam was postponed for several hours due to concerns about incidents there.

The incidents have led to a rare example of a bipartisan agreement in fiercely partisan Washington. The original bill was written by Maine Republican Senator Susan Collins. California Democrat Adam Schiff led the bill through the House, where it passed unanimously.

Ms Collins said she was becoming increasingly convinced that some adversary was behind the incidents. “As we continue our efforts to support victims, we must also redouble our entire government approach to identify and stop the heartless adversary who is harming American personnel,” she said in a statement on Friday.

Mark S. Zaid, a lawyer representing multiple victims, said the legislation was “a good and necessary first step, but woefully short in many ways.”

The bill leaves it to the leaders of the CIA and the State Department to make their own decisions about who is covered and how much compensation they receive, meaning “it has the potential to create incredible inconsistencies between agencies about how they deal with it,” Mr. Zaid said. “This is the kind of thing that requires uniform standards across the federal government. Someone at State shouldn’t be treated differently than someone at CIA.”

A government official, who asked to remain anonymous to make internal communications public, said officials have tried since Mr. Biden took office to standardize what they admitted was an ad-hoc and uneven reporting process between agencies, and the State Department had issued guidelines. over the summer assuring workers they would receive the same standard of care as people from other agencies, including the CIA

Groups of victims who have called for recognition and compensation for their injuries welcomed the signing. Robyn Garfield, a Commerce Department official who was injured in China, said the critical next step was to ensure that victims who could no longer work received proper care.

Mr Garfield also said that uniform diagnostic and treatment plans should be adopted.

“For too long, too many of us have been treated as adversaries and not partners by our own agencies,” said Mr. Garfield.

Mark Lenzi, a State Department official who was also injured in China, said it was time for Congress to hold hearings, adding that more information has been gathered by the government for lawmakers to review.

“This Havana Act legislation is crucial, but only a first step in giving injured US government personnel and their families the assistance we should have received years ago,” Mr Lenzi said.

Ana Swanson reporting contributed.

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