American in China Blames State Dept for Delayed Warning About Mysterious Ailment

State Department official: 'A number of individuals' have been sent home from China for further medical testing

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• June 7, 2018 9:45 am


The latest American employee evacuated from a U.S. consulate in China after suffering from mysterious neurological symptoms is accusing State Department officials of failing to inform him and others about another employee's similar health concerns until a month after the other staffer was evacuated.

U.S. doctors later diagnosed that first employee, who the State Department evacuated from the Guangzhou-based consulate in April, with brain trauma.

The complaints about the paucity of warnings echo similar objections made last year when news first broke about the mysterious so-called sonic attacks U.S. diplomats and their families experienced in Cuba.

Those attacks began sometime in mid-to-late 2016, according to U.S. officials who spoke to the Washington Free Beacon.

Mark Lenzi, a security-engineering officer at the consulate, left the consulate Wednesday evening with his wife and two children after experiencing strange sounds like marbles rolling around a metal funnel that he connected to neurological symptoms.

Lenzi was so upset over the State Department's one-month delay in informing other consulate staffers about the March incident that he sent an email to the entire staff, decrying what he described as misleading information from officials in an interview with the New York Times.

The initial health alert department officials put out after they learned that one of the employees in the Guangzhou had experienced symptoms made it sound like it was an isolated case.

"They knew full well it wasn't," Lenzi told the New York Times, relaying that over the last year he and his wife had experienced physical symptoms, including headaches, sleeplessness, and nausea, and on four occasions they had heard odd noises. He said they had not put them together until the State Department issued the health alert last month.

State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert Wednesday night said since learning of the first case in March, the department has "sent a number of individuals for further evaluation and a comprehensive assessment of their symptoms and findings in the United States."

The cause of the strange sonic incidents, which have resulted in diagnosed mild traumatic brain injury in at least one of the cases from China, remains a mystery, even after months of FBI investigation into similar incidents experienced by two dozen U.S. employees in Havana, which failed to uncover the perpetrators or reasons for the strange, debilitating experiences.

While symptoms the diplomats and their family members experienced in Cuba varied, in all 24 medically confirmed cases victims have described some combination of the following: "sharp ear pain, dull headaches, ringing in one ear, vertigo, visual focusing issues, disorientation, nausea, and extreme fatigue."

After several months of frustrating non-responses from Cuban officials, then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson pulled nearly all of the U.S. embassy staff out of Havana, a step that has soured relations between the Trump administration and the Cuban government.

Secretary Mike Pompeo appears to be trying to avoid the uproar caused last year after U.S. lawmakers and the public found out about the medical incidents in Cuba more than six months after they started happening, by some counts.

On Tuesday, Pompeo announced the creation of a task force to further scrutinize "the unexplained health incidents that have affected U.S. government personnel and their family members stationed overseas," according to a statement released Tuesday. It will serve as a coordinating body between the department and other U.S. government agencies.

Nauert on Wednesday reiterated that the "safety and security of U.S. personnel and their families is our top priority."

As soon as the department received medical confirmation that one U.S. government employee had suffered a "medical incident that was consistent with what American personnel in Havana, Cuba, had experienced," officials deployed a medical team to Guangzhou, China, to screen all U.S. employees and family members who requested it, she said.

"The State Department has been and will continue to be diligent and transparent in its response to our employees' concerns," she added.

She stressed that medical professionals will continue to conduct full evaluations to determine the cause of the reported symptoms and whether the findings are consistent with those experienced by previous personnel or are possibly "completely unrelated."

President Trump, Tillerson, and State Department officials have said they believe the Cuban government knows what occurred and who is responsible. Former State Department officials and diplomatic experts have pointed to similar incidents causing permanent cognitive issues occurring against U.S. diplomats in Russia during the Cold War.

Other veteran foreign policy experts have said Cuba is a playground for so many rogue actors from across the globe, including Russia, China, Iran, and Venezuela, that any one of those countries or agents working on their behalf could be responsible.

The Canadian government in August acknowledged that at least one of its diplomats suffered from similar symptoms and experienced hearing loss after serving in Havana, leading to speculation that Russia, not Cuba, was responsible for the health incidents. Cuba does not have an adversarial relationship with Canada, but Ottawa and Moscow have recently clashed over Canadian sanctions.

A State Department official in January said he expected the agency to convene a formal Accountability Review Board, or ARB, to investigate the attacks against American diplomats in Havana.

Sen. Marco Rubio (R., Fla.) complained that the State Department violated the law by waiting almost a year before setting up an ARB, rather than the 60 to 120 days after an incident that the law requires.

Steve Goldstein, the then-undersecretary for public diplomacy and public affairs, said it took time to set up the ARB because "we were hopeful that we would be able to know what occurred," but the investigation has taken longer than officials anticipated.

Late last month, the State Department officially acknowledged that one China-based U.S. employee experienced a "variety of physical symptoms" from late 2017 through April 2018.

She said the employee was sent to the United States for further evaluation, and on May 18, officials learned that the clinical findings of this evaluation were similar to "what might be seen in a patient with a head concussion or mild traumatic brain injury."

Nauert again stressed that the department was taking the incident "very seriously and working to determine the cause and impact of the incident."

The Embassy Beijing and five U.S. consulates in China, she said, held "townhall meetings" on May 23 "to allow employees to ask questions and raise concerns directly with senior leadership."

"The Chinese government has assured us they are also investigating and taking appropriate measures," she said.

Published under: China, Cuba, State Department