Five House Members Request GAO Probe of State's Handling of Sonic Attacks in Cuba

The lawmakers want a firm timeline on when U.S. officials first heard about attacks and whether State convened an Accountability Review Board in response

Ileana Ros-Lehtinen
Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen / Getty Images
October 31, 2017

All five Cuban-American House members have asked the Government Accountability Office, Congress's nonpartisan auditing and investigative arm, to determine whether the State Department mishandled its response to a series of mysterious sonic attacks on at least 24 U.S. diplomats in Cuba.

Reps. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R., Fla.), Mario Diaz-Balart (R., Fla.), Carlos Curbelo (R., Fla.), Alex Mooney (R., W. Va.), and Albio Sires, (D., N.J.), want the GAO to clear up lingering questions surrounding the attacks and how the State Department handled them—both during the Obama administration, when the attacks first began, and this year after President Donald Trump's team took the helm.

Ros-Lehtinen is a senior member of the Foreign Relations Committee and its former chair; Sires is the ranking Democrat of the panel's Western Hemisphere subcommittee.

The lawmakers on Tuesday sent a letter to Gene Dodaro, who, as U.S. comptroller, heads the GAO, seeking answers about how the State Department "investigated and responded to these attacks."

The House members are particularly interested in the exact timeline of events involving the attacks in Cuba and State's response to the attacks and the medical needs of those affected. They also want to know what type of State policies and procedures exist to "respond to, analyze, and report incidents of attacks" on U.S. personnel overseas and whether the State Department followed those policies and procedures.

Alluding to media reports that tourists may have been affected by sonic attacks in Cuba, they asked whether private U.S. citizens in Cuba have been affected by similar attacks and what steps the State Department is taking to alert U.S. citizens and provide assistance to them if they believe they were affected by any attacks.

Specifically, the lawmakers want to know whether the State Department convened an Accountability Review Board (ARB), an independent panel the agency is required to set up when serious incidents occur that threaten the security of U.S. diplomats abroad.

The Benghazi attack—during which several Americans, including Ambassador Chris Stevens, were killed—focused public attention on the ARB's role in evaluating the State Department's role in failing to protect the compound and how the agency operated in the aftermath of the attack.

The ARB process, which Congress established, investigates what happened and issues recommendations aimed at preventing future incidents.

If the State Department followed the ARB process, it would also provide a more definitive timeline of when the complaints began and how officials responded to them.

In the wake of the Benghazi attack, the State Department's Office of Inspector General reviewed the ARB process and interviewed four secretaries of State who held office between 1998 and 2012.

"All stated that the ARB process was an effective tool that could provide the Department with important lessons for enhancing the security and safety of U.S. diplomatic facilities and employees," the OIG said in a report on the process, issued September 2013.

The State Department has repeatedly declined to provide a specific timeline of when U.S officials first became aware of complaints from U.S. diplomats about symptoms later associated with the attacks and how they responded to these complaints.

A CBS news report in early October quoted an anonymous victim of an attack charging senior embassy leadership and top State Department officials with having "ignored" for months complaints by U.S. diplomats who were suffering from hearing loss and cognitive problems and other ailments related to the attacks.

That report fueled new questions on when the attacks began and whether the State Department responded quickly enough. The State Department has said the attacks began late in 2016 when the Obama administration was still running the agency, but several sources have told the Washington Free Beacon that the first complaints about U.S. diplomats experiencing symptoms began months earlier that summer.

The vague timeline has left some lawmakers on Capitol Hill and outside foreign policy experts questioning whether the Obama administration tried to downplay or suppress information about the attacks in order to protect the administration's historic diplomatic and commercial thaw with Cuba.

After the anonymous victim complained, Sen. Marco Rubio (R., Fla.) vowed to hold an oversight hearing into the State Department's response to the attack, although he has yet to say when that hearing would take place.

In addition to the timeline and ARB questions, the House members want to know what State is doing to prepare top U.S. diplomats and other U.S. personnel working overseas for potential future attacks "of a similar nature," as well as what the department is doing to assist those injured.

Late last week, Cuban officials suggested that the sonic attacks against U.S. embassy employees could be the sounds of very loud crickets and cicadas.

In a half-hour primetime special broadcast in Cuba, government officials defended themselves against Trump administration charges that the U.S. diplomats and other personnel had been subjected to deliberate attacks.

The Trump administration has not accused Cuba of carrying out the attacks but has held the Castro regime responsible for failing to protect diplomats on its territory, as international treaties require.

In response to the attacks, the Trump administration pulled more than half of its diplomats out of Havana and required Cuba to remove their diplomats from Washington in roughly the same numbers.