Probe Clears State Dept of Wrongdoing in Cuba Sonic Attacks

Release of ARB findings does not include exact timeline of attacks

Getty Images
August 30, 2018

The State Department on Thursday formally cleared Obama and Trump administration officials from any wrongdoing in the lead-up and response to the still-unexplained sonic attacks in Cuba that harmed the health of at least 25 U.S. personnel, although it cited some problems with security staffing vacancies and communications "challenges."

After delivering the official report to Congress, the agency released a "fact sheet" to the press on the Accountability Review Board's (ARB) findings and recommendations. The ARB process, which Congress established, investigates what happened and issues recommendations aimed at preventing future incidents.

"The ARB found the department's security systems and procedures were overall adequate and properly implemented, though there were significant vacancies in security staffing and some challenges with information sharing and communication," the fact-sheet statement said.

"The ARB did not find any U.S. government employee engaged in misconduct or performed unsatisfactorily in a way that contributed to these incidents," it continued.

The long-awaited report did not provide a timeline of exactly when U.S. personnel in Havana began to report the strange sonic incidents and health problems related to them, nor when they ended.

The State Department did not immediately respond to Washington Free Beacon questions about the lack of a timeline in the ARB report and whether the State Department failed to safeguard residences for U.S. diplomats operating in Cuba for the first time in more than 50 years.

Diplomats have privately complained about the lack of communication and warnings about the danger of working in Havana after they heard about the first instances of sonic attacks and the impact on U.S. workers' health.

All five Cuban-American House members have questioned the State Department about the exact timeline, which the State Department has previously said began during the end of the Obama administration and continued after President Donald Trump's team took the helm.

They have asked the General Accountability Office, Congress's nonpartisan auditing and investigative arm, to provide an exact timeline and clear up lingering questions about whether the State Department mishandled its response. The GAO has yet to release a report.

The fact-sheet from the ARB review acknowledged that its mandate was not to determine the cause of the unexplained health incidents but to examine the State Department's response, "including the adequacy of security and other related procedures."

The ARB, which first met Feb. 9 and interviewed more than 116 individuals in its four-month investigation, made 30 recommendations, including the need for the appointment of a "single, designated senior-level department official" with responsibility for responding to the health incidents. The ARB recommended elevating the responsibility for the Cuba response to the deputy secretary of State.

The State Department said it has already implemented half of the ARB's recommendations and is "actively working" to complete the rest.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in the first weeks of his tenure took the initiative to establish an interagency Health Incidents Response Task Force to direct a multi-agency response to the health incidents. The department is also establishing a new position solely responsible for "longer-term outreach and assistance to personnel affected by these incidents."

The ARB also found that the State Department's Bureau of Medical Services provided "competent and professional response to an unprecedented situation," but they had "insufficient resources to support the long-term care and follow-up needed for these types of incidents."

In response to the ARB's recommendations, the department is "identifying and reviewing applicable legal authorities and resources for long-term medical follow-up and treatment for U.S. government personnel and families impacted by the incidents in Cuba and will seek legislative remedies where necessary."

The department is working with the Labor Department to try to ensure "proper adjudication" of worker's compensations claims and is instituting new pre-departure and post-assignment medical screening.

The ARB recommended that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) undertake "comprehensive medical and epidemiologic study of the symptoms and clinical findings related to the incidents in Cuba." The department is now working with the CDC to provide the analysis.

When it comes to diplomatic security services in Cuba and elsewhere, the ARB said the response would have benefited from a diplomatic service working group to coordinate the response. The Bureau of Diplomatic Security (DS) has already formed a Health Incidents Response Working Group, which has "increased communication among the various interagency investigative representatives and ensured action items are addressed quickly and comprehensively."

"The ARB also suggested the department review its training programs for security personnel" the fact sheet said. "DS is in the process of reviewing its training and briefing programs to ensure security officers have adequate knowledge of these types of incidents prior to going to post."

Published under: Cuba , State Department