Royce, Cook Ask When State Department First Knew About Sonic Attacks in Cuba

House members call on Tillerson to provide more details about what officials knew, and when

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November 7, 2017

Two prominent GOP lawmakers are pressing Secretary of State Rex Tillerson for an explicit timeline detailing when senior State Department officials first received evidence that sonic attacks in Cuba had occurred.

Reps. Ed Royce (R., Calif.), who chairs the House Foreign Affairs Committee, and Paul Cook (R., Calif.), who chairs the panel's subcommittee on the western hemisphere, sent a letter to Tillerson Monday expressing "grave concern" regarding the attacks that occurred on American diplomats and asking for additional details about them.

"As you know, the victims of these attacks have suffered serious health issues, including hearing loss, dizziness, nausea, cognitive difficulties, and trouble sleeping," they wrote. "It is our hope that the answers to the questions below will advance the Committee's ongoing oversight of the Department's response."

The first question the lawmakers ask in the letter focuses on discrepancies involving when State Department officials first learned of the attacks.

"When did senior State Department officials, such as the chief of mission in Havana, receive evidence of these attacks?" Royce and Cook ask in the letter.

"In addition, press reports indicate that these attacks occurred from late 2016 until August 2017. Is there any evidence to suggest that attacks occurred before or after these dates?"

Royce and Cook also asked the Department to confirm whether the number of victims has risen to 24, and if there is any evidence to suggest that this number could increase.

The State Department has previously said it has not determined whether the Cuban government is directly responsible for perpetrating the sonic attacks but argued that the Castro regime is responsible for safeguarding the security of U.S. officials in Havana, citing international treaty requirements.

"Since the committee was last update, is there new evidence or analysis to suggest the source of these attacks?" they asked.

The lawmakers also want to know whether they believe "at least some element" of the Cuban government knows something about the source of the attacks and whether the department has plans to provide ongoing medical care to the victims "including after they—or their family members—have left government service."

"While many members hold different views on U.S. policy towards Cuba, we all agree that the health and safety of our diplomats and their families is vital to the national security of the United States," they wrote.

The State Department did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the letter.

The letter comes one day before President Trump is expected to issue his long-awaited regulations on his revised Cuba policy. The administration earlier this year announced changes to President Obama's looser travel policies. The Trump changes appeared small on the surface—individuals may no longer plan their own individual trips to the island nation and the trips must made as part of educational groups.

The new prohibition also prohibits any business with Cuba's military, which controls a large part of island's economy. U.S. travelers would no longer be able to book stays at military-owned or run hotels, villas, tour companies, or rental car agencies. Military holdings include the Gaviota group, which among other entities, owns state hotels, restaurants, shops, rental car agencies, gas stations, marinas, small airlines, and tourist bus fleets.

The new regulations would likely list the entities with which Americans are barred from having direct financial transactions.

The State Department waited until mid-summer to publicly discuss the sonic attacks and has previously said the attacks began in the fall of 2016 when the Obama administration was still running the agency. The department has so far declined to indicate whether the initial complaints occurred during the Obama administration or during the Trump transition, as well as which officials knew about the initial complaints and how much they knew.

An Oct. 10 CBS News report quotes an anonymous victim who said complaints about the attacks "were ignored" by State Department officials and that those officials pressured some U.S. embassy officials injured by the attacks to remain on the island instead of curtailing their assignments. The victim also said State waited too long to withdraw non-essential staff and all families from Havana on September 29, 2016.

Sources have told the Washington Free Beacon that complaints about the attacks first began in the summer of 2016.

Rep. Joe Wilson (R., S.C.) sent a letter to Tillerson in mid-October calling on the agency to further investigate the attacks on the U.S. diplomats in Havana. Wilson's letter said according to "testimonies" to both the House Foreign Affairs Committee and the members of the Senate "these injuries may have begun as early as June 2016."

The timeline is critical to resolving lingering questions about the State Department's response to the attacks and why it took months before State publicly acknowledged them.

Foreign policy experts and former State Department officials have argued that State must be more forthcoming about exactly when complaints first surfaced about the health issues in Cuba and how and when the U.S. government responded.

If unaddressed, these experts warn, suspicions will remain that that the Obama administration may have covered up evidence of the attacks in order to aid normalization with Cuba.

"The American people have every right to understand everything that happened to our diplomats serving abroad," José Cárdenas, a former State Department official during the George W. Bush administration who now consults on Latin America issues, told the Free Beacon previously.

"We need an explicit timeline of when the State Department first learned of these reports of the health attacks," he added. "We need to know who knew and when they knew it because there's going to be a lot of suspicion that perhaps information was covered up in order to protect President Obama's normalization process."

Last week, all five Cuban-American House members asked the Government Accountability Office to investigate the State Department's response to the sonic attacks in Cuba.

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.

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.