State Department Mum on Timeline of Attacks on Diplomats in Cuba

Sen. Marco Rubio vows to hold hearings about how State has handled the crisis

President Barack Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro / Getty Images
October 10, 2017

The State Department has repeatedly declined to provide a specific timeline of when officials first became aware of mysterious attacks on U.S. diplomats in Cuba—even after a new accusation from a victim that U.S. officials ignored his complaints.

Sen. Marco Rubio (R., Fla.) vowed on Tuesday to hold an oversight hearing into the State Department's response to the attacks and the victims’ complaints.

Rubio, who sits on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, tweeted his plans for "oversight hearings" along with a CBS News report quoting an anonymous victim of the attack who charged senior embassy leadership and top State Department officials with having "ignored" for months complaints by U.S. diplomats who were suffering from memory loss and other ailments related to the attacks.

The report is fueling new questions on when the attacks began and who at the State Department allegedly ignored them and whether the Obama administration was trying to downplay or suppress public knowledge about the attacks in order to protect the administration's historic diplomatic and commercial thaw with Cuba.

The State Department has said the attacks began late in 2016 when the Obama administration was still running the agency, but it so far has refused to indicate whether the initial complaints occurred during the Obama or Trump administration and which officials knew about the initial complaints and how much they knew.

Several sources have told the Free Beacon that the initial complaints about the attacks from U.S. diplomats in Havana occurred months earlier, in the summer of 2016.

A State Department spokesperson last week declined to provide a hard timeline about when the first complaints occurred. The spokesperson did not respond to follow-up questions about the timeline Tuesday.

"We became aware of the incidents over a period of several months, stretching from the end of 2016 and into this year," the spokesperson told the Washington Free Beacon in an emailed statement. "The incidents appear to have occurred sporadically, with long lulls in between."

"It took time for those who experienced an incident to report it," the spokesperson continued. "It took time to realize that the experience had potentially impacted their health and then to verify that. It took further time yet to realize that multiple people had experienced things that might be connected. Once we realized that there was a pattern to the incidents and their impact on the health of our personnel, we began an aggressive investigation."

Critics of the State Department's handling of the attacks say the response provides little clarity on the actual timeline and is suspect because any strange diplomatic experience, not to mention one that impacted diplomats' health, in Havana would have immediately set off alarm bells throughout the State Department.

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

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

"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."

Ben Rhodes, deputy national security adviser to then-President Obama, said during a podcast interview last week the Obama administration was not aware of the attacks. A major advocate of Obama's détente with Cuba, Rhodes accused the Trump administration of overreacting by pulling U.S. diplomats out of the island nation and issuing a warning to U.S. travelers not to visit. He also repeatedly said he didn't believe the Cuban government is responsible for the attacks.

"The Cubans have been trying to preserve the relationship, even under Trump," he said during the podcast. "Harming diplomats from the U.S. or Canada, runs entirely counter to everything else they have done."