The State Department waited nearly one year before standing up an independent investigative panel, known as an Accountability Review Board, to probe the unexplained attacks on U.S. personnel working in Cuba and their family members.
U.S. law requires the secretary of state to convene an ARB within 60 days after an incident of "serious injury" occurs to U.S. personnel serving abroad, which can be extended to 120 days if the secretary of state deems more time is needed.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson convened the board Dec. 11 and will formally notify Congress about its creation soon, Francisco Palmieri, the acting assistant secretary of state for western hemisphere affairs, told senators Tuesday during a Foreign Relations Committee oversight hearing on the attacks that on diplomats and other U.S. personnel in Cuba.
Sen. Marco Rubio (R., Fla.), who led the hearing, repeatedly criticized the State Department for failing to form the ARB until December when the first symptoms that diplomats had been harmed in Cuba occurred in late 2016.
"In any case of serious injury that has to happen within 60 days or 120 days of an incident," Rubio said, noting that he got a letter from the State Department in early November of last year that "there is still no ARB."
"Why wasn't it set up according to law?" he asked Palmieri and Todd Brown, the State Department's diplomatic security assistant director for international programs.
Rubio and Sen. Bob Menendez (D., N.J.) also said they had learned the State Department officials initially rebuffed the first diplomats who complained of the mysterious symptoms, and didn't tell incoming U.S. diplomats to Cuba of the potential medical threat that accompanied taking the assignment.
Rubio and State Department officials also confirmed the State Department became so concerned about the attacks that from February through April 2017 medical experts evaluated 80 members of the embassy community and concluded that 16 individuals had "verifiable clinical" symptoms similar to what you would see in patients who "have had a mild traumatic brain injury or concussion."
While symptoms the diplomats and their family members experienced varied, Rubio also reported that 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."
Rubio and State Department officials also addressed an Associated Press report that a new non-public FBI report produced no evidence to back the initial U.S. government theory that a sonic device caused the symptoms.
Brown said he had not read the FBI report and couldn't comment directly on it, but he still believes some type of sonic device cannot be ruled out. He also suggested other possibilities, including a possible viral attack.
Dr. Charles Rosenfarb, the director of the State Department's medical unit, said doctors tested the victims extensively and found the symptoms were consistent with "mild traumatic brain injury," and stressed that the tests "are not easily faked," though no cause has been confirmed or ruled out.
"The findings suggest that this is not an episode of mass hysteria," he said.
The hearing also focused on the timeline of exactly when the attacks occurred and the State Department's response to them, details of which have been vague since media reports first revealed the incidents in Cuba in August of 2017.
Palmieri testified that in late 2016 U.S. personnel serving in Havana started complaining about hearing strange noises and a variety of unexplained physical symptoms beginning in late 2016. After State Department officials began to investigate the complaints he said they began to "see signs suggesting these events: may have begun as early as November 2016."
Palmieri said that the State Department then began identifying "these unusual events" with certain health symptoms and approached the Cuban government in mid-February to demand it meet its obligations under the Vienna Convention to protect U.S. personnel in Havana.
Pressed by Rubio about which officials knew what and when, Palmieri said he did not know if the Trump transition team was informed in late 2016 about the mysterious incidents, and said Tillerson wasn't informed about them until late February.
The attacks, he said, appeared to occur in "clusters," and started reoccurring in late March 2017 and continued until late April and then seemed to stop. Beginning in mid-April, the State Department began allowing those serving in Cuba who did not feel safe at the post to return to the U.S.
The U.S. then expelled two Cuban diplomats in May "to underscore the Cuban government's responsibility to protect" U.S. personnel, he said.
After a period without attacks, two more incidents occurred in late-August 2017; they were medically confirmed in September. Tillerson ordered the departure of non-emergency personnel from the embassy in Havana in late September after coming to the conclusion that it was the "only way to significantly reduce the risk to our diplomats and their families."
Tillerson then expelled 15 more Cuban diplomats from the United States to underscore with Cuba its obligations to top the attacks.
The Cuban government has continued to deny any role in the attacks and has asserted at different points over the last six months that the symptoms Americans are experiencing could be the result of crickets or mass hysteria.
Rubio and other government officials argue that Cuban government surveillance in Havana and elsewhere on the island is so strong that it is impossible for them not to have some knowledge and complicity.
Tillerson has said he is convinced the attacks are deliberate and is unsure whether they are over. He said he will not reverse his decision to keep all but essential U.S. diplomats out of Cuba until he can be assured they will be safe.
"I'd be intentionally putting them back in harm's way. Why in the world would I do that when I have no means to protect them?" he told the Associated Press late last week. "I will push back on anybody who wants to force me to do that."
"I still believe that the Cuban government, someone within the Cuban government can bring this to an end," he added.
At the end of the hearing, Rubio suggested that a rogue element of the Cuban government or an outside party such as Russia could have perpetrated the attacks.
Aside from the Cuban government itself, those responsible could be "either a third-party government that they cannot take on or elements in their government that they cannot reveal or else it would look like they are internally unstable," he said.