President Joe Biden on Friday signed legislation that will provide financial support to U.S. government employees believed to be suffering from the so-called Havana syndrome, mysterious health incidents that have affected American intelligence officers, diplomats and other personnel around the world.
"Today, I was pleased to sign the HAVANA Act into law to ensure we are doing our utmost to provide for U.S. Government personnel who have experienced anomalous health incidents," Biden said in a statement released by the White House.
The Helping American Victims Afflicted by Neurological Attacks Act, or HAVANA Act, was passed unanimously by the Senate on June 7 and the House of Representatives on Tuesday.
In his statement, Biden acknowledged that American civil servants, intelligence officers, diplomats and military personnel around the world have been affected by "anomalous health incidents," and some are struggling with debilitating brain injuries that have curtailed their careers. He vowed to commit the full resources of the U.S. government to provide medical care to victims and determine what causes it and who is responsible.
The Havana syndrome — a set of ailments that includes migraines, nausea, dizziness, tinnitus, visual and hearing problems, vertigo, memory lapses, and even mental breakdown — became public in 2016 after dozens of diplomats at the U.S. Embassy in Havana complained of the symptoms. Since then, other U.S. personnel in China, Russia, Poland, Austria and other countries have reported similar symptoms.
Robyn Garfield, an advocate for Havana syndrome victims, welcomed the signing but said much more needs to be done. As a Commerce Department officer, Garfield was evacuated from Shanghai, China, with his wife and two children in June 2018 after experiencing symptoms.
"We remain deeply concerned by the continued disparity in treatment and support among different agencies of our government," Garfield said in a statement to VOA. "In concert with implementation of the HAVANA Act, we urge the Administration to adopt a uniform diagnostic and treatment protocol across agencies to ensure that all who serve, and their families, have access to the best possible care."
Garfield said that for too long, too many victims have faced skepticism and have been treated as adversaries instead of partners by the agencies they worked for. "That needs to stop."
While the cause of Havana syndrome remains under investigation by the intelligence community, a 2020 National Academy of Sciences report concluded that "directed, pulsed radio frequency energy appears to be the most plausible mechanism in explaining" these anomalous health incidents.
Dr. David Relman, a professor of microbiology and immunology at Stanford University who chaired the committee that produced the report, welcomed the legislation.
"This is good news. This has been a long time— too long, in coming," Relman said in a statement to VOA. "The public needs to acknowledge the many sacrifices by these folks, and their families, who serve our nation in so many ways."
Several diplomats and government personnel who believe they are suffering from Havana syndrome expressed their frustration over having to fight a skeptical bureaucracy when reporting incidents and finding care.
"How are we going to take care of ourselves, our family and our kids?" said one civil servant who spoke to VOA on condition of anonymity.
They also complain that government acknowledgement of their suffering differs according to the country where the incident happened.
"The people who were impacted in Cuba all got plaques saying you were attacked," said one diplomat who also asked not to be named. "The people in China — only one person has been acknowledged by the State Department to have been impacted in some way."
The White House denied the accusation when asked by VOA.
"Our objective and the president's commitment is to standardizing the reporting process, is to ensuring we're improving the quality and speed of medical care, is to ensuring every case that comes forward is taken seriously, treated seriously," said press secretary Jen Psaki.
"That has not always been the case, but that is our objective and the commitment of this administration," Psaki added. She pointed out that Biden was the first president to acknowledge the existence of Havana syndrome and underscored that steps were being taken to coordinate reporting among the different agencies.
On the same day Biden signed the bill, German newspaper Der Spiegel reported that German police were investigating several cases of "alleged sonic weapon attack on employees of the U.S. Embassy" in Berlin.
In August, U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris' flight from Singapore to Vietnam was delayed by several hours after reports of a "possible anomalous health incident," according to the State Department.
The legislation that Biden signed authorizes the CIA director and the secretary of state to provide injured employees with additional financial support for brain injuries. The CIA and State Department would be required to create regulations detailing fair and equitable criteria for payment and report to Congress on how this authority was being used.
The bill was authored by Senator Susan Collins of Maine and co-sponsored by Senators Mark Warner, Marco Rubio and Jeanne Shaheen.
"These Americans who experienced traumatic brain injuries from likely directed energy attacks while serving our country should have been treated the same way we treat a soldier who suffered a traumatic brain injury on the battlefield," said Collins in a statement released after the signing.
"Now that the HAVANA Act has been signed into law, Havana syndrome victims will finally receive the financial assistance and medical support that they deserve," Collins said. "As we continue our efforts to support victims, we must also redouble our whole-of-government approach to identify and stop the heartless adversary who is harming U.S. personnel."
Marc Polymeropoulos, a 26-year veteran of the CIA, was forced to retire in 2019 after being hit by a suspected directed energy attack in Moscow in late 2017. He welcomed Biden's announcement.
"The signing of the Havana Act is a watershed moment for the victims. It is an acknowledgement from the [U.S. government] that the attacks are real, and an admission that the [U.S. government] for a long time has not treated victims properly," he told VOA in a statement. "I am very thankful to Congress, on both sides of the aisle, who has championed the victims' cause, as well as the Biden administration — for finally acting to provide financial relief to those with terrible injuries."
It is unclear just how many people have fallen victim to Havana syndrome, but various media reports estimate as many as 200 Americans around the world have come forward to describe symptoms.