Havana Syndrome Questions @StateDept Refuses to Answer

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The questions below were sent to the State Department on March 16, 2021 for Ambassador Pamela Spratlen, the newly designated  Senior Advisor to the Havana Syndrome Task Force (officially called  the Health Incident Response Task Force (HIRTF) .  She was appointed with direct reporting responsibility to the Department’s senior leadership. The State Department’s media arm confirmed receipt of these questions on March 17.
To-date, the State Department has not responded to these questions despite our follow-up. It looks like the PA leadership has fed our questions to their email-chewing doggo. Poor bow wow!!! PA folks still sore about this, hey? Inside @StateDept: Leaked Cable Provides Guidance For ‘America First’ Cost Savings Initiatives. Oh, dear!
Anyways. If you’re the unofficial kind and have some answers to these questions, please send your howlers here or via Twitter and we’ll get back to you. We’ll write as many follow-up posts as needed.

 

Task Force: 

—1. The State Department spokesperson said that there is an individual on the Health Incident Response Task Force (HIRTF) who is responsible solely for engaging with those who may have been victims of these incidents. The individual was not publicly named. I understand that the 41 recognized victims apparently also have no idea who this individual is or who are the members of the task force. Shouldn’t the State Department be transparent and name all the people on the task force? How do potential victims, (including spouses and foreign nationals) contact the individual tasked with engaging with them?
—2. The ARB Cuba report clearly demonstrates the botched response to these incidents in Havana. It was also an interim report. In addition, we have received allegations that the Department’s response to the incidents in China was much worse. Are there plans to convene an ARB for China? Is there a plan to expand the time frame and places of possible incidents covered in this investigation? We are aware of at least one case that occurred much earlier than December 2016. How many reported cases of mystery illness were excluded by State? With so many varied symptoms, and many unknowns, is it fair to rule out anyone without the full constellation of symptoms? How did the State Department determine that Patient Zero, widely reported to have been injured in December 2016, is really Patient Zero and not Patient Two, or Patient 10 or Patient 20? 
—3. What is the status of the implementation of the ARB Cuba recommendations?
—4. Can you confirm that the mystery illness has been reported domestically (WH staffer in Arlington, a couple at UPENN)?
—5. There were employee/s who suffered grievous treatment in the aftermath of these incidents (e.g. alleged retaliation, uncovered medical expenses). Is Amb Spratlen willing to meet with employees suffering from  medical and bureaucratic chaos brought about by these incidents?

 

National Academy of Sciences (NAS) Report:

—6. I recognized that there is new leadership at State but the HIRTF has been there since 2018. Why did State sit on the NAS report of August 2020 and only released it in December 2020? It is an unclassified report, so national security concerns should not have been an issue.
—7. Has the State Department accepted that the illness is due to microwave exposure? If so, how are employees protected from the next attacks? Why hasn’t State fully implemented the recommendations in the NAS report?

Bureau of Diplomatic Security (DS) and Bureau of Medical Services (MED)

—8. Why is Diplomatic Security still acting (and conducting searches in apartments) as if the cause could be toxic chemicals when NAS ruled out chemical exposure as a cause and pointed to the reported signs, symptoms and observations as consistent with the effects of directed, pulsed radio frequency (RF) energy?
—9. Why is Diplomatic Security still conducting briefings that “only one person was found by State/MED to be affected in China” when USG has officially diagnosed 15?
—10. How many employees who complained of unexplained illness to MED or DS were told to undergo psych evaluations or told to “get their act together” by the bureaus tasked with protecting their welfare? How many mystery illness were reported globally by employees, family members and local employees before State took them seriously?

 

3 FAM 3660 Implementation

—11. 3 FAM 3660 has been in the Foreign Affairs Manual since May 2020 but we’ve heard reports that State is blocking implementation of the prescribed benefits for employees from other agencies. Can you discuss where the responsibility for adjudicating cases under the provisions of 3 FAM 3660 falls? What is the processing time for requests made under these regulations for State and non-State employees? 
—12. There are numerous employees and family members as you know who still have symptoms but because they are not in the group of 41, they do not qualify for the 3 FAM 3660 provisions and therefore are on their own.  What are the treatment options for the hundreds of employees/family members who were medevaced but were not enrolled like the 41 cases in the UPenn study and designated by Department of Labor to get workers compensation benefits?
—13. How many foreign nationals connected with USG missions/residences where the attacks occurred reported similar symptoms as USG American employees and family members? What support and treatment options were available to them? 
—14. As you know, under 3 FAM 3660, a covered employee is an employee of the Department of State who, on or after January 1, 2016, becomes injured by reason of a qualifying injury and was assigned to a duty station in the Republic of Cuba, the People’s Republic of China, or another foreign country as designated by the Secretary of State. What other countries have been designated by the Secretary of State under 3 FAM 3666 to-date?  
—15. Members of the 41 officially diagnosed say State has caused irreparable harm with a “see no evil” response and just wants the problem to go away. Do you recognize the harm of State’s botched past response and lack of transparency?
—16. A” being the highest and “F” being failing, how would you grade the previous State Department leadership’s response to the health incidents?

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US Embassy Kenya: USG Employee Found Deceased at a Nairobi Hotel

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There’s some tragic news out of Nairobi, Kenya. Local reports say that an employee of the US Embassy was found deceased at a Nairobi hotel room on Wednesday, April 7. According to another report, “the official had arrived in the country several days ago and had gone into two weeks of isolation. He was set to report back to work on Wednesday but failed to show up.”
A local report cited the embassy spokesperson: “We can confirm the death of a U.S. government employee. U.S. Embassy Nairobi extends its deepest condolences to the family and loved ones of the deceased.” Embassy Nairobi did not identify the deceased as his immediate family members have yet to be informed.
We’ve reached out to the functional bureau and to post; we will update if/when we learn anything more.
If you’re thinking about suicide, are worried about a friend or loved one, or would like emotional support, the Lifeline network is available 24/7 across the United States. Call 1-800-273-8255.
If you are overseas, please seek help by calling or visiting the health unit or call the Military Crisis Line  or a local Suicide Hotline .

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PSA: Do You Need Help?

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Via state.gov:

We strongly encourage you to get help and support from a trained mental health professional if you are:

  • Feeling sad or depressed most of the time for more than one week.
  • Feeling anxious or having distressing thoughts you can’t control most of the time for more than one week.
  • Having continuing difficulty working or meeting your daily responsibilities.
  • Having problems in your relationships, or trouble taking care of your family.
  • Increasing your use of alcohol or misuse prescription medications, street drugs, or using them to cope.
  • Having traumatic stress reactions that are not getting better as time passes.
  • Thinking about hurting or killing yourself.
  • Thinking about hurting or killing someone else.
  • Doing things to hurt yourself, like cutting or burning yourself.
  • You are extremely angry most of the time.
  • Other people are saying they’re concerned about you and think you should talk to someone.
  • You are having trouble sleeping most of the time.
  • You are experiencing changes in appetite (significant increase or decrease), most of the time or you’ve lost significant weight without meaning to.
If you are feeling suicidal or homicidal, it’s URGENT that you let someone know. You should seek help immediately by calling 911 or going to the closest emergency room or call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255). If you are overseas you should seek help immediately by calling or visit the health unit, your doctor or visit or call the Military Crisis Line  or a local Suicide Hotline .

It doesn’t have to be an emergency for you to benefit from talking with a professional. Professionals who have training and expertise in working with military personnel and those deployed to the combat environment can help you with several things:

  • Learn to manage your feelings and thoughts more effectively.
  • Learn to feel more comfortable talking to people in your daily life.
  • Learn to pursue goals that are important to you.
  • Learn to focus on the future.

Some reactions are very common in the first week or two following a traumatic event and, do not require in-person consultation with a counselor. Initially you may difficulties with normal activities and responsibilities, avoidance of situations, nervousness, or sleeping problems. If there is no improvement after the first weeks following a stressful or traumatic event, then face-to-face counseling should be strongly considered.

You may also want to consider counseling if:

  • The people close to you are not able to support you the way you need them to.
  • You are isolated or without close family or friends.
  • The traumatic experience feels so personal or sensitive (such as rape, assault, domestic violence, loss of a buddy, friendly-fire related incident) that you don’t feel comfortable or safe talking with anyone you may know.

Remember… 
Seeking counseling is not a sign of weakness; seeking support is a sign of strength. Talking to a counselor can improve your ability to help yourself.

If you’re not sure whether to seek counseling

Make an appointment for a consultation. This is not a contract for services. You can meet with a therapist and discuss if the services are right for you at this time. Remember that “shopping around” for a counselor is a perfectly acceptable thing to do; in fact many people recommend it.

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A Cautionary Tale: Divorce, Death and Survivor Benefits

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Via Beckstead v. Office of Personnel Management, 2020-1884 (Fed. Cir. Jan. 7, 2021) (MSPB Docket No. DE-0831-20-0119-I-1):
The court affirmed the administrative judge’s affirmance of OPM’s final decision denying the petitioner former spouse survivor annuity benefits. The court found that the survivor annuity election made during the petitioner’s marriage with the decedent terminated upon their post-retirement divorce and, despite the decedent’s receiving notice as required by statute of the election rights and obligations, no valid election was made or valid court order was issued granting the petitioner a former spouse survivor annuity.
#
Background: Mrs. Beckstead was married to Lynn Beckstead (“Mr. Beckstead”) on February 4, 1965.
In 1971, Mr. Beckstead became a federal employee covered under the Civil Service Retirement System.
In 2007, he applied for retirement and elected a survivor annuity for his spouse, Mrs. Beckstead. Each year after Mr. Beckstead’s retirement, the Office of Personnel Management (“OPM”) sent him an Annual Notice of Survivor Annuity Election Rights (“Annual Notice”).
On December 3, 2009, Mr. and Mrs. Beckstead divorced. A state court in New Mexico issued a Default Decree of Dissolution of Marriage (“Divorce Decree”), which stated in relevant part that Mrs. Beckstead was entitled to:
Exactly one half (1/2) of any and all retirement benefits, 401(k) or other retirement account of [Lynn]. Such account(s) to be divided by Qualified Domestic Relations Order (QDRO). 
SAppx. 10. The Divorce Decree did not specifically provide for a survivor annuity, and no QDRO was issued while Mr. Beckstead was alive. Following the divorce, Mr. Beckstead did not notify OPM of the divorce and he never made a new election of a survivor annuity for Mrs. Beckstead.
Mr. Beckstead died on July 9, 2018, and Mrs. Beckstead applied for survivor annuity benefits thereafter. OPM informed Mrs. Beckstead that her application could not be processed because her Divorce Decree did not include the referenced QDRO.
On January 18, 2019, more than seven months after Mr. Beckstead’s death, the New Mexico state court issued a QDRO. SAppx. 24–26.
On March 19, 2019, OPM informed Mrs. Beckstead that she was not entitled to survivor annuity benefits because the QDRO was issued after Mr. Beckstead’s death. OPM then reconsidered and reversed its decision on the basis that the agency had failed to properly notify Mr. Beckstead of his rights to preserve the survivor annuity benefit after a divorce. SAppx. 32. Upon further review, however, OPM concluded that Mr. Beckstead had received notices informing him of his rights, but he did not elect a survivor annuity for Mrs. Beckstead after their divorce. Thus, on December 6, 2019, OPM confirmed its initial finding that Mrs. Beckstead was not entitled to former spouse survivor annuity benefits. SAppx. 35–36.
Read in full here (pdf).

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US Embassy Burma Now on Ordered Departure For Non-Emergency Staff/Family Members

 

On March 30, the State Department issued a Do Not Travel Level 4 Travel Advisory for Burma. It also announced the mandatory departure of non-emergency USG employees and family members:

Do not travel to Burma due to COVID-19 as well as areas of civil unrest and armed violence.

On February 14, the Department authorized the voluntary departure of non-emergency U.S. government employees and their family members. On March 30, the Department updated that status to ordered departure.

Read the Department of State’s COVID-19 page before you plan any international travel.   

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has issued a Level 4 Travel Health Notice for Burma due to COVID-19.  

The Burmese military has detained and deposed elected government officials. Protests and demonstrations against military rule have occurred and are expected to continue.

In addition to nation-wide protests and demonstrations, the following areas of Burma are subject to heightened civil unrest or armed violence:

      • Matupi township in Chin State
      • Bhamo and Mogaung townships in Kachin State     
      • Hopang, Hseni, Hsipaw, Mongkaung, Namhsan, Namtu, and Nanhkan townships in Shan State
      • Shadaw township in Kayah State
      • Paletwa township in Chin State
      • Hpakan, Mansi, Momauk, Sumprabum, Tanai, and Waingmaw townships in Kachin State
      • Hpapun township in Kayin State Konkyan, Kutkai, Kyaukme, Laukkaing, Matman, Mongmao, Muse, Namphan, Pangsang, and Pangwaun townships in Shan State       

The following areas of Burma are especially subject to civil unrest and armed violence due to fighting between the Burmese military and various ethnic armed groups and militia forces.

      • Northern Shan State
      • Parts of Kachin, Rakhine, and Chin States
      • The Naga Self-Administered Zone in northern Sagaing Region

Violence-affected areas, particularly Northern Shan State and parts of Kachin, Rakhine, and Chin States are subject to land mines and unexploded ordinance. Land mines and unexploded ordnance have injured foreign tourists in conflict-affected areas, and the locations of the mines and ordinance are often not marked or otherwise identifiable.

Read the Burma (Myanmar) country information page.

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FSGB Case: Why You Should Not/Not Take Your Hard Drive With You When Departing Post

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The FSGB Annual Report for 2021 mentions a disciplinary case where  the Board affirmed the agency’s decision in a case concerning an information security violation (FSGB Case No. 2018-030). So we went and looked up the case which includes Charge 1 for failure to follow proper security procedures:

12 FAM 625.2-2 Removal of Microcomputers, Media and Software
Personnel are prohibited from removing U.S. Government microcomputers or media from Department premises without the prior written approval of the [Information Systems Security Officer] ISSO and additionally, if abroad, the RSO or [Post Security Officer] PSO.

And Charge 2 for failure to safeguard government property:

12 FAM 622.1-7 Protection of Media and Output
… (b)(2) Abroad: Media shipped between posts must be sent at a minimum by controlled shipment.
( c) The data center manager and the system manager must label removable media either UNCLASSIFIED or SBU.

Overview via ROP:
Held – The Department of State (Department, agency) has established via preponderant evidence that grievant violated Department regulation both in removing a Sensitive But Unclassified hard drive from his computer and taking it with him to his next post, and in failing to comply with the requirement to use a controlled shipment in returning it to post. On review, the Board finds that the proposed penalty is reasonable.
Case Summary – Grievant, a removed the Sensitive But Unclassified hard drive from his computer when leaving post in and took it on to his next post without reporting his action or seeking permission from the Information Systems Security Officer or the Regional Security Officer at post. When the RSO in asked him to return the hard drive, grievant mailed it back to post via an uncontrolled shipment, but it never arrived. The Department charged him with Failing to Follow Proper Security Procedures for removing the hard drive without permission, and Failure to Safeguard Government Property, for failing to return the hard drive in conformity with regulatory requirements for a controlled shipment.
Grievant appealed to this Board on the grounds that the Department had failed to prove by preponderant evidence that his stated method of shipment of the hard drive was not, as he contended, compliant with the rules for a controlled shipment; that the Department had failed to take into account the mitigating circumstances of a toxic atmosphere and widespread wrongdoing at post; that the Department had misapplied the appropriate penalty considerations (Douglas factors) and chosen inapposite comparator cases; and that the penalty was disproportionate, as the hard drive was only SBU, in contrast with classified documents involved in the comparator cases.
The Board determined that the Department met its burden of proving the charges of Failure to Follow Proper Security Procedures and Failure to Safeguard Government Property, that the penalty imposed was not inconsistent with comparator cases, and that the Douglas factors were properly applied.

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Background via ROP:

Grievant is an FO-02 REDACTED who began his Foreign Service career as an REDACTED in 2001. At the time of the initial event giving rise to this grievance, he was serving as head of the management section in REDACTED a position he held from October 2012 until his voluntary curtailment in September 2013.

During the course of his assignment to REDACTED by his own account, a number of conflicts developed between grievant and the Chargé d’Affaires (Chargé), the General Services Officer (GSO), who reported to grievant, the Regional Security Officer (RSO) and other individuals at post. Grievant became frustrated that officials in Washington were not investigating or otherwise responding adequately, in his view, to his allegations of malfeasance, mismanagement and child abuse against various individuals serving in REDACTED Grievant decided to volunteer for an assignment at REDACTED , that required immediate voluntary curtailment from REDACTED.

Just before his departure from post in September 2013, grievant became concerned that a colleague or colleagues would attempt to retaliate against him for his claimed knowledge of irregularities in post management and individual malfeasance, or that a subordinate would file a grievance based on a negative EER written by grievant. He stated that he wished, in his own defense and to expose mismanagement, to bring with him numerous documents and emails proving his allegations, but was unable to “download” or print them, as they were too big. (The documents he stated he would need for this purpose included a .pst file of all emails he had sent or received in his time at post, as well as a number of other unspecified documents.) He therefore decided, under pressure of time, to remove the SBU hard drive from his computer and take it with him.1

Grievant states that he received oral permission to take the hard drive from a local employee in the IT section, whose name he did not know or remember. He chose not to inform or request permission from the Regional Security Officer (RSO) and the Information Systems Security Officer (ISSO) in REDACTED as required by the FAM, because the ISSO was away from post and grievant thought the RSO would refuse him permission because the documents grievant wanted to preserve implicated the RSO in wrongdoing. He stated that he needed to physically take the hard drive in order to “preserve the data” to potentially present to investigating authorities in Washington, and “my thought was to take everything I could should something come up.”2 He then took the hard drive with him upon departing post. After removing the hard drive and leaving post, grievant took no further action to report to any investigating body the alleged irregularities and malfeasance in REDACTED. He explained to the Deputy Assistant Secretary reviewing the proposed penalty that “since no one seemed to care, I didn’t.”3

A local employee subsequently reported his removal of the hard drive to the RSO. At some unspecified point after grievant’s arrival in REDACTED , the Regional Security Officer in REDACTED contacted him to request return of the hard drive.4 However, despite grievant’s assertions that he attempted to return it, the hard drive never arrived back in REDACTED. At some later point, the RSO reported the incident to Diplomatic Security (DS); in a subsequent DS interview on July 15, 2016, grievant stated that he had “attempted to return the drive via packaging sent back to the [REDACTED Embassy [diplomatic] pouch office on board a post support flight [a supply flight between REDACTED and REDACTED operated by a U.S. contracting company], ….”5 He had no further information during that interview about exactly how or when he had done so, or the current whereabouts of the hard drive.

In its decision, the FSGB concluded:

We therefore find that the Department’s choice of penalty, in a case involving both unauthorized removal of a sensitive item of media, and subsequent failure to return it, as required, via a controlled shipment, resulting in loss of the item and potential compromise of personally identifiable information pertaining to the U.S. diplomats serving abroad, is reasonable.64 The Department has a legitimate interest in ensuring the safeguarding and preservation of sensitive agency materials. As such, there is a clear nexus between the proven charges and the efficiency of the Service.

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US Ambassador Hennessey-Niland Visits Taiwan With Palauan Presidential Delegation

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The U.S Ambassador to Palau John Hennessey-Niland visited Taipei with the presidential delegation from Palau on March 28.  The five-day trip is reportedly to launched ‘Asia’s first travel bubble’ between two ‘Covid-safe’ destinations — Taipei and Koror, Palau’s biggest island.” According to SCMP:

US ambassador to Palau John Hennessey-Niland was part of the delegation, becoming the first US envoy to visit Taiwan since Washington switched diplomatic recognition to Beijing from Taipei in 1979. Beijing, which considers Taiwan part of its territory that must be returned to its control by force if needed, has repeatedly warned the US against official contacts with the island.

There does not appear to be any statement on state.gov or post’s social media about this trip.
State.gov backgrounder: Palau gained its independence and established diplomatic relations with the United States in 1994, with the entry into force of the Compact, under which the U.S. remains responsible for Palau’s defense until 2044. Palau is a sovereign nation and conducts its own foreign relations. The United States and Palau cooperate on a broad range of issues, including strengthening regional security, promoting sustainable development and addressing climate change, and protecting fisheries and the environment. Approximately 500 Palauans serve as volunteers in the U.S. armed forces, and Palau also has one of the highest levels of voting coincidence with the United States at the United Nations. The United States and Palau signed the Compact Review Agreement in 2010, with a wide range of federal programs to continue until 2024. Read more

Also this:

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Jose W. Fernandez to be Under Secretary of State/E (Economic Growth, Energy and the Environment)

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On March 17, 2021, The WH announced President Biden’s intent to nominate Jose W. Fernandez to be Under Secretary of State (Economic Growth, Energy and the Environment):

Today, President Joe Biden announced his intent to nominate Jose W. Fernandez to serve in the following positions: Under Secretary of State (Economic Growth, Energy and the Environment), United States Alternate Governor of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, United States Alternate Governor to the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development, and United States Alternate Governor to the Inter-American Development Bank.

Jose W. Fernandez

Jose Fernandez is a partner at Gibson Dunn & Crutcher LLP, in New York.  A former Assistant Secretary of State for Economic, Energy and Business Affairs, his accomplishments in the private sector have been recognized in several legal and business publications. Fernandez is Director of the Partnership for Inner City Education in New York and WBGO-FM, a former Commissioner of the New York City Latin Media and Entertainment Commission, and co-founder and former chairman of the board of the Latino International Theater Festival of New York, among many civic activities.  He received a Bachelor’s Degree magna cum laude from Dartmouth College, where he later served as trustee, and earned a J.D. and the Parker School Certificate of International Law from Columbia University.  He speaks Spanish, Portuguese and French. 

According to history.state.gov, Congress first authorized an Under Secretary of State for Economic Affairs on Aug 1, 1946, for a 2-year period as the third-ranking officer in the Department (P.L. 79-590; 60 Stat. 789). The position was not renewed, however, and between 1947 and 1958 the ranking officer in the Department handling foreign economic matters was either a Deputy Under Secretary or an Assistant Secretary of State. Changes were made to this position in the intervening years. On May 12, 1994, the title was changed to “Under Secretary of State for Economic, Business, and Agricultural Affairs.” On December 8, 2011, the title was changed to “Under Secretary for Economic Growth, Energy, and the Environment.” See more here.
Only two career diplomats were appointed to this position since it was created: Alan Philip Larson who served from 1999–2005 and Thomas Clifton Mann who served from 1965–1966.  The last four appointees to this position were all political appointees:

Related posts:

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Diplomatic Posts Celebrate Cherry Blossom Season

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