During the August 18 State Department Press Briefing, a reporter asked about the Unexplained Health Incidents (UHI) also known as the Havana Syndrome that was reported at the US Mission in Germany. Below is the exchange:
QUESTION: Can you – one non-Afghan question, please? I – thank you. I’m seeing reports that there are some cases of Havana – so-called Havana Syndrome in Berlin, at the embassy in Berlin. Can you speak to that? Are you aware of it? What is the State Department doing to protect its staff?
MR PRICE: So, I am – I have seen these reports, of course. This is something that we vigorously investigate, the so-called anomalous health incidents or unexplained health incidents in coordination with our partners across the government. Any employees who have reported a possible unexplained health incident, they have received immediate and appropriate attention and care.
These health incidents I can tell you have been a top priority for Secretary Blinken. I think I mentioned this before, but he proactively requested two sets of briefings during the transition. This was one of them, because even before he was Secretary of State, he wanted to know precisely what we knew, what this department knew at the time, and what we were doing to respond to this.
He has set clear goals for what we call here the Health Incident Response Task Force to – number one, to strengthen the communication with our workforce, of course, to provide care for affected employees and their family members, and to do what we can to protect against these incidents working together with the interagency, and, of course, to find the cause of what has been afflicting these members of our team. He noted to the workforce – I guess it was a couple weeks ago now – that there is nothing that we take more seriously than the health of our workforce.
And that’s why there is a major effort underway in this department, there is a major effort underway across the interagency to determine the cause and to, of course, provide the level of care, the level of communication, the level of feedback that our employees need and deserve. This is a priority. Ambassador Spratlen, as you know, the – Secretary Blinken named her as the head of the task force. She works very closely with the Deputy Secretary for Management and Resources Brian McKeon on this. They are working very closely in turn with Secretary Blinken. We’ll continue to do that. We’ll continue to work with our interagency partners to ensure that our employees, both those who have been affected by this have what they need, and those who are serving around the world, that we’re doing everything we can to ensure their safety.
NBC News subsequently reported that at least two U.S. diplomats will be medevaced from Vietnam due to UHI which occurred on the weekend ahead of Vice President Kamala Harris’ visit.
The State Department spox has previously mentioned on March 12, and again on July 19, that this is a top priority for Secretary Blinken and that the secretary has requested briefings regarding these incidents even during the transition.
One employee who was injured in these unexplained health incidents recently told this blog: “He has utterly failed in basic leadership 101 on this issue.”
The employee was referring to Secretary Blinken.
On August 2, a CNN headline blares “Havana Syndrome stokes fear and frustration among diplomats over response from State Department.
…frustration is rising among rank-and-file staffers and diplomats over what multiple officials say has been a tepid response by the department. Of particular concern is a lack of information from leadership, including what some say has been a hands-off approach from Secretary of State Tony Blinken who has yet to meet with any of the State Department victims despite saying he would prioritize the incidents.
On August 5, Secretary Blinken sent a memo to State Department employees saying in part “What I can tell you is that this is a top priority for me, the State Department, and leaders across the U.S. government.” CNN’s Natasha Bertrand tweeted that memo the same day.
Obviously, the Blinken memo to the troops was not a coincidence but a reaction to the CNN report three days earlier.
So the top leadership in Foggy Bottom is sensitive to media splashes, who knew? But managing perception can only go so far. How many more times can Secretary Blinken claim this as a “top priority” for him without ever meeting the victims of these incidents? Or addressing his employees directly in a town hall, for that matter? August 26 was the 6-month anniversary of his assumption as secretary of state; he’s no longer in the transition phase.
Folks might ask, but does Secretary Blinken really have to meet these people though? Or does he really need to meet anxious employees shipping out overseas where they and their loves ones could potentially be subjected to similar attacks? Why can’t Deputy Secretary Brian McKeon just talk to these folks? Mr. McKeon, after all, is the Deputy Secretary for Management and Resources.
Yes, Virginia. Secretary Blinken really do need to meet with his people and we’ll tell you why. Because Brian McKeon is not the Secretary of State. That’s why.
It is alleged also that the State Department is “withholding so much unclassified info” related to these attacks that often employees only hear things from the media; they aren’t hearing relevant information directly from State.
But .. but .. there’s Afghanistan, and Haiti, and Russia, and Ukraine, Eswatini, China …. on and on and on …. it never stops.
If Secretary Blinken is waiting for a break from foreign headaches and chaos before dealing with these serious concerns within the ranks, his staff could be waiting forever, y’all.