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Watchdog finds breakdown in communications in response to 'sonic attacks' in Cuba

CNN logo CNN 9/13/2018 By Jennifer Hansler, CNN
The American flag flies at the U.S. Embassy following a ceremony August 14, 2015, in Havana. © Chip Somodevilla/Getty The American flag flies at the U.S. Embassy following a ceremony August 14, 2015, in Havana.

A recent report from a government watchdog agency found that the State Department office tasked with deciding whether diplomatic security incidents should be further reviewed by an accountability board didn't find about the "sonic attacks" on US Embassy personnel in Cuba until months after other department agencies -- and they found out from media reports.

The Government Accountability Office identified a breakdown in communications in responding to the "attacks," which caused symptoms including sharp ear pain, headaches, ringing in one ear, vertigo, disorientation, attention issues and signs consistent with mild traumatic brain injury or concussion in multiple US personnel at the embassy in Havana.

The individuals first began reporting symptoms in late 2016 and, according to the GAO report, the embassy began sharing information about the incidents with State Department officials in March 2017.

However, the State Department's Office of Management Policy, Rightsizing, and Innovation was not made aware of the "attacks" until August 2017. That office is responsible for leading the vetting of such incidents to see whether they meet the criteria to establish an Accountability Review Board.

The State Department did not immediately reply to a CNN request for comment on the GAO report.

Brian Mazanec, the acting director of GAO International Affairs and Trade and author of the report, decried the communications delay.

"There was a clear gap in the department's policies," he told CNN. "If that division had been notified months earlier, they could have implemented some of these measures sooner."

A State Department official told CNN that their prior experience with security incidents resulting in a review board has been definitive events, such as the embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania in the late 1990s or an explosion in Kabul in 2017 that killed 10 local guard contractors.

That official said that while the department was made aware of the medical symptoms in late 2016, it took them several months to fully understand the nature and pattern of the incidents, and it was unclear whether they met the criteria for establishing a review board.

Mazanec said that while that response made sense, it wasn't satisfactory.

"Their role was not to determine whether it rose to the level. There was genuine confusion and lack of clarity in the department's policy," he said. He also noted that some State Department officials were not even aware of the existence of the Office of Management Policy, Rightsizing, and Innovation.

Former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson convened a review board in January 2018 "not to determine the cause of the unexplained health incidents, but to examine the Department of State's response, including the adequacy of security and other related procedures," according to a department fact sheet. In late August, the board issued 30 recommendations in six key areas, including interagency coordination and internal communication. The State Department said it had already implemented half of those recommendations and was "actively working to complete the rest."

The GAO report recommended that the State Department's policies be revised "to define responsibilities for internal communication to M/PRI of incidents that may involve injury, loss of life, or destruction of property at, or related to, U.S. missions abroad."

CNN's Elise Labott and Michelle Kosinski contributed to this report.

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