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Havana syndrome caused by ‘targeted action,’ U.S. State Department says in report

Click to play video 'Canadian embassy staff warned to stay silent on ‘Havana Syndrome’' Canadian embassy staff warned to stay silent on ‘Havana Syndrome’
WATCH: It's been three years since dozens of staff at the Canadian embassy in Havana, Cuba were inflicted by the "Havana Syndrome" — a mysterious illness that gave them concussion-like symptoms. Now as Mike Drolet reports, new documents obtained by Global News may corroborate claims that employees were warned to stay silent on the unexplained phenomenon – Oct 25, 2020

The strange symptoms suffered by Canadian and American diplomats serving in Havana, Cuba, appear to be the result of “targeted actions,” the U.S. State Department’s internal accountability review board said as part of an ongoing probe into what’s become known as “Havana syndrome.

And it warned “excessive secrecy” led to challenges reacting to the incidents.

A highly-redacted copy of that 2018 report, marked “secret,” was declassified and released under U.S. Freedom of Information laws last week.

“The U.S. Government is working to determine what happened to our staff and their families and to ensure the well-being and health of our officials going forward. That investigation is ongoing and is a high priority,” said a State Department spokesperson, speaking on background about the report.

“Secretary Blinken requested a comprehensive briefing on the issue during the transition, and he has received updates during his time in office. He has made clear that this is a priority for him, and those updates will continue on a regular basis.”

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Meanwhile, lawyers for the Canadian diplomats and family members suffering from strange symptoms after being stationed at the embassy in Cuba say the federal government is trying to block their lawsuit in court, even as more Canadian diplomats who served in Havana join the lawsuit.

Global News has learned three more people who served at the Canadian embassy in Havana are joining the $28-million lawsuit against the federal government by diplomats and their families who report suffering lasting effects from Havana syndrome.

Read more: Ottawa keeps diplomat union hanging in push to meet over ‘Havana syndrome’ risks

While the Canadian government continues to refuse to provide any details on the state of its ongoing investigation, the State Department internal review was clear in assessing that the cause of the injuries appeared to be deliberate.

“The fact that, to date (June 7, 2018), only American and Canadian diplomats and their family members have been medically confirmed to have sustained brain injuries as a result of service in Havana suggests a targeted action,” said a report issued by the Cuba Accountability Review Board.

The Accountability Review Board is an independent review mechanism that examines security incidents affecting U.S. missions and personnel abroad, with the aim of determining accountability and improving security policies to keep staff safe.

According to an spokesperson speaking on background from the U.S. State Department, American authorities coordinated closely with Canadian counterparts on the matter.

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The report also noted that although “the mechanism of injury, the perpetrator and the motive remain unknown,” the risks to diplomats were not over.

Read more: ‘They need to take this seriously’: Diplomats urge action after Havana syndrome report

The report, issued in June 2018, came just months after the U.S. and Canada designated the Havana embassy as an unaccompanied posting, which means diplomats can’t bring their families with them.

It has maintained that risk classification ever since and refused to say why even as the government fights the diplomats in court who say they continue to suffer lasting and serious effects from their exposures.

Some of the Canadians injured in Havana include the children of diplomats stationed there between early 2017 and the end of 2018, and who have continued to suffer symptoms since returning to Ottawa.

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U.S. pulls embassy staff from Cuba after mysterious sonic attacks – Sep 29, 2017

The Cuba Accountability Review Board report also makes repeated references to the fact that communications about the early stages of the mystery took place via unofficial channels.

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“The Board learned many communications related to the incidents did not travel in the usual Department of State channels, and therefore there may be documentation that has not been made available,” the report stated, while another section noted “traditional reporting channels” were not used.

The U.S. report also emphasized the need to strike a broader departmental task force to plan how to ensure the safety of the embassy in Havana, and to develop a strategy for a “potential global response.”

The finding that there was “excessive secrecy” both in the U.S. embassy and in Washington about how to respond to the reports of injuries occurring in Havana appears to mirror complaints by Canadian diplomats who say they tried to sound alarm bells in early 2017, to no apparent avail.

Read more: Canadian officials warned staff bound for Cuba to stay silent on ‘Havana syndrome’

Paul Miller, a lawyer for the Canadian diplomats and their family members suing the federal government over its handling of the case, said the continued stonewalling by officials only rubs salt in the wounds.

He raised concerns about the response offered by Rob Oliphant, parliamentary secretary to the minister of foreign affairs, to a recent order paper question from a Conservative MP asking why the government told diplomats bound for Cuba in June 2017 briefings not to tell anyone about reports of strange symptoms arising among staff on the ground in Havana.

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Global News first reported on those instructions to diplomats to stay silent last fall.

“Canada’s diplomatic staff and their families have Global Affairs Canada’s full support,” Oliphant said in the response, which did not answer any of the questions posed.

“This has been a very distressing experience for these diplomats and their families, and the department will continue to take the necessary steps to help them.”

Miller said that response left injured diplomats fuming.

“Not only is this laughable because of the manner in which the government initially treated the diplomats, but the government is doing everything to avoid dealing with this in the manner in which they would like the public to believe,” he told Global News.

“These statements are just plainly incorrect and these people deserve better.”

Miller said that despite the government’s statements that it is working to assist diplomats and their families, officials at the Department of Justice Canada have told their lawyers fighting the diplomats in Federal Court to try to block the claim from moving forward.

“The fact is that the Department of Justice advised counsel that they had instructions to bring a motion to attempt to stop the claims of the diplomats under the federal law known as The Government Employees Compensation Act,” said Miller.

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He said the law prohibits federal employees from suing the government if they are injured on the job — a claim he said has no basis in the case, given the diplomats have reported hearing the metallic noises, chirping, and feelings of pressure that precipitated their symptoms in their residences.

“Not one of the diplomats was injured while at the embassy or at an work-related event,” Miller said.

“Every injury occurred in the homes of the diplomats.”

Miller added: “Instead of attempting to work out a solution with the diplomats, the Government of Canada have chosen to fight, with the hope of depriving these men and women of their day in court.”

Global News reached out to the Department of Justice Canada and Attorney General David Lametti’s office asking to clarify whether and why the government is doing so.

No response was received by deadline.