Biden signs bill that will give victims of mysterious 'Havana syndrome' better medical care
By Katie Bo Lillis
(CNN) -- President Joe Biden on Friday signed into law long-delayed legislation to provide support to victims of the mysterious "Havana syndrome," a strange confluence of symptoms that have sickened diplomats, spies and service members around the globe.
"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 that notably referred to the episodes as "incidents" rather than "attacks," as top Senate Intelligence Committee lawmakers have done.
"Addressing these incidents has been a top priority for my Administration," he said following the closed-door signing.
The bipartisan HAVANA Act — or Helping American Victims Afflicted by Neurological Attacks Act — passed both the Senate and the House unanimously. It commits the US government to boosting medical support for officials who have been affected by the strange incidents amid ongoing criticism from some victims that they have not been adequately cared for.
The legislation requires the CIA and the State Department to create regulations "detailing fair and equitable criteria for payment" to victims suffering from traumatic brain injuries. It also requires reports to Congress about how the agencies are using their new funding authorities, including the number of employees and dependents who received payments.
Its signing comes as cases continue to rise worldwide, including a recent incident that sickened a senior member of CIA Director Bill Burns' staff while on a trip to India. The intelligence community has yet to reach a consensus on who is behind the incidents, more than 200 of which have been reported worldwide, according to Burns.
One working theory is that Russia is behind at least some of the incidents, using some form of microwave or directed energy device, but US officials have yet to make a formal attribution. But the episodes have been severe enough in some cases to force early retirement and cause traumatic brain injuries in the victims.
Some victims and former CIA and State Department officers have said publicly that skepticism from some high-ranking career officials -- in particular under former CIA Director Gina Haspel -- has made it difficult for them to get appropriate care.
The CIA inspector general is reviewing the agency's handling of officers who reported experiencing the mysterious constellation of symptoms, known officially within government as "anomalous health incidents," CNN reported this summer.
Until recently, victims were denied medical care at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center and the National Institutes of Health, forcing them to muddle through a series of physicians in the private sector to try to find a diagnosis -- and relief -- for their ongoing symptoms. One official with direct knowledge of incidents previously told CNN that victims who reported symptoms were treated as if they were "crazy."
Senate and House Intelligence Committee members and some victims say there has been a marked difference in the handling of the cases -- and the investigation into their cause — since Burns was confirmed earlier this year. Burns committed publicly to getting to the bottom of the mystery during his confirmation hearing and is meeting with victims and receiving daily briefings on the matter.
But the cause of these episodes remains a point of debate and investigation. Victims and some lawmakers are still seeking accountability for the agency's alleged failures under Haspel to care for victims.
The Senate first passed the bill -- advanced by Sen. Susan Collins, Republican of Maine -- in early June, but procedural battles delayed its passage for months in the House.
The difficulty of diagnosing individual cases of Havana syndrome has also remained a fraught exercise for the CIA. Because the array of symptoms that victims report is so inconsistent, and because intelligence and military officials are still struggling to understand what technology is at work, diagnosing the cases remains an inexact science -- frustrating some victims.
"We are bringing to bear the full resources of the U.S. Government to make available first-class medical care to those affected and to get to the bottom of these incidents, including to determine the cause and who is responsible," Biden said in his statement.
This story has been updated with additional reporting and information.
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