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2021 Documents in Review: Declassified State Department Review of the Havana Syndrome

November 19, 2021

The National Security Archive is concluding 2021 by reviewing some of our most impactful postings from the past year and highlighting the biggest documents behind them. This week we’re highlighting the State Department’s declassified June 2018 Accountability Review Board (ARB) report, which was originally published in the Archive’s February 10, 2021, posting, U.S.-Cuba: Secrets of the ‘Havana Syndrome’

Today’s highlighted posting provides unprecedented insight into the State Department’s internal investigation following the first reported cases of the Havana Syndrome in 2016, at which time American and Canadian personnel stationed in Havana, Cuba experienced unexplained cognitive and auditory dysfunction. As of today, as many as 200 cases have been reported at Embassies around the world as well as on U.S. soil, while the origin remains unknown. 

Today’s document, the heavily-redacted ARB report stamped SECRET/NOFORN, was released to the National Security Archive thanks to a Freedom of Information Act request, and faults both the Department of State and the CIA in their responses to early cases of the Havana Syndrome at the U.S. Embassy in Cuba. The report is also the first official confirmation that the CIA closed down its Havana station and pulled its operatives out of Cuba in September 2017. In the report, the ARB criticized the CIA for failing to share information about the health-related experiences of its agents in Havana in late 2016 and early 2017, delaying the State Department’s ability to react quickly.

But the ARB faulted the failure of an organized response to the emerging crisis on multiple fronts, not just excessive CIA secrecy. The report found that “The Department of State’s response to these incidents was characterized by a lack of senior leadership, ineffective communications, and systemic disorganization.” Most notably, “The Board finds the lack of a designated official at the Under Secretary level to manage the response to be the single most significant deficiency in the Department’s response. To this day [June 2018]  no senior official at the Department has been assigned responsibility for leading and coordinating efforts to assess past incidents and prevent/mitigate future events. No Department of State task force was formed.” The ARB also concluded that Secretary Tillerson’s dramatic decision in late September 2017 to reduce the Havana Embassy staff by more than 60 percent and effectively shutter the U.S. Consulate appeared to have violated normal operating practice. 

Accountability Review Board procedures were mandated by Congress in 1986 to assist the State Department in addressing security challenges in the U.S. Embassies abroad. Under the law, a security-related incident involving an Embassy or its personnel triggers a convening of the Board, usually within 60 days of the incident, with a mandate to investigate what happened and recommend steps to safeguard against future incidents. In the case of Cuba, the Trump administration delayed convening the ARB until early 2018—doing so only after Senator Rubio warned that its inaction might violate the ARB statute. Chaired by Ambassador Peter Bodde, the five-member Board initiated its investigation in February 2018, interviewing 116 officials, traveling to Cuba, and reviewing documents over a four-month period. The ARB submitted its classified report to the Secretary of State in June 2018 – nearly a year and a half after the now declassified report states the first diplomat experienced symptoms of the Havana Syndrome in November 2016. 

Check back next week for more year-end highlights. 

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