(PRESS RELEASE VIA SNO) – Representative Eliot L. Engel, Ranking Member of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, today delivered the following remarks during a Western Hemisphere Subcommittee hearing on U.S. policy toward Cuba.
The hearing witnesses questioned by Rep. Engel were the Honorable Peter Bodde, Coordinator for the Health Incidents Response Task Force at the State Department, and Dr. Charles Rosenfarb, Medical Director for the Bureau of Medical Services at the State Department.
“Thank you, Mr. Chairman. Thank you, Mr. Ranking Member. Participating in these Western Hemisphere Subcommittee Hearings always feels like coming home since I was the chair for a number of years, about a decade ago, and so it’s a pleasure to be here.
“I wanted to raise a few really important questions.
“Last month, I asked the Congressional Research Service to prepare a report for me on the impact of staff reductions at the U.S. Embassy Havana. I ask unanimous consent that this report be inserted into the record. Ok, thank you Mr. Chairman.
“Because of the Cuba health incidents, our embassy staff has been drastically reduced from 50 Americans to 18. As a result, we are less able to process Cuban refugees, monitor human rights and assist U.S. travelers.
“So, no matter where one stands on Cuba policy, I think we can all agree on the importance of a functioning U.S. embassy in Havana. It’s essential to find a balance of protecting our diplomats and asserting our national interests.
“In December, Chairman Royce and I sent a letter to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention urging them to take a leading role in investigating the health incidents that affected U.S. personnel in Cuba. I think it’s a no-brainer that as our nation’s top experts on health threats, the CDC should be at the forefront of this investigation with the appropriate experts deployed in Havana.
“I was pleased that the ARB recommended that ‘the Department engage the CDC to undertake a comprehensive medical study of the symptoms and clinical findings related to the incidents in Cuba.’
“So, I am pleased that the CDC is finally involved, but I’m concerned, and frankly perplexed, that it’s come so late.
“On August 10th–16th, I’m sorry, my staff met with CDC investigators working on the Cuba health incidents, and they were on day four of their work. You heard that right – a year and a half after the first incidents took place, the CDC is only now just getting started.
“So I’d like to ask Dr. Rosenfarb and Ambassador Bodde, could you explain why it took so long for the CDC to get to work on the Cuba health incidents? And, why, on the other hand, did the CDC start their work on the confirmed China incident immediately?
[Dr. Rosenfarb: “Sir, I would like to just reinforce that it’s taken time to understand the extent of the symptoms and findings and injuries. Right now, in retrospect, we know what injuries happened to folks. But way back, when these things first started appearing in December of 2016 and over the course of the next several months it wasn’t evident at that time. And then our first and foremost goal was to provide care to those people who were injured and do assessments. We accomplished that over the next several months, from January 2017 going forward.
“Once we felt we had people properly cared for, in the fall of 2017, we began talking to CDC. We met with CDC informally a number of times in fall of 2017 and that led to a formal request from the department to CDC in December of 2017 for their active assistance. We have been very happy with CDC to this point. They have been great partners and we hope to benefit from their work going forward.”]
“Well let me ask you, Dr. Rosenfarb. I certainly appreciate your efforts to treat the victims of the health incidents and to get to the bottom of what happened both in Cuba and in China. So, I wanted to ask you about an article that was recently brought to my attention.
“I understand that the physician who first treated affected U.S. personnel was Michael Hoffer – a former military doctor now at the University of Miami. A Time Magazine article from June 2011 about Dr. Hoffer stated:
‘A U.S. military doctor deployed to Iraq subjected troops suffering from traumatic brain injuries to treatment with an unapproved drug, in which he had a financial stake, that may have harmed them, Pentagon investigators report.’
“The article goes on to cite an extensive Pentagon Inspector General report on this incident.
“CBS News reported that ‘investigators found the study did not use standard military concussion assessments on the soldiers possibly resulting in “sub-standard care.”’
“Had you reviewed these articles, or the report of the Inspector General before Dr. Hoffer was brought on to treat U.S. embassy personnel? And have you received these documents since then?
[Dr. Rosenfarb: “I am aware of some of that. When this started to unfold back in early spring 2017, members of the US government medical team reached out, initially to Johns Hopkins University, to try and figure out who would be the best placed person to see our personnel. If you recall, initially the thoughts were that this was some sort of acoustic attack—the symptoms initially appeared to be localized to the acoustic, the ear system.
We reached out to Johns Hopkins. There was a recommendation to go to Dr. Hoffer because of his experience in the military treating brain injury there, at the University of Miami. So, the first patients back in April and May of 2017 were assessed by Dr. Hoffer. Subsequently, when we determined that it was probably not localized to the acoustic system, that it was more kind of a broader brain injury process, that’s when we made efforts to find a—Center of Excellence for Brain Injury and Repair, and University of Pennsylvania was then identified, and patients have gone there since.”]
“Doesn’t it seem a bit strange that our diplomats suffering from ‘concussion-like’ symptoms would be sent to a doctor who apparently did not use standard concussion assessments? Isn’t that strange?
[Dr. Rosenfarb: “At the time, we felt he was the best qualified person—the recommendations we received to do the initial evaluation.”]
“Ok, thank you. And if anyone else wants to comment? Ok, thank you very much. I yield back, Mr. Chairman.”