Diplomats sue Ottawa for $28 million for health problems suffered in Cuba

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OTTAWA—A group of Canadian diplomats and their family members left ill after serving in Cuba are suing the federal government for $28 million, charging that Ottawa “badly mishandled” a crisis that has left them suffering debilitating brain injuries.

The lawsuit, filed Wednesday in Federal Court, paints a picture of a federal government that was more concerned with keeping a lid on a worsening health crisis that first surfaced for the Canadians in early 2017 in Havana.

None of the allegations have been proven in court.

“Throughout the crisis, Canada downplayed the seriousness of the situation, hoarded and concealed critical health and safety information and gave false, misleading and incomplete information to diplomatic staff,” the lawsuit claims.

It says the department failed to provide “reasonable or appropriate” medical support to diplomats and their families suffering an array of symptoms that has left them struggling to return to work and normal life.

Indeed, it claims that Global Affairs interfered with the health treatment of Canadians, at one point calling a Miami physician to press him to alter his assessment that one family was determined to have traumatic brain injuries.

Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland declined to comment on the case Wednesday but said that she has met with some of the affected diplomats.

“They told me about their situation. I’m really concerned about them. They have Canada’s utmost sympathy and support,” Freeland said in Washington, where she was attending a meeting of nations involved in the fight against Daesh.

“They were in Cuba. They were representing us. They were representing their country and their health and safety absolutely needs to be a priority,” Freeland said.

The lawsuit covers 14 people in all — five diplomats along with their spouses and children — and alleges that they were “targeted and injured, suffering severe traumatic harm.

“These mysterious but extremely serious and debilitating attacks have resulted in brain injuries,” the lawsuit states.

It’s believed the “attacks” began in late 2016, originally focused on American diplomats and intelligence officers, it said. Individuals were “targeted” in their homes. For some, symptoms followed unusual sounds or sensations of pressure, it said, such as a “loud screeching metallic noise . . . that seemed to bombard and suffocate” one Canadian.

For others, there was no warning, “leaving an individual gripped in pain, blinded by a headache, or doubled over in dizziness or nausea, confused and disoriented.”

Global Affairs has stated publicly — as recently as last month — that it has no idea what has caused the health symptoms, despite an RCMP-led investigation. But the lawsuit says that the department was immediately concerned that it was some form of sonic or microwave attack, “potentially by a hostile foreign power.”

“The plaintiffs are clearly the victims of some kind of new weaponry, or method of attack,” it states.

The incidents left personnel with symptoms consistent with traumatic brain injuries, including headaches, loss of memory, dizziness and balance problems, the lawsuit states. “Neurological assessments of victims’ brains actually show damage consistent with that seen in cases of concussion,” it states.

The lawsuit accuses the federal government of putting diplomats and family members in harm’s way despite knowing the “high and growing risk that they would sustain the brain injuries.”

It also alleges that the Ottawa kept diplomats in the dark about the risk and gave them false assurances of safety.

And later, federal officials suggested the problem was psychosomatic, leaving ill personnel to “contend with rumours that they were faking it.”

The lawsuit charges that the federal government has frustrated efforts by the ill diplomats and their family members to get proper medical treatment, restricting what medical professionals they see and what information they can share.

It even alleges that brain experts at the University of Pennsylvania — who were treating American diplomats — were instructed to “stop testing the Canadians,” cutting short the assessments of individuals who had travelled to Philadelphia at their own expense.

The lawsuit notes that in April, 2018, Global Affairs deemed Havana an unaccompanied post, meaning that family members would no longer be allowed to join diplomats. In November, it gave Havana the same rating as missions based in Iraq and Afghanistan. And in January, Global Affairs announced it would be looking at reducing its embassy staff by half, to eight, after yet another diplomat had been confirmed with health symptoms.

As was first revealed in the Star, the lawsuit notes that an American diplomat had warned his Canadian neighbour about the potential dangers. That information was passed to the Canadian ambassador, along with the symptoms suffered by the Canadians, yet the embassy “took no apparent action.”

Within weeks, the U.S. embassy officially informed the Canadian embassy that its personnel were getting ill, “possibly because of sonic attacks.” Yet that information was not shared with the Canadian diplomatic staff nor were steps taken to ensure their safety, the lawsuit states.

Even as the Americans were evacuating staff and family members, Canada took a “business as usual” approach insisting that there was no reason to believe the Canadians were being targeted,” the lawsuit says.

With files from Daniel Dale

Bruce Campion-Smith is an Ottawa-based reporter covering national politics. Follow him on Twitter: @yowflier

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Canada’s embassies and diplomats poorly protected despite warnings, auditor says

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Canada is not properly protecting diplomats and staff who face security threats at Canadian missions abroad, including many in locations at high risk of terrorist attacks, violence and espionage, the federal auditor general says.

Michael Ferguson’s audit of security at Global Affairs Canada’s embassies and missions found « significant » failings in many places that need immediate attention.

An audit of six medium- and high-threat missions found « significant vulnerabilities in perimeter security at all sites. »

Physical security, such as vehicle barriers, video surveillance, alarms and X-ray machines were missing or not working properly. At one of place Ferguson’s team spot-checked, the perimeter was determined in 2011 to have a « critical vulnerability, » but a site visit this year found this problem hadn’t been fixed.

« Overall, Global Affairs Canada had not taken all measures needed to keep pace with evolving security threats at its missions abroad, » Ferguson says in his report, tabled in Parliament Tuesday. « This audit is important because missions are exposed to a range of security threats. »

More than 7,800 staff members work at a total of 175 diplomatic and consular missions in 110 countries. In November 2017, more than half of the department worked in areas where political and civil unrest put their safety at risk.

Terrorist attacks in Europe, Africa and Asia as well as ongoing instability and armed conflict in the Middle East expose these staff members and diplomats to a wide range of security risks, which can vary and shift suddenly, the audit says.

Global Affairs is supposed to conduct threat assessments to identify risks for its missions every four years – and more frequently for higher-risk locations. More than a third of the missions the auditors checked had out-of-date assessments, including many in high- and critical-threat areas.

At four missions, the AG found no threat assessment at all.

Ferguson notes Global Affairs Canada did approve a plan in April, after much of his work was done, to hire more people to update these assessments.

Over the past decade, the department has received $652 million to improve safety and security at foreign missions. In 2017, the Liberals promised a further $1.8 billion in new funding over 10 years to bolster security at these missions.

But of the 78 construction projects underway to upgrade security, many were at least three years behind.

Funding decisions for major upgrades were based on insufficient information and also hadn’t involved the department’s head of security for two years. Toward the end of the audit in July, the department security officer was added to the committee that approves capital projects.

Most major construction projects started late or faced delays and were years behind schedule. Meanwhile, a quarter of the funding approved for these projects – $103 million – had not been spent, which resulted in the department having to get special permission to hold onto $82 million of it rather than returning it to the national treasury.

In addition, Ferguson’s office found that mandatory security training for staff working in dangerous locations was not being done, and nobody was tracking the work with an eye toward catching up. Despite funding having been made available in 2017 for this very purpose.

« Staff members working at these missions are exposed to a range of security risks. Those who had taken this training at selected missions told us they had found it beneficial to their personal safety, » the report notes.

In many of these areas, the AG found numerous problems had been flagged years ago, including with recommendations for dealing with them that just weren’t followed.

« We concluded that Global Affairs Canada did not fully meet its physical security needs at mission abroad to protect its staff and assets, » the report says.

In its responses to the recommendations, the department acknowledges the deficiencies, laid out plans to update its standards and procedures and to use the $1.8 billion approved last year to improve security of its missions, with timelines for completion ranging from December 2018 to 2020.

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Ottawa teams with brain injury experts as it probes mystery attacks on Canadian diplomats in Cuba

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OTTAWA—The federal government has partnered with brain injury experts in Nova Scotia in its search for what caused health problems among Canadian and American diplomats based in Havana, as speculation swirls that they may have been the targets of a microwave weapon.

Global Affairs Canada has joined with the Brain Repair Centre, affiliated with Dalhousie University, the Nova Scotia Health Authority and the IWK Health Centre, to conduct research into the symptoms and potential causes of what left about a dozen diplomats and family members suffering an array of mysterious symptoms.

“The research study is another avenue to try to further understand the symptoms they are experiencing,” a senior federal government official told the Star.

Despite an RCMP-led investigation that has stretched on for more than a year, done with the co-operation of the Cubans, the official said they seem no closer to determining what happened.

“Despite all these ongoing investigations, the cause or causes of the health incidents our staff have experienced are still unknown. We are still basically looking, still investigating, working with our counterparts,” said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

“These are very unusual incidents and sort of unprecedented,” the official added.

Officials in Washington and Ottawa have been searching for answers since late 2016 when American diplomats, then Canadians, were caught up in a series of mysterious incidents. The incidents left them suffering persistent, concussion-like symptoms — dizziness, nausea, headaches and trouble concentrating — yet without head trauma to explain the cause.

Dr. Douglas Smith, director of the University of Pennsylvania’s department of neurosurgery and Center for Brain Injury and Repair, evaluated some of the workers. He told the Star earlier this year that it appears those affected were exposed to some form of directed energy.

In a story this month, the New York Times raised the idea that the diplomats may have been the target of microwaves.

Washington lawyer Mark Zaid, who specializes in national security cases and represents nine American diplomats caught up in the incidents, says that is a real possibility.

“We certainly have circumstantial evidence that it is microwaves,” Zaid told the Star.

“The (National Security Agency) had admitted to us that there was at least one country that was using microwaves as weapons against U.S. personnel,” he said.

Zaid referenced a 2014 statement provided by the NSA as he acted on behalf of a counter-intelligence officer with the agency who believed he had been targeted during operations in an undisclosed country.

The statement said that intelligence associated a “hostile” country with a “high-powered microwave system” designed to “bathe a target’s living quarters in microwaves, causing numerous physical effects, including a damaged nervous system.”

A spokesperson for the NSA confirmed the authenticity of the statement but told the Star that a review by intelligence community experts that same year “challenges the validity of the size of such a weapon and cannot confirm the device capabilities.”

Yet the spokesperson, Kelly Biemer, added that the experts have “associated the hostile country with some capabilities in this field.”

Dr. Michael Hoffer, a brain injury specialist at the University of Miami who has seen many of the Americans suffering symptoms, says the cause isn’t yet known.

“It’s unknown to date exactly what’s causing it. It could be ultrasonic, it could be microwave. It could be a variety of other things,” he told a recent panel discussion on the possible causes of the Havana incidents.

The session was hosted by the U.S. Department of Defence Strategic Multilayer Assessment program, which brings together experts across agencies and disciplines to tackle “challenging” problems.

Hoffer said his involvement began with a phone call in February 2017. “Literally, the call was, ‘This is the State Department. We have a problem,’” Hoffer said in the discussion, which is available online.

He said 25 Americans had symptoms that included ear pain, ringing in the ear, dizziness and cognitive issues. “All of these individuals had experienced a loud noise or pressure phenomena before and during the symptoms,” he said.

“The sound was localized and followed the individual from room to room. If they moved in the room, it would move,” he said.

As with the Canadians, the Americans experienced the incidents at their homes or in hotels rather than at work.

All had abnormalities in the organs that help the body determine gravity and balance, he said. That matches the experience of Canadians who have also suffered vestibular and balance issues.

Hoffer said that directed energy can produce “cavitation bubbles” that can cause effects in parts of the body where doctors have seen damage.

“For those who were truly affected, they really had a physical injury,” said Hoffer, who could not be reached by the Star.

Zaid said questions still swirl about the perpetrator of the attacks, their motivation and methods. “I have tons of questions trying to understand what this was. I’m keeping an open mind to it,” he said.

There have been no new cases among Canadian personnel since October 2017. Those afflicted have been getting medical treatment and rehabilitation to mitigate symptoms though some remain off work, the federal official said. Global Affairs brought diplomats’ family members home from Cuba in April.

Bruce Campion-Smith is an Ottawa-based reporter covering national politics. Follow him on Twitter: @yowflier

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Freeland hoping to meet with Saudi diplomats to discuss ongoing rift – National

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Canadian Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland on Tuesday said she hoped to meet her Saudi counterpart this week on the sidelines of a UN meeting to discuss a diplomatic dispute between the two nations.

READ MORE: Saudi Arabia-Canada spat — here’s everything to know about the feud

Freeland made her remarks to an event hosted by the Council on Foreign Relations in New York.

In August Saudi Arabia froze new trade with Canada, blocked grain imports, expelled Canada’s ambassador and ordered all Saudi students home after Ottawa called for the release of activists from detention.


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