• American Diplomacy After Benghazi

    On Chris Stevens and the Risks Taken by Ambassadors Abroad

    On August 16th, 2012, John Christopher Stevens sent out a cable detailing the increasing security threats in Benghazi. When General Carter Ham, the United States Africa Command’s deputy commander, saw it, he called Stevens and offered to extend the security team’s stay. Stevens turned him down. 

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    Stevens saw Benghazi as a key to stabilizing Libya and remained determined to increase the US presence there. He had taken it up with Hillary Clinton in his final conversation with her before leaving for Tripoli, and she said she shared his desire to make the Benghazi mission a permanent post. Stevens decided to visit Benghazi in September, with multiple goals in mind.

    He wanted to renew contacts with local leaders who were feeling neglected by the United States. He wanted to open a new public outreach office and library for Libyans, to be called the American Corner. And he hoped a visit would help him make the needed preparations for announcing during a planned visit by Clinton in October that the Benghazi mission would become a permanent consulate. He knew a visit entailed risks and was cautioned by the top US diplomatic security agent in Tripoli. But he believed a visit was important. 

    “I haven’t been up there since I first arrived and I have a lot of contacts,” he told Beth Jones, who was then acting assistant secretary for the Middle East. “Fine,” she said. 

    The night before he left, Stevens was feeling the strains of the job. He hadn’t been sleeping well, he wrote in his diary. “The usual bundle of worries—family, bachelorhood, embassy and work-related issues. . . Too many things going on, everybody wants to bend my ear. Need to pull above the fray.” 

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    Stevens had taken a vacation at the end of the summer—first to Stockholm, to take part in a friend’s formal wedding, in white tie and tails. It was “a boisterous dinner for 100, with 13 toasts, some of which were clunkers. Dancing until 2 am,” he recorded in his diary. Next he traveled to Vienna, where he saw more friends, toured a museum that explored the country’s Habsburg past, and enjoyed beer and Wiener schnitzel in the Naschmarkt, the city’s biggest market.

    But his thoughts turned gloomy after he spent the rest of the afternoon in his hotel room reading the Swedish crime writer Henning Mankell’s The Troubled Man. The hero was a brooding police detective who at age 60 was seeing his faculties deteriorate and his life unravel. “He’s divorced, lives alone with his dog, and slowly descends into Alzheimer’s,” Stevens wrote in his diary. “I’m only eight years away from 60—I need to avoid such an ending!” 

    The accumulating dangers were weighing on him. “Security vacuum,” he had written three days earlier. “Militias are power on the ground. Dicey conditions, including car bombs, attacks on consulate, British embassy, and our own people. Islamist ‘hit list’ in Benghazi. Me targeted on a pro-Q website (no more off-compound jogging.)” 

    Even so, he was looking forward to returning to Benghazi, a city he loved. The second city had “the smaller town feel and the moist air and green and spacious compound,” he wrote. “Benghazi and friends tomorrow,” he wrote on September 9th, the day before he left Tripoli. “Something to look forward to.” 

    His visit began like a homecoming. He flew into Benghazi with two security officers and was met at the airport by Habib, his fixer and friend from 2011. “Welcome back!” Habib told him. “It’s great to be back home,” Stevens replied as they embraced. Stevens had sent an email to Habib on September 8th, asking him to set up his meetings at the US compound in light of the security threats: “For security reasons, we’ll need to be careful about limiting moves off-compound and scheduling as many meetings as possible in the villa.” 

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    But Habib told him it might be a mistake to make the newly elected Benghazi city council come to meet them in the compound—it would look to many Libyans like the council members were American puppets. So, with Stevens’s approval, Habib arranged to have the meeting at a neutral location, the El Fadeel Hotel, on the waterfront. The meeting went off well, Stevens wrote afterward, although there was mild griping, as he expected, that the new government in Tripoli was not paying enough attention to Benghazi. 

    The three Americans crouched in the interior of the safe room, concealed in shadows where they couldn’t be seen.

    Later that night, after returning to the US mission, Stevens had time for a toast with his diplomatic security team. Scott Wickland, one of the agents, testified later that Stevens had an unusual warm relationship with the men who protected him. Most ambassadors, he said, keep the security staff at a distance. Stevens “came right up and shook my hand and said, ‘Thank you for what you’re doing.’ That’s not exactly normal.” One of the six agents broke out a bottle of premium whiskey.

    “Welcome back to Benghazi, we’re really happy to have you here,” they told him. They weren’t supposed to be drinking on the job, but it was a special occasion, Wickland said. The following day, the anniversary of the September 11th attacks, Stevens held all his meetings at the compound. There were troubling signs. A Libyan in a police uniform was seen taking pictures of the compound from a construction site across the street.

    In the afternoon the Americans learned that a mob of 2,000 Egyptians had attacked the US embassy in Cairo to protest a film, made by a US immigrant who was an Egyptian Christian, that mocked the Prophet Muhammad. Stevens held meetings with a judge, a shipping company owner, and a political analyst before dining with the Turkish consul general. At 7:39 pm he escorted the Turkish diplomat out the front gate, where all was peaceful. He returned to his room. “Never ending security threats,” he wrote in his diary that evening. It was his final entry. 

    The diplomatic mission was about 300 yards long and one hundred yards across. It had four buildings, including a security command post, a dining hall, and Villa C, a yellow one-story structure with several bedrooms. Stevens and Sean Smith, a State Department IT specialist, were staying that night in Villa C. Since the property had been leased more than a year before, US officials had spent $100,000 to make a variety of security improvements. They had raised the perimeter walls to nine feet high and topped them with an additional three feet of barbed wire and concertina wire. They added concrete Jersey barriers and steel drop bars at the gates to control traffic. There was a guard house manned by a friendly militia, the February 17 Brigade. The perimeter was also patrolled by Libyan employees of a Welsh security company, Blue Mountain Group. But the new measures, it turned out, were not nearly enough. 

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    At 9:42 pm the Americans heard a deafening roar of explosions and automatic gunfire. About 60 men in knit face masks, some in military fatigues and others in Afghan clothing, burst through the gates. Carrying AK-47 assault rifles and rocket-propelled grenades, they scattered the Libyan guards and began charging across the grounds toward the buildings. Close behind followed pickup trucks mounted with machine guns and flying the black flag of jihad. “Allahu Akbar!” the attackers cried. 

    Stevens had retired to his bedroom for the night, and Smith, the IT specialist, was in his room playing an online sci-fi game. Wickland, hearing the commotion, rushed to put on shoes and herded the pair into the villa’s safe room, a fortified space at the rear of the building that was stocked with food and protected with a heavy metal bars and reinforced windows. “This is the real deal,” Wickland told them. He handed his cell phone to Stevens and told him to call anyone he knew who might help. Stevens had slipped on body armor and a helmet and began dialing. “We’re under attack,” he told Gregory Hicks, his deputy chief of mission back in Tripoli.

    The attackers rampaged through the villa, overturning furniture and smashing computers and televisions. The three Americans crouched in the interior of the safe room, concealed in shadows where they couldn’t be seen. Wickland trained his M4 rifle on the group, which he could view through the metal grille of the safe-room door. Stevens sat quietly, his eyes closed. Wickland offered Smith a shotgun but, noticing that Smith was rattled, took it back. The attackers began battering the lock on the safe-room door with the butts of their AK-47s. The locks held. But Wickland worried that they might next try to blow it up. “If they put the grenades on the locks, I’m going to start shooting,” he told Stevens and Smith. “And when I die you need to pick up my gun and keep on fighting.”

    His words were “pretty devastating news” for the two men, he said. “You could just see from their eyes that their hope had been destroyed.” Wickland thought that if the Libyans succeeded in breaking in, he might be able to kill ten. But, Well, there’s 30 more, he thought. “I was confident I was going to die.” 

    Instead the attackers gave up on the locks, turned, and left the building. But soon a few returned with jerry cans of diesel fuel, which they sloshed over the overstuffed furniture and ignited. Soon flames and a toxic black smoke were pouring from the villa’s windows. Wickland told Stevens and Smith he wanted them to crawl after him out of the safe haven, around a corner, to a bathroom about eight meters away. From there, he thought, they could escape through a window. He began to crawl, but when he had gone a few meters, he realized no one was following him.

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    Some wanted to tear down the diplomatic mission and some wanted to loot. Others, it turned out, were more sympathetic to the Americans.

    “To this day, I don’t even know where they went,” Wickland testified. “I had a hand on Chris Stevens, then he disappeared.” He doubled back toward the safe room and couldn’t find them. Wickland eventually made it out a bedroom window and onto a patio that was partially shielded by sandbags but taking attackers’ fire. He went back into the flaming house repeatedly, choking on the smoke and fighting to remain conscious, to look for Stevens and Smith. He never found the two and eventually staggered up a ladder to seek cover on the roof. 

    Meanwhile, other diplomatic security agents who had been battling the attackers arrived at Villa C and began searching for the lost Americans. At about the same time a six-member quick-reaction security team from the CIA annex two kilometers away entered the grounds, joined by sixteen militiamen from the friendly February 17th Brigade.

    The diplomatic security agents eventually found Smith’s body and, with help from the annex security team, removed it from the villa. By 11:00 pm the Libyan militiamen warned that the attackers couldn’t be held off much longer. The five diplomatic security agents with Smith’s body lifted it into an armored Land Cruiser and were first to leave the mission, at 11:16. They barreled through the front gate, taking heavy fire from the attackers, and headed toward the CIA annex. Traffic was heavy and they could move only slowly at times while absorbing fire from assault rifles, grenades, and gelignite bombs. Soon the quick-reaction team also left the diplomatic mission headed for the annex. 

    When they arrived there, some took shelter on the roof and others took positions around the grounds. But soon the annex, which held 30 Americans, began to come under attack, too. At 5:00 am, a seven-person US security team that had flown in from Tripoli arrived. But the battle only seemed to intensify. At 5:17 am the attackers began lobbing 81-millimeter mortar rounds into the annex, killing CIA security contractors Tyrone Woods and Glen Doherty and badly wounding a diplomatic security agent. The U.S. team fled the annex at about 6:30 am and headed to the airport, where they boarded a chartered plane and at about 7:30 am lifted off for Tripoli. 

    At the American mission, a crowd had been gathering since shortly after the first moments of the attacks. Some wanted to tear down the diplomatic mission and some wanted to loot. Others, it turned out, were more sympathetic to the Americans. “Bring down the flag!” some chanted. The crowd broke through a window of Villa C and stumbled across Stevens’s body, still next to the steel grille protecting the safe room.

    At about 1:00 am, a young Libyan’s smartphone recorded images of the crowd dragging out the body of the diplomat, his feet bare, his face blackened with soot. Someone put a finger on his neck and felt a pulse. His eyes were moving. “He’s living! He’s living!” they shouted. “God is great!” Six Libyans, believed to be Good Samaritans, lifted Steven’s body into a car and rushed him to the emergency room of the Benghazi Medical Center. They arrived at about 1:15 am. 

    The staff at Benghazi Medical Center tried to revive Stevens for 90 minutes with CPR but found no signs of life. They moved him to the hospital’s morgue. After 4:00 am, a Libyan official confirmed Stevens’s identity with officials in Tripoli. Soon a group of Libyan militiamen arrived, loaded his body onto a bread truck, and took it to the airport. There was a last-minute complication: some Libyan officials wanted the body held for autopsy. Instead, it was lifted onto a Libyan C-130 military transport plane with the remains of Smith, Doherty, and Woods. At about 10:00 am they took off for Tripoli. The embassy staff in the capital, fearing they could be attacked, too, packed quickly and boarded the plane. They flew back to Washington with the bodies of their fellow Americans but no real explanation of what had happened. 

    Stevens’s sister was distressed when Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton called her at 5:30 am the morning after her brother’s death and promised to track down the killers. “She said that justice would be done,” Anne Stevens Sullivan, a pediatric rheumatologist, wrote on a memorial web page. “This upset me. Chris was not focused on revenge. He wanted the Libyan people to have a free and democratic society. ‘I hope this will not prevent us from continuing to support the Libyan people, from moving ahead,’” she told Clinton. 

    Two days after the attack, the C-17 cargo plane with the four victims’ bodies reached Joint Base Andrews in suburban Maryland for one of the solemn memorial ceremonies that had become all too familiar over the past decade. “It was the longest plane flight I can remember, sitting in that cold, cavernous C-17 aircraft across from four flag draped coffins,” Bill Burns, who accompanied the remains, wrote in his memoir.

    With President Obama and Secretary of State Clinton looking on, and a military band playing “Nearer, My God, to Thee,” Marine pallbearers carried four flag-draped metal caskets to black tables in the center of a vast hangar. Stevens was the sixth US ambassador killed in action, and the first since Ambassador Adolph Dubs was killed in a shootout in Afghanistan in 1979. “They knew the danger, and they accepted it,” Obama told the gathering of 800. America, he declared, “will never retreat from the world.” 

    Stevens was remembered in multiple memorial services, including one under the rotunda of San Francisco City Hall, and in an outpouring of postings on memorial websites. He left behind “a legion of best friends and broken hearts,” wrote ambassador William V. Roebuck, a colleague who had been overseeing North Africa issues from Washington, in a poem of tribute. Another colleague later recalled going to a memorial service and meeting three mourning women who each believed they were Stevens’s true love. 

    Among Stevens’s peers in the diplomatic corps and other agencies, opinions were split on whether he had taken unwise risks.

    The attack stunned the tiny staff in the embassy in Tripoli. Despite the rising violence, the general view among the diplomats was that Libya was on a path for better things. “It was like a monster come out of the sea,” one diplomat said. Colleagues had the sad duty of gathering up Stevens’s things from his apartment to send home. They boxed up suits and workout clothes, tennis gear, a “Free Libya” mug, a bottle of Laphroaig Scotch, a biography of a minor president, and a pair of Dickens novels. 

    Among Libyans, the attacks brought an outpouring of grief and anger against the militias. Ten days after the attack, tens of thousands of Libyans marched in Benghazi to protest the militias and to remember Stevens. Hundreds stormed the compound of the Ansar al-Sharia militia, which had claimed responsibility for the attack. The demonstrators drove out the militiamen, ripped down the group’s flags, and set a vehicle afire. Other marchers turned out only to share their sadness. “Libya lost a friend,” signs read. Stevens’s family received some 40,000 letters of condolence from Libyans and others in the Middle East. 

    In Washington, the deaths set off a partisan battle that raged for years. Republicans mobilized to try to prove that Clinton and the administration team had failed to provide proper security and sought to cover up their failures. Hearings started on October 20th and ground on through seven congressional investigations, 32 hearings, and eleven government reports. They dredged up little beyond what the State Department’s internal investigation had unearthed in the first three months after the attack.

    The final report of the Benghazi committee found no specific fault with Clinton. But Kansas Republican representative Mike Pompeo, who became secretary of state under President Trump, joined Republican representative Jim Jordan of Ohio in adding an addendum that accused Clinton of failing to address the security shortcomings in the month before the attack. Benghazi became a new front in the Republican attack on Clinton’s character. Stevens’s family found it anguishing to see him, a dedicated nonpartisan, in the cross fire. 

    Stevens’s skills and contribution in Libya were praised by both sides. But the State Department’s internal investigation of the attack laid responsibility for the attack on him, along with diplomatic security officials in Washington and superiors in the Near Eastern Affairs bureau. “As the president’s personal representative, the chief of mission bears direct and full responsibility for the security of [his or her] mission and for all the personnel for whom [he or she] is responsible,” the accountability review board wrote. The panel’s chairman was Thomas Pickering, a six-time ambassador who had been Stevens’s boss in the 1990s and was the diplomat he most admired. 

    The conservative media painted the attack in lurid colors. Sean Hannity of Fox News, citing a news story that was later retracted, reported inaccurately that the mob had sodomized Stevens and dragged his body through the streets. Websites reported incorrectly that Stevens was about to convert to Islam; others said incorrectly that he was gay and condemned the administration for sending him to a region where his life would be in danger. There were reports that Stevens had organized the smuggling of arms from Libya to jihadists fighting to overthrow the government in Syria. 

    Elsewhere, Stevens was depicted as simply clueless. 13 Hours, a 2016 film from the action-movie director Michael Bay, portrayed Stevens as a cosseted pretty boy who spouted diplomatic clichés but was oblivious to danger. The heroes of the film were the brawny security contractors who tried to save him. The film was a box office bust but won fans in some conservative circles. Candidate Donald Trump praised the film and screened it for free for supporters before the 2016 Iowa primary caucuses. 

    Among Stevens’s peers in the diplomatic corps and other agencies, opinions were split on whether he had taken unwise risks. When other foreign delegations and aid groups pulled out of Benghazi, the American team should have gone, too, some argued. Some cited a maxim from the Foreign Service’s pre-9/11 era: “When in doubt, pull them out.”

    “The one person most to blame for Benghazi is the guy who got killed,” said one former top U.S. official. The diplomats who worked most closely with him in Libya insisted Stevens heeded security officials but was ready to take some risk when it was important to the mission. “He took his personal security very, very seriously,” said Greg Arndt, the former defense aide. “He had been put in a precarious situation.” 

    Other foreign service veterans argued an occasional tragedy was the price of a noble but dangerous calling. “The reality is we do business in dangerous areas,” said Ryan Crocker, who had known Stevens for decades. “We can manage risk, but we can’t prevent it if we do our jobs.” The political fallout from the attack was a blow to the diplomatic corps, Crocker said, because it would make senior officials fearful of sending staff on risky missions that could get their superiors in trouble. His former colleagues noted the sad irony that Stevens, a leading example of expeditionary diplomacy, was now the reason diplomats could not get out and do the job. 

    Stevens’s sister, Anne, said her brother was fully aware of the risks and was willing to take them because he thought the visit was important. But the trip, she concluded, was a mistake. “I don’t think we’ll ever know why he made the decision to take the risk of going to Benghazi, knowing there were multiple attacks. It was clearly a bad decision,” she said.

    The Obama administration, in any case, wanted less risk-taking and less involvement with Libya. After the Benghazi attacks, the embassy staff bulked up on security staff and cut back on contacts with Libyans. In the fall of 2012, the embassy had a complement of about one hundred, but among them only two permanent staff were assigned to deal directly with Libyans. The remainder were diplomatic security, intelligence, support staff, and FBI agents sent to track down the Americans’ killers. The embassy also had the additional protection of a Marine counterterrorism team of 51. Washington kept an intense focus on the mission’s security: every time the diplomatic staff was increased or decreased, President Obama was personally notified. The embassy had the flavor of a forward operating base in Iraq or Afghanistan. The result was that Washington knew less, and helped less, as the country unraveled. 

    Former ambassador Laurence E. Pope II, a 31-year foreign service veteran, ran the embassy for three months starting in October 2012. He had called Burns and volunteered to come out of retirement to handle the post temporarily. Pope concluded soon after arriving that the security rules meant little useful diplomacy was being done. Any meeting outside the gates required elaborate advance planning and reliance on a team of diplomatic-security agents to secure the travel route and destination. Washington seemed to prefer that he not venture beyond the gates at all, Pope said. Their aversion to risk “could hardly be overstated,” he said. “And if all you’re doing is protecting yourself, you might as well not be there.” 

    In the Benghazi committee hearings and afterward, Clinton continued to stress that diplomats had to continue working on the front lines amid danger.

    Pope noticed that one of the swimming pools in the embassy compound had been drained and was now occupied by a large crate. When he asked what it contained, he was told it was the embassy’s inventory of antitank missiles. “If they come at us with tanks, I’m inclined to surrender,” Pope joked. Nobody laughed. 

    Deborah Jones, a veteran foreign service officer, took over as ambassador to Libya seven months after the Benghazi attack. The complement of Marines protecting the embassy had by then been increased again, from 51 to 87. Jones soon found herself devoting hours of her time to sitting with young American staff members to give them a chance to talk through their anguish over the attack. Even then some remained traumatized and wracked by survivor’s guilt, she said.

    Jones sent a stream of messages on Twitter to 20,000 Libyan followers, because security rules meant that in most cases it was her only way to keep in touch. The Libyans were not pleased that America seemed to be turning its back on the country. Many of their Twitter replies were “vociferous,” said Jones, putting it diplomatically. The embassy’s enforced isolation added to the psychological strain on the staff, she said. Officials in Washington said it became tougher to recruit staff for Libya than for anywhere in the greater Middle East, including Iraq, Pakistan, and Afghanistan. 

    In the Benghazi committee hearings and afterward, Clinton continued to stress that diplomats had to continue working on the front lines amid danger. Stevens “understood that the difficult and dangerous places were where America’s interests were most at stake,” she wrote in her 2014 memoir. Stevens believed that “when America is absent, especially from unstable environments, there are consequences. That’s why I sent Chris Stevens to Libya in the first place; it’s also why he wanted to be there.”

    Even so, the consensus in Washington was changing. The growth in State Department spending in the final Obama years was not for more diplomats but for more diplomatic-security agents, security training, and equipment like surveillance cameras and fire-survival gear. Spending on diplomatic security leaped from $200 million in 1998 to $2.6 billion in 2012.

    Soon after Stevens’s death, the Libyan government that had been launched in the 2012 elections became paralyzed by divisions. The Libya that a year earlier seemed to be embarking on a golden age now writhed in civil war. It became a haven for groups like the Islamic State; violence increased, as did the traffic in arms, drugs, and migrants heading across the Mediterranean. The country looked like a failed state, a threat not only to its long-suffering citizens but to all of North Africa and Europe as well. 

    Obama lamented in early 2016 that the failure by his team and US allies to plan for the Libyan war’s aftermath was the worst mistake of his presidency. To aides in private he pronounced Libya a “shit show.” It further reduced his calculation of how much America could do to repair countries torn by war and civil upheaval. Libya’s meltdown helped convince him it would be a mistake to get involved in the catastrophic civil war in Syria. 

    Bill Burns, the former deputy secretary of state, concluded that in the absence of a strong American presence after the war, neither the Libyans nor foreign powers played the role that was needed. “Without a strong post-intervention American hand, our neat ‘long game’ coalition stumbled—the incapacity and irresolution of most of the European players exposed, most of the Arabs reverting to self-interested form, and the rival Libyan factions unified only by their ardent opposition to any meaningful foreign support and engagement,” he wrote.

    In his reluctance to get involved, Obama was not alone. Stevens’s death helped convince many Americans “the place is just way too dark, and let’s stay out of it,” said Roya Hakakian, the writer who was Stevens’s friend. The shift distressed her deeply, she said, and would have distressed Stevens as well. 

    Stevens’s family and friends kept the faith. After his death, his family decided the best way to honor his memory was to expand the human contacts that were his passion. They set up a fund and an educational program called the Stevens Initiative that aimed to connect young people from the Middle East and United States. A main focus was international computer-linked classes that taught teens and connected peers in the Middle East and the United States. With support from corporate sponsors, the State Department, and Middle Eastern countries, the program in its first year, 2016, brought together 21,000 students from 17 Middle Eastern countries and 25 US states. The goal, said a family friend, was to “create more Chris Stevenses.”


    Excerpted from The Ambassadors: America’s Diplomats on the Front Lines. Used with the permission of the publisher, Simon & Schuster. Copyright © 2019 by Paul Richter.

    Paul Richter
    Paul Richter
    Paul Richter covered the State Department and foreign policy for the Los Angeles Times out of its Washington, DC, bureau. He previously covered the Pentagon, the White House and, from New York City, the financial industry. He was raised in Minneapolis and Washington, DC, and graduated from Clark University. The author of The Ambassadors, he lives in Washington, DC.

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