News from the Field: Embassy Emergency Action Response and Overseas Crisis Management: Are You Ready?

By Colonel John E. Chere Jr., U.S. Army (Retired)

Disclaimer.  The author contributed this article in his/her personal capacity. The views expressed are his  own and do not necessarily represent the views of the Defense Security Cooperation Agency, the Defense Institute of Security Cooperation Studies or the United States Government.

Do not wait to prepare yourself and your family for an overseas assignment

Department of Defense (DoD) personnel deployed to assignments in our diplomatic missions overseas typically under Chief of Mission (COM) authority are usually not fully prepared for the potential crisis situations that they and their families could experience; to include the possibility of a short or no notice evacuation back to the Continental United States (CONUS), or a temporary location overseas.  Additionally, there are no overseas posts, regardless of location, that are immune from a potential crisis situation.  Furthermore, while DoD members are typically familiar with planning and reacting to crisis situations as part of their normal military or civilian careers, that does not always fully translate to the fact that while serving under Department of State (DoS) and COM authority they will conduct crisis planning under the guidelines laid out by DoS and plans will be executed in country by the Ambassador and country team.   

While similarities in planning exist, there are also differences; preparatory training for understanding and dealing with crisis situations varies across the DoD organizations that typically send personnel to overseas embassy assignments, i.e.,  The Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) under the Defense Attaché System (DAS);  The Defense Security Cooperation Agency (DSCA) and the Combatant Commands (CCMDs) for personnel in the Security Cooperation Organizations; The Office of the Secretary of Defense (OSD) for International Technology Exchanges;  and the United States Special Operations Command (USSOCOM) for Special Operations Liaison Officers (SOLO), and Special Operations Forces Liaison Elements (SOFLE).  

On September 14, 2012 at 1330 hours more than 100 demonstrators scaled the walls of a U.S. Embassy in North Africa and began a multi-hour rampage to destroy property on the compound and attempt to gain access to the chancery building and the approximately 50-60 American and locally employed staff (LES)  barricaded inside.  Across the street from the Embassy, the American International School was simultaneously attacked, resulting in significant damage and theft to the school buildings and property.  Fortunately, the school had been closed as a precaution one hour earlier. Less than six hours after the attack began, U.S. military forces and additional Diplomatic Security Service (DSS) personnel arrived to help secure the compromised Embassy compound, and less than 36 hours later a chartered civilian aircraft landed at the International airport to evacuate U.S. personnel ordered to depart country. These personnel included all USG dependents, over 50% of the designated non-essential personnel from the embassy staff, and a few non-USG U.S. citizens who elected to depart.  

All personnel who were on  temporary duty (TDY) or leave outside the country during the attack were ordered not to return to post unless directed by the Ambassador.  In fact, of the evacuated personnel and those caught outside the country, very few of them would return to the embassy, and per DoS policy most personnel were subsequently reassigned after six months to other assignments in Washington or elsewhere.  Their personal property and vehicles left at post were packed and sent out with the help of the remaining USG personnel on the ground.  Some DoD personnel were allowed to return to post.  It took over three months to repatriate all employees, and many had to deal with the additional burden of family separation.  Furthermore, as a result of the attack and several related events in the region, all subsequent decisions on security and personnel manning at post were assumed and managed by DoS senior management in Washington.  Much of that resultant centralized decision-making remains in place, particularly in those posts now designated as “High Threat Posts.”  

While the situation is unique to this North African Country, it is not unique that an embassy had to react to a crisis and subsequently evacuate its personnel on short notice for safety or other operational reasons.  According to GAO report 08-23 published October 19, 2007, and updated report 17-714, dated July 2017, since 1988 the DoS has ordered over 293 evacuations from overseas posts due to civil strife, natural disasters, conventional wars, terrorist incidents and disease outbreaks.  Further, while crisis situations will vary around the world in the 150+ posts with DoD presence, all DoD personnel deploying overseas to work in an embassy must be prepared to not only support and relocate their family members in a fast-moving, crisis situation, but to also simultaneously contribute to the embassy Emergency Action Plan (EAP) as DoD country team members.  Moreover, because of their training, background, linkage to DoD resources, and contacts with host nation security forces, embassies will normally rely heavily on their DoD personnel to step up to the plate during emergency/crisis situations to assist in a variety of ad-hoc tasks. 

While there has been recent improvement in how DoS and its supporting Interagency partners manage evacuation planning and execution, more work needs to be done as outlined in the same GAO reports cited above. Moreover, while the reports single out the DoS as the owner of the problem set, it is also correct to point out that the typical embassy is a “country team” made up of multiple USG agencies, with each one having assigned roles and responsibilities in crisis action planning and execution.  The DoD is a significant contributor and shares equally in the burden to ensure that posts are prepared for all contingencies.  

During a crisis, the COM is ultimately responsible for making all decisions regarding the safety and well-being of American citizens in the country, regardless if they are working directly for the USG or not. The COM makes these decisions by relying on the advice of the country team and more specifically the Embassy Emergency Action Committee (EAC). The EAC is typically managed by the Deputy Chief of Mission (DCM) and is composed of select members of the embassy country team, which typically includes the DoD. The EAC is responsible for devising courses of action to deal with any potential crisis that could occur in country and/or within the region. These courses of action are post-specific and comprise what is officially known as the EAP.   

In response to a crisis, i.e., natural disaster, civil disorder, hijacking, hostage taking, bomb attack, etc., the EAC is activated and all members assess the situation and jointly discuss and decide on Courses of Action (COAs). The EAC makes recommendations to the COM who may, amongst many other options short of an evacuation, request a reduction in the number of American personnel in country through either an authorized or ordered departure. During an authorized departure, non-emergency personnel and eligible family members may voluntarily leave the post.  During an ordered departure, non-emergency personnel and eligible family members MUST leave post as directed.  Once a decision is made the message is then disseminated to the interagency and throughout the entire mission community.   

          In the North Africa example, and typical of other developing situations with little or no warning, the event began and was over in less than five hours.  However, the resulting impact was severe and, while loss of life to USG personnel was thankfully avoided, the reaction by the embassy and Washington was appropriate given other regional events and evacuations -- and the primary fact that the host nation was unable to fulfill its role under the 1961 Vienna Diplomatic Convention of providing adequate security to ensure that the diplomatic compound was protected. 

The employees, families, and dependents not at the embassy compound during the attack, they were mostly at home monitoring the situation via phones and the embassy radio system.   Messages going out from the embassy during the attack to USG families, employees, and all registered U.S. citizens in country via the warden system, directed personnel to shelter in place and avoid going anywhere until further notice.  As events rapidly developed and shaped how the embassy and Washington reacted to the attack, messages were disseminated for personnel to begin preparation to evacuate.  Drawdown lists at the embassy were scrutinized to determine which employees would depart once a final decision was made.  

Once the decision was made to evacuate and drawdown the embassy staff, there were less than 18 hours to execute the plan and get designated personnel to the their rally points, provide secure transportation, and ensure movement to the international airport.  Personnel arrived at the rally points with pets, luggage and bags.  They were in various states of readiness for departure.  Many had not slept much in the previous 24 hours, and some had to decide what to bring and for how long they would be gone without input from their significant others.  Many other repercussions related to preparedness would follow in the months ahead.  

  Personnel operating out of our diplomatic missions overseas are not immune to situations such as the real North Africa example described above, and should be prepared in advance as to how they will react.  Moreover, while an evacuation occurs under the DoS/country team umbrella, once personnel are out of the country the support that follows is not equal and each government organization has its own rules and responsibility related to what occurs next.  For the DoD, the Joint Federal Travel Regulations (JFTR) has primacy.  However, to further compound the complexity, governing rules and guidance varies  vary amongst the various DoD sub-organizations that send personnel to serve in embassy assignments. 

The training and exposure to overseas crisis management prior and subsequent to arrival at post also varies in scope for each parent organization, which further highlights the responsibility of the DoD employee to ensure their families are adequately prepared for their new assignment.  There are many online and readily accessible resources available but service members must take the initiative to ensure that family members take advantage of them, and families should plan together for possible worst case scenarios.  It is important to accomplish planning and discussion prior to leaving CONUS, since it may be too late to address effectively many of the important decisions once in-country.  For example, certain valuable items may be better left in CONUS during an overseas assignment, or where will the family relocate if sent back to CONUS, or is there an emergency reserve of cash funds, etc.?  Once at post it is important that each family have pre-established travel orders with fund cites for service members and dependents in case of evacuation, which will also ask for addresses to the selected home of record.

Service members should proactively seek out formal training and organization-specific guidance during the assignment process.  Some of the best resources will be found at the gaining embassy and with the desk officer at the specific DoD parent organization command, since many of the lessons learned from previous events may only reside at post and the CCMD.  Additionally, be aware that some of the guidance provided on the DoS web site may be unique to DoS personnel.  Seek clarification from the DoD parent agency if there are agency-specific issues.  

As a final note, do not let the potential for crises do diminish the great assignment that the majority of DoD personnel have in this unique and challenging interagency environment.  Being prepared and making decisions in advance should give sufficient peace of mind for everyone to get out and enjoy exploring the culture, history, and unique surroundings these assignments offer.  It may also help to avoid the “bunker mentality” that evil or danger lurk around every corner.  As a matter of perspective, having completed multiple assignments in different countries, I always found it ironic that many Americans serving overseas came from areas in CONUS -- statistically speaking -- much more dangerous than the countries in which they were residing.  Yet their reaction to being in a “foreign country” was to put up the barriers in order to avoid exposing themselves to the perceived risks.  Be safe and be aware of your surroundings, but also get out and enjoy yourselves and take advantage of living and serving in a foreign culture and environment!  Your performance will also rely on your ability to build relationships with your foreign partners and to understand your environment.  Lastly, do not forget that your host nation is primarily responsible for your security, and hosts typically take this obligation very seriously. In spite of failures like in the North Africa example, most host countries do more than an adequate job of keeping you safe.  

About the Author

Colonel (retired) Chere is an Instructor at the Joint Special Operations University, Security Cooperation Course, USSOCOM, Tampa, Florida. Prior to that he served as an Instructor for two years at the Defense Institute for Security Cooperation Studies in Dayton, Ohio.  Colonel Chere retired in 2014 after 31 years active duty as an Infantry Officer and Middle East Foreign Area Officer, which included tours in Morocco, Tunisia, Algeria, Israel, Iraq and on the USCENTCOM staff in Tampa.