Did US Embassy Tripoli Go on “Sort of a Drawdown” Without Going on Evacuation Status?

— Domani Spero
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On May 27, the State Department issued a new Travel Warning for Libya. In part, the warning says, “Due to security concerns, the Department of State has limited staffing at Embassy Tripoli and is only able to offer very limited emergency services to U.S. citizens in Libya.” (see  New Libya Travel Warning, Amphibious Assault Ship USS Bataan (LHD 5) Sails Closer. On the May 30th, Daily Press Briefing the State Department spokesperson Jennifer Psaki was asked to confirm about U.S. Special Forces operating in Libya (which she denied), and addressed the reduction in staffing in Tripoli:

QUESTION: I have a very quick question. The London Times is claiming that U.S. special forces and in particular CIA forces, French forces, and Algerian forces are inside Libya chasing after Mokhtar Belmokhtar, who apparently survived. I mean, reports of his death were erroneous. Could you confirm to us whether there is actually a role for the U.S. in Libya or a military presence?

MS. PSAKI: I don’t have anything more than what we’ve already announced.

QUESTION: Could you – okay. Could you comment on the presence or the deployment of theUSS Bataan with some 2,000 Marines at the shores of Libya?

QUESTION: Is there anything new on this?

MS. PSAKI: There’s nothing new, and it was announced, I believe, two days ago.

QUESTION: Okay, but – yeah.

MS. PSAKI: But I’m happy to confirm for you —

QUESTION: Are we to assume that maybe Americans citizens are ready to leave the country? That’s the question.

MS. PSAKI: Well, Said, I would say we – last Friday, I believe it was, I think, or maybe it was Monday – sorry – we put out a new Travel Warning. We have – as a result of the ongoing instability and violence, we reduced – and in that Travel Warning we reduced that we – we announced that we reduced – sorry, tongue-twister – the number of U.S. Government personnel at its Embassy – at our Embassy in Tripoli, and we are taking prudent steps to assure the security of our personnel given the instability. We are in constant contact with our Embassy, we are constantly evaluating the security needs, but I have nothing new to report on on that front.

QUESTION: I just – before everyone gets all excited, this is not an evacuation, right?

MS. PSAKI: Correct.

QUESTION: These people left on regularly scheduled commercial aircraft. There was no panic. There was no attack, anything like that. They —

MS. PSAKI: There is no plan for a U.S. Government-sponsored evacuation at this time. This is a temporary reduction in staffing.

We should note that the May 27 Travel Warning did not announced that “we reduced – the number of U.S. Government personnel – at our Embassy in Tripoli,” it only announced that there exist limited staffing.  AmEmbassy Tripoli was already on limited staffing since May 8, 2013, when the Department of State ordered the departure of a number of U.S. government personnel from Libya.

So how was this current reduction of staffing done without the “authorized” or “ordered” departure of personnel?

It could be that TDYs were cancelled, and replacements were not brought in when PCS staff went on leave. But when personnel are pulled out from post (we don’t know how many) due to the security situation, it is typically done by declaring an “authorized” or “ordered” departure.  A Travel Warning is also issued by the Bureau of Consular Affairs whenever a post goes to authorized or ordered departure. The warning routinely urges private U.S. citizens to consider leaving or avoiding travel to countries where authorized or ordered departure is in effect.

Under the “no double standard policy,” if the Department shares information with the official U.S. community, it should also make the same or similar information available to the non-official U.S. community if the underlying threat applies to both official and non-official U.S. citizens/nationals. So if the embassy went on authorized or ordered departure, the State Department has an obligation to publicly share that information.

What is the difference between an authorized departure and an ordered departure?

While some folks make a distinction between authorized/ordered departures and evacuations, in reality they are the same. The Under Secretary of State for Management (“M”) approves the evacuation status for post—either authorized or ordered—the 180-day clock “begins ticking” (by law, an evacuation cannot last longer than 180 days).   The Subsistence Expense Allowance (SEA) benefits for evacuees then commence from the day following arrival at the safe haven location.

An “authorized departure” is an evacuation procedure, short of ordered departure, by which post employees and/or eligible family members are permitted to leave post in advance of normal rotation when U.S. national interests or imminent threat to life requires it. Departure is requested by the Chief of Mission (COM) and approved by the Under Secretary for Management (M).   It allows the Chief of Mission greater flexibility in determining which employees or groups of employees may depart, and “avoids any negative connotation” that might be attached to the use of the term “evacuation.” Typically, in an authorized departure, airports are still open and personnel depart post via regularly scheduled commercial aircraft.

An “ordered departure” is an evacuation procedure by which the number of U.S. Government employees, eligible family members, or both, at a Foreign Service post is reduced. Ordered departure is mandatory and may be initiated by the Chief of Mission or the Secretary of State. Some ordered departure may still be done through commercial flights, but more often than not, this involves chartered USG flights from post to the designated safe haven in the region or back to the United States.  While an ordered departure may be followed with temporary post closure, what typically happens is that post remains open with mission essential emergency staffing.

Last February, the State Department issued a Travel Warning for Ukraine that includes the following:

On February 20, 2014, the Department of State authorized the departure of all family members of U.S. government personnel from Ukraine.  While the U.S. Embassy in Kyiv’s Consular Section is open for public services, the Embassy’s ability to respond to emergencies involving U.S. citizens throughout Ukraine is limited.

In April, the State Department issued a Travel Warning for South Sudan:

The U.S. Department of State warns U.S. citizens against all travel to the Republic of South Sudan and recommends that U.S. citizens currently in South Sudan depart immediately.  As a result of the deteriorating security situation, the Department of State ordered the departure of most remaining U.S. government personnel from South Sudan on January 3, 2014.

So the question now is —  did US Embassy Tripoli went on a reduction of staff, “sort of a drawdown,“without officially calling it an authorized or ordered evacuation?

Of course, if you curtail staffers from post, that is, shorten the employees’ tours of duty from their assignments, or urge them to voluntarily curtail their assignments, that would not constitute an evacuation either, yes? Or if post management strongly suggests that people take their R&Rs earlier over the summer during a heightened threat, that would just be a regular movement of personnel and not at all an “ordered” departure.

So — you still get a reduction of staffing  without the negative connotation of an evacuation.

Not a trick question — how many staffers do you have to pull out from post before you call it an evacuation?

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Related item:

3 FAM 3770 Travel to Post Under Authorized or Ordered Departure (pdf)