Suspending Embassy Operations: Post and Bureau Not Told, and FOIA Redaction Fail

Posted: 1:12 am EDT
Updated: 5:28 pm EDT
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On February 25, 2011, the State Department announced the suspension of U.S. Embassy operations in Libya (see State Dept Suspends US Embassy Operations in #Libya, Withdraws All Personnel).  What we didn’t know then but we know now, thanks to the Clinton email dump, is that just a few days before that, neither the embassy nor the bureau was aware that they were suspending operations.

February 22, 2011 09:50 PM – HRC aide Jake Sullivan sent an email (partially redacted with FOIA b(5) code) to Janet A. Sanderson, the Deputy Assistant Secretary Bureau of Near East Affairs, with subject line “Suspending embassy ops” and asking “Where do we stand?”

February 22, 2011 10:14 PM – Sanderson emailed Sullivan:

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Feb 22 22:18:23 2011 (10:18 PM) – Sanderson also sent an email to M/Patrick Kennedy and Kathleen T. Austin-Ferguson, M’s Executive Assistant:

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February 22, 2011 10:37 PM – Kennedy responded to Sanderson saying he “talked to cheryl and tom” and that “they are also unaware.”“Checking with Secretary. At this moment we are NOT suspending. Fully agree not possible to do tomorrow and also risks libyan blow back.”  Email must be referencing HRC Chief of Staff Cheryl Mills and Deputy Secretary Tom Nides.

Embassy Tripoli eventually suspended operations on February 25, three days after the start of this email chain.  These emails are part of the Clinton email dump and it shows just how messed up is the FOIA at the agency.

On Feb 22 22:40:17 2011 (10:40 PM) – Sanderson responded to the Kennedy email, adding Ronald Schlicher to the email chain. Ambassador Schlicher was previously assigned to Cyprus, and also served as a DAS at the Bureau of Near East Affairs. We are not sure what was his position in 2011, but he must have been attached to NEA to be looped in in this exchange. Ambassador Schlicher was Principal DAS at the NEA bureau, and he would have been Sanderson’s boss at the time.  Here’s a clip from that email:

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Now, take a look at the email below with the same time stamp and same addresses, released as a separate email by the FOIA office at State:

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Why, they’re the same email, except that they were released as separate documents, and in the second document, the email is redacted under the b(5) FOIA exemption, also known in the FOIA community as the “Withhold It Because You Want To” Exemption.  “Yael” must have been Yael Lempert who was assigned to Tripoli as consular section chief in 2009 and featured in the NYT here for the release of four New York Times journalists in 2011 in Libya.  She may have been the acting DCM at the time of the suspension of operations.  “Joan” is presumably Joan Polaschik who was DCM and then CDA of Embassy Tripoli. She is currently the U.S. Ambassador to Algeria.

Here is what DOJ says about the b(5) exemption:

Exemption 5 of the FOIA protects “inter-agency or intra-agency memorandums or letters which would not be available by law to a party other than an agency in litigation with the agency.” (1) The courts have construed this somewhat opaque language, with its sometimes confusing threshold requirement, (2) to “exempt those documents, and only those documents that are normally privileged in the civil discovery context.” (3)

Here is what we are not supposed to read according to the FOIA ninjas, except that one of them forgot the Sharpie:

“I have just talked to post (Yael).She and Joan will work to reduce staff and send more out on ferry. Shd get down to 10- 12. She fully understands need for limited staff to stay to deal with community. Believes likely remainder will be position to leave in few days. Says situation is “worse than Baghdad in 2004-2005 “

No matter how you read the above passage, it is difficult to make the case that it fits the b(5) exemption unless you’re thinking of the “withhold it because you want to” exemption threshold.

#

Emails in full released via FOIA below:

Suspending Ops Libya – February 22, 2011 11:05 PM: https://cloudup.com/cAlO_WHTfpc

Suspending Ops Libya February 23, 2011 7:59 AM: https://cloudup.com/cD33FlF7TCo

Suspending Ops Libya February 23, 2011 8:08 AM: https://cloudup.com/cjplOQtTEmw

 

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— Domani Spero

Via SSCI Benghazi Report (p74 of 85) |

According to Mr. Nordstrom, the previous U.S. Ambassador to Libya, Gene Cretz, and his Deputy Chief of Mission (DCM), Joan Polaschik, traveled to Washington in mid-February 2012 to specifically ask for additional security personnel. 155 in addition to meeting with Ms. Lamb, they met separately with Mr. Kennedy and other senior officials. Yet, when the Libyan mission transmitted its official request for additional security personnel on March 28, 2012, the push back from Ms. Lamb’s office was swift and significant. While the request, which included five temporary duty Diplomatic Security agents in Benghazi, was clearly reasonable, one of Ms. Lamb’s subordinates asked Mr. Nordstrom why the official cable sought “the sun, the moon, and the stars.” When Mr. Nordstrom stated that he did not understand why this was an issue, the response from Ms. Lamb’s office Was telling: “Well, you know, this is a political game. You have to not make us look bad here, that we’re not being responsive.” 156 in a disturbingly prophetic e-mail to DCM Polaschik following this exchange, Mr. Nordstrom wrote:

I doubt we will ever get [Diplomatic Security] to admit in writing what I was told [in] reference [to] Benghazi that OV[International Programs] was directed by Deputy Assistant Secretary Lamb to cap the agents in Benghazi at 3, and force post to hire local drivers. This is apparently a verbal policy only but one which DSIIP/[Near Eastern Affairs] doesn’t plan to violate. I hope that nobody is injured as a result of an incident in Benghazi, since it would be particularly embarrassing to both DS and DAS [Lamb] if it was a result of some sort of game they are playing.

Mr. Eric Nordstrom - Regional Security Officer, U.S. Department of State (second from left on the full witness panel) "The Security Failures of Benghazi" House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform Hearing, 10-10-12 (Photo via Oversight and Reform Committee/Flickr)

Eric Nordstrom – Regional Security Officer, U.S. Department of State (second from left on the full witness panel)
(Photo via Oversight and Reform Committee/Flickr)

Foreign Policy writes that the SSCI findings are “a case study in how no one and everyone in the State Department, the U.S. intelligence community, and the White House has been held responsible for an attack that has fueled a political firestorm in Washington — and left four Americans dead.”

No one and everyone.

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