Center for Strategic Communication

By Patricia Lee Sharpe

A reader wants to know what the Whirledview ex-diplomats would have done or said in the recent Case of the Benghazi Journal Revelations.  I won/lost the coin toss, so here goes.  But first, you need to know that the matter isn’t all that simple.

The short answer to the initial question is that, if I were still an official spokesperson, I’d probably have come up with something similar to the official Washington response to CNN’s use of deceased Ambassador Christopher Stevens’s notes.  But my public affairs version would also have been quite different. My remarks would have been terser, less emotional and less preachy.  I would not have been so hard on CNN. 

Why Was the Thing Just Lying Around?

What’s more, I’d have been thinking exactly what I’m thinking now, “Why the hell did American officialdom not search those premises (or get them searched by a trusted agent) long before a CNN reporter arrived to find the diary?  Why weren’t the premises cordoned off so reporters and others couldn’t forage around?”  In sum, why would I have be dealing with a tricky situation that shouldn’t have existed?

The State Department Angle

Consider what would have happened if the scorched premises had been searched the next morning by someone representing the U.S. mission in Libya.  The journal would have been in official hands, and it would have been mum’s the word until the pages had been read to see if anything Stevens had written had the potential (1) to actually damage U.S. national security, (2) to ease relations with Libya or (3) to embarrass the State Department. Such things could have been quietly noted, for present or future action,  after which the pages could have been passed along, with suitable sincere condolences, to the family (with further suitable provisos about suppression of the sensitive passages, assuming they weren’t first removed).

The Free Press Angle

Since CNN got to the diary first, the journalists did exactly what they should have done.  They aired the parts that were salient to an evaluation of U.S. policy and revealed nothing at all that could be called personal. This is why, as a government spokesperson, I wouldn’t have excoriated CNN.  When I was representing the U.S. abroad—and today, too—the American line was to encourage a free, unfettered and enterprising press as one of the foundations of democracy.  Wouldn’t it be counterproductive to blast CNN for doing its job properly?

A Private Citizen's Angle

That being said, as a private citizen concerned about U.S. policy in the Middle East, I am also happy that CNN took its reportorial role seriously, even though its editors must surely have known that a barrage of criticism would ensue. That’s my kind of journalism.

Back to the State Department.  Did the diplomats themselves, when they received the journal from CNN’s circumspect people, hand it over immediately to the grieving family?  Of course not.  That would have been totally irresponsible.  They had to know what Ambassador Stevens had written for reasons (1), (2) and (3) above. Let it, meanwhile, be noted that nothing of a personal nature which may have existed in that journal has been revealed by the State Department either. Both State and CNN have played fair with the Stevens family.     

The Family Angle

Now to the Stevens family.  It is a terrible thing to lose someone in the line of duty, but anyone related to any foreign service officer serving in today’s turbulent Middle East knows the risks—and knows also that any FSO, from Ambassador to junior officer, takes those risks knowingly, even gladly.  Few of those families will not be aware that journals kept by their loved ones, especially those found at the scene of tragedies such as that which occurred in Benghazi, may contain information that may help to explain a death.  The information might even prevent other deaths from occuring.  Thus, so long as nothing of a purely personal nature has been made public, I can’t justify objections to the State Department’s  examining it before it was rendered to the family. It is hard for me to believe that Ambassador Stevens himself would have felt this an invasion of his privacy.

The Foreign Service Life

Sometimes it’s hard for others to remember that a foreign service officer on duty is not a private citizen and that whatever he or she does is a matter of public interest.  For the same reason, a FSO must be circumspect when blogging and tweeting while serving abroad.  If an FSO doesn’t feel comfortable with these restrictions, the solution is simple: resign.

Chris Stevens wasn’t about to resign.  He was committed to his job and, by all accounts, he was good at it.  My colleague Pat Kushlis has raised important questions about the circumstances of his death, which seems to have been highly unnecessary.  For that reason alone, it was important that his notes be scrutinized before they were rendered to his family.  And, last but not least, CNN was not irresponsible in its reporting of the journal's contents.