United States Suspends Embassy Operations in Libya

Washington, D.C.–(ENEWSPF)–February 25, 2011.  

MR. CROWLEY: Good afternoon and welcome to the Department of State. As was just announced in the White House press briefing, given current security conditions in Libya, coupled with our inability to guarantee fully the safety and security of our diplomatic personnel in the country, the Department of State has temporarily withdrawn Embassy personnel from Tripoli and suspended all Embassy operations effective today. The safety of the American community remains paramount to the Department, and we will continue to provide assistance to the greatest extent possible through other missions.

And today, we are gratified that the ferry was able to depart Libya and has arrived in Valletta, Malta, as well as the departure from Tripoli of one last charter that carried our remaining diplomatic personnel from the mission as well as other American citizens and third-country nationals.

But two of the hardest working people through the last several days – actually, probably the last several weeks – are Under Secretary for Management Pat Kennedy and Deputy Assistant Secretary Janet Sanderson from our NEA Bureau. And we thought we would bring them down just to kind of review what it means now to have our operations in Libya suspended. We still have diplomatic relations with Libya and will continue to discuss ongoing events with the Libyan leadership, but to go through a few of the mechanics of how we got to this point, obviously, Pat has been central in terms of the logistics of moving American citizens out of harm’s way. Janet has been involved in all of the interagency meetings and conversing every day with our DCM, who has done a brilliant job; our chargé d’affaires, who has done a brilliant job, in Tripoli.

But, Pat, Janet, thanks for coming down.

UNDER SECRETARY KENNEDY: Thank you. As you may be aware, one of the major responsibilities of the State Department is to ensure assistance to American citizens if at all possible. Since the 15th of February we’ve issued over 10 warning notices of various kinds to American citizens and starting on the 20th we announced to the community that we had authorized the departure of family members, and then on the 21st we increased that by ordering the departure of all family members and non-emergency personnel. A number of American citizens have departed via commercial means or via charters arranged by their companies or via assistance, mutual assistance, so to speak, provided by other governments. When the – even though flights were operating, the airport was somewhat chaotic with the large numbers of people there, and therefore the U.S. moved and put a chartered ferry boat with a 600-person capacity into the port on Wednesday morning.

During the course of the day on Wednesday, we loaded about 250-270 people, about half American, half third-country nationals. We had planned to sail from the port that evening. There were 15- to 18-foot waves, which made sailing unsafe, and so we held the ferry over yesterday. And the waves did not abate and we loaded about another dozen or so individuals onto the ferry yesterday, and again planning to sail last night, again could not. Finally, after long consultations with the – with U.S. Armed Forces weather experts, we knew that the weather would break probably this morning, and so again loaded another few people onto the ferry who presented themselves this morning, and the ferry departed.

At the same time, we also announced yesterday to the American community that we would be making a charter aircraft available today. We brought the charter aircraft in, loaded the remaining official American employees on it and about another dozen or so American citizens and a number of third-country nationals as well. And that aircraft has now departed. As P.J. has said, we have now suspended operations at the Embassy. Again, as P.J. has said, that does not mean that diplomatic relations are broken. We will continue to carry on work with the Government of Libya. And Janet can address that in more detail.

But essentially, we moved to get out as many American citizens as we could and who presented themselves at the Embassy. We will continue to work to assist American citizens. The Bureau of Consular Affairs has a 7 by 24-hour by 365-day-a-week capability. If any additional American citizens are in need of assistance, they can contact or their family members or others can contact the State Department, and we will see what we can do. But we have put in, as I said, the last charter flight that we intend to at this time. And we do know that the airport, in spite of it being overcrowded still, is moving some commercial planes in and out.


MS. SANDERSON: Thank you, Pat. In addition to the responsibilities we have to the American community and to our own mission on the ground, obviously one of the things that the Department has been doing in the last week to 10 days is a full court press in terms of trying to develop a set of options for the President and for his decision makers with regard to the continuing and indeed intensifying violence on the ground, violence against the Libyan people, and what seems to us to be increasing problems with the regime and with the way it is handling its governance of the country.

You’ve seen, of course, that the Secretary of State has made a number of calls to her counterparts around the world in the last couple of days. Those calls are continuing. She has consulted with African foreign ministers, European foreign ministers, and others who are interested in the fate of Libya. The Secretary has echoed what the President has said – we’re shocked and appalled by what we have seen on the ground in Libya. We hold the Libyan Government accountable for its actions and the actions of its military and other security forces as these atrocities are being perpetrated. We are deeply concerned about the fate of the Libyan people and we are looking at a variety of options – a toolkit, if you will, in addition to sanctions, unilateral – the ones that were announced this morning, or this afternoon, rather, by the White House. But in conjunction with our friends and likeminded allies in the area, we’re looking at other options and, of course, there is the multilateral track.

I don’t have a lot of details for you right now. We are having those consultations. They’re ongoing. But I think the important thing to take away is that the international community is speaking with one voice about what is happening in Libya. We are all concerned and shocked, and we are looking at ways to try and not only change the behavior of the government, but also hold it accountable for what is happening on the ground.

The Secretary will go to the Human Rights Council meeting in Geneva in – on Sunday, I think she departs. The meeting is on Monday. And the President dispatched Under Secretary for Political Affairs Bill Burns to Europe. He is now there for consultations with some of our closest European allies about what’s next.

Obviously, let me say something about the state of diplomatic relations between the United States and Libya. Let me underscore what Pat has said. Our Embassy is not closed. We have suspended operations. We still continue to reach out to the Libyans where appropriate, both directly and through third parties. The Libyan Embassy here is up and running. We have been – we have not been informed in any change of the status of the ambassador. I will be meeting with representatives of the Libyan Embassy shortly after this meeting to convey our decision about the suspension of diplomatic activities of our mission on the ground in Libya, but the relationship remains and we do have channels of communication to speak directly to the Libyan Government about the very grave concern we have about the evolving situation on the ground.

Thank you.

QUESTION: A couple of things logistically. One, when the flight – in terms of the Embassy being temporarily closed, does that mean that they took the flag with them, the last people out, or is that still up and running?


QUESTION: Up and flying, rather?

UNDER SECRETARY KENNEDY: Yes, the flag is still flying.

QUESTION: All right.

UNDER SECRETARY KENNEDY: The Embassy is not closed; operations are suspended.


UNDER SECRETARY KENNEDY: Relations are not broken.

QUESTION: How many official Americans were on that plane, the last one out?

UNDER SECRETARY KENNEDY: The last – there were 19 official Americans on the plane.

QUESTION: And about a dozen private, you said?

UNDER SECRETARY KENNEDY: About a dozen private American citizens and nine foreign nationals.

QUESTION: All right. And then —

MR. CROWLEY: Thirteen to be exact.


MR. CROWLEY: Forty-one total on the –


QUESTION: And then the last thing – and who is the protecting power? Who has agreed to become the protecting power?

UNDER SECRETARY KENNEDY: That is still being worked out.

QUESTION: So there is no protecting power yet?

UNDER SECRETARY KENNEDY: There is – no protecting power has yet been named.

QUESTION: Who have you approached?

UNDER SECRETARY KENNEDY: That’s a matter of —

QUESTION: And the question would be –

UNDER SECRETARY KENNEDY: That’s a matter for diplomatic discussions, Matt. We’ll be back to you on that one.

QUESTION: What countries are you aware of that intend to keep their embassies open in this fluid situation?

UNDER SECRETARY KENNEDY: In a fluid situation, we will give you an answer when we have one.

QUESTION: All right. So right now, you can’t advise Americans who are still in Libya there’s no one that you can tell to go to now? There —

UNDER SECRETARY KENNEDY: They can contact the State Department via email. They can contact the State Department via phone, and the Bureau of Consular Affairs will do what it can to assist them.

QUESTION: Okay, thank you.


QUESTION: Why are you not suspending relations – diplomatic relations – with Libya? Wouldn’t that be a far stronger sign?

MS. SANDERSON: Well, as I think the Secretary and the President have said, we’re looking at a range of options as we try and figure out a way to deal with this situation. I mean, obviously, everything is on the table, as the President said, so I don’t want to prejudge what’s going to happen down the road. But at this point, we felt it was most appropriate to suspend operations.

MR. CROWLEY: Michel.

QUESTION: What was the main concern that pushed the State Department to evacuate all the officials from Tripoli?

UNDER SECRETARY KENNEDY: I think the situation, the chaos in the streets, the gunfire at night, beginning in the last couple of days, even gunfire during the day, we will be – we will execute always due prudence when we engage in diplomatic activities. We’re there to represent the United States, we’re there to advance our economic interest, we’re there to assist and protect American citizens. But when the situation becomes significantly insecure, it is at that point prudent to continue our diplomatic activities with a country via other means.


QUESTION: Can I ask whether there is anybody left at that Embassy, any sort of security personnel or anything like that, and also whether there were any notifications provided to the Libyans prior to everybody leaving the country? I had heard there might have been something yesterday. I don’t know if that was true or not.

UNDER SECRETARY KENNEDY: There are – yes, we have – our locally engaged staff is still on duty at our compound.

QUESTION: Sorry, sir. What is that? I’m – for – in non-diplomatic speak, “locally engaged staff,” what do you mean?

UNDER SECRETARY KENNEDY: Our Libyan employees are still – were still – we did not break diplomatic relations. Our Libyan employees are still on the payroll and are still at the – working at the chancery.

QUESTION: Okay. And are there any sort of – any American security personnel?

UNDER SECRETARY KENNEDY: No, there are no – all American official employees were withdrawn today.

QUESTION: Okay. And then on the notification question, whether there was anything done yesterday?

MS. SANDERSON: Under Secretary Burns had a conversation with the Libyan foreign minister this morning, where Mr. Burns shared this information with him. And as I said, I’m going to be meeting with a representative of the Libyan Embassy this afternoon to formally give them the dip note – the diplomatic note.

QUESTION: The Libyan employees that are still working, are any of them security?

UNDER SECRETARY KENNEDY: Yes. I mean, we have both local, national security guards and employees – Libyan employees who work in other sections of the Embassy.

QUESTION: Okay. And then also, how – are you aware of any American citizens that are still in Libya trying to get out who have contacted you? I mean, at this point, are you saying that you’ve gotten out all the Americans who were there who needed help getting out?

UNDER SECRETARY KENNEDY: No, we can never say that. As you know, or maybe you don’t know, there is no requirement that an American citizen register at an embassy when he or she travels. We – it’s free travel. We certainly encourage American citizens to register at an embassy. And the multiple warning notices, the 10 that we put out in the – since the 15th of February, have encouraged individuals to register. But many of those individuals may have left on commercial flights, they may have left on flights – we know of at least one who left on a Dutch flight. A number of other Americans left on a British warship out of Benghazi. And so since we don’t have that kind of travel control on American citizens, I can’t say we started with X and these many left and these – and these many, therefore, are remaining behind.

But as we said earlier, if American citizens are in need of assistance, there is material that – how they can reach us, both via telephone and on the website.

QUESTION: And then if I could just ask you one more: Given how difficult it was – I know it was largely weather – but given how difficult it was to get Americans out of Libya, in retrospect, would you have ordered a departure earlier than you did, earlier than the 21st?

UNDER SECRETARY KENNEDY: No, I don’t believe so. The – we measured the situation on the ground very, very carefully. We consider our ability to continue to operate fully, and then as the situation deteriorates it is a multi-stage process. You first potentially go to an authorized departure for family members, and then you authorize the departure of non-emergency personnel. We jumped that step and went to the ordered departure of all family members and non-emergency personnel.

So we – each situation is calibrated against the political environment, the security environment, and U.S. national interest.

QUESTION: Thank you.

QUESTION: There has been some criticism because here we had this ferry that was stuck there for three days because of weather problems, and yet the British and some other countries, apparently, were able to evacuate their citizens while our American citizens were trapped aboard that ferry. So was this a case where we didn’t have the assets in place that we needed? Were we caught short, or what was the issue?

UNDER SECRETARY KENNEDY: No, I don’t think so. For example, a Canadian aircraft went in today and left empty because of the chaos at the airport. We sent the ferry in deliberately because we gauged, starting on Tuesday, that the situation at the airport was becoming sufficiently chaotic that we were worried about moving people through the airport.

Therefore, we decided to use another means of transportation, having excluded overland transportation to the West. We thought because the ferry terminal is a different location, it was a little bit easier to obtain space there. We had cooperation from the Government of Libya in doing that, so we put the ferry in with every intention of taking it out. The weather turned bad. I wouldn’t describe the people as trapped on the ferry boat.

This is not a ferry boat like the Staten Island Ferry. It is a – it’s a Mediterranean ferry with enclosed cabins, food, shelter, and restroom facilities. Would I have liked it to be able to sail that first day? Absolutely. When we send an evacuation ship in, we send it in to get people out. But the determination was made that the weather was unsafe, and so we decided to hold the ferry until the weather cleared.

QUESTION: Having grown up on Staten Island, I will bypass – (laughter) – the slander that you just committed. (Laughter.)

UNDER SECRETARY KENNEDY: Having lived in New York for four years, I’ve also traveled on the Staten Island Ferry.

QUESTION: But the RAF got in and out, didn’t they?

UNDER SECRETARY KENNEDY: The RAF got in and out and —

QUESTION: While other people were –

UNDER SECRETARY KENNEDY: And the Canadians got a plane in and were not able to get anyone loaded.

QUESTION: Hold on. All the Americans on the ferry are safe in Malta, right? Nothing bad happened to them while they were stuck for however many hours, right?


QUESTION: So – all right. I guess I just don’t understand what the problem is. Sorry, can I just ask – (laughter) – can I —

MR. CROWLEY: Without getting – without stepping on the Pentagon’s toes, we also had some military assets over the horizon that, if the situation was concerning in any way, we had options available. But as Pat said, we did get cooperation from every element of this operation except for the weather. And we did not feel at any time that the people on the ferry were in any other danger than anyone who was currently in Tripoli at the moment.

QUESTION: And can you just say when your coordination with military – the United States military and those assets began? If we can say that the crisis more or less erupted on February 15 –

MR. CROWLEY: Well, from the moment that we’ve had high-level meetings on the situation in Libya, the military has been fully involved in this process. So the coordination has been true of Egypt, true of Bahrain, true of Libya. And —

QUESTION: Tunisia?

MR. CROWLEY: Tunisia. So this is how we function as a government.

QUESTION: Can you pinpoint when it was that the decision to suspend operations was made? Was it yesterday, after Qadhafi’s rant?

MR. CROWLEY: Well, this is something that we have been evaluating —

QUESTION: Yeah. But at some point, someone had to sign off on something. When was that signoff?

MR. CROWLEY: Well, I think this had been the recommendation of these experts. But the real question was today was the day where all the pieces fell into place, where we were able to move the ferry out. We weren’t going to take this action as long as the ferry was there. We got permission today to bring in the charter.

QUESTION: I understand that. The triggers were the ferry and the plane leaving.

MR. CROWLEY: Correct.

QUESTION: I understand. When was the decision made that once those triggers were pulled, that those were going to be the triggers for the closure of the Embassy or the suspension of operations?

MR. CROWLEY: Well, I mean, that decision was made today, based on the fact that we could actually accomplish this.

QUESTION: Well, but you had to know at some point beforehand that you were going – you had to tell your diplomats who were remaining in Libya, get to this plane because we’re going to – we’re shutting you down.

MR. CROWLEY: But this has been something that has been a daily conversation throughout —

QUESTION: When was that decision made?

MR. CROWLEY: — throughout this —

QUESTION: When was the decision made for you to – for all those diplomats to show up at the airfield to get on this plane?


QUESTION: That was made this morning?

MR. CROWLEY: Well, we had put the plans in place before today, but we gave the decision to execute today.

QUESTION: I understand that. But when was the – are you trying to tell me that the decision to – the decision to shut down the Embassy was made when the White House announced it? No.


QUESTION: When was it made?

UNDER SECRETARY KENNEDY: The decision to shut down was made when we were sure that we could get all official Americans out and as many American citizens as we were able to assemble and transport.

QUESTION: Okay. When was that? Because if Bill Burns talked to Moussa Koussa this morning to tell him, obviously the decision was made before perhaps the plane even landed or perhaps the ferry even left.


QUESTION: So when was the decision made? Was it yesterday? Was it last night? Was it overnight? Was it –

UNDER SECRETARY KENNEDY: I don’t want to parse things, but I think we can say the decision was made yesterday that, should all the pieces fall into place, we would move today.

QUESTION: Okay. All right then.

UNDER SECRETARY KENNEDY: If the – if all the pieces hadn’t fallen into place today —

QUESTION: Understood.

UNDER SECRETARY KENNEDY: — we might have moved tomorrow.

QUESTION: Okay. Understood.

UNDER SECRETARY KENNEDY: Or, if the situation had all of the sudden reversed itself —

QUESTION: Right. It never would have been made.

UNDER SECRETARY KENNEDY: It never would have been made.

QUESTION: Right. I understand that.


QUESTION: You just answered my question.


QUESTION: But was that – but when – yesterday, when you decided that if all the pieces fell into place, was that after Qadhafi’s speech?

UNDER SECRETARY KENNEDY: I – thank you. (Laughter.) Actually, I don’t know. I don’t think – I don’t know that that was a factor. I think we were just – we looked at the totality of the situation and made the decision.

QUESTION: And who made the decision?

UNDER SECRETARY KENNEDY: Decisions like that are made by the – to withdraw personnel are made by the Secretary of State.

QUESTION: When do you expect to resume operations in the Embassy?

UNDER SECRETARY KENNEDY: When the – we would resume American operation at the Embassy when the security situation permits it.

QUESTION: Can I ask about remaining pockets of Americans who may be outside of Tripoli, for example, who may want to leave? I understand that there were some that had been identified at oil installations, for example, other parts of the country. Can you give us a sense of the size of those pockets and how they plan on leaving?

UNDER SECRETARY KENNEDY: We’ve been in contact – our task force, which has a heavy component from the Bureau of Consular Affairs Office of Citizen Services – were in contact with the oil company and other businesses. The Bureau of Diplomatic Security has the Overseas Security Advisory Council, which is also a part of this effort. So we’re in contact with the American companies we know to be there. And American companies we didn’t know to be there are in contact with us, and many of them are making arrangements to reach those pockets of individuals, some of whom have been – who were brought in to Tripoli and subsequently have left. Others were brought in to Benghazi, including a number of them who left on the – a British naval vessel late yesterday.

QUESTION: Okay, that – I just want to follow up real quickly. Just of the ones that are left, I mean, that we – can you give us a sense of how many you’re talking about, if it’s dozens, hundreds —

MS. SANDERSON: Well, perhaps if I could elaborate on that answer, we have a task force that’s worked very closely with similar task forces in capitals around the world, and between us and our friends, particularly in Europe, we’ve been able to sort of trade off, for want of a better term. So, actually, a number of the people in oil fields that we had identified over the last 96 hours have either moved and got on the charter today or, more likely, were evacuated out by their companies who get flights in, or by friendly nations who have offered us seats. According to the last thing the task force told me – and we can certainly check and make sure that’s correct – they believe that there are no significant pockets of Americans in the oil fields that we have identified. Let me be honest; there may be others out there that we have not been able to contact or that decide for whatever reason they would like to shelter in place for the time being. But to the best of our knowledge, the major groups of people that we were working about three to four days ago have now moved on, but we’re in the process of confirming that.

QUESTION: And how many were those? I mean, just to give us a sense.

MS. SANDERSON: I don’t remember how many. I think —

QUESTION: How many people are we talking about?

MS. SANDERSON: We heard – there were six here and there were four here and there were five here. We do know that at least two of the major oil companies were able to get their own charters in and did evacuations in the last 24 to 36 hours. So we’ll have to get back to you on that.


QUESTION: Do you have any sense of how many Americans have – I know this is a tough question – how many Americans have been evacuated, how many – is there any way – can we – we can couch how many Americans were –

UNDER SECRETARY KENNEDY: I think that we could say that there were about – about 200 private American citizens taken out by our means, but many other American citizens left commercially and left on company charters or on – via Dutch or British means, just as we – and sort of in a mutual assistance pact – brought out nationals of other nations as well, both on the ferry and on the chartered aircraft today.

QUESTION: I just want a clarification about the security. You said that there are no U.S. security people in place. What measures are being taken to secure communications, documents, et cetera, inside the Embassy?

UNDER SECRETARY KENNEDY: I’m not going to go into our processes on security, but I can assure you that there is nothing left behind that could be compromised.

QUESTION: And just one clarification on the locally employed staff. I mean, they’re still working – like the guards are still there, understood, but they’re not authorized to do any business of the U.S. Government with the Libyan Government, correct?

UNDER SECRETARY KENNEDY: Unless instructed by us.

QUESTION: And they’re not issuing visas or anything like that?


QUESTION: So, essentially, the Embassy is closed for business? I realize you don’t want to use the word “closed,” but it is closed.

UNDER SECRETARY KENNEDY: Operations are suspended, and those activities that only could be carried out by American personnel are suspended.

QUESTION: So, a spokesman at the White House used the word “shuttered.” Would you agree?

UNDER SECRETARY KENNEDY: Of course. (Laughter.)

QUESTION: Yeah. Hell, yeah.

MR. CROWLEY: The door is locked.

QUESTION: Did Secretary Clinton have to sign a document for this order to take effect? Or it was issued verbally, her order?

UNDER SECRETARY KENNEDY: She did not. She does not have to sign a document.

QUESTION: And has the Libyan Government said to you how it will deal with this Embassy right now? Have they given any assurances it will – that it will remain intact, untouched by them?

MS. SANDERSON: Under Secretary Burns had a very brief conversation with the foreign minister this morning, and we didn’t go into details on that. I’ll take the opportunity of my meeting this afternoon with the Libyan Embassy to put down some markers with regard to the maintenance and protection of our Embassy facilities.

QUESTION: Just on that, I mean, you said that you had not been notified of any change in the ambassador’s status.

MS. SANDERSON: That’s correct.

QUESTION: Well, he seems to have been doing his own notifying. Obviously – (laughter).

MS. SANDERSON: I don’t want to speak for the ambassador.

QUESTION: Maybe there was – but is it your understanding that he represents the Government of Libya, as led by Colonel Qadhafi?

MS. SANDERSON: We have nothing to the contrary at this point.

QUESTION: Well, I mean, if you could – if it is, in fact, true that he has resigned, as he says he has, you can tell him all you want that you want your Embassy to be protected, but it isn’t going to do anything.

MS. SANDERSON: That’s true. That’s true. But he hasn’t informed us that he’s resigned. So —

QUESTION: So you’re operating on the assumption that he’s still represents the government?

MS. SANDERSON: Until we have been told, either by him or by the Libyan Government, otherwise.

MR. CROWLEY: Thank you very much.

QUESTION: Thank you.

MS. SANDERSON: Thank you.