News You Missed Maybe, Even, Were Supposed To Miss

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In this post-9/11
world, the takeover of a United States embassy by foreign nationals
is the kind of thing you'd think you'd hear about — even of a
not-very-important embassy in a minor African country. You'd think.

So, why
haven't you heard that on April 22, 2004, the security guards
at the American embassy in Liberia mutinied and held the embassy
staff, including the ambassador, hostage until Pakistani soldiers
showed up to free them? You haven't heard it because nothing,
as far as GOOGLE can tell, ever appeared about it any place you
would have seen it. Not a single article in a magazine or newspaper.
Not a word on CNN or Fox or ABC or any of the others. Nothing
on the radio. Nary a rant by Limbaugh, or Sharpton, or Coulter
or Imus or Huffingpuffington.

In fact,
the only mention I could find that anything unusual happened at
all came from two short pieces on a website called The Perspective
devoted to goings-on in Liberia. The first, dated 23 April 2004,
was by one Josephus Moses Gray and, evidently, English is not
Mr Gray's mother tongue. The second was the press release put
out the next day by Christina Porche, the Public Information Officer
at our embassy in Monrovia who, presumably, uses English quite
clearly, at least in private. Clarity, however, does not seem
to be the point of her press release.

Mr Gray's
article is entitled Inter-Con Security Guards Stage Mutiny At
U.S. Embassy In Liberia, and is notably short on the sort of details
an American reader would like to know. It does tell us that the
mutiny started in the morning hours when "aggrieved"
security guards besieged the embassy compound and blocked the
main entrances

. . . in
protest for job benefits reportedly due them. Every Tuesday
and Thursday of a week are days set aside by the embassy for
applicants and other activities but the incident affected applicants
on Thursday.

What, exactly,
these missing job benefits were is difficult to winkle out, but
had something to do with the mutineers' not receiving "their
u2018just' benefits from their employer despite of their commitment
to duty." According to the guards:

. . . family
members of their colleagues who died on duty during the last
rebel war on Monrovia received benefits while they have been
left out.

They stated
that they work for eight hours-standing on their legs daily
without a break, adding: "we have not received our medical
and transportation benefits…"

You can read
the entire text at the Perspective, if you wish. But what,
exactly, happened at the embassy, or why, isn't going to become
much clearer.

To give Mr
Gray his due, initial dispatches from conflict zones are often
pretty confused. It's the follow-up reports you look to when you
want to know what really went on — which is where Madame' Porche's
press release should come in. But embassy press releases are government
documents, and searching for truth in government documents can
be like trying to find your way by the glow of a black hole. What
you hoped might illuminate the situation sucks light away. Here
is Madame Porche's press release (the spellings, punctuation and
prose style are jump-drived exactly as The Perspective
conveyed them):

Statement
On Inter-Com Strike
A Press Release Issued by the U.S. Embassy in Monrovia on April
23, 2004

The Perspective
Atlanta, Georgia
April 24, 2004

On the
morning of Thursday, April 22, 2004, some employees of Inter-Con
Security Services, Ltd., performed a work stoppage at the U.S.
Embassy Compound at Mamba Point near Monrovia. They temporarily
impeded access to and from the compound by Embassy employees
and visitors. The purpose of this action was to draw to the
attention of U.S. Embassy management to the fact that some Inter-Con
employees have grievances with Inter-Con’s management. These
aggrieved employees stated that they had no particular grievance
against U.S. Embassy personnel. The Inter-Con employees urged
Embassy management to intervene on their behalf in their grievances
with Inter-Con management.

Inter-Con
is a U.S.-based company, but is contracted to provide security
to the U.S. Embassy compound and other locations in Liberia.
It is not a U.S. government agency and its employees are not
U.S. government employees, but rather, private employees of
Inter-Con. Therefore, it is not appropriate for the U.S. Embassy
to intervene in a private labor/management dispute. Nonetheless,
Embassy officers attempted to mediate the dispute and listened
to the grievances of the few Inter-Con employees who organized
the work stoppage. It should be noted that not all Inter-Con
employees appeared to support the strike.

The vast
majority of Inter-Con employees have served the Embassy faithfully,
including during the assaults on Monrovia last summer, providing
the critical security necessary to keep our Embassy open. We
are grateful to them for this and therefore attempted to mediate.
However, we were unsuccessful in alleviating their concerns.
Their grievances appeared to be about bonuses that they felt
they were owed by Inter-Con for service during last summer and
Christmas bonuses.

When it
became obvious that a resolution was impossible, the Embassy
requested assistance from the Liberian National Police (LNP)
and UNMIL security in order to reestablish control over its
entryways and remove all protesting Inter-Con guards from the
compound. This was accomplished at approximately 4-p.m. local
time.

And that,
friend of liberty, is that. You are now familiar with the entire
body of written information available in America for civilian
consumption about the day the security guards mutinied at one
of our embassies. If you want to know more, you are going to have
to rely on word on mouth.

One of
the joys of living overseas is that you hear plenty of words from
a lot of mouths. Here in Gaborone, almost every American in an
official capacity knows other Americans in similar official capacities
in other countries. The Regional Security Officer has counterparts
at all our embassies around the world. They talk on the phone,
they e-mail one another, they get in touch by secure transmission
to exchange secret messages the rest of us aren't supposed to
know about and, sometimes, they meet in person and discuss security
matters along with whatever gossip pops into their heads. Ditto
the Chief of Mission at the CDC, the Post Commandant for the marines,
the Deputy Chief of Mission at the embassy, and whatever it is
they call the lady who runs USAID. Sometimes, some of them even
talk to unofficial me. Here, as close as I can make out from about
two degrees of separation from several different mouths, is what
happened in Liberia:

As part
of the great American legerdemain of pretending our government
really isn't as big as it really is, routine security duties at
our embassies are regularly contracted out to private firms. In
Monrovia in April, 2004, they were handled by an outfit called
Inter-Con which used Liberian nationals to do the actual guarding.

Embassy staff
reporting to work at about 7:30 on the morning of 22 April 2004
were intercepted by Inter-Con's security guards, told the embassy
had been taken over, and were herded into the chancellery. The
guards were armed, but only in the sense that Fred Flintstone
was armed. They carried clubs. The few embassy employees who allowed
that, no, they had better ways to spend their day than locked
in the chancellery were clubbed for their temerity, but not very
many and not very hard. This lockup is, apparently, what Madame
Porche was referring to when she mentioned that the guards "temporarily
impeded access to and from the compound by Embassy employees and
visitors."

One interesting
part of all this is that the embassy folks liked the guards. They
had worked with them, sometimes for years, and had developed some
real friendships. During the civil wars, the guards had lived
in squalid conditions in a camp across the street just so they
could get to the embassy and protect Americans lives.

The marines
more than liked the guards. The marines admired and respected
them. Guards had died fighting beside marines when the embassy
was attacked by one or the other of the ragtag armies roaming
around Monrovia. This is what Madame Porche refers to as "services
during last summer." The marines weren't about to turn their
M-16's on the guards after services like that, and went into lockup
along with the other Americans.

Another
interesting part is that there was nothing political about the
mutiny. Madame Porche was right. The whole thing was a job action,
albeit the sort of job action Old Joe Hill could have only dreamed
of. As a job action, it was aimed at Inter-Con, not at America.
And plenty of Americans at the embassy thought in their heart
of hearts that Inter-Con had it coming.

Now I don't
pretend to know what Inter-Con's true personnel policies were
in Monrovia in April of 2004, but I have heard some pretty Dickensian
stories. In fact, it was stories like Inter-Con's that caused
mill owners in Charles Dickens' time to pull handfuls of gold
from velvet pouches to send to the downtrodden in Africa.

I have
heard that Inter-Con security guards worked 365 days a year. None
of this frou-frou business of vacation or holidays, or time off
to attend the birth of your first child, or your wife's funeral
and, certainly, not to be sick. You miss a day at work, you are
fired. "Oh, just a touch of malaria," was a reply an
embassy staffer was likely to hear when he asked a guard why he
was shivering so violently in the one-hundred-and-five degree
heat.

Security
guards who'd put their lives on the line to defend Americans when
the embassy came under siege a few months earlier couldn't even
get the day off to stay home and die. So whatever the embassy
staff were thinking as the guards herded them into captivity,
it wasn't the same thoughts that would have been running through
their heads if they had been carried off by a mob of Iranian students
chanting, God is Great.

The ambassador
tried to talk the guards down, couldn't, and called for help.
By 4:00 in the afternoon, the embassy was filled with Pakistani
troops armed a lot better than Fred Flintstone and Barney Fife
put together, the security guards decided they had made their
point, the siege ended and the staff were home in time to tell
their families over supper, You won't believe what happened
at work today. That eight-and-a-half hours of foreign occupation
of our embassy seems to be what Madame Porche meant by a "work
stoppage."

The next
day, as far as I can tell, the guards were back on the job, staff
members greeted them cordially, bygones were bygones, Christina
Porche began to consider how she was going to frame her press
release, and no hard feelings all around.

As takeovers
of embassies go, Americans have seen worse. In fact the most damaging
thing to come out of the whole affair was the embarrassment suffered
by the Security Officer who saw his embassy occupied by guards
from the very guard-service he'd contracted to do the securing.
And by the American government who didn't want it getting around
— at least not back home — that in this day-and-age, our embassies
are still so easy.

It's
hard to know what to make of all this. In a world in which our
government seems to have a talent for overreacting, it's a relief
to learn that sometimes they don't. At a time when the news media
seem to be in a constant bay of hysteria, the relief comes doubled.
Still, the forcible takeover of a United States embassy by foreign
nationals, and you don't read one word about it until five years
later? And, then, only on a libertarian website? What's up with
that?

Whatever,
it mainlines directly into my fantasies about how the government,
the press, and plenty of big-wigs I don't even know about, work
hand in glove in glove in glove to make sure the rest of us only
hear what they want us to hear. Make of it what you want, but
the way this bit of news went nowhere for so long might be the
most suggestive part of the entire episode.

May
11, 2009

William
E. Merritt [send him mail]
is a sometimes novelist living in Gaborone. If you are offended
by what he has to say, you are welcome to pursue him through the
Botswana legal system.

A version
of this article first appeared in Liberty.

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