News You Missed Maybe, Even, Were Supposed To Miss

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

A version of this article first appeared in Liberty.