- By Shane Harris
Shane Harris is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy, covering intelligence and cyber security. He is the author of The Watchers: The Rise of America's Surveillance State, which chronicles the creation of a vast national security apparatus and the rise of surveillance in America. The Watchers won the New York Public Library’s Helen Bernstein Book Award for Excellence in Journalism, and the Economist named it one of the best books of 2010. Shane is the winner of the Gerald R. Ford Prize for Distinguished Reporting on National Defense. He has four times been named a finalist for the Livingston Awards for Young Journalists, which honor the best journalists in America under the age of 35. Prior to joining Foreign Policy, he was the senior writer for The Washingtonian and a staff correspondent at National Journal.
The day before he returned to Benghazi after a nine-month absence, Chris Stevens was brooding. The U.S. ambassador to Libya had just finished reading The Troubled Man, the 10th and final novel in Swedish crime writer Henning Mankell’s series about a sullen police detective named Kurt Wallander. Stevens was unnerved by the downward spiral of the 60-year-old investigator, who dives headlong into his work to distract him from the blank walls of his life closing in around him.
"He’s divorced, lives alone with his dog, and slowly descends into Alzheimer’s," Stevens wrote in his journal on Sept. 9, 2012. "I’m only 8 years away from 60 — I need to avoid such an ending!"
Stevens hadn’t been sleeping well. "The usual bundle of worries — family, bachelorhood, embassy and work-related issues.… Too many things going on, everyone wants to bend my ear. Need to pull above the fray."
But then, at the end of a day beset by anxieties, Stevens wrote a hopeful note: "Benghazi and friends tomorrow — something to look forward to."
Lost in the debate and warring conspiracy theories about the attack that took the life of Stevens and three others at the U.S. mission in Benghazi last September has been a fuller sense of the man at the center of the story. ("Chris never would have accepted was the idea that his death would be used for political purposes," his father wrote in an op-ed Wednesday.) Stevens’s colleagues in the Foreign Service regarded him as one of the hardest-working and most thoughtful diplomats of his generation. "A rising star" in the annals of American diplomacy, said Wendy Chamberlin, the former U.S. ambassador to Pakistan and the president of the Middle East Institute. Joel Rubin, the director of policy and government affairs at the Ploughshares Fund, who met Stevens when Stevens served as a congressional fellow, recalled in a blog post that "he wasn’t partisan; he worked across the aisle; he was professional and kind. And above all, he was friendly."
Until now, the testaments of Stevens’s friends and colleagues have stood in for him. But his personal journal, portions of which were published this morning by the military website SOFREP.com, reveal an unvarnished, touching self-portrait. Electronic copies of the seven-page document have been circulating in diplomatic and media circles since shortly after the attack on the Benghazi mission. At the request of Stevens’s family, however, Foreign Policy and other publications declined to discuss the journal in detail. However, in the wake of the decision of SOFREP to publish the diary, Foreign Policy felt it important to focus attention on those parts of the now-public diary that offer new insights into the personal side of the diplomat who sacrificed so much in the course of doing a job he clearly loved. We note however, we cannot verify the contents of the diary. While Foreign Policy could not independently verify the document’s authenticity, the diary entries closely match public accounts of events in Libya during September 2012.
In the diary, Stevens appears as a man in love with his globe-trotting existence and devoted to the people he met in some of the world’s toughest neighborhoods, yet fearful that his chosen profession might preclude any semblance of a normal, settled-down life. But it was the work that kept Stevens going. The thought of returning to Libya’s second-largest city, the tenuous cradle of a nascent, post-dictatorship democracy, buoyed Stevens’s spirits. He had grown attached to Benghazi. "Much stronger emotional connection to this place — the people but also the smaller town feel and the moist air and green and spacious compound."
Stevens was clear-eyed about the dangers that awaited him. "Security vacuum. Militias are power on the ground," he wrote on Sept. 6. "Dicey conditions, including car bombs, attacks on consulate, British embassy, and our own people. Islamist ‘hit list’ in Benghazi. Me targeted on a pro-Q [Qaeda? Qaddafi?] website (no more off-compound jogging)."
Yet Stevens was hopeful. A month earlier, Libya’s transitional government had handed power to an elected national congress. Democracy was sprouting. "People want it. Leadership is largely honest and intelligent, if lacking in experience."
Before returning to the fray, Stevens had taken a European sojourn. First to Stockholm for a friend’s wedding — "white tie and tails," "boisterous dinner for 100 with 13 toasts, a few of which were clunkers. Dancing until 2 am." He visited with a pair of longtime Swedish friends, reconnected with another friend in town from Jerusalem, went running in the rain.
Then it was off to Vienna, for a brief two-day visit. He met up with friends for dinner, and the next day he visited a history museum and enjoyed a sunny lunch in the city’s famous Naschmarkt, where he ate schnitzel and drank beer. Stevens spent the rest of the afternoon reading The Troubled Man in bed in his hotel room.
Stevens seemed as at home in the great cities of Europe as in the beleaguered streets of Benghazi, where he hit the ground running on Sept. 10. On his first day back, the ambassador met 20 local council members and the mayor at the El Fadeel Hotel. "They’re an impressive and sincere group of professionals — proud of their service on committees, all working as volunteers." They too had bent Stevens’s ear. "There was a little sourness about why it had taken so long to get to Benghazi, and about ambassadors who came to talk but didn’t do anything to follow up. But overall it was a positive meeting."
That night, he attended a dinner party with Adel Jalu, "hotelier and caterer extraordinaire" from an oasis city in the northeast, whom Stevens appears to have known from previous trips. The guests exchanged "some heated words" about the Muslim Brotherhood. There’s no indication that Stevens did anything but listen, ever the diplomat.
The next day, Stevens met with an appellate court judge, a shipping company owner, a Turkish diplomat, and a political analyst. The journal offers no details of what was discussed. And Stevens’s now jampacked schedule crowded out any gloomy musings about his life and loneliness. But the precariousness of his physical situation was never lost on him.
Stevens’s final entry in his diary, dated Sept. 11, reads: "Never ending security threats…"
The compound was attacked later that night.