The Cable

Is Yemen the New Benghazi?

Depending on who you believe, the evacuation of the U.S. Embassy in Yemen last week was either a frantic exodus that exposed sensitive U.S. secrets or an orderly departure reflecting a “high level of professionalism.”

SANAA, YEMEN:  Yemeni children stand in front of the United States embassy in Sanaa 15 January 2002. The embassy suspended consular services yesterday after receiving "terrorist threats" that a senior US official said were related to Osama bin Laden's al-Qaeda network, according to the State Department. (Film) AFP PHOTO/Khaled FAZAA (Photo credit should read KHALED FAZAA/AFP/Getty Images)
SANAA, YEMEN: Yemeni children stand in front of the United States embassy in Sanaa 15 January 2002. The embassy suspended consular services yesterday after receiving "terrorist threats" that a senior US official said were related to Osama bin Laden's al-Qaeda network, according to the State Department. (Film) AFP PHOTO/Khaled FAZAA (Photo credit should read KHALED FAZAA/AFP/Getty Images)

Depending on who you believe, the evacuation of the U.S. Embassy in Yemen last week was either a frantic exodus that exposed sensitive U.S. secrets or an orderly departure reflecting a “high level of professionalism.”

Those are the two narratives emerging after a Fox News story published on Wednesday accused the administration of exposing “sensitive information” by failing to shut down the embassy’s main communication link with Washington before exiting the compound.

On Friday, a State Department official told Foreign Policy that the report is “erroneous and grossly exaggerated.”

Citing internal emails, the Fox News report described “panic” inside the embassy as U.S. officials made a “hasty” exit on Feb. 11. It also claimed that U.S. officials evacuated without shutting down a declassified email and data system known as OpenNet.

OpenNet, used by a wide swath of State Department employees, is the portal that rank and file use to surf the web, check email or scan their Facebook newsfeed: It does not contain classified information, but does host some internal communications.

The report cited former military intelligence officer Tony Shaffer, who raised concerns about how terrorists could use OpenNet against the United States. “If they are able to exploit it, that is, say break it open and potentially analyze it and categorize it, this will give them a great deal of information about how U.S. embassies function,” he said.

The report gained wide pickup on conservative websites such as the Breitbart, Newsmax and the Washington Times.

On Wednesday, John Bolton, the former ambassador to the United Nations, who is considering a run for the presidency in 2016, said he was “stunned at the kind of chaos we saw” in the report. “I think she’s uncovered a real problem,” he said, referring to Fox News reporter Catherine Herridge.

The only problem, according to a State Department official, is that the U.S. did cut off the link during a calm and orderly evacuation — and no information was put at risk. “Our messaging systems as well as the exchange servers on the OpenNet system were cut as part of the evacuation procedure,” said the official. “All classified information was secured and/or destroyed.”

The official noted that the State Department currently has Yemeni security forces guarding the exterior of the embassy and hired local security forces standing guard inside the compound. In contrast with the report, he also described the departure environment as calm and orderly.

“There was no sense of panic before or during the departure,” the official added. “The departure was handled in a seasoned and deliberate way, reflecting the high level of professionalism of the diplomatic, military, and other personnel assigned to Sanaa.”

Fox News did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

John Hudson is a senior reporter at Foreign Policy, where he covers diplomacy and national security issues in Washington. He has reported from several geopolitical hotspots, including Ukraine, Pakistan, Malaysia, China, and Georgia. Prior to joining FP, John covered politics and global affairs for the Atlantic magazine’s news blog, the Atlantic Wire. In 2008, he covered the August war between Russia and Georgia from Tbilisi and the breakaway region of Abkhazia. He has appeared on CNN, MSNBC, BBC, C-SPAN, Fox News radio, Al Jazeera, and other broadcast outlets. He has been with the magazine since 2013. @john_hudson

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