It happened to me: Diplomats recount stories of crisis and survival

(From Left to Right): The U.S. Embassy in Beirut, Lebanon, after a bomb attack in 1983; Marine Corps Sgt. Clayton Lonetree, convicted of espionage in 1987; hostages freed from Iran arrive in West Germany in 1981. (Photo Credits: Associated Press)

By Emily Kopp
Federal News Radio

Newly retired Foreign Service Officer Charles “Stu” Kennedy was listening to eulogies at an ambassador’s funeral. He was captivated by the stories of the man’s heroics during World War II.

“I thought, gee, these stories are lost to history,” Kennedy remembered. Then he had an idea.

Stu Kennedy/Courtesy of ADST

That was 1985.

Kennedy began sitting down with other diplomats, tape recorder in hand, usually for hours and sometimes for days.

He soon founded an oral histories program at the nonprofit Association for Diplomatic Studies and Training, which partners with the State Department’s Foreign Service Institute. It has now collected more than 2,400 first-person accounts of life as an American diplomat.

“The public thinks of diplomats as existing in marble halls, wearing striped pants and signing treaties. This is far from it. We’re in the middle of very difficult situations or very grubby work,” Kennedy said. “Our interviews deal much with plain, humdrum, everyday work of Americans — helping people get visas, getting Americans out of trouble and dealing with crises.”

At a time when the U.S. government is faced with crises both internal and external — from the health care scandal at the Veterans Affairs Department to the destabilization of Iraq — what can we learn from those who have found themselves in the middle of debacles and survived to tell the tale?

“We try to prevent crises. But crises, particularly in a foreign context, happen to us,” said Kennedy, who has survived the Vietnam War and two major earthquakes. “You deal with it one day at a time, but you also have to think ahead: What am I going to do?”

Diane Dillard picked up the pieces of the U.S. Embassy in Beirut, Lebanon, after a bomb attack in 1983 and reopened the consular section from her home. Ambassador Bill Brown pushed the State Department to increase accountability following a spy scandal in the former Soviet Union. And John Limbert survived the infamous 444-day Iran hostage crisis.

Together, the interviews Kennedy recorded of Dillard, Brown and Limbert illustrate diplomats’ struggles and responsibilities when representing the U.S. government in uncertain times.

Federal News Radio explores their stories in our new radio show, Federal Voices. In this edition, “Crisis Management, Diplomatically Speaking,” host Emily Kopp sits down with Kennedy to capture his story, as well as those of Dillard, Brown and Limbert.

Chapter 1: Restarting after the bombing of the U.S. Embassy in Beirut, Lebanon

It was Diane Dillard’s dog that saved her from the suicide bomber who blew up the American Embassy in Beirut, Lebanon, on April 18, 1983.

Diane Dillard/State Department photo from 1967, courtesy of the National Archives

Dillard, a consular officer, had gone home at lunch to walk the dog. From her apartment building, she heard what sounded like thunder. Peering from the window, she saw smoke coming from the embassy. She ran back to work.

She remembers the shock.

“We were supposed to be invulnerable,” she said.

Sixty-three people, including 17 Americans, died in the attack. It fell to Dillard, as a consular officer, to locate employees, identify the dead and arrange for the deceased Americans’ remains to be shipped home.

To distance herself from the horrors, Dillard learned to focus on the teeth as a means of identification.

“We weren’t talking about people but empty vessels,” she said. “That made it possible to work.”

Five of Dillard’s consular employees had been killed. Those remaining at work were distraught.

But in the chaos, the consular section, which takes care of routine matters such as visa applications, became the most critical part of the embassy. Dillard’s job was to reopen it, using any means possible.

“We didn’t have an office, so we did it from my home. I had to steal [from the embassy] a typewriter here, a chair there,” she said. “Nobody cared about anything in the embassy but the consular section at that point, so we had to operate it. We had to process as many people as we could and we had to do it every day,” she said. “That, I felt, was important for our foreign policy.”

Chapter 2: Plumbing the depths of a KGB spy scandal

In 1987, a Marine guarding the U.S. Embassy in Moscow was accused of spying for the KGB. Smitten with a female agent, he confessed to having given the KGB information that enabled it to bug the current embassy building and the one being built to replace it.

Congress accused the State Department of being naive, inept and wasting millions of dollars. Members who visited the embassy reported writing on magic slates, a children’s toy, so that no one could overhear their conversations.

Bill Brown, serving as ambassador to Thailand in 1988/State Department photo courtesy of the National Archives

In the face of political uproar, Secretary of State George Shultz called on his ambassador to Thailand to help manage the crisis. Bill Brown had served in Moscow during an earlier foreign service stint. Like Shultz, he was a former Marine.

Brown took leave to fly to Washington where he began uncovering evidence of a widespread problem.

“There [had] been quite a few cases in Moscow where Americans were blackmailed or suborned,” he said. “By no means just Marines, [but] senior foreign service officers. In some cases, ambassadors had been lured by the KGB.”

Senior State Department officials “were disinclined to accept responsibility,” Brown said. “Their attitude was, ‘That’s an embassy. You’ve got an ambassador over there. How can I be expected to accept any responsibility for the meanderings of some Marine?'”

Furthermore, Brown said, he got pushback from the military.

“Their attitude was, ‘We’ll handle our own. We have our own investigative service,'” he recalled. “It was grim stuff.”

Brown’s job was to serve the secretary of State. He learned his boss had limited options for disciplining staff. Agency regulations at the time prevented Shultz from outright firing employees.

“The most he could do was remove someone,” Brown said.

Today, Secretary of State John Kerry can fire career foreign service officers under certain conditions, but officers have the right to appeal.

“Reports of wrongdoing are fully investigated and, if substantiated, can result in disciplinary action, firing and/or referral to the Justice Department,” according to a State Department spokesperson.

When Brown told Shultz of his limitations, Brown said the secretary “turned crimson.”

Brown suggested that Shultz write “letters of regret” to publicly denounce the ambassador and other officials who had let the scandal happen on their watch. It’s unclear whether Shultz ever did so, but he had Brown pen a memo to all ambassadors making it clear that they would lose their jobs immediately if similar things happened again.

Brown read that memo to his staff after he returned to Thailand.

“What it [meant] is, henceforth, I may swing. But by God, you’ll swing with me,” he said.

The idea was that if one person failed, they all failed.

Clayton Lonetree, the Marine guard at the heart of the scandal, was court martialed. He was sentenced to 30 years in prison for giving classified information to the KGB. He was released in 1996 after serving just nine years.

Chapter 3: Waiting 444 days for a rescue

As Iranian militants stormed the gates of the U.S. embassy in Tehran, Foreign Service Officer John Limbert picked up the phone and dialed the Iranian prime minister’s office.

“They reassured us that help was on the way,” he said.

From inside the embassy’s chancery, he could hear the mob getting closer.

“After a while, I called back and said, ‘I don’t see any evidence of this. Tell me what you’re doing about this.’ It was 11 in the morning,” Limbert recalled. “‘They said, ‘We’ve scheduled a meeting for this afternoon.'”

“I hung up in disgust.”

John Limbert speaks with reporters in New York City in 1981/Photo: Associated Press

Limbert began destroying documents. The employees barricaded themselves behind a steel door on the second floor.

Eventually, the militants arrived.

As one of the few American staffers fluent in Persian, Limbert chose to go into the hallway to negotiate with the mob.

“I volunteered to talk to these guys and they were sort of shocked,” he said. “I was as overbearing as I could be. I said, ‘You have no business here. Get out as soon as you can. You’re causing trouble.’ But they weren’t having any of it.”

Instead, they took him hostage and threatened to shoot him if the embassy staff on the other side of the steel door did not open it. So they did. And everyone became a prisoner.

“I’ve always called this the low point of my foreign service career and my least-successful negotiation,” he said with a sheepish laugh.

The militants tied up, blindfolded and led the employees outside. Limbert remembers the cold rain and thinking it was good to be alive.

That was the first of 444 days in captivity.

At first, Limbert expected the U.S. government to stage a rescue.

“We were all grasping at that straw. ‘This doesn’t happen. Someone is going to straighten this out,'” he said.

He got only snippets of information from the outside world — BBC radio news here, a Time magazine there. He read an article about the Carter administration’s decision to let Iran’s fallen leader, the Shah, receive medical treatment in the United States.

“They quoted President [Jimmy] Carter as being opposed to it, but [agreeing] anyway,” Limbert recalled. “And when he agreed, he said, ‘What are you going to advise me to do when our embassy is overrun and our people are taken hostage?’ You can imagine what that made me feel like,” Limbert said.

Limbert remembered being moved around to homes of people who had fled Iran. At times, he played mind games with his captors, telling them they were being bad Muslims for stealing or praying in someone else’s home without an invitation. Occasionally, he received packages from abroad.

“I got a care package from my family and there were some books in it. They were things like ‘War and Peace’ and ‘Middlemarch.’ Average length: 1,100 pages,” he said. “I remember thinking, someone is trying to tell me something.”

In late 1980, Limbert recalled, the hostages seemed to become less important to their captors. The Iranians were more concerned about the growing conflict with neighboring Iraq. Carter had lost the presidential election to Ronald Reagan.

Around Christmastime, Limbert said, Swiss and Algerian diplomats visited the hostages. Discreetly, they set the wheels in motion for a rescue. A month later, on the day of Ronald Reagan’s inauguration, Limbert heard guns going off in Tehran.

It was a salute. The captors told the hostages to pack up.

“I ended up riding in the bathroom of a bus,” he said. “I didn’t mind.”

Epilogue: Crisis management?

“[Limbert’s] experiences as a hostage did not — to use rather crass terms — break him,” said Kennedy. “But he was, probably, a much more influential officer than before.”

Diane Dillard too, Kennedy said, proved her merit in Lebanon and continued with the foreign service.

Traumatic as these episodes might be, they were just that to Limbert, Brown and Dillard — episodes in long careers abroad. Brown, already an ambassador, continued in executive roles, including as ambassador to Israel in the early 1990s. Dillard steadily climbed the consular ranks, becoming deputy assistant secretary for consular affairs at about the same time. Limbert specialized in Africa and the Middle East. He eventually became ambassador to Mauritania and charge d’affaires to Sudan before retiring in 2006.

John Limbert and former ABC "Nightline" host Ted Koppel in 2010/ADST

“People who are in the foreign service are up against all sorts of situations: natural things, wars, famines, earthquakes, floods, terrorism,” Kennedy said. “These situations haven’t gotten easier. They’ve probably gotten worse and they’re going to continue. The people who are dealing with this are up against very difficult times, and they deal with them very well.”

And that’s probably the biggest takeaway from these stories.

“You don’t really manage crises,” said Kennedy.

You survive them.

Kennedy, now 86, continues to record interviews with U.S. diplomats. In June, the American Foreign Service Association honored him with its Award for Lifetime Contributions to American Diplomacy. You can read excerpts from the audio files at

The radio show accompanying this article was hosted and produced by Emily Kopp. Federal News Radio’s Ciera Crawford and Lisa Wolfe also contributed.