State Dept. official a Sammies finalist for bringing stranded Americans home during pandemic

When the pandemic shut down worldwide travel, some 100,000 Americans were stranded in nations across the globe. Then the State Department's best stepped in.

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When the pandemic shut down worldwide travel, some 100,000 Americans were stranded in nations across the globe. It fell to our guest to pull together a multi-agency team to get them home. He and the team succeeded, and now he’s a finalist in this year’s Service to America Medals Program for his work. Acting Assistant Secretary of State for Consular Affairs Ian Brownlee spoke more to Federal Drive with Tom Temin.

Interview transcript:

Tom Temin: Mr. Brownlee, good to have you in.

Ian Brownlee: It’s a delight to be here.

Tom Temin: Well, where do you begin with this thing? How did the news get to you and what happened on that first day when suddenly it dawned on somebody that we’ve got these folks all around the world?

Ian Brownlee: Well, we’ve been following this story closely from the time we first learned about it in Wuhan and the Diamond Princess and stories like that. And we were advocating for the creation of a taskforce, and be careful what you ask for because one day the undersecretary for management came and asked me to head the thing one day in mid March of last year.

Tom Temin: So you must have brought some sort of experience in international logistics and nation knowledge to be able to head this up.

Ian Brownlee: I had worked a number of task forces over the years, the H1N1, SARS – some of those over the years. So yeah, I had experienced heading task forces. But this one was fundamentally different, because of course, COVID, we couldn’t do what we did in the past, which was pack lots of people from all the different agencies in one big room and eat lots of pizza working 24 hours a day, we had to do the whole thing remotely. So it was a unique experience in many senses.

Tom Temin: And what agencies were joining you in this effort?

Ian Brownlee: Well, we had multiple bureaus from across the State Department, the Bureau of Administration, the regional bureaus, the Economic and Business Bureau, that sort of thing, Diplomatic Security was in there. But also we had folks from FAA, CDC, HHS, DoD, various DHS components were in the room figuratively.

Tom Temin: Sure. And how did you discover where Americans were, and in what quantities? Because that seems like something fairly basic, but I imagine that’s a hard piece of information to pull together.

Ian Brownlee: Well, every post around the world puts together a report, within the government it’s the F-77. And it estimates how many US citizens are in a country who might need to be evacuated in the event of a crisis. Because US citizens aren’t required to register with us. It’s always a bit of an educated guess as to how many there are. So really, what we relied upon here was putting the word out and saying, do you need help? If so, get in touch with the local embassy, the local consulate. It really all started in Morocco, when we were given, I think it was 24 hours notice, that they were going to close their airspace. It was a prime time for tourism in Morocco. And we realized we needed, I forget now the exact numbers, either six or 12 flights to get people out of there before they got trapped there.

Tom Temin: Wow, so many questions. First of all, how many people did it end up being?

Ian Brownlee: Well, we say over 100,000. Frankly, I think it was well over 100,000. The effort went on for a very long time after it became an all hands effort.

Tom Temin: And what does it take, say in a nation that has shut down its airspace and its airline service? You still got to get them out of Morocco – what happens? Give us an example?.

Ian Brownlee: Well, I think Peru is a good example. Very early in the crisis, they had infection in their civil aviation organization in the civil side of the airport there in Lima, they shut the whole thing down. We went in, we took in experts, we helped them stand up effectively an air traffic control system. We helped them set up logistics spaces, places where they could do the immigration controls, the exit controls – that sort of thing. We took a hanger that belonged to the US government and turned it into the civil side of the airport. We helped the airlines who were coming in get landing permissions. All of that, it really was an across the government effort.

Tom Temin: And you had to negotiate a lot, I guess, with the other governments to get their people out. But on the other hand, they might have had people here that they wanted to get out of the United States.

Ian Brownlee: There was some of that. There were, for example, flights were going down to Peru in that exact case, going down empty – and if they could pull their people together and we can get them on the flights, we can send them home again that way.

Tom Temin: We’re speaking with Ian Brownlee, Acting Assistant Secretary of State for Consular Affairs, and a finalist in this year of Service to America Medals program. And what about the Air Force and military assets? They’re not in the airline business, in fact, they themselves dragoon the airlines when they have a high lift need for people. So how did that all work?

Ian Brownlee: Well, the military helped us in two very big senses. Where they were going out to a place to deliver supplies, deliver troops, whatever it is, and they do that routinely. They’re flying in and out of places all around the world. They offered a space on those aircraft, returning on that space a, space available basis. They also assisted us because we were chartering commercial aircraft to go into various places around the world. The State Department has a superb office for doing this, but they were stressed, they were strained – we were going beyond their capacity to do it. So we signed a memorandum of understanding with the Air Force with US TRANSCOM, and they helped us, they helped the Bureau of Administration in chartering aircraft so the DoD helped us in those two ways.

Tom Temin: So chartered aircraft then, the civil air facilities around the world were available even though the airlines were not operating.

Ian Brownlee: The airlines, they’re scheduled airlines took down their services almost uniformly. What we found was that there were small hungry carriers who are willing to go in on a one offer or fly on a charter basis to fly in somewhere, but they wouldn’t have had the necessary landing permissions, ground crews, etc. So we help them arrange all of that, making it possible for them to do those round trips.

Tom Temin: And is there any estimate of what this whole effort cost?

Ian Brownlee: I’m sure there is, but I don’t know what it was. I just know we were spending a lot of money very, very quickly. Congress was hoarding us asking us what do you need – we’ll take care of you.

Tom Temin: Yeah, we’ve got the printing presses, we’ll just send the dollars over. And what was it like day to day? I mean, it was this round the clock type of seven day effort for a period.

Ian Brownlee: Exactly. It was around the clock seven days a week for quite a long time. We had folks working 12 hour shifts, seven to seven. And so what we would do is we would gather 6:45am, 6:45pm, virtually, and do a shift change, a sink call, find out what had happened overnight, or what was going to likely to happen overnight. And then everybody came on, on you’d go.

Tom Temin: Well, in my mind always runs toward the stomach on 12 hour shifts. Did you have any authority to roll in a few pizzas at government expense or is that still a no no for you?

Ian Brownlee: Not a government expense, but that was the old days. In the old days, you’d have gathered everybody around the room. They weren’t in the room. But in the old days that a gather around a big long table with no computers and telephones. And it came to smell worse and worse as the taskforce went on and the pizza boxes piled up. Now people walked down to their kitchens.

Tom Temin: Yeah, I keep forgetting that. And what about the people coming in from overseas – what condition were they in? Were they generally well fed, well taken care of, touristy type of situation?

Ian Brownlee: There was a huge array of people. We had students, we had backpackers, we had retirees, we literally had people on cruises off Antarctica. So it was a whole variety of different sorts of people coming in under different conditions. I mean, sometimes those military flights would come in, they’d land – I remember one landed at a special forces base out in the piney woods of Louisiana, and our people, I think it was the the Atlanta passport agency, suddenly had to arrange for buses after the plane was in the air, had run out arranged for buses and hotel rooms for these people to make sure they had somewhere to go when they got off that big grey airplane.

Tom Temin: Yeah, that could be more remote in Louisiana than they were in Morocco or Peru.

Ian Brownlee: Exactly.

Tom Temin: And were there any special considerations for less than friendly nations like China or Russia – or do we have anybody in North Korea?

Ian Brownlee: We did not have any flights out of North Korea that I recall. China, we were pulling people out of there, of course the initial Wuhan folks back in mid January of last year. Russia, I don’t believe we ever had any charter flights out of there, I think commercial operations continued out of Russia right throughout. I know, we had conversations with the Cubans about what we could do to get people out of there, the Venezuelans, because the various restrictions on flights between Cuba and the United States or Venezuela and the United States. That requires some detailed negotiations by our Western Hemisphere Affairs Bureau.

Tom Temin: And when there are things like this that are not political, that are simply humanitarian, even with nations that we are not ordinarily friendly with – at the kind of diplomatic operating level, are things a little bit more ordinary?

Ian Brownlee: We can continue conversations with anybody about anything. It’s not to say we necessarily will be able to come to agreement, but we can make the point that these are human beings who need to get home. And sometimes it takes more talking than other times.

Tom Temin: So for you, was this a career highlight in terms of drama and effort?

Ian Brownlee: It was a career highlight in the sense of seeing just what a group of experts can do if you turn them loose. It was really gratifying to see the breadth and depth of expertise that exists in the federal workforce, and the degree of creativity that exists there. So faced with these unprecedented situations, faced with new demands coming in every day from every corner of the globe, what can people do – and they just pivoted, applied themselves, rose to the occasion and did a great, great job.

Tom Temin: Ian Brownlee is Acting Assistant Secretary of State for Consular Affairs, and a finalist in this year’s Service to America Medals program. Thanks so much for joining me.

Ian Brownlee: No, thank you very much. I’m delighted to be here and part of the team.

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