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US 'Mr. Fixit' details how to recover from a disaster like the Benghazi attack

Courtesy Joseph Melrose

Foreign Service veteran Joseph Melrose, who was coordinator for the State Department's post-Sept. 11 Task Force, on a recent trip to Iraq.

Joseph Melrose was for many years the State Department's emergency repairman, having been dispatched to help U.S. diplomatic facilities recover after terrorist attacks, assassinations or civil wars. He is now a professor of international relations and ambassador-in-residence at Ursinus College in Collegeville, Pa., his alma mater. 

Robert WindremRobert Windrem is senior investigative producer for NBC News.

Melrose was coordinator for the State Department's post-Sept. 11 Task Force and  headed the Emergency Support Team deployed to Nairobi, Kenya, after the U.S. Embassy bombings in the late 1990s. He also played roles in the reopening of the U.S. Embassy in Beirut after terrorist attacks there in 1983, as well as the evacuation of U.S. diplomatic personnel after an attack on the Karachi consulate.

Melrose spoke to NBC News about how a foreign mission can recover after a catastrophe like the attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya, last week, in which Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other consulate employees were killed:

For years, you were the State Department's Mr. Fixit, sent to help embassies begin operating again after a terrorist attack or after other hostile actions. What were some of the places you went, and what were the circumstances?

I suppose the two best-known situations are the bombing of our embassy in Beirut, Lebanon, in 1983 and the bombing of our embassy in Nairobi, Kenya, in 1998.  In both cases, there was significant loss of life, but although injured neither Ambassador (Reginald) Bartholomew in Beirut or Ambassador (Prudence) Bushnell were killed. The same day as our Nairobi embassy was bombed, our embassy in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, was also bombed but not as seriously damaged. 

In the Beirut situation, I went in as part of the assessment team and stayed behind to help reestablish embassy operations. In the Nairobi situation I led the Foreign Emergency Response Team which deployed to Kenya. In other situations, such as Freetown, Sierra Leone, which was emerging from a period of virtual civil war, I was already on the ground, and we were able to plan somewhat ahead.

What was the first thing you did when you got word that you were being sent in?

I grabbed some clothes and headed to the airport (Dulles in 1983 and Andrews AFB in 1998) while calling around trying to find out as much as I could about what had happened.

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What was the first thing you did when you hit the ground?

In Beirut, we arrived at night, so we went to the ambassador's residence and began collecting information. There was shooting that night, and in the morning we went to the embassy to assess the situation on the ground. In Nairobi, we arrived shortly before dawn and went directly to the embassy. 

The first priorities are to make sure that the injured are being cared for, other personnel are safe and to make sure that sensitive material and equipment are not further compromised.

Describe the team that would go in with you — their mission and what they would bring.

Our response to these disasters has evolved, and each one is a bit specific to the situation. In Beirut, it was a small group of State Department officials who went in by commercial aircraft. A State Department M.D., along with several others, met us at the airport and updated us on the injured. Since the situation in Beirut had been volatile for some time, additional security personnel were already on scene. and our main priority was making sure the injured were being taken care of and getting the embassy up and running. In Kenya, an interagency team assembled at Andrews and consisted of State Department personnel, including diplomatic security personnel, military personnel, FBI agents and a team from the Fairfax County (Va.) Urban Search and Rescue Unit, including a German shepherd dog. We also took some emergency medical supplies with us. 

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Is there a plan for reconstituting a diplomatic facility? Do you game it, rehearse it?

Yes, there is contingency planning for many possible situations. I assume today there are similar exercises to when I was a Foreign Service officer, but in general, exercises are held at the embassy level to prepare for a potential emergency. I have also participated in training exercises with the Marines, who would be sent to assist in hostile situations which require both additional security and possible evacuations of American personnel. We try our best to prepare for any potential emergency and have general guidelines (or) plans but often the situation on the ground dictates what we do, so there's a need for some flexibility.

How do you secure the embassy and conduct diplomacy during the period?

That would vary with the situation and in large part depends on the current state of relations with the host country, the presence of other embassies to work with and things like communications, the ability to move around and the general environment on the ground. Today, things are much easier than the '80s with technological advances like the Internet and cellphones making communications a lot easier.

What were the differences between reopening a diplomatic facility that had suffered a terrorist attack, like Nairobi, and reopening a facility that had been closed for years, like Freetown in Sierra Leone?

In Beirut and Nairobi, where I was deployed after the event, our embassy was functioning before the event, and our job was to re-establish secure operations at an alternate location and ensure its safety, so that our responsibilities to protect American citizens and carry out relations with the host country can continue.

Freetown, Sierra Leone, was still different. We suspended operations and evacuated the staff following the coup. In 1998, we reopened the embassy, and I was the ambassador assigned to resume operations in Freetown and arrived in November of 1998. The next several weeks saw a resurgence of rebel activity, and in December of that year the U.S. and the U.N. evacuated personnel shortly before the rebels entered the capital city. 

On Christmas Eve, the small American staff and I flew out after we had recommended that Americans and Canadians leave and offered assistance to do that. To protect sensitive information and equipment, we removed hard drives and other equipment and took it with us to Cote d'Ivoire, where we secured it at our embassy. I later went to Conakry, Guinea, where we along with the U.N. set up temporary operations flying in and out as possible until we could go back on a more permanent basis. When we did, it was easy to resume operations. Although the embassy building took a number of RPG hits, only three did major damage, and the building itself was not breached. 

In early 2000, rebels again took up arms, and we evacuated everybody except a security officer and myself, who remained behind until we felt it was safe to bring back the rest of the staff and the humanitarian aid workers.

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The major difference between the two situations is the human one. Looking for survivors, ensuring safety, treating the injured, repatriating remains and assessing the psychological trauma inflicted can be emotionally draining and is hard to preplan for. In an emergency response situation, short-term needs take precedence, because time is much more of in issue and things need to be taken care of immediately. But on the plus side, since the embassy was previously up and running, there is much more of a built-in support network to help with the task. 

What were some of the other diplomatic facilities where you were assigned in a crisis situation, and what were the issues you had to deal with in those locations?

When I was assigned to Damascus (1976-80) there were several demonstrations with large crowds in front of the embassy and objects' being thrown at the building. We took precautions, such as dispersing personnel and vehicles, but thankfully they were short-lived, and we were able to resume normal operations quickly. In most if not all of those situations, the demonstrations were organized by the government and did not generally represent the views of the average citizen.

I was also assigned as consul-general and principal officer in Karachi, Pakistan, when President Zia (ul-Haq) and the U.S. ambassador (Arnold Raphel) died in a plane crash, and later when we evacuated most of our personnel and U.S. private citizens at the beginning of the first Gulf War. I stayed in Karachi with a skeleton staff.

What was the most difficult task you faced and why? The most rewarding and why?

That is a hard question to answer — all of these events had different challenges. I guess what was most rewarding is the situation in Sierra Leone today, which has made substantial progress and is now providing personnel to U.N. peacekeeping operations. Secondly, the fact that except for the two bombings in Beirut and Nairobi, there was no loss of life and in those two, additional lives were not lost.

Did you have a deadline and a budget in each case, or were things open-ended, depending on what you found on arrival? Were you in direct contact with the secretary?

I don't remember ever having a deadline per se. Our goal was always to get the job done as quickly as possible. When I was assigned to missions where these kinds of events took place, we did have a budget but that was adjusted as necessary to deal with the event. In the Nairobi and Beirut situations, I did not have a budget and was always given the resources I needed. Resource implications were adjusted as we looked at the potential duration of the problem. For example, when we were out of Freetown, we stayed in a hotel. Had the situation persisted, we may have had to look for a more permanent solution there or another location.

In most of the situations I have referred, to I relied heavily on the undersecretaries for management and political affairs and the relevant assistant secretaries, although Secretary (of State Madeleine) Albright did visit Nairobi after the bombing and Freetown after we had reopened and the situation had stabilized.

In the traumatic aftermath of a terrorist attack, who would be the United States' best partner in reconstituting embassy operations — the host country, friendly nations' diplomats or other U.S. embassies in the region? Or was it a mix?

It is a mix, and it was dependent on the situation. In Sierra Leone, the host country was not in a position to do much, and the only significant diplomatic presence in Freetown besides the U.S. (were) the United Kingdom and the U.N. In Nairobi, the host country and the diplomatic community were in a much better position to assist, but in the end we have to rely heavily on ourselves.

What was it about you, your experience, your skill set that made you the person State turned to? Did you volunteer, or were you selected? Were there others like you? A task force?

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I am not sure how to answer. In the Beirut case, the position I held in the Middle East Bureau made me the logical choice. Later on, I guess it was the fact that I had dealt with these situations before … and survived. In the Kenya situation I was asked if I would go, and I said, "Sure." I guess I have volunteered to some extent by taking some of the posts I have held, but it's a bit of being in the wrong places at the wrong time enough that I became a bit of an expert.

In Libya, the ambassador was killed. How does that change things?

Each situation is looked at in its own right. Obviously, removing the person in the key leadership position changes things, but that is why State pays a great deal of attention to assigning people to the No. 2 position (deputy chief of mission) so that he or she can replace the chief of mission when needed as seamlessly as possible. In the case of my assignment to Karachi, Pakistan, I was asked to go because there was concern as to what could happen. When I agreed, the assignment that I then held was curtailed, and I left for Pakistan. I got to Karachi just a very short time before President Zia and the U.S. ambassador (Raphel) were killed in a plane crash. In the Pakistan case, a senior officer was dispatched from Washington to act as charge (d'affaires) given the importance of Pakistan with regard to the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan until things could be sorted out.

On 9/11, you were leaving Freetown to return to the U.S. What role did you have in the days and weeks afterwards? How did your experiences in the field help you in that job? 

I left Freetown on 9/11 shortly after the attack on the Twin Towers. We had heard about the attacks. When I got to Paris, U.S. air space had been closed, so I assisted the embassy there. There was a very moving makeshift memorial set up not far from the front of the embassy by Parisians. There were also a number of threats being called in to the Parisian authorities. 

I left Paris on one of the first flights out of Paris to the U.S., and the next day I was walking to State when I was stopped and asked if I would work on the task force. I was asked to chair the midnight-to-8 shift because they wanted somebody senior with both area experience and crisis experience so that they would not wake the principal unnecessarily. I do think my experience both in some of these situations abroad and dealing with others — such as the evacuation of Beirut — from Washington was extremely valuable.

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