U.S. embassy security? Not in my experience

  • Article by: PAT FERGUSON HANSON
  • Updated: June 17, 2013 - 9:13 AM

When I served in the foreign service in Greece, I got the distinct sense of being expendable.

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A protester reacts as the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi is seen in flames during a protest by an armed group said to have been protesting a film being produced in the United States September 11, 2012. An American staff member of the U.S. consulate in the eastern Libyan city of Benghazi has died following fierce clashes at the compound, Libyan security sources said on Wednesday. Armed gunmen attacked the compound on Tuesday evening, clashing with Libyan security forces before the latter withdrew as they came under heavy fire. REUTERS/Esam Al-Fetori (LIBYA - Tags: POLITICS CIVIL UNREST TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY) ORG XMIT: EF13 ORG XMIT: MIN1209120838230329

 I was working as a young diplomat at the U.S. Embassy in Athens, Greece, in 1975 when CIA Station Chief Richard Welch was killed in front of his wife upon their return home from a staff Christmas party. I know firsthand something about security at our posts overseas, and I consider myself lucky to be alive.

Before he was murdered, Welch had been identified as a CIA employee in a local newspaper and was then hunted down by a notorious group of violent activists known as the 17th of November. (The group took its name from the date of a student uprising at the Greek Polytechnic University. The purpose of the uprising was to oppose the military junta that governed Greece for seven years.)

The same article stated that other CIA agents could be found among the junior officers in the cultural section of the embassy. There were just two of us; both of us served as assistant cultural attaches. Did we get increased security after Welch’s murder? Perhaps bodyguards? We did not. This led me to conclude that we were considered expendable.

One day, shortly after Welch was murdered, I took a nap after getting home from the office; I was scheduled to attend an official function for work that evening. My bedroom was in the back of the apartment I’d rented in the heart of Athens. Soon after I put my feet up, it sounded as if someone entered my apartment, walked down the hall toward my bedroom, then, for some reason, turned around and left. I immediately picked up the phone next to my bed and called embassy security to report what I’d heard, reminding the security guard that I had been identified, not by name but by position, as a CIA operative in the same newspaper article that had outed Richard Welch.

My heart was racing. My palms were sweating. I was scared to death. Still, I was duty-bound. I said that I would be leaving soon to work at an official event. I also said that I wanted a Marine guard at my apartment when I returned home at 10:30 p.m. I was assured there would be one. Was there? No, there was not! I was exhausted and went to bed.

About midnight, I was awakened by what sounded like footsteps on the roof of my top-floor apartment. One could descend or ascend a few stairs right outside my kitchen to enter or exit my apartment. Of course the door was locked, but one could easily unlock it by breaking the glass in the kitchen door. Again, I picked up the phone by my bed and called embassy security. Again, my heart was pounding. I was a nervous wreck, but I managed to express my fear and anger without raising my voice, as I didn’t want to risk alerting any intruders.

“This is Pat Ferguson,” I said. “I called earlier this evening about a suspected break-in. I then had to go out for the evening but was assured that there would be a Marine guard here when I returned home at 10:30. No one came! Now it sounds as if someone is on my roof! I’m afraid they will enter my apartment at any moment. Please send a Marine guard over here now!”

“Ma’am, you should call the police.”

“The Athens police? Really? That’s your response? I work for the embassy. I expect the embassy to protect me. You said you’d send a Marine guard. You didn’t. If something happens to me tonight, this is on you.”

The police were called. It took them a while to get there. It was pouring rain. They ran through my apartment and up on the roof before reporting back to me.

“There’s no one up there now, Ma’am,” said the police officer. “Perhaps it was just the rain you heard.” Oh, good, I thought — a patronizing police officer.

“It certainly didn’t sound like rain!” I said.

Could it have been? I suppose anything was possible. I do know that I was beside myself at this point. A colleague had been killed. I was definitely at risk. And I was not being afforded the protection that risk demanded. When embassy security weighed in again, it was with the promise to send someone out the next day to change my locks.

Did this happen? It did not! When I called to complain, I was told security had been detailed to the ambassador’s residence to replace his locks. Rank has its privileges, I thought. What was I? Just a lowly junior officer. Female at that. Probably hysterical.

For years after this happened, even when I was safely back home in Washington, I would bolt upright in my bed in the middle of the night, heart racing, palms sweating, perspiration drenching my nightgown, reliving what I’d gone through back in Athens. Now I can say I was probably experiencing post-traumatic stress disorder; back then I’d never heard of it.

What kind of protection was I afforded? I was told to vary my route to the office, which I did. But I still felt very vulnerable, especially since I walked to work. I was told to always look under my car before getting into it, in case someone had tried to wire it for explosion. That never happened to me, but it did happen to one of my colleagues in Athens. And a colleague in Thessaloniki, Greece, in the north of the country, had his office wired for firebombing. Because we had all learned to live cautiously, both wires were discovered before they could be tripped.

Serving in the diplomatic corps had become very risky. I can’t say that is the only reason I left the government. But after 10 years of serving with the U.S. Information Agency, which is now part of the State Department, I did return home to Minnesota. I ended my career teaching communications at the university level. Most days that felt like a safer place to be, except, for example, when Virginia Tech became a shooting ground. We all felt pretty vulnerable in academia for a while after that. Still, when I heard about the murder of Ambassador Chris Stevens and three of his colleagues in Benghazi, Libya, I wasn’t surprised, and I couldn’t help but think that but for the grace of God, there go I.

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Pat Ferguson Hanson lives in Stillwater. She retired from teaching at the University of Wisconsin-River Falls and is the author of three books, including a memoir titled “It Was Greek to Me.”

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