Moments in U.S. Diplomatic History

From the 1985 Achille Lauro Hijacking to the 2014 Ebola Crisis: Steven Browning’s Foreign Service Career


Steven Browning was a third-tour Foreign Service Officer in Alexandria, Egypt when he found himself in the midst of the U.S. response to the 1985 hijacking of the Achille Lauro oceanliner. Egyptian commandos rescued the ship from the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) terrorists who seized it, but “the Italians were involved, we were involved; everybody wanted a piece of these guys,” Browning recalled. It was a long way from Odessa, Texas, where Browning grew up, and his theology studies at Baylor University. Browning joined the Foreign Service in 1981 and went on to a distinguished career that took him from Egypt to Sri Lanka to the Dominican Republic to Iraq. He served as our Ambassador to Malawi and Uganda. At the end of his career, Browning was enjoying the relative quiet of service as Diplomat-in-Residence at the University of California-Berkeley when he was recalled to Washington to coordinate the State Department’s response to the Ebola crisis in West Africa. Ambassador Browning was interviewed by ADST’s Charles Stuart Kennedy in August 2016.

Read Ambassador Browning’s full oral history HERE.

For another account of the Achille Lauro hijacking click HERE.

Excerpts:
“Achille Lauro was hijacked two months after I arrived.”

PLO seizes an ocean liner: “Achille Lauro was hijacked two months after I arrived; that had a major effect on my tour [as Management Counselor in Alexandria, Egypt]. It left the port of Alexandria and was hijacked by the PLO and was brought back to Port Said. The situation was that the consul-general was not at post; I think she was at her father’s funeral. The number two was also not at post. That left me in charge; I was the acting consul-general. Third-tour officer! When this hijacking happened, you can just imagine. It was an Italian ship but had a lot of American tourists on it. At the time, we didn’t know about Mr. Klinghoffer. [The 69-year old Leon Klinghoffer, an American citizen, was murdered because he was Jewish, and thrown overboard by the hijackers.] . . . Nevertheless, we were very concerned about the Americans on board. The first week or so there was a tremendous scramble for information – [the] manifest and [the] passenger list . . . There was a big issue once the Egyptians got a hold of the hijackers. They did a fine job – there was no loss of life other than Mr. Klinghoffer – but that was before the Egyptian commandos got onto the ship. They captured these guys. The Italians were involved, we were involved; everybody wanted a piece of these guys. The Egyptians decided to fly them to Libya or maybe Tunisia. We didn’t like that so we sent up our planes to divert them – that upset everybody. It became a political mess, a very touchy issue that was all handled and managed by the folks at the embassy.”

“We need you more in Washington than Berkeley”

Coordinating State’s response the Ebola crisis: “I had thought I would
quietly do that until retirement, and then Ebola reared its ugly head. In the fall of 2014, the Ebola outbreak in West Africa got really serious and we had Ebola in the United States for the first time and there was panic everywhere . . . There were Ebola outbreaks in Uganda when I was there. It was really not as dramatic or dangerous of a concern there because what would typically happen is Ebola would present itself in a small, isolated village. The villagers wouldn’t know what was happening or what to do. They would infect each other. Everybody would die and that would be the end of it; it wouldn’t be transmitted widely because of the rural isolation . . .The State Department was on the front lines of the U.S. response efforts, trying to respond at a diplomatic level. The DG chimed in and said, “We need you more in Washington than Berkeley.” So I was reassigned to Washington and took over as the State Department’s Ebola response coordinator, trying to manage and direct all of the moving pieces involved.”

Drafted by: Diana Castillo

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