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How to Handle a Crisis – Ambassador Edition

As part of its Ambassadorial Seminar, the Foreign Service Institute gives each of the participants a copy of “This Worked for Me,” a collection of insights and best practices from recent ambassadors (thus the first-person voice throughout) to assist newly minted ambassadors on how to effectively conduct relations with their host-country counterparts while motivating and leading embassy personnel. In this segment, a few nuggets of wisdom taken from the chapter on security and crisis management that even us non-ambassadors could use should the occasion arise (and we hope it never does).  Ambassador (ret.) Charles O. Cecil compiled and edited the contents of the most recent version of the book, which was first published in the mid-1960s, with the assistance of Deana Dennis under the auspices of ADST.  (At right is Ambassador James Sasser at Embassy Beijing during riots there.)

And for those of you who REALLY want to be prepared, there is DOD’s official CONPLAN 8888 to be used in the event of a Zombie Apocalypse (or as they call it “Counter-Zombie Dominance Operations”) and the CDC’s Preparations for a Zombie Pandemic.

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The Buck Stops with You.  I knew that I was the chief officer responsible for security at my post.  You must use all the resources at your command including the professionals.  You can never delegate away this responsibility for what happens.  In this day and age, you fail to pay full and complete attention to security at your own peril and that of your friends, colleagues and subordinates. I developed a system to stay fully current with the threat, using the professionals on my staff and teams we created to deal with it.  I used my convening authority and my leadership role to make sure there was full understanding of what was happening.  We planned for the contingencies and we practiced our plans.

Chain of Command.  I found it important, at least in the Third World countries where I served and where there was a risk of coups d’etat or dangers of one kind or another, always to make certain that an officer remained in the capital city and was clearly in charge when I was outside the capital.  In most cases there would be a DCM (deputy chief of mission) at post, so his/her stepping up to lead was unquestioned in case of a problem.

Post Orientation.   Quickly integrating new employees and family members into the official community is important for their sense of purpose, productivity, morale, and security.  This is especially true in countries whose cultures are significantly different from our own. To ease the integration of newcomers, I instituted a formal post orientation program for new employees (mandatory) and adult family members (encouraged).  Scheduled by the Community Liaison Office Coordinator (CLO), this two-day orientation program included an ambassadorial briefing on the host country and U.S. policy objectives; a briefing by the DCM on the U.S. mission and its various elements; a visit to every agency and section, with a substantive briefing by each agency head or section head (no substitutes); a visit to all U.S. Government facilities in the capital city; and a cross-cultural session with FSNs on living and working in Africa.

Crisis Management.  During a coup d’etat or similar violent crisis, it is important to keep your staff and their families apprised of events. Typically, staff members who are not directly involved in managing the crisis are sent home, if conditions permit, and instructed to “stand fast” with their families.  At the outset, this reduces stress, because staff members are not separated from their families and worried about their well-being.  As time goes on, however, these staff members and their families can feel isolated and in the dark, especially if they do not speak the local language or do not have access to reliable news broadcasts.  During a coup d’état several years ago, I used the embassy radio network to brief my staff twice a day.  I tended to tell them as much as possible over the open airwaves — a factual update, a basic analysis, and confirmation that we were in touch with Washington.  After things settled down, staff members expressed their appreciation for these briefings, noting how reassuring it was to know what was going on and, moreover, that someone was at the helm.

Be Decisive.  Probably the single most important trait I exhibited in leading my embassy through a major crisis was decisiveness.  Staff members asked me for decisions on issue after issue at what seemed like a rate of one a minute, and I used my best judgment and made them.  I also found that I delegated more than ever before, contrary to my tendency to be a hands-on manager knowledgeable about details.  Looking back, I cannot say that every decision was the right one but I am convinced it would have been far worse to be indecisive.  Leadership is what the staff looks for from the chief of mission, and it is even more important during a crisis.

Participate in Counseling.  Following a major terrorist crisis at my post, the Department and the Marine Corps helped us to provide group counseling sessions for Americans and (separately) for locally engaged staff.  It was very important to give people a chance to air their emotions, which were bottled-up while we were besieged and working 16-20 hours per day.  I recommend insisting that everyone attend.  One self-confident officer diminished the importance of such counseling at the time, but months later I found it necessary to ask that he depart from post because his erratic actions indicated he clearly was not coping with the stress he had been under.

In the immediate aftermath of a crisis involving deaths and serious injuries at my post, it was important to be cognizant of my critical role in dealing with employee morale (which is closely intertwined with employee performance). People had died in the terrorist attack, and I found that simultaneously it was necessary to be compassionate and sympathetic, to motivate and lift the morale of distraught staff, and to establish a way forward so U.S. Government operations in-country could recover. Finding the right balance is easier said than done. If one focuses excessively on returning to business-as-usual, one is considered heartless; if one continues to be very emotional about the tragic events that transpired, one impedes the progress toward reestablishing operations that Washington is looking for.

As one who has experienced a major terrorist attack abroad, I understand and appreciate how those who were present in the embassy at the time can never forget the horrible event.  If you are sent to a post at which a major event once took place, whether a terrorist attack or assassination or earthquake or whatever, be sensitive to the fact that many of the employees who were there at the time will not be able simply to “come to closure” and move on.  At the same time, many of those employees may not want to talk openly about it.  Be sure to take some soundings of locally engaged staff in advance of the anniversary date of the event to determine what kind of observance (such as a moment of silence), if any, would be appropriate.  A 15-year-old event may seem like ancient history to you, but it still lives with them.

Town Meetings.   We were very active users of exercises and town meetings.  There were two things we did in our town meetings that I thought paid dividends.  All of our town meetings on security were for both Americans and FSNS.  We never had only Americans, because if we ever got attacked it was everybody who was going to get attacked, and I felt that it was really important that the FSNs be treated as federal employees in that regard.  The other thing we did was to invite older children dependents–the 16, 17, 18-year olds–to the town meetings as well.  We felt that that helped them understand what was going on, and that they were then good story agents inside of their own communities back to kids.

Regular Meetings with FSNs.   In the Middle East where local passions run high and our FSNs (Foreign Service Nationals, now referred to as Locally Employed Staff or LES) feel both their own concerns and the pressure from their friends and family (over working for the Americans), it is particularly important for an ambassador to reach out to them in a way that communicates an understanding for both their feelings and their plight.  I decided that I should schedule regular town hall meetings for my FSNs.  The word “regular” is important.  I specifically did not want the FSNs to think that I met with them only when there was a problem.  In fact there usually was a problem but they understood that I met with them no matter what the background noise. (Read how important it was to communicate with Embassy Beijing LES after the U.S. accidentally bombed the Chinese embassy in Belgrade, which led to massive protests in Beijing, as well as recriminations against LES.)

Review the EAP.  I suggest you read the post Emergency Action Plan (EAP) before you leave Washington. Hold a review of it during your first month at post.  Keep one copy of the EAP checklist in your desk drawer and another copy in your briefcase (as well as a copy of the EAP in your residence safe).  Arrange with the DCM and RSO (Regional Security Officer) to hold a crisis exercise early after your arrival.  If security is a major issue, find a way to get regular oral or written messages to the entire American community.  It’s important that they feel you have an interest in their safety and welfare.

Civil unrest.  You may have time to prepare, but civil unrest–a coup attempt, riots, a military mutiny–can hit your post with no warning.   In any case, safety of the embassy community (employees and family members of all agencies) and of the larger U.S. community should be your first concern.  Other items will take a back seat.  Here are some observations from personal experience:

1)            Washington will be frantic for information at all hours.   You will want to be in frequent phone communications with your A/S (Assistant Secretary)  and DAS (Deputy Assistant Secretary). Other members of your mission can handle lower-level contacts.

2)            Phone calls and emails are no substitute for front-channel situation reports (sitreps).  Send them often.  They will become invaluable references.

3)            There will be press interest.  Establish the ground rules, clarify who talks to the press, and make sure that whoever does conveys the correct information. Send draft press guidance on the situation to the Department.  It will be appreciated and will probably be more useful than anything colleagues in PA  (Public Affairs) can write.

4)            Don’t get buried in details.   Leave yourself space and time to deal with the largest and most important issues.   You will want to be talking yourself to senior Washington and host country officials and with diplomatic colleagues.  Appoint someone, probably the DCM,  to be “operations chief” who can direct the work of the RSO, consular officer, political officer, etc.

5)            Watch out for rumors.  They can kill, if people take ill-judged action on the basis of rumors.  A rumor reported as fact can have far-reaching consequences. Your CLO, RSO, political officer, and agency heads are your “rumor control team.”  Make sure that correct information reaches all employees (including locally engaged staff), family members, and the American community.

6)            Meet often.   You may want to have a daily (or twice daily) huddle with your core staff members, who will depend on you to set tone and guidance.

7)            Watch out for signs of stress, which can come from overwork or a high level of tension. Stress can impair judgment, and undermine teamwork within your mission. Establish a shift system so people can get adequate food and rest.

8)            Take special care for the safety of those on the periphery – Peace Corps volunteers, other agency employees, locally engaged staff, international school personnel.

9)            If circumstances permit, an American employee should cover the embassy phone overnight to deal with incoming calls.   He or she should be able to keep a log and know how to answer or direct inquiries.

10)          Consider what will happen if evacuation or drawdown is necessary.  Establish immediate contact with the relevant military command (EUCOM, CENTCOM, etc.).   Remember, however, that you cannot second-guess the military’s chain of command.  To the extent possible deal though single points of contact, using both your DATT (Defense Attaché) and your political section.

11)          Turn off visits.   You do not need more people arriving in the middle of street battles.  (Go here to read about Ambassador Prudence Bushnell’s frustration in dealing with a wave of Washington “disaster tourists” after the Embassy Nairobi bombing.)

12)          Get the best advice you can, then make the decisions that are necessary.   Remember YOU are in charge and are responsible.  Don’t be afraid of being wrong.

13)          Afterwards, do a “lessons to be learned” session.   It will help your own mission identify areas for improvement and will be of use to Washington and to other missions facing similar events.


Prepare for evacuations when you arrive.  Prepare before it’s necessary.  We put a copy of evacuation travel orders in everyone’s personnel folder when they arrived.  We weren’t going to spend a lot of time doing the clerical things if we had to bug out of our post on short notice.  We also made sure everyone in the mission knew his status in the EAP evacuation lists.   This caused some angst among the agency and section heads, who felt that this would cause people to feel that they were considered to be unnecessary.  I felt that it was better to have that angst when we didn’t have a crisis than to have people discover upon evacuation that they were on one side or another.  I felt it is better to know what the plan is ahead of time, than to be worrying about it during a real emergency.  This is especially important for tandems with children, so planning can be undertaken for the evacuation of the children, either arranging for relatives to take them or appealing for one member of the tandem to be on the evacuation list.  This preparation also avoided spooking people if you’re in a situation that’s developing and all of a sudden you say we need travel orders.  This can create rumor mill problems.  If the orders are already in the folder, it’s done; you just retrieve them.  Even so, everyone acknowledged that the evacuation list was subject to change depending on the kind of emergency or disaster.

Drill Your Team.  It’s very important to exercise your security response system.  I had three exercises my first six months at post, two with the prior knowledge of the RSO and one without his knowledge.  This is important to ensure that the Marines know their proper responses, as well as others in the embassy.

One day, when I knew the RSO was away, I just walked down to Post One (at the main entrance of the embassy) and asked to speak to the Marine on duty.  I told him I had just seen someone climb over the back wall of the embassy with a long knife, a machete, in his belt.  I told the marine to do everything that needed doing except calling the local police. As a matter of fact, the guy froze.  He didn’t know what to do at first.  When he recovered his composure and realized where his checklists were, everything went wrong.  Two other Marine guards were downtown and there was no way to contact them.  The gunnery sergeant was off the compound, and had trouble getting back.  This flustered the Post One guy again.  The whole thing was very instructional.  One of our happiest moments later in my tour was when I pinned sergeant stripes on the Marine who had been on Post One that day.  The Gunny had worked with him over the following months, as well as the other members of the detachment, and shaped them into a cool, level-headed, experienced team through a series of drills.  We drilled for asylum seekers, for bomb threats, for anything we could think of.  You’ve got to do it. (Read about the extensive planning that went into the evacuation of the U.S. consulate at Can Tho during the fall of Saigon.)

It can be a colossal pain to “war game” a terrorist incident, but genuine, detailed and believable simulations are extremely useful. I was involved in one very serious terrorist event. By coincidence, the embassy had just run a full-day exercise which had played through something grotesque. That experience was invaluable in our response to the real thing, and though I had grumbled through the earlier simulation, I was dead wrong to have done so. The ambassador must also have the wider American community be conscious of his or her active involvement in security issues. American schools are particularly important, but also American military installations, American airlines, and American businesses. The warden system needs to be tested. The ambassador must frequently speak to American community leaders about security.

(And of course, all this preparation would also be relevant in case of the Zombie Apocalypse.)

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