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Former CIA analyst talks about escaping war-torn Libya - transcript

In this episode of "Intelligence Matters DECLASSIFIED: Spy Stories from the Officers Who Were There," host Michael Morell interviews Sarah Carlson, former CIA targeting analyst and author of "In the Dark of War: A CIA Officer's Inside Account of the U.S. Evacuation from Libya." Carlson recounts the harrowing 2014 decision to remove U.S. personnel from war-torn Libya, which included numerous tense negotiations with local militia leaders and the movement of a multi-vehicle convoy from Tripoli to Tunis — and, in the end, may have saved over a hundred American lives. Intelligence Matters DECLASSIFIED is new series dedicated to featuring first-hand accounts from former intelligence officers. 

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  • The first rocket attacks: "I remember I was still in bed and the barrage of rockets came in and we weren't sure – I had no idea if we were being targeted, if if those rockets were meant to hit our compound or not. They were close. I could hear them. It shook the windows and, you know, I jumped out of bed, grabbed my shoes, grabbed my iPad, my Glock, ran down to the bunker. I remember sitting in this tight bunker listening for any hint of additional rocket attacks."
  • On the importance of trust: "I knew every single one of those security officers would die to keep me safe. And I knew that they felt the same way about me and that I would do that for them as well."
  • The importance of faith: "I should have, you know, been constantly terrified. But again, I was just so focused on what I was doing that I really wasn't able to feel it. That came later. It did come, but it came later. And I just think having that sense of purpose and that integrity – I'd like to think that I was there for a reason. And it took a long time to be able to realize, you know, that ultimately, I helped save the lives of one hundred and fifty people. And maybe that's why I was there."

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Sarah Carlson, former CIA Targeting Analyst and author of "In the Dark of War: A CIA Officer's Inside Account of the U.S. Evacuation from Libya."

Intelligence Matters Declassified - Transcript

MICHAEL MORELL: Sarah, welcome to Intelligence Matters. It is great to have you on our show. And it's great to have you on as part of our series on spy stories. I should mention that you've actually chronicled the story that we're going to talk about in a book that just came out yesterday, was just published yesterday, and it is titled In the Dark of War. And it's a book, I think, that everybody is going to want to read because it is absolutely terrific. So great to have you on the show. Thank you so much for joining us.

SARAH CARLSON: Thank you. I'm really happy to be here right now and appreciate the invitation.

MICHAEL MORELL: So, Sarah, I think the place to start is actually with you, yourself, kind of briefly. How did you end up at CIA and how did you end up doing counterterrorism at CIA?

SARAH CARLSON: So I was an intern in college, actually for emergency management, and 9/11 happened my senior year while I was interning. So I had a chance to respond to those terrorist attacks in a different capacity back then. But at the time, I knew I wanted to do something more, something at the national level.

So I applied to the Defense Intelligence Agency and was recruited by them. So I actually started with DIA and I worked for them for about five years before I went to CIA. But I did counterterrorism the whole time, so, I think I have about twelve and a half years total, and it was all counterterrorism. And I did, I really wanted to work counterterrorism because of the 9/11 attacks. It was something I developed a passion for. I was really dedicated and this sort of sense of protecting our country and our families –  that was really important to me.

MICHAEL MORELL: And then how did you end up working full time in Libya?

SARAH CARLSON: So I applied for the analyst position there in 2012, shortly before the Benghazi attacks. So they happened after I was already selected and slated to go there. And I was in language training at the time; I decided that I still wanted to go, that it was really important to find out as much information as we could on the group and what they might be planning next. So, I finished the language training and then I got to Tripoli in July of 2013 and I knew counter-terrorism was going to be a big focus there because of the Benghazi attacks, but also the reason I had applied was because in the document exploitation we found during the raid against Osama bin Laden, we actually found some information that they were interested in using Libya as a base of operations to conduct attacks against Europe. So I knew that was going to be a major focus and that was really the impetus behind my decision to apply.

MICHAEL MORELL: So you get there in the summer of 2013. You're supposed to stay for a year. What's your job, day in and day out? What is a typical day? What did a typical day look like for you in Tripoli?

SARAH CARLSON: A typical day for me was starting very early, so I woke pretty early in the morning to be one of the first people into the office. I was really dedicated to finding out as much as I could, and being that subject matter expert on Libya and everything that was happening in the country. My boss at the time used to find me at some point every morning and ask me, you know, 'What's going on in Libya today?' And I needed to have a ready answer to that question. So, literally from the time I got up in the morning until I went to bed at night I was reading intelligence reports or giving briefings or, you know, skimming social media pages. So I actually spent a lot of a lot more time, I think, than people would expect looking at things like Twitter.

I would go through and look for information usually posted first in Arabic and then later in English. So I'd just skim the Arabic for any of that tactical level thing that we might need to know for security operations for the day. So I'd review that first. And so we keep an eye on it throughout the day. And then, of course, once a week I would do the intelligence briefing for the ambassador and the country team. So a lot of my day was focused around that briefing and getting getting that ready.

MICHAEL MORELL: So tell us – one of the one of the great stories in the book is about a bonfire that you all had on the night of September 11th, 2013. Can you tell us about that?

SARAH CARLSON: That was the one-year anniversary of the attacks and there were the attacks on Benghazi. Yes, the I'm sorry, the attacks on Benghazi. So that night, I mean, it was it was September, so it's still quite warm in Libya. But we had a bonfire and all sat around. Several people who had been in Benghazi that night were still in Tripoli at that time, including the team leader of the security officers. So he said some words about the attacks and what happened. And we listened to 'Amazing Grace.' And I think it was a really good time for people to reflect on what happened and really kind of dedicate ourselves to making sure it didn't happen again. 

We had stars that we had engraved in and put on the wall in the in the compound facility. And it was really important that we remember our colleagues that night.

MICHAEL MORELL: Just to remind the listeners: there were four Americans killed in Benghazi that night. Two State Department officers and two CIA officers.

So, Sarah, what did the threat landscape look like when you arrived in Tripoli in the summer of 2013? And how did it evolve over the year?

SARAH CARLSON: I think throughout the year, it certainly became more hostile. When I arrived in 2013, we had a bit more sympathy towards us, especially after the attacks in Benghazi. I think the local Libyans understood why we were there, they wanted our help. There was a lot of outreach to us. And I was monitoring the terrorist group that was a main focus. But I was also monitoring the stability of the country and a large focus of that was on the militias. So the militias were actually really a huge concern because a lot of them sort of had antipathy towards each other and had been at odds during the Arab Spring and the revolution. And so that was a really big part of what I did there, is monitor what those militias were doing.

And as we progressed through the year, the divide between them deepened significantly. Throughout the year, it ended up sort of evolving into two pretty distinct sides. And then those sides, once they were at odds, that's when the civil war started. So in the beginning, there wasn't really one group that could take and hold power; so they could probably take power, but there was enough of a balance that the other sides wouldn't let them. There was more than just one opposing force. But once that really became entrenched, that's when things really shifted.

MICHAEL MORELL: So, Sarah, essentially the civil war is closing in on you, correct? Is closing in on Tripoli as the year goes on.

SARAH CARLSON: Yes, it was closing in on us, the one of the militias that played a key role in the civil war, we were on their land, so we were actually contracting with them to provide our outer security. So their relationship with the other militias and their relationship with the terrorist groups was a major focus of mine. I didn't believe at the time that they sympathized with the terrorists, but we were still really concerned that Ansar al-Sharia, the group that conducted the Benghazi attacks, would use some of that conflict as cover to come and attack us. And that was something that was constantly on our minds, is preventing another attack like that.

MICHAEL MORELL: And actually, in the spring of 2014, you and your colleagues found yourself under rocket attack. What happened and what was that like?

SARAH CARLSON: This is the first use of rockets since the revolution –  and it was not expected. I remember I was still in bed and the barrage of rockets came in and we weren't sure – I had no idea if we were being targeted, if if those rockets were meant to hit our compound or not. They were close. I could hear them. It shook the windows and, you know, I jumped out of bed, grabbed my shoes, grabbed my iPad, my Glock, ran down to the bunker. I remember sitting in this tight bunker listening for any hint of additional rocket attacks. 

The Code Red call went out and then we were just skimming through the social media pages until we could try to figure out what was going on. We were making calls, trying to figure out where they hit, if they were being – again, if they were being directed at us. We were able to find out where they landed and still think they were probably being fired at one of the Zintan compounds – so that was the tribe of the militia on the land on which we sat. So we think that was the first attack against that militia, it's just that the compound happened to be really close to where their compound was.

MICHAEL MORELL: So Washington's first response to the rising threat situation in Tripoli was something called a 'partial drawdown.' Tell folks what that means, Sarah. And tell folks why you were not part of that.

SARAH CARLSON: The partial drawdown came in May after another round of rockets hit. So the one in April was the first time, and then it happened again the next month. So the partial drawdown means that the nonessential personnel were sent back home. So I know that probably sounds weird because everybody in a war zone type situation would be essential. But anyone who is sort of getting close to the end of their assignment or who could do the bulk of their work back in D.C., they were sent back.

So I was not, I was designated emergency-essential. My boss and the ambassador wanted me to stay and provide the intelligence briefings, so I ended up briefing almost every day. So at first it had been primarily one briefing a week for the ambassador and I realized there was a gap, and that we needed to be providing that information to the Marines that were on our compound, and then our security officers as well as the other officers who were there. 

So I started doing a daily intelligence briefing after that partial drawdown. And it was open to everybody, anybody could come. And I provided a lot of pretty granular or tactical level intelligence on really specific neighborhoods or groups or tactics that were being employed that included things like, sort of a wave of kidnappings that happened and how those were conducted, because that was a big concern that we had.

MICHAEL MORELL: And I remember from your book that during that time, your mom was not doing so well from a health perspective, which must have made this whole thing harder on you to be so far away from her.

SARAH CARLSON: It was quite difficult. My mom is disabled and so she was just going through a particularly bad spell. And I think people often forget about the effect it has on families. So I'm quite close to my mom and I think it was really hard for her to know I was in this dangerous situation. And I always told her so she knew exactly where I was and what I was doing, but she wasn't able to talk to anybody else about that. And, you know, she's out here in the Seattle area and really didn't have anybody that could relate, even if she could talk to them, say that was quite difficult.

MICHAEL MORELL: So, Sarah, when did you first hear discussion about a possible evacuation of all U.S. personnel from Libya? And tell us about that day and about how you and your colleagues heard about the decision to leave.

SARAH CARLSON: So the discussion didn't actually start until quite late in July of 2014. The civil war really sort of kicked off on the 13th and that started again with a rocket attack against Tripoli International Airport. And we were very close to to the airport. So. the chance of being hit was quite high and there were hundreds of rockets being launched every day and anti-aircraft artillery and eventually there was a car bomb and a suicide bombing. So the threat was very high.

There was one day where I went over to the embassy and we were talking about potential options for evacuation. But at that point, the ambassador really wanted to stay the course in Libya. So the administration didn't want to feel like it had failed there, that they couldn't lose it. So I'd gone over there to talk about it, a bit more in general terms, and that day when I was there was during this fighting and that was the first day we actually started getting hit so the, again, the Code Red alarm went off. And you could hear the rockets and the bombs going off around us. 

And then we heard the Marines talking about it, that we were, actually the compound, the embassy facility was getting hit with these bombs. And so I ended up having to call a militia commander and talk to him in Arabic while all this was happening and ask them if they could help stop the fighting around the embassy. So I was pretty fortunate that my Arabic was good enough that he understood what I was asking. But that was really kind of a turning point, and the day that we started looking at evacuation options in earnest. The day that we heard about the final decision, I was not involved in a briefing that was with the ambassador and my boss. And they were on a call to Washington, D.C., and it was during that call that the decision was made. 

So we were called in to the office. Shortly after that call, there was an all hands with everybody on the compound. And my boss sort of gave this briefing and let us know that we were going to be evacuating; he said that we were going to take the southern route and kind of described in general terms what we were going to do. And then that kicked off the destruction. And that's when we really started, you know, burning everything, kind of like in the movies, shredding and burning and putting nails through hard drives and that kind of thing.

MICHAEL MORELL: So, Sarah, you guys get the word you're going to leave and you have to destroy anything that is classified or anything that would identify Americans, et cetera, et cetera. But you had an additional job, right? You had to not only do all that, but you had to produce 'sitreps' for Washington. Talk about that a little bit as well. 

SARAH CARLSON: Yes, while I was in a process of helping with the destruction, I also needed to be staying up to date on what was going on in Libya and providing reports on that.

So I was still doing that daily intelligence briefing. I'm letting everybody know what was going on. And then writing back cables to Washington and reaching out to, you know, like the analysts at CIA headquarters – not hourly, but almost hourly. And they were in really close contact with me and trying to assess the situation, assess the security, how long we had, what our progress was like. 

So they were really concerned about the status of forces and how how we were doing, how close we were to the fighting. And we ended up getting surrounded. So the opposing militia was really surrounding the Zintan, but because we were on their land, they were in essence surrounding us as well. And then kind of tightening the noose. So we knew we needed to get out as soon as possible.

MICHAEL MORELL: So one of the things I'll tell my listeners – we won't go into it now, but I'll tell my listeners that I think it's absolutely fascinating to read how Sara actually put these 'sitreps' together, how what information she brought together, who she talked to. I think it's absolutely fascinating. And if you want to know that, you'll have to go read the book, which I think you should do. 

So, Sarah, what was the departure route? How were you all going to get out of Libya? You talked about the southern route.

SARAH CARLSON: Yes, we ended up deciding to do the southern route; that was the ambassador's decision. So we had looked at a variety of options. The coastal road was the most apparent one, that we could drive through Tripoli and then sort of go up and over to Tunisia, passing Sabratha.

The problem with that is that we had had a security incident the December before where we had actually had some military members held hostage at a checkpoint in Sabratha along that coastal route. So we knew we couldn't use it again. 

There had also been an incident with the Russian embassy where they used that to evacuate pretty early on and then ended up coming back. So we knew that road was not a good option, that they were looking for Americans along that road. We couldn't go the other direction and go east because, of course, that's where Benghazi was. We couldn't drive through Tripoli. Aircraft cannot land – so the U.S. military can not land like a helicopter Osprey or use the runway to bring in a larger plane because there was so much anti-aircraft artillery being used and the rockets that they just deemed it unsafe for them to fly in Tripoli airspace. So we knew we had to drive. 

So then it came down to whether we drove to another location to be picked up in a transport. That was something that we were looking at even the day that we were notified about the evacuation; we had sent a security team down to assess whether that was a viable option. And then ultimately, the ambassador made the decision that we were going to use the southern route. So it went pretty far south from Tripoli, and then and then down and around and up and over to Tunisia. So we entered southern Tunisia.

MICHAEL MORELL: So, Sarah, when you all departed, you were in the front right seat of one of the many vehicles. What's the significance of being in that seat? And how did you how did you feel about that at the time?

SARAH CARLSON: The front right seat was considered a tactical commander, and I kind of joke that I might be the only CIA analyst in history to a tactical commander during an emergency operation. It was quite intimidating. 

MICHAEL MORELL:  On TV it happens all the time. But in real life, not so much. 

SARAH CARLSON: Not so much in real life. So it was, again, another, like movie moment. Like, 'Really. I'm going to I'm going to be in that position?' So then, with the convoy, the way it was divided up was into these sections or what we called chalks, and the lead vehicle and the follow vehicle had security officers driving and in the right seat was a tactical commander. And our security officers that were filling these positions were all former special operations of some type or another. And then there was me. And so it was really quite difficult for me to reconcile why they chose me for that position. On the one hand, it was terrifying, and on the other hand, it was, you know, really flattering that they thought I could do that. And I did.

It was significant because that person in that position was responsible for the safety of the other occupants of the vehicle. So if we were ambushed, if we came under attack, the driver, who was our special operations forces representative, and I, would respond. So he would be responsible for the vehicle and using the vehicle to get off the X or get away from the situation as quickly as possible. 

If we had to bail out of the vehicle, then he would engage in the fight to provide protection. And then I would be responsible to get the two other people in our vehicle to safety. And then we were working together as a section or as a chalk, I would also be responsible to try to get the other people in the other vehicles to come with us and to keep them safe.

MICHAEL MORELL: So, Sarah, I know you were nervous about being in that seat. And I know that you had a long conversation the night before the departure with your friend Nomad. How important was that conversation to you, getting you ready for that job?

SARAH CARLSON: It was really important to help me sort of calm my mind about what was happening. I think it was quite scary, but I didn't have time to really feel that fear because I had so much to do. And so being presented with this role and this huge responsibility, I just needed to be able to talk through it and find out like, 'Why? Why would they pick me?' 

And so to hear him say that they wanted me in that position, I thought, 'Well, we just don't have enough security again, it feels like history repeating in a way.' But it helped to hear from him that the security officers trusted me, that they had a lot of confidence in me. I think because I'd been working on developing that professional relationship over the past year, where I would be in their team room almost every day, letting them know what the threats were, what in security was going on, what the situation was like. And so I think that really built a lot of respect between us and helped that day. But there was still this moment where I was getting a briefing from them on the responsibility and they started talking about like grenades in the glove box, I'm like, "Who has grenades in the glove box?" Right?

MICHAEL MORELL: So, Sarah, you wrote that getting through the first checkpoint was the most dangerous part of the evacuation. Why was that the case and how did that go?

SARAH CARLSON: So to go south through that route, one of the reasons that it was not the most it was not our first choice was because part of it was through hostile territory. So it was this other tribe that had been really supportive of Gadhafi and did not appreciate the US intervention during the Arab Spring.
So they were aligned with Zintan, so that helped because we were on their territory. And this was the only way to get out to the mountains where we needed to go.

So that first checkpoint Nomad actually led the convoy, so he was in the first vehicle. He was my close friend and a Captain who was also mentioned a few times in the book. So they led that first vehicle and when they got to that checkpoint, they actually had to get out and talk to the militia commander and sort of get in his good graces quickly enough that we could sort of sail through that first checkpoint.

And it actually took quite a long time. I mentioned before that the vehicles were divided up into sections. So there were large chunks of time between each section so that if one was ambushed, the others could go a different way.

So everything just took a lot more time than we anticipated it would. Getting through that first checkpoint – you think like, 'Oh, it's only a half-hour drive.' But it actually took quite a long time to get through even just that one checkpoint. So I got there and I was in the front seat, I covered my hair even though I maybe didn't have to, I just didn't want to draw extra attention because I was the only woman serving in that role. I was only woman who was in the front seat. So I pulled out my scarf, covered my hair. And, you know, I was watching for them as we went through. And I could see, you know, Captain and talking to the militia commander and then saw Nomad on the side of the road. And you just look at them and they look so casual, you know, they're ready to spring into action to protect you as soon as anything would happen. 

And that, I think, is where that mutual respect really helped, too. I knew every single one of those security officers would die to keep me safe. And I knew that they felt the same way about me and that I would do that for them as well. So I think that confidence in each other really was a big part in what made it a successful operation.

MICHAEL MORELL: And then once you guys were all through the first checkpoint, then Nomad and Captain followed up and they were at the back of the convoy at that point, right?

SARAH CARLSON: Yes. So it was sort of the most dangerous parts all the way through, right. So the first vehicle that went out of the gate would be the first one to hit the ambush. So they had that role. And that was, again, one of the more terrifying moments was waiting to pull out of that front gate and knowing that there could be anything on the other side of it.

And of course, during this whole time, they are still the bombings and the attacks going on, right. So you could still hear the rocket fire and the small arms fire and the heavy weapons. So once they got through that checkpoint, then they brought up the rear. So, again, that's the most dangerous part. Once word starts getting out that we're evacuating that puts them in the last position, where, if somebody were going to chase us, they would be the ones that they encountered first.

MICHAEL MORELL: So, Sarah, you guys go through two more checkpoints safely. And I'm just wondering what was – and you talked about this in the book, but – I'm wondering for our listeners, what was a conversation like in the car, given the stress you were under? What was that like?

SARAH CARLSON: Honestly, it was sort of just nonsense. Like we needed to keep our attention on the road and looking out for threats; we were ready to call them out. So just like the constant scanning of outside and what was going on. But you can't maintain that kind of intensity for hours and hours and hours. So we ended up – we would play some music. We talked a lot about music, a lot about music. One of the other people in my car was our that National Security Agency, NSA representative. And he was a huge music fan, too. So we chatted about that quite a bit. 

Food. I feel like anybody who's ever deployed anywhere, that's a major topic of conversation: what your first meal is going to be when you get back. So it was sort of, nothing heavy, nothing to distract from what we needed to be doing, but just enough to kind of help calm the nerves a little bit and talk through some things. We talked a little bit about, you know, different sections of the route and what we could expect.
There was one part that went through the mountains, the Jebel Nafusa, and that had some pretty sharp switchbacks going through it, it was through this rocky terrain. And, you know, that was a really high-risk area. But we didn't really have a lot of information on what was out there. So, you know, there are things like that where we talked about along the way the next step in what might happen.

MICHAEL MORELL: So tell us about crossing the border into Tunisia. What was that like?

SARAH CARLSON: It was just this huge sense of relief that we made it. It was – we got to the border and the Libyan side was just so rundown and it looked like it didn't really have much use, that everything had been sort of neglected. You could kind of make out the sign that said Libya. "Libya for you." That was the slogan during the revolution. And there were a couple border guards there, but it was pretty wide open. There wasn't really much of a presence. 

So we had to get our passport stamped there at the Libya side of the border. And then we went over to the Tunisian side. 

It was like polar opposite. Heavily guarded. And they took all our passports, so we actually just handed them all over. And then they went through the process of stamping them and giving them back later. But, you know, is quite a contrast. 

Personally, my favorite part about the Tunisian side was it had a bathroom. It's like hours into it, I want to say it was probably like eight hours until we got to that point. And little did we know we had so much more to go. But, at that point, I was pretty desperate to use the bathroom.
We ended up waiting quite a long time at the border crossing for all the vehicles to get there. One of them had broken down and it had to be towed, and so it took several hours just waiting there at the border crossing.

MICHAEL MORELL: And you were also waiting for Nomad to come across the border, right, as he was in that last vehicle.

SARAH CARLSON: Yes. He was in that last vehicle and it was like, crazy hot, I just remember him getting out of the vehicle and just wanting, like, some water. The thermometer on the dashboard said that it was a hundred forty. I'm sure wasn't actually that hot, but it was sweltering. The water we had in the car, I think he opened one and it tasted like it was boiling. It was so hot. 

MICHAEL MORELL: Yeah. Speaking of water, so there's also the story you tell about the State Department handing out ice water to folks but not sharing it with their CIA colleagues, which I found interesting.

SARAH CARLSON: Yeah, there were a couple of things like that that were just really odd, that I didn't really understand why it happened. You know, we would risk so much to help them. And then they were being weird about giving me, you know, like an ice water. And they did eventually, and that was the same at dinner later. But I think, you know, it was sort of unnecessary conflict that we really didn't need in the moment.

MICHAEL MORELL: So, Sarah, then you have a long drive from the border crossing to Tunis itself and to the U.S. embassy there, right?

SARAH CARLSON: Yes, it was much longer than we thought the drive was going to be. Everything just kind of took longer because we had so many vehicles, so many people.

And we ended up going from the border crossing to an airfield in southern Tunisia where the Marines flew out of and the embassy staff, the ambassador, left with them. But just that in itself took several hours. They didn't want – the Tunisians – didn't want us driving on the main road in this huge convoy because of the threat environment in their own country. So we ended up taking back roads, which was kind of surreal because it was through these small villages where, you know, people came out and they were waving. 
So at that point, I did take off the scarf and I was waving back, sort of like a parade. It was probably the biggest thing they'd seen in their villages for a while. So we got to that southern airfield and then we had to trade out some cars and vehicles. We had to take all the armored vehicles up to the embassy in Tunis, and the people flew out. And then we also had dinner there, which was that other sort of weird episode where there wasn't enough for me to have but other people – It was just really weird. 

So once we left there, we drove all the way to Tunis. We had thought that we would be able to rest, that we were going to get there and we would be able to, you know, sleep in a bed for the night and have a good meal. We had been up for so long by that point – it took twenty six hours total before we reached Tunis.
And then, of course, once the fighting had started, you know, I got maybe a couple hours of sleep a night, maybe. So everyone was just exhausted. 

We got to Tunis and we found out the U.S. ambassador to Tunis had decided that we were not allowed to stay in the country, that he wanted us to leave as soon as possible. So it was sort of crushing to have worked so hard and be so thoroughly exhausted and spent, like, everything you had to get these people out safely and then be told, 'You have to go right now on the first available flight.' 

We ended up staying overnight and then flying out the next day. But it was quite traumatic to get there and not even have a chance to breathe. 

MICHAEL MORELL: So, Sarah, how did you feel, you know, big picture about the evacuation, right? The duality of getting out to safety, but the fact that we, the United States, left the country of Libya behind.

SARAH CARLSON: I felt an overwhelming sense of loss and… It's hard to explain. And I try very hard in the book as well. But we've put so much into Libya and, you know, I personally had sacrificed so much to be there. We had people who literally died there because the mission was so important, that it was for our national security. And then it felt like we just gave up, that we just left and that we lost. 

And there was… It was overwhelming to me and I had a really hard time reconciling that once I got back to headquarters and continued to work some of the same issues, to disassociate that, in my mind, to be objective about Libya – I didn't feel like I was able to do that any longer.

MICHAEL MORELL: So, Sarah, you've been amazing with this story and your time. Just a couple more questions. Why did you decide to leave the agency the end of the day?

SARAH CARLSON: Ultimately, it was because of that sense of loss and, you know, there were a few times where I felt expendable. It felt like we had been left there to die. And that, that changed everything for me. And I know, like, objectively it wasn't the case, but that certainly wasn't how it felt. And in the moment, that's what mattered. And I needed to do something else that, you know, I'd be really valued for. So I decided to leave. 

And ultimately, now I work in emergency management. So I am grateful that I've been able to use these experiences to now help my local community, which has been really great.

MICHAEL MORELL: So, Sarah, the book the book makes very clear that you are a person of deep faith. And I'm just wondering how important that was to you during that year in Tripoli in general and during the evacuation in particular?

SARAH CARLSON: It was incredibly important to me. I think it really helped with the fear. So having that faith that, you know, I was meant to be there, that God had a path for me. It helped give me a sense of purpose even when things were going so horribly wrong. 

I should have, you know, been constantly terrified. But again, I was just so focused on what I was doing that I really wasn't able to feel it. That came later. It did come, but it came later. And I just think having that sense of purpose and that integrity – I'd like to think that I was there for a reason. And it took a long time to be able to realize, you know, that ultimately, I helped save the lives of one hundred and fifty people. And maybe that's why I was there.

MICHAEL MORELL: Sarah, thank you so much for joining us. The book is In the Dark of War. The author is Sarah Carlson. Sarah, thank you.


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