Obama: Slain Envoy Died in "a City He Helped To Save"

Chris Stevens, a northern California native, spent his foreign service career in the Middle East

By Jon Schuppe
|  Thursday, Nov 15, 2012  |  Updated 9:50 AM PDT
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Chris Stevens, U.S. ambassador to Libya, was killed in an attack on the American consulate Tuesday.

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Chris Stevens, the U.S. ambassador killed during an attack on the American consulate in Benghazi, Libya, was praised by President Barack Obama as a man who gave his life trying to bring democracy to a turbulent country.

"It is especially tragic that he died in Benghazi because it is a city he helped to save at the height of the revolution," Obama said.

Stevens, 52, was killed when he and a group of embassy workers tried to help evacuate staff who came under attack by a mob. Three other American foreign service workers died, including an information management officer named Sean Smith, a married father of two young children.

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The identities of the other two dead Americans—both employed by the State Department—were being withheld pending notification of next of kin.

Obama said the victims "represent the very best if the United States of America." 

He added: "I have no doubt that their legacy will live on through the work that they did far from our shores, and in the hearts of those who love them back home."

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Stevens was the first U.S. ambassador to die in an attack since 1979, when Ambassador Adolph Dubs was killed in Afghanistan.

 

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Stevens, a native of the San Francisco area, was a 21-year State Department employee who spent most of his diplomatic career in the Middle East. He fell in love with the region while teaching English in Morocco as a Peace Corps volunteer, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said.

He joined the Peace Corps after graduating from the University of California at Berkeley. Prior to joining the foreign service in 1991, Stevens was an international trade lawyer in Washington, D.C.

His diplomatic assignments included Jerusalem, Damascus, Cairo and Riyadh.

Stevens first served in Libya from 2007 to 2009. He returned during the early 2011 uprising against Moammar Khaddafy, when Clinton asked him to act as an envoy to the rebel opposition. He started that posting in March 2011, arriving on a cargo ship in the port of Benghazi and immediately meeting with revolutionaries to plan a transitional government, Clinton said.

"Everywhere Chris and his team went in Libya, in a country scarred by war and tyranny, they were hailed as friends and partners," Clinton said.

Stevens was described in a March 2011 report in Bloomberg as "the quintessential diplomat," and as having "an unflappable, but not nerdy personality."

Steven McDonald, a former U.C. Berkeley roommate of Stevens', recalled receiving email dispatches from his friend, who was holed up in a hotel during the uprising. McDonald asked if people were firing at him, and he replied, "Well, not on purpose," McDonald told NBC Bay Area.

"That was sort of his mindset," McDonald said. "You never heard anything negative from Chris. He was always positive, moving forward."

Stevens left Libya last November, but returned in May after Clinton named him the ambassador to the new democratic government.

McDonald recalled attending a party in his honor just before his new job started.

"He was so upbeat and excited to take on the challenge of becoming the ambassador," McDonald said.

Fluent in Arabic and French, Stevens said in his State Department biography that he considered himself "fortunate to participate in this incredible period of change and hope for Libya." He said he enjoyed exploring Libya's archaeological sites and sampling local cuisine.

When the consulate resumed full operations a few weeks ago, Stevens said his top priorities included  making it easier for Libyans to visit America on academic and professional exchange programs.

“Relationships between governments are important, but relationships between people are the real foundation of mutual understanding,” Stevens said.

A journalist friend of Stevens' wrote on Wednesday of the ambassador's email updates from Benghazi, in which he expressed hope that American-Libyan relations were improving. But Stevens also described a shaky security situation.

"We move around town in S.U.V.'s with security teams watching out for us," Stevens wrote.

After receiving word that he was dead, Clinton said she called Stevens' sister and told her he would be remembered as a hero.

"He risked his life to stop a tyrant, then gave his life trying to help build a better Libya," Clinton said.

Sen. John McCain, who considered Stevens a friend, made a speech on the Senate floor in which he seemed to get choked up, NBC News reported..

"Chris Stevens was not unaware of the danger that he faced. He was privy to intelligence information and others," McCain said. "But he went forward and did his job with a smile, with love of his country and love of the country where he was serving."

Sean Smith's formal posting was in the Hague, but was on a temporary assignment to Libya when he was killed, Clinton said. She described him as a veteran of the Air Force with 10 years as an information management officer. His prior postings included Pretoria, Baghdad and Montreal.

Smith was also a renowned player of the online science-fiction game "Eve," where he went by the handle "Vile Rat," according to friends' Web postings. They described having online conversations with him in which he said he was providing IT services to the consulate, and how during a tour in Baghdad he broke away from a gaming session when he heard gunfire.

Obama condemned Tuesday's attack as senseless and unjustified, but said it "won't break the bonds" between the United States and Libya, or stop America's work to bring peace and stability there.

The president noted that Libyan security forces helped to defend the consulate and carried Stevens' body to the hospital, where he was pronounced dead.

"He worked tirelessly to support this young democracy, and I think both Secretary Clinton and I relied deeply on his knowledge of the situation on the ground there," Obama said. "He was a role model to all who worked with him and to the young diplomats who aspire to walk in his footsteps."

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