.
I

n the Dark of War, by Sarah M. Carlson, recounts the evacuation of Tripoli, Libya, to neighboring Tunisia following the deterioration of the security environment in 2014. Jumping between the evacuation itself, her own experiences in Libya as a counterterrorism analyst, up until the decision to evacuate, Carlson provides a human face to the otherwise mysterious (for most of the public) intelligence profession.

In the Dark of War: A CIA Officer's Inside Account of the U.S. Evacuation from Libya | By Sarah M. Carlson | Fidelis Books | June 2020.

One social media review called her book something to the effect of a look at the Central Intelligence Agency’s “Mad Max” escape from Libya, but that isn’t a fair characterization of what happened. If anything, readers will be impressed by the professionalism of those involved in the evacuation. You understand the planning of the convoy—who would sit where and why—the reconnoitering of the route, the destruction of sensitive items (an exceptionally expensive bonfire, to say the least), and even the little things like wrapping one’s backpack up in trash bags to prevent it from smelling like gasoline. These details contribute to an image of professionalism amidst the backdrop of an increasingly chaotic security environment.

To be sure, the evacuation was anything but safe. Having chosen to go via the “southern route”, the convoy would pass through hostile territory and multiple checkpoints. Carlson recounts the tense journey, the continued violence that happened around them in Libya, and the back-and-forth conversation in her vehicle as they tried to maintain a sense of normalcy—whilst on edge.

In the Dark of War provides a much-needed human face to America’s intelligence personnel. While it centers on the obvious evacuation, it is strongest when she allows readers to see the intelligence professionals as individuals, as humans. Too often that is lost in the popular portrayal of the CIA and others. They are either larger-than-life action heroes, James or Jane Bond, or women and men in black, plotting nefariously to subvert governments at home or abroad.

Carlson presents these professionals as dedicated patriots and human beings with strengths, weaknesses, feelings, fears, and hobbies. For those inside the beltway, this is probably an odd thing on which to focus, but for those who aren’t professionally or personally exposed to the Intelligence Community, this is probably refreshing or surprising. She writes about organizing “fun runs” inside the compound and setting up an archery range—probably the only analyst in Libya letting arrows fly before and after rockets fall.

She even writes of her simmering romance with one of the security officers which, at first, seems a bit out of place, but simply reinforces their humanity. Carlson also writes a great deal about her faith, which helped her get through the challenging times in her life and in the country, another human touch to an often-misunderstood profession.

She also provides great insights into what an intelligence analyst does. Combing through Libyan social media and local news reports, and interacting with Libyans on-the-ground, she parses out facts from opinion, digests what is known and unknown, checks assumptions, and tries to present as detailed a picture as possible. This is no easy feat in any environment, let alone one in which rockets are regularly landing on the compound, or one with as complex a political and security dynamic as Libya in 2014.

Carlson does a good job presenting the complexity and confusion of the conflicting mosaic of Libya. The proliferation of groups, their affiliations, and shifting loyalties—to say nothing of the government ministries and their interests—is a confusing mess even to this day. But it is here that the reader may wish for a bit more context and substance—a more in-depth “Libya 101” crash course on the dynamics that led up to the evacuation and America’s policy towards the country. There is, of course, a challenge in offering such a primer in a memoir or current events title—it is liable to be overtaken by events before it is even published.

One element that could have been explored more was the tension between the U.S. Department of State—the ambassador in particular—and the CIA Station. Carlson recounts the odd presence of the Ambassador’s dog and her apparent preference to believe what her ministerial counterparts were telling her instead of the CIA’s intelligence assessments. She also describes the less-than-warm welcome on arriving in Tunis: when water was offered to the convoy but only for the Department of State employees, and how they were hustled out of the country almost immediately on arriving in Tunis.

To be sure, relations between State and the CIA are tense by virtue of differing approaches to the national interests of the United States. But the slights noted by Carlson are just odd and don’t help the relationship.

She deftly handles the controversy of the 2012 attacks on the diplomatic compound and CIA annex in Benghazi by treating it as it was—a tragedy that resulted in the deaths of four Americans: Ambassador Chris Stevens, Sean Smith, Tyrone Woods, and Glen Doherty. Washington’s politicization of the tragedy largely obscured the loss of life and the dedication of these individuals to their country and to the mission.

To this day, America’s policy towards Libya is confused and marred by these ghosts of the past. The conflict ebbs and flows with the Turkey, Italy, and Qatar-backed Government of National Accord appearing—as of late—to gain ground against the Libyan National Army, which itself is backed by Egypt, France, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and Russia.

Her dedication to the mission in Libya is palpable and admirable. One can hear her frustration in the abrupt decision to leave the country after such a great sacrifice and loss. Indeed, part of her decision to leave the CIA was due to the decision to evacuate Tripoli.

Carlson’s book is a quick and enjoyable read. Its strength is not in a harrowing tale or close call, like many on-the-ground accounts, but in its presentation of the very real, very dedicated, and very professional Intelligence Community personnel that are on the frontlines defending the United States and advancing its interests.

About
Joshua Huminski
:
Joshua C. Huminski is Director of the Mike Rogers Center for Intelligence & Global Affairs at the Center for the Study of the Presidency & Congress.
The views presented in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of any other organization.

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In the Dark of War

July 18, 2020

In the Dark of War: A CIA Officer's Inside Account of the U.S. Evacuation from Libya | By Sarah M. Carlson | Fidelis Books | June 2020.

I

n the Dark of War, by Sarah M. Carlson, recounts the evacuation of Tripoli, Libya, to neighboring Tunisia following the deterioration of the security environment in 2014. Jumping between the evacuation itself, her own experiences in Libya as a counterterrorism analyst, up until the decision to evacuate, Carlson provides a human face to the otherwise mysterious (for most of the public) intelligence profession.

In the Dark of War: A CIA Officer's Inside Account of the U.S. Evacuation from Libya | By Sarah M. Carlson | Fidelis Books | June 2020.

One social media review called her book something to the effect of a look at the Central Intelligence Agency’s “Mad Max” escape from Libya, but that isn’t a fair characterization of what happened. If anything, readers will be impressed by the professionalism of those involved in the evacuation. You understand the planning of the convoy—who would sit where and why—the reconnoitering of the route, the destruction of sensitive items (an exceptionally expensive bonfire, to say the least), and even the little things like wrapping one’s backpack up in trash bags to prevent it from smelling like gasoline. These details contribute to an image of professionalism amidst the backdrop of an increasingly chaotic security environment.

To be sure, the evacuation was anything but safe. Having chosen to go via the “southern route”, the convoy would pass through hostile territory and multiple checkpoints. Carlson recounts the tense journey, the continued violence that happened around them in Libya, and the back-and-forth conversation in her vehicle as they tried to maintain a sense of normalcy—whilst on edge.

In the Dark of War provides a much-needed human face to America’s intelligence personnel. While it centers on the obvious evacuation, it is strongest when she allows readers to see the intelligence professionals as individuals, as humans. Too often that is lost in the popular portrayal of the CIA and others. They are either larger-than-life action heroes, James or Jane Bond, or women and men in black, plotting nefariously to subvert governments at home or abroad.

Carlson presents these professionals as dedicated patriots and human beings with strengths, weaknesses, feelings, fears, and hobbies. For those inside the beltway, this is probably an odd thing on which to focus, but for those who aren’t professionally or personally exposed to the Intelligence Community, this is probably refreshing or surprising. She writes about organizing “fun runs” inside the compound and setting up an archery range—probably the only analyst in Libya letting arrows fly before and after rockets fall.

She even writes of her simmering romance with one of the security officers which, at first, seems a bit out of place, but simply reinforces their humanity. Carlson also writes a great deal about her faith, which helped her get through the challenging times in her life and in the country, another human touch to an often-misunderstood profession.

She also provides great insights into what an intelligence analyst does. Combing through Libyan social media and local news reports, and interacting with Libyans on-the-ground, she parses out facts from opinion, digests what is known and unknown, checks assumptions, and tries to present as detailed a picture as possible. This is no easy feat in any environment, let alone one in which rockets are regularly landing on the compound, or one with as complex a political and security dynamic as Libya in 2014.

Carlson does a good job presenting the complexity and confusion of the conflicting mosaic of Libya. The proliferation of groups, their affiliations, and shifting loyalties—to say nothing of the government ministries and their interests—is a confusing mess even to this day. But it is here that the reader may wish for a bit more context and substance—a more in-depth “Libya 101” crash course on the dynamics that led up to the evacuation and America’s policy towards the country. There is, of course, a challenge in offering such a primer in a memoir or current events title—it is liable to be overtaken by events before it is even published.

One element that could have been explored more was the tension between the U.S. Department of State—the ambassador in particular—and the CIA Station. Carlson recounts the odd presence of the Ambassador’s dog and her apparent preference to believe what her ministerial counterparts were telling her instead of the CIA’s intelligence assessments. She also describes the less-than-warm welcome on arriving in Tunis: when water was offered to the convoy but only for the Department of State employees, and how they were hustled out of the country almost immediately on arriving in Tunis.

To be sure, relations between State and the CIA are tense by virtue of differing approaches to the national interests of the United States. But the slights noted by Carlson are just odd and don’t help the relationship.

She deftly handles the controversy of the 2012 attacks on the diplomatic compound and CIA annex in Benghazi by treating it as it was—a tragedy that resulted in the deaths of four Americans: Ambassador Chris Stevens, Sean Smith, Tyrone Woods, and Glen Doherty. Washington’s politicization of the tragedy largely obscured the loss of life and the dedication of these individuals to their country and to the mission.

To this day, America’s policy towards Libya is confused and marred by these ghosts of the past. The conflict ebbs and flows with the Turkey, Italy, and Qatar-backed Government of National Accord appearing—as of late—to gain ground against the Libyan National Army, which itself is backed by Egypt, France, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and Russia.

Her dedication to the mission in Libya is palpable and admirable. One can hear her frustration in the abrupt decision to leave the country after such a great sacrifice and loss. Indeed, part of her decision to leave the CIA was due to the decision to evacuate Tripoli.

Carlson’s book is a quick and enjoyable read. Its strength is not in a harrowing tale or close call, like many on-the-ground accounts, but in its presentation of the very real, very dedicated, and very professional Intelligence Community personnel that are on the frontlines defending the United States and advancing its interests.

About
Joshua Huminski
:
Joshua C. Huminski is Director of the Mike Rogers Center for Intelligence & Global Affairs at the Center for the Study of the Presidency & Congress.
The views presented in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of any other organization.