ST. PAUL, Minn -- . Three months before U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens died in the attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Minnesota Supreme Court Justice Paul Anderson paid a courtesy call to the U.S. embassy in Tripoli.
Anderson was in Libya under the auspices of the American Bar Association to advise on rebuilding the countrys justice system, and Stevens gave him a sobering security rundown. Still, the ambassador encouraged Anderson to get out and mingle with Libyans. The judge recalled noticing how little protection the embassy in Tripoli had compared with those in other restive countries hed visited on similar bar association assignments.
Anderson said in a recent interview that he and Stevens, a lawyer by training, developed a quick rapport and spent more than hour in a broad discussion that ran from constitutional law to the collapse of the police force in Libya. Stevens was well aware of the perils that surrounded him, Anderson said, but he was adamant that good diplomacy meant getting out of the fortress-like U.S. compounds that dot the Middle East.
He was really upbeat, enthusiastic, about the potential for the future, Anderson said. His optimism was almost tangible, but I dont think it was Pollyanna or rose-tinted. He knew the risks.
In Washington, debate over the Sept. 11 Benghazi attacks -- one on the consulate and another on the CIA station a mile away that together claimed four American lives -- continues to rage, centered largely on whether the Obama administration and its ambassador to the United Nations, Susan Rice, attempted to mislead the American public about what was known when she appeared on a series of Sunday morning talks shows five days later. The administration has since gone quiet, preferring to wait for the findings of a governmental review board thats investigating the incident.
The partisan nature of the wrangling infuriates Anderson, who calls Stevens an American hero and who in the immediate aftermath of the Benghazi attacks wrote an essay for The Huffington Post website in which he defended Stevens for reaching out to Libyans in ways that were unconventional for American envoys, who more often are cloistered in heavily guarded compounds such as Baghdads notorious Green Zone.
A first draft of the essay had to be toned down, Anderson said, because his anger overshadowed the points he wanted to make about Stevens legacy.
He was not careless. He was not cavalier. He was realistic, but he made some very pragmatic decisions, Anderson said. We will always have people who take risks on behalf of our country because they think its worth it.
Since then, Anderson has become more contemplative about Stevens take on security and finds himself mulling his own conduct in Libya: a senior American jurist cruising Tripoli streets in an ordinary car with a local driver without bodyguards or weapons.
Youre there doing good, and because youre doing the right thing, you feel a certain kind of immunity, Anderson said. Well, thats not the way it is, of course.
It was easy to feel welcome in Libya, Anderson recalled, despite signs of declining security. Just a week before his arrival in June, a disgruntled militia seized control of the Tripoli airport. But Anderson decided to stick with his plans, and he felt vindicated when the passenger next to him on the plane into Tripoli thanked him for American support in the NATO intervention that was vital to the rebel victory over former leader Moammar Gadhafi.