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Noncombatant evacuation operations (NEOs) are messy affairs at best, as we saw in the April 2023 evacuation from Sudan.
In conducting an operation, consideration must be given to the security of those who can’t be evacuated. Thus, anything that might identify them to hostile elements must be removed from the evacuated diplomatic mission.
Contrary to what many people believe, it is not just classified information and material that must be safeguarded. Personally identifiable information can be just as dangerous in the wrong hands.
Things became chaotic as officials of the American embassy in Sudan prepared for the evacuation of its embassy staff and American citizens in April 2023 in the wake of fighting between rival military forces. In addition to the destruction of classified documents and sensitive equipment, they also shredded passports and identity documents belonging to Sudanese who had applied for US visas. Documents identifying local Sudanese staff members were also destroyed. According to news reports, other embassies locked such documents in cabinets before evacuating, except for the French who, like the United States, destroyed them.
Those Sudanese visa applicants with travel plans torpedoed by this turn of events are understandably upset. Whether or not any of these applicants had already booked travel, one can be fairly certain that all were looking forward to leaving Sudan for the United States. Now, they are trapped in a war-torn country, presumably with no hope of getting a new passport anytime soon. To the uninitiated, this probably sounds like a callous and heartless thing to do. While it is regrettable, there is sound reasoning behind what these diplomatic officials did in this situation.
What Are NEOs?
Noncombatant Evacuation Operations (NEO) are the ordered or authorized departure of civilian noncombatants and nonessential military personnel from danger in an overseas location to a safe haven, usually within the continental United States. NEOs are usually conducted by one of the uniformed military services (depending on the circumstances on the ground) to assist the US State Department in evacuating noncombatants, nonessential military personnel, and other eligible foreign nationals from threats in a specific foreign nation to an appropriate safe location. These operations are conducted under the authority of a Memorandum of Agreement between the State Department and the Pentagon, and are initiated when an ambassador or other chief of mission abroad determines that the security situation in a country calls for evacuation and requests State Department authority for such an evacuation. The State Department then, in most cases, requests the Department of Defense’s assistance.
Just as no two countries’ crises are the same, each NEO is also unique. For instance, when Liberia’s six-year civil war took a turn for the worse in April 1996, the decision was made to evacuate Americans. A contingent of US Army Special Forces flew from Europe to Lungi Airport in Sierra Leone where an intermediate staging base was established. The Army troops were replaced by a Marine Expeditionary Unit deployed from the Navy helicopter carrier USS Kearsarge, and several thousand Americans and some other nationals were evacuated by helicopter, first to the airport in Sierra Leone, where they were put on larger transport planes for evacuation to safe havens. The unique thing about this NEO is that the intermediate staging base was in a country that was undergoing its own civil war at the time and had just had its first democratic election. In fact, the same Marine Expeditionary Unit had to return to Sierra Leone thirteen months later to evacuate Americans from that country after a coup against the civilian president led to a total breakdown of order and security. When threats from local drug gangs forced the evacuation of the US Consulate General in Chiang Mai, Thailand, in 1987, all consulate personnel were flown to Bangkok where they remained for a month until the threat subsided.
Preparing for an Evacuation
All of America’s embassies and consular posts are required to have up-to-date emergency action plans, which include sections on embassy evacuations. Mission staff must always be prepared for rapid evacuation. Among the things required when evacuating from a diplomatic mission or consular post is the security or destruction of classified and sensitive equipment, material, and information. In the case of sensitive information, which would include personnel files, financial information, and passports, disposition depends upon the circumstances and location of the affected mission.
In states such asAfghanistan or Sudan, for instance, or any country where there is a possibility of local nationals associated with the American embassy or consulate being targeted for reprisals, any documents identifying them that cannot be removed to a secure location would in all likelihood be destroyed. While this might cause some hardship to an individual stranded in a country without travel documents, it is preferable to being jailed, tortured, or killed because of an American connection. In addition to this, passports in the wrong hands can be used by terrorists or criminals.
In the case of the embassy in Khartoum this year, it is unlikely that embassy officials felt comfortable leaving sensitive information behind. After the student takeover of the American embassy in Tehran in 1979, for instance, the militants reassembled some classified and sensitive documents that had been shredded. While those documents were used in propaganda against the United States, it is also likely that local employees or locals who were identified as applying for visas to travel to the United States also suffered.
After the evacuation of the American embassy in Saigon in 1975, and the Communist takeover, supporters of the South Vietnamese regime and the Americans were often rounded up and shipped off to re-education camps. While American intelligence officials and other senior government officials had predicted that the South Vietnamese government would collapse and had been preparing for an evacuation for months, the speed of the collapse still caught them by surprise. Portions of the classified and sensitive documents were destroyed in an incinerator on the embassy roof. However, the wind blew some charred but not completely destroyed documents off the roof and into the streets. How much of this “windfall” fell into the hands of the attacking forces and might have played a part in subsequent “re-education” decisions is unknown.
Evacuations Are Always Chaotic
Every American diplomat assigned abroad has, as part of the assignment, prepared for the possibility of an emergency evacuation, or to assist in the evacuation of citizens and other noncombatants from areas of danger. The disposition of classified documents and equipment is an important component of the stringent evacuation process.
Following this protocol, classified documents and equipment, with their potential impact on national security, must be removed or destroyed when a diplomatic mission is evacuated. Items of a sensitive nature, or containing personally identifiable information, such as medical and personnel records, visa applications, passports, and the like, must also be secured or destroyed to keep them from falling into the wrong hands. Locking them in cabinets is not an effective security measure in a situation where there has been a complete breakdown of public security. If there are people or organizations determined to break into the contents of those locked cabinets, the most that can be hoped for is that they will be slowed in achieving their goals.
Embassies and consulates are required to periodically inventory all classified and sensitive holdings and estimate destruction time for those items which cannot be taken out in the event of an emergency evacuation. Failure to secure or destroy either category can result in a catastrophic outcome for the country or the individuals involved.
In the Sudan situation, where factions of the country’s military are at war with each other, the assumption must be made that once evacuated, the diplomatic compound is completely insecure and anything left intact can be accessed by anyone who is determined enough to go after it. During an evacuation, US citizens are the first priority, followed by designated foreign nationals. Unfortunately, visa applicants would not be included on priority lists for evacuation. It is regrettable if applicants are left without travel documents, but in most cases that is preferable to being on lists of people to take reprisals against if their names fall into the wrong hands.
In the case of the evacuation of diplomatic missions from Sudan, the news reports would lead one to believe that those people applying for visas to travel to countries other than the United States and France will be able to retrieve their documents and make their trips when order is restored and the missions re-open. There is a possibility, a remote possibility, that when order is finally restored, those people will get their passports. Whether they will still be able to travel is an open question considering that there is no end in sight to the violence and disorder. This also assumes that the vacant missions will still be intact when order is finally restored.
Until the warring factions decide to stop fighting and sit down to discuss their differences, every Sudanese whose passport was in a foreign embassy is unfortunately in the same boat—up a creek without a paddle.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a non-partisan organization that seeks to publish well-argued, policy-oriented articles on American foreign policy and national security priorities.