Risky Business

Her work for U.S. intelligence agencies took Sarah Carlson ’02 to Baghdad and other hotspots. But it was the year in Tripoli that provided the greatest adventure—and the greatest danger.

On the day in July 2014 that the U.S. evacuated its embassy in Tripoli amid heavy violence in Libya’s capital city, Sarah Carlson ’02 rode shotgun in one of the armored vehicles that would lead the caravan out of the city. Carlson, a CIA analyst, had worked at the embassy for a year, and she and other embassy personnel had grown increasingly vulnerable in recent months as Libya’s civil war sparked gun battles and rocket attacks all around their compound. Now, the U.S. State Department had ordered Carlson and her colleagues to destroy everything in the compound, pack the bare essentials needed to survive, and drive through southern Libya and then into Tunisia, along a treacherous route filled with militia checkpoints and the constant fear of terrorists attacking the convoy.

As the Toyota Hilux jostled along the desert landscape, Carlson’s left hand rested on an object hidden beneath a sparkly blue scarf: an M4 rifle. Her Glock and extra magazines sat below her legs under the seat; the glove compartment held six hand grenades. The driver was a member of the U.S. Special Forces Operation Command. If their part of the convoy came under attack, he would coordinate the defense, while Carlson would move the other officers to safety. The lives of the two men in the back seat were her responsibility.

With her Bluetooth speaker on low volume, she pressed play on a song she considered a theme song for the adventure: “Glory and Gore” by Lorde. Tense, thrumming synths filled the vehicle, just barely audible over the engine and the gunfire and artillery in the distance. “There’s a humming in the restless summer air / And we’re slipping off the course that we prepared / But in all chaos, there is calculation …”

There may have been calculation in the chaos, but even so, Carlson wasn’t sure that everyone would make it out alive.

Carlson’s memoir, In the Dark of War: A CIA Officer’s Inside Account of the U.S. Evacuation from Libya (Fidelis Books, 2020), traces the path of her unlikely trajectory from a shy preacher’s daughter to a CIA analyst in war-torn Libya. Her life began in Pennsylvania, where her father attended seminary. He eventually became the minister at a small church in rural Ohio, where Carlson spent the early part of her childhood surrounded by three active brothers, playing hide-and-seek in cornfields, camping, hiking, and learning archery. Her mother and father divorced when Carlson was 8, and the family moved back to the Pacific Northwest to be closer to extended family. 

After the divorce, Sarah’s mother raised her and her brothers mostly on her own, instilling in them a strong value for independence, duty, and altruism. Helping others seems to have come naturally to Carlson: When she was about 9, she confronted a bully who was picking on her brother on the school bus; in high school, she was quick to look out for her friends and to provide care if something went awry. She and her family volunteered at their church, laying the foundation for a lifetime of service work. 

It was also Carlson’s mother who inspired her to attend University of Puget Sound. Carlson started college at Western Washington University; then her mother took a job as an office assistant in Puget Sound’s School of Education, and Sarah decided to transfer soon after. “I’d take breaks between classes and go get a coffee and take it up to her, so I knew a lot of people in the education department,” she says. 

Carlson earned an English degree with an emphasis in writing, rhetoric, and culture. In one of her classes, she read an ancient text, Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War. “I thought there were really important lessons about war,” she says. She also continued her volunteer work, participating in the Big Sister program. 

In fall 2001, when she was a senior, she did an internship at Pierce County’s Department of Emergency Management, helping schools build emergency response plans. She found the pressure-oriented deadline work to her liking, and imagined someday working in local emergency services (she already was an EMT) and perhaps writing books on the side. Then the Sept. 11 attacks happened. The school shut down, and Carlson was called in to her internship to help prepare an Urban Search and Rescue Team to deploy to the Pentagon and World Trade Center. “I knew at that moment, when I was helping them get ready to go, that I wanted to do something more,” she says. On the advice of her manager, a retired Army colonel, she applied to the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA). All three of her brothers signed up to serve in the Department of Defense in response to the attacks. 

Carlson was accepted into the DIA, but had to wait for an extensive background check to be completed. She graduated from Puget Sound in 2002 and began at the DIA a year later. She worked in counterterrorism in Baghdad, then spent two years at the National Counterterrorism Center in Washington, D.C., and two more as an analyst for the U.S. Northern Command in Colorado Springs, Colo. 

She started with the CIA in 2008 as a “targeting analyst,” traveling extensively to the Middle East, North Africa, and South Asia, specializing in finding threats and identifying plans to attack the United States and Europe. She applied for an overseas assignment in Libya in early 2012. Then, on Sept. 11, 2012, members of an Islamic militant group attacked the American diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya, killing four employees—including J. Christopher Stevens, the U.S. ambassador. U.S. personnel were needed in Libya, and Carlson was assigned to go to the capital city of Tripoli. 

Sarah Carlson ’02
Sarah Carlson ’02

To prepare, she studied Arabic intensively full time with an instructor for nearly a year, obsessively poring over flashcards in her spare moments. (Her fluency in the language ended up being a critical part of her role.) Carlson knew that Libya would be a dangerous assignment, and her trepidation was amplified when, just a few months before she arrived in Tripoli in July 2013, a car bomb exploded outside the French embassy in that city. 

Despite the almost constant sound of artillery and explosions in the background, life in the embassy compound in Tripoli had a fairly predictable routine. During a typical day in Libya, Carlson would be one of the first among the staff to wake up. First, she’d check her email and scan social media in English and Arabic for updates. (Sites like Twitter and Facebook offered a surprising amount of useful information, from road closings to locations of protests, and even tactical information about the activities of enemies.) Once at the office, she’d check the classified systems for reports about threats through the intelligence channels. She’d spend the rest of the day in a windowless room, reading every new article and piece of intelligence about Libya, writing reports, and coordinating with analysts in Washington. She relied on espresso for energy and toted her iPad everywhere she went, constantly checking for new intel, briefing colleagues if a threat arose. Carlson would work until about 8 p.m., then the next day, she’d do it all over again. There were no days off. 

There was constant traffic through the embassy compound—Ambassador Deborah K. Jones and her staff, Marines responsible for security, other security officers and staff—and if anyone had a question for Carlson, she had to be ready with the answer. Her findings determined the decisions for operations, and she needed to think of a sequence of plans for every imaginable scenario, or what she calls the “backup to the backup to the backup.” 

Carlson credits her English degree for her ability to quickly scan and summarize information, a skill that proved vital to counterterrorism work. “Most of the job of being an analyst,” she says, “is taking a lot of information and distilling it into a short assessment that’s really easy to comprehend, and then having to brief that in a very articulate and thoughtful way to very senior people, including the president.” 

To unwind from such intense work, she turned to jogging and archery, and listened to music (Sylvan Esso and The Head and the Heart were among her favorites). For relief from the constant bombing, she’d sometimes put on a pair of noise-canceling headphones in her room and stare at a poster her mom had given her with a view of a trail on the Olympic Peninsula. 

On July 13, 2014, Libya’s civil war intensified when militias attacked the armed brigades that controlled Tripoli’s airport. Heavy militia fighting surrounded the American embassy. Faced with an increasingly deteriorating situation and fearing for the embassy staff’s safety, the U.S. made the decision on July 24 to evacuate. Carlson was crushed. “It was just this sense of overwhelming loss,” she says. “What was all that sacrifice for? So many people died, and we’re just going to give this up.” 

The evacuation took place on July 26, with a convoy of vehicles carrying 150 personnel making a harrowing 26-hour drive west to the Tunisian border, and then north to the capital city of Tunis. Carlson was designated a tactical commander—the person in the front right-hand seat, responsible for communication and navigation, as well as protecting the other personnel. She was the only woman and the only person without a specialized military background to be chosen for the role. “I felt honored that they trusted me to do that and knew I was capable of doing that,” she recalls. “But it’s scary. And I thought for sure we were going to be ambushed.” When the convoy reached the Tunisian border, the embassy staff and Marines drove on to a nearby airfield and boarded a C-17 military transport plane to fly home, while Carlson and a handful of other officers drove on to Tunis, arriving safely the next day. The sense of relief, however, was short-lived: After their arrival in Tunis, U.S. officials informed them that—for safety reasons—they could not stay. Within 24 hours, they were on commercial flights back to the States. Carlson’s work in Libya was over.

Sarah Carlson ’02 spends her days thinking about emergency preparedness. Check out her FIVE TIPS for making sure you and your home are ready for just about anything.

Carlson returned to CIA headquarters and spent the next year working as a North Africa counterterrorism analyst. Frustrated with the way that the evacuation had panned out (“Even though leaving was the correct decision in the end,” she says, “the fighting in Tripoli could have been averted with better policy decisions.”) and with the U.S.’s lack of a long-term strategy in the region, she resigned from the CIA in 2015. Today, she puts her preparedness acumen to work as an emergency manager for the city of Lacey, Wash., where she specializes in all-hazards preparation, disaster response, and alert and warning. She’s still good friends with many of her colleagues from her time in the CIA. She also does volunteer work with Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors, a nonprofit that provides support for those grieving the loss of a loved one in the military.

The Saturday morning that I talk to Carlson, she’s helping renovate a local Gig Harbor business to make its interior compliant with COVID-19 restrictions. She has a warm demeanor, with kind blue eyes and an easy laugh that belies her inner resolve.

Her story sounds like something from the pages of a Tom Clancy thriller: the Glock-wielding analyst racing against time to evade the enemy and figure out the next move. And that’s partly true. But she’s also an indie music fan, nature lover, and self-described sci-fi nerd prone to peppering her writing with Star Trek and Star Wars references.

Carlson had a reputation among her old CIA group for being “quietly ferocious.” “She’s initially kind of quiet. The term ‘steel magnolia’ comes to mind,” says longtime friend and colleague Rosa Smothers, who worked with Carlson in the CIA and now is an executive at a Florida-based cybersecurity firm. “She’s the person you call on your worst day and in your darkest hour, when you need someone’s help and counsel. There’s a reason she works in preparedness: because she’s very cool headed under enormous amounts of pressure.”

While in Libya, Carlson had taken careful notes to document her time there—primarily in case the embassy was ambushed and she needed to testify before Congress. Once she returned to the States, she began turning those notes into a book; many people don’t realize the full extent of what took place in Libya, she says, and she wanted to bring awareness to the situation. “For me, it was a way to make all those sacrifices that we did there matter,” she says. 

There was just one problem with her book plan: When she joined the CIA, Carlson had signed a secrecy agreement, meaning that anything she wrote for public consumption would need to be reviewed by the CIA, and classified information would be redacted. Throughout the book’s revision process, she negotiated closely with the CIA, agreeing to combine different individuals into composite characters and making other changes to conceal confidential details. Even so, at one point the CIA withdrew its approval altogether, ruling that the entire manuscript was considered classified. Carlson filed a lawsuit, and within weeks, the CIA reversed its decision. The book was finally published in June of 2020—almost five years after Carlson submitted the original manuscript for review.

The title In the Dark of War connects back to Carlson’s time at Puget Sound. It comes from a quote in Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War: “Think, too, of the great part that is played by the unpredictable in war. Think of it now, before you are actually committed to war. The longer a war lasts, the more things tend to depend on accidents. Neither you nor we can see into them—we have to abide their outcome in the dark.” 

The sentiment struck a chord with Carlson. “We’ve been in these wars now for so long, decades now,” she says, “with no thought as to how we get out of them, what winning means, what losing means, what’s the outcome that we’re seeking. And without having articulated that in the foreign policy area, you just have to abide the outcome in the dark.” 

She’s fond of another quote from Thucydides, as well. It’s a line about bravery that speaks to her so strongly that she used it as the epigraph of her book—and had it tattooed on her torso. It’s a fitting motto for the woman who set out on the perilous path of the convoy that July day in 2014, conscious of the many threats ahead of her:

“The bravest are surely those who have the clearest vision of what is before them, glory and danger alike, and yet notwithstanding, go out to meet it.”


By Julianne Bell ’13
Photos by Sy Bean
Illustration by Sarah Cohn
Published Feb. 7, 2021