ST. PAUL — Three months before U.S. Ambassador to Libya Christopher Stevens died when suspected Islamist militants stormed the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Minnesota Supreme Court Justice Paul Anderson, in Libya under the auspices of the American Bar Association to advise on rebuilding the country’s justice system, paid a courtesy call to the U.S. embassy in Tripoli.
Stevens, Anderson remembered in a recent interview, gave his visitor 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 to those in other restive countries he’d visited on similar bar association assignments.
Anderson said 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 fortresslike 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 don’t think it was Pollyanna or rose-tinted. He knew the risks.”
In Washington, debate over the Sept. 11 Benghazi attacks 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 that’s 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 Baghdad’s notorious Green Zone.