Tunisia has been epically chaotic lately, which is why we thought it was odd that the U.S. embassy there was closed on Martin Luther King Day. Now our ambassador there has found the time to write Gawker an angry letter.
Earlier this month, we noted a rather disconcerting auto-reply e-mail message that an American living in Tunisia had received from the embassy's consular officer saying that "the embassy will be closed on Monday for the Martin Luther King Day holiday." We thought that, since Tunisia was basically in the process of succumbing to riots and falling apart at the moment, that was an odd display of priorities. Maybe the embassy should have stayed open for business, instead?
So we wrote a mean item about it, as we are wont to do. Over the weekend Gordon Gray, the U.S. ambassador to Tunisia, must have been catching up on his reading, because he sent us an angry defense of his embassy staff's handling of the crisis.
To the Editor-in-Chief
I am dismayed that you published such a misleading and unprofessional article as the recent piece by John Cook, "U.S. Embassy Isn't Letting a Coup Get In the Way of a Vacation Day." The article implied that Consular Section staff members, and Consul Stephen Ashby in particular, were not responding to American citizen inquiries during the January 15-17 Martin Luther King Day weekend. In fact nothing could be further from the truth.
All employees at the United States Embassy in Tunis have been working hard to respond to rapidly evolving situation in Tunisia. Staff members have been working at all hours of the day and night—on weekdays, Saturdays, and Sundays—and from the office (including sleeping overnight, when necessary, at the Embassy), from home, and at the airport. We provided information on fast-breaking events via E-mails, phone calls, Warden Messages, the Embassy's public website, and its Facebook page. Privacy Act considerations prevent the disclosure of specific case information to the media, but I assure you that this Embassy promptly provided assistance and information to every private American who asked.
I proudly witnessed my staff absorb without complaint an increased work load and find ways to accomplish their assignments despite a government-issued curfew, severely limited movements in Tunisia, and a markedly increased level of violence, civil unrest, and disorder. They did this under the additional stress that these political developments brought to their family and home lives. Inaccurate and mean-spirited statements such as "but don't bother stopping by on Monday; they'll all probably be at barbecues or something" malign and disregard the dedication and commitment of hard working public servants serving the United States and American interests in Tunisia.
U.S. Ambassador to the Republic of Tunisia
P.S. As the E-mail chain below clearly indicates, Mr. Ashby responded to your correspondent's non-urgent inquiry at 12:37 p.m. Tunisia time (6:37 a.m. EST) on Saturday, January 15, shortly following a long meeting Mr. Ashby, several Embassy staff, and I attended to review the safety of the American community in Tunisia.
We're sure the staff of the U.S. embassy in Tunisia worked hard during the crisis there. But that doesn't mean the embassy wasn't closed—stupidly—on Martin Luther King Day. It was. A State Department spokeswoman confirmed that to us: "The Embassy will be closed for routine services on Monday." Gray's letter doesn't dispute that. We think that's crazy!
[Photo of riots in Tunisia via AP. Photo of Gray via Getty]