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State Department: The July 2006 Evacuation of American Citizens from Lebanon

GAO-07-893R Published: Jun 07, 2007. Publicly Released: Jun 07, 2007.
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The evacuation of nearly 15,000 American citizens from Lebanon during July and August 2006 was one of the largest overseas evacuations of American citizens in recent history. The Department of State (State) has the lead responsibility for evacuating American citizens from overseas locations in times of crisis. However, the size and unforeseen nature of the Lebanon evacuation required the assistance of the Defense Department (DOD). Specifically, State needed DOD's ability to secure safe passage for American citizens in a war zone, as well as DOD's expertise and resources in providing sea and air transportation for large numbers of people. At your request, we have been conducting an ongoing review of State's efforts to plan for, execute, and recover from the evacuation of U.S. government personnel and American citizens from overseas posts. As part of this review, we collected information on State and DOD's efforts to evacuate U.S. citizens from Lebanon in July and August 2006. To address your questions about the Lebanon evacuation, we briefed members of your staff on April 30, 2007, on (1) how State and DOD prepare for evacuations; (2) how State and DOD carried out the Lebanon evacuation; and (3) our observations on State and DOD's successes and challenges in implementing the evacuation.

State and DOD have several tools to prepare for the evacuation of American citizens in a time of crisis. For example, U.S. embassies world-wide are required to develop Emergency Action Plans (EAP) to prepare for emergencies, take part in periodic crisis management exercises, and develop estimates of the number of American citizens in each country. State and DOD's evacuation of American citizens from Lebanon was an unusually large, complex operation that arose suddenly from an unforeseen international crisis. On July 12, 2006, Hezbollah guerillas kidnapped two Israeli soldiers at Israel's border with Lebanon. Israel responded the next day with a major military assault, bombing Lebanon's airport in Beirut and forcing its closure, blockading Lebanon's ports, and bombing roads and bridges. On July 14, State and DOD began developing a plan to move American citizens from Beirut to Cyprus with helicopters, U.S. military ships, and contracted commercial ships. Although small groups of Americans began leaving Beirut by helicopter two days later--July 16, 2006--the first large group of Americans did not depart by boat from Beirut to Cyprus until July 19. The thousands of Americans arriving in Cyprus began overwhelming local hotels, which were already at close to peak capacity during the height of the summer tourist season. As a result, State arranged for emergency shelter and asked for DOD's assistance in arranging flights back to the United States. The last American evacuees departing on U.S. government-arranged flights left Cyprus on August 2, 2006. Though State and DOD's evacuation effort was an overall success, the departments were challenged in several areas. State and DOD successfully evacuated nearly 15,000 American citizens from a war zone to the United States in less than a month. This significant accomplishment was the result of State and DOD's ability to develop and carry out an evacuation operation within a rapidly evolving context with uncertain information. We found three key areas where State and DOD faced challenges in evacuating American citizens. First, the magnitude of the Lebanon crisis taxed State's capacity to respond. Second, State did not communicate effectively with the public, including potential evacuees in Lebanon and their family and friends in the United States. Third, State and DOD's different institutional cultures and systems impeded their ability to work together; among other things, these differences resulted in miscommunications and possible delays in chartering ships and planes to evacuate American citizens. State is taking some steps to address these challenges.

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