Rome Fiumicino International Airport | Security Lapse

January 1978

I sipped coffee in a departure lounge café at Fiumicino airport. The New Year had afforded me about two weeks at Am Consul Karachi to get my shit together. My partner Al (a fellow tech out of the Office of Communications in D.C.) and I had figured out each other’s strengths and weaknesses. With the agreement of our boss RCO Robert P. Roberson we ran our own ship as long as there was smooth sailing. When the seas got choppy Bob would take over the helm.

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Al and I had a tacit agreement at the Regional Communications radio shop. I would do most of the traveling and the majority of the repair work, in between trips. Al would maintain the radio shop and take care of the administrative BS. It worked out for each of us. I liked to travel. Al didn’t want to travel because of his live in Thai girlfriend who hated to be alone (Karachi wasn’t too friendly for single girls).

While I people-watched—Italians seemed to be very emotional people—it occurred to me that the Foreign Service represented one big risky assignment. I had read an article in the International Herald Tribune. A special report chronicled international terrorism and how dangerous the world had become, especially in the Middle East.

There had been recent terrorist incidents in Argentina, the Moscow bombings, and a massacre in Spain. Every week, it seemed, another terrorist incident occurred. It made me wonder why people chose the Foreign Service.

I looked up at the clock. I should proceed to the check-in counter. My flight on Alitalia (Italian Air) to Cairo left in less than an hour. I wheeled my luggage down the ARRIVALS concourse.

The check-in counter was a breeze. I walked down the concourse toward DEPARTURES. The Alitalia stewardesses were cute and sassy and vivacious and…

“Damn,” I cried out.

I had left my briefcase in front of the Alitalia check-in counter.

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I hurried back to arrivals. The briefcase held my diplomatic passports (one for Israel and one for the rest of the Arab world), two thousand bucks in Amex traveler checks… everything.

“Excuse me,” I muttered over my shoulder after almost broadsiding a bystander in a trench coat.

I had to slow down when an Italian airport security man eyed me suspiciously. If I lost the briefcase it would be a major blemish on my record. I had to get to Cairo to support U.S. Secretary of State Cyrus Vance’s official visit. Screw-ups were not an option. I’d never live it down with my fellow OC technicians–the Bandits. When the airport security man went out of view I raced the final fifty yards down the concourse to the Alitalia check-in counter.

What? Ten minutes had passed? The briefcase had to be gone by now. My only hope was that Alitalia personnel had found it and put it in lost and found, highly unlikely.

The full lines of late arrival passengers blocked my view. An Italian security woman stood near the check-in counter that I had used. I walked over toward her slowly, not taking my eyes off the scene.

Incredibly, the security woman held my briefcase in her hand. I couldn’t hold back my excitement. “The briefcase belongs to me,” I said. “There are two diplomatic passports inside.”

I gave her my name. She peeked inside the briefcase.

“You are a very lucky man,” she said with a thick Italian accent, as she handed the briefcase to me. “Have a good trip.”

I wanted to give the woman a hug, but I shook her hand and thanked her. I had to hurry or I might miss my flight. That had never happened yet, either.

Reflections on the Flight to Cairo

I ordered a beer at thirty-three thousand feet over the Mediterranean Sea and let out a huge sigh. I brought out the Herald Tribune and finished the article on terrorism. I already knew about the American diplomats who had been killed in the line of duty from previous Middle East travels:

  • 1973: US Ambassador Cleo Noel killed by terrorists who stormed Saudi Arabia embassy in Khartoum, Sudan.
  • 1974: US Ambassador Roger Davies killed by gunfire at Nicosia, Cyprus.
  • 1976: US Ambassador Francis Meloy, Beirut, Lebanon, shot while crossing “Green Line” division between Christian and Muslim sectors.

How many diplomats who had lost their lives overseas could have been prevented? Did they make small mistakes, like forgetting their briefcases, which changed their course of their life? Did they fail to listen to their intuition? Or, was it just bad luck while they attempted to negotiate peace or referee a rivalry?

As the Air Alitalia flight touched down at Cairo I hugged the briefcase with my ankles and promised myself to be more careful on all fronts.

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