CNN's Jill Dougherty Looks at the Safety of American NGO Workers in Egypt

January 30, 2012

Americans in Egypt seek embassy refuge
CNN’s The Situation Room

JILL DOUGHERTY (voice-over): A handful of staff from an American democracy support group working in Egypt under investigation by Egyptian authorities have now taken refuge at the U.S. Embassy in Cairo. Among them, Sam LaHood, son of Transportation secretary, Ray LaHood. Egyptian director for the International Republican Institute. He and other American staff working for similar groups are banned from leaving the country after Egyptian security forces raided their offices.

In a telephone interview with CNN last Thursday, before going to the embassy, Sam LaHood, said he felt safe, but was concerned.

SAM LAHOOD, INTERNATIONAL REPUBLICAN INSTITUTE: Well, our attorneys believed that the, you know, the fact that the judge took this additional step of preventing us from traveling is, you know, indicates a more serious -- you know, it's a more serious step along in his investigation.

DOUGHERTY: The State Department calls it a unique situation and says the Americans were invited by the embassy.

VICTORIA NULAND, STATE DEPARTMENT SPOKESWOMAN: But we do not feel that they are in physical danger at the moment. That is a different matter than whether they are being persecuted in the Egyptian judicial system.

DOUGHERTY: A source familiar with democracy groups in Egypt tells CNN the decision for the Americans to go to the embassy was made because there was concern that arrest and trial could be imminent. That makes for a tricky situation for the State Department. The Department's own foreign affairs manual states refuge can only be sought out of concern for safety, not if it is "apparently intended to prevent or avoid the execution of the laws of a host country."

Is this special treatment for the son of a cabinet secretary?

A former ambassador to Egypt doesn't think so. He says it's a way for the embassy to give themselves some wiggle room in the midst of a tense diplomatic stand-off.

DANIEL KURTZER, FORMER U.S. AMBASSADOR TO EGYPT: You know, nobody is claiming that these folks will face mortal danger if they leave the embassy and they're there by invitation. So I think it's a -- a clever act by the embassy in order to remove the immediate precipitants to a situation that may get worse while hopefully quiet discussions resolve it.