It was the stuff of spy novels and action movies, and it didn't sit well with Michael Zorick.
U.S. intelligence agents were dropping quietly into lawless Somalia with cash and material support for warlords fighting an increasingly powerful and radical Islamic extremist movement with links to al-Qaida.
The covert assistance was meant to bolster opposition to the Islamic fighters and further the war on terror in East Africa, yet from his desk at the U.S. Embassy in neighboring Kenya, Zorick saw it taking an ominous turn.
Instead of rallying secular Somalis around the deeply unpopular warlords, the aid was emboldening the Islamists, boosting their popularity and exacerbating already heightened anti-U.S. sentiment. It also was hurting international efforts to restore order after 15 years of anarchy by backing a feeble interim government in the fight on terror.
Disaster, including the possible formation of a Taliban-like state in Somalia, was brewing in late 2005 and early 2006, and Zorick, the only U.S. diplomat in Nairobi watching Somalia full-time, repeatedly warned his colleagues and Washington of the looming danger, particularly as word of the secret support leaked.
His advice was ignored.
Now he is being praised for his outspoken stand.
Zorick will be presented on Thursday with an American Foreign Service Association award for "constructive dissent" at a State Department ceremony along with Ronald Capps, a former political officer at the U.S. Embassy in Khartoum, Sudan, who lobbied for direct U.S. intervention in Sudan's troubled western Darfur region. It never came.
After Zorick objected to U.S. policy, he was ostracized by the foreign policy establishment and moved across Africa from Kenya to Mali. Later, even after the covert U.S. aid stopped, his dire predictions came true: the warlords collapsed, the triumphant Islamic militants marched into Mogadishu and began to consolidate their hold on the country.
Accused of harboring suspects in the 1998 bombings of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, the Islamic forces imposed a hard-line brand of Sharia law over much of the country, raising fears that Somalia could become a terrorist haven as Afghanistan had become in the 1990s.
It took an Ethiopian invasion in December 2006 to drive them out and remnants continue to wreak havoc with suicide car bombs and other terror attacks against the transitional government.
Zorick never has spoken publicly about his role and declined an interview request on Wednesday. But he said he would accept the award from the American Foreign Service Association because it is "from my peers."
His citation hints at, but does not mention, covert U.S. operations in Somalia, which have never been confirmed by the government but have been the subject of numerous investigative news reports, including by The Associated Press.
"When Mr. Zorick learned of other U.S. counterterrorism efforts that were clearly in direct conflict with the U.S. government's publicly enunciated objectives, he attempted to argue through regular post channels that these actions would, in the long term, undermine U.S. interests and prove harmful to future U.S. involvement," the citation says.
"However, Mr. Zorick's efforts to argue for alternative approaches in U.S. policy ... went unheeded," it says.
"He risked his own professional advancement by taking a stand for what he believed was right and deserves to be honored."
Zorick and Capps, both still with the State Department in Washington, are being given the William R. Rivkin Award, which honors midlevel diplomats who exhibit "extraordinary accomplishment involving initiative, integrity, intellectual courage and constructive dissent."
The prize - named for Rivkin, a former ambassador who valued, encouraged and protected dissenting diplomats at embassies in Europe and Africa - has been given to 52 diplomats, including the current U.S. Ambassador in Iraq, Ryan Crocker, for his work in Lebanon in the 1980s, since it was first presented in 1968.
Although he did not challenge any covert actions, Capps cautioned that U.S. support for African peacekeepers and a tenuous peace deal signed with some Darfur rebel groups would not halt what Washington has repeatedly called a "genocide" with as many as 200,000 killed in the region over the past three years.
"If we fail to properly construct and mandate a Peace Enforcement Force, we will fail to stop the genocide and more people will needlessly die," he wrote in a cable sent through a special State Department dissent channel.
"Yes, it will be hard," he said in the cable. But being hard should not deter us from doing what is right. This is genocide. If we are serious about stopping it, this is what it will take. Otherwise, which American president will be the one to apologize to the dead of Darfur?"
The citation notes that "unfortunately, Mr.Capps' advice was not heeded."
"The Darfur crisis has continued unabated, and the U.S. and its allies continue to struggle to find a solution to this humanitarian disaster. Ron Capps vividly demonstrated the courage and integrity to take an unpopular stand and offer possible alternatives, and he deserves to be honored."
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