PORTLAND – Elizabeth Pope was in her Portland home on the morning of Sept. 12 when she heard the report that the ambassador to Libya, Christopher Stevens, had been killed in a brazen attack on a U.S. consulate.

She immediately relayed the news to her husband, Laurence, a former ambassador himself now retired after a 31-year career in the U.S. Foreign Service.

“A little while later, he said, ‘You know, I’d go over there if I could help out,'” Elizabeth Pope recalled Friday. “I thought about it and I said, ‘You should do that.'”

Laurence Pope did volunteer and Thursday he arrived in the Libyan capital of Tripoli to begin a stint as the top U.S. official in the turbulent North African nation. As the State Department’s Charg?’Affairs to Libya, the 67-year-old will fill the role played by Stevens until a new ambassador is nominated and approved by the Senate.

“Mr. Pope’s selection as Charg?’Affairs emphasizes the commitment of the United States to the relationship between our two countries and to the people of Libya as they move forward in their transition to a democratic government,” Victoria Nuland, spokeswoman for the State Department, said in a statement. “We will continue to assist as Libya builds democratic institutions and broad respect for the rule of law — the goals that Ambassador Stevens worked hard to achieve.”

A graduate of Bowdoin College, Pope worked as a foreign service officer from 1969 to 2000 before retiring and moving to Portland with his wife. His positions included ambassador to Chad, associate director of counter terrorism, director of Northern Gulf affairs and political adviser to the commander in chief of the U.S. Central Command.

He speaks Arabic as well as French and lived or worked in countries throughout the region, even spending time in Libya decades ago, soon after Col. Moammar Gadhafi took power. Now, Pope is stepping into a much-changed Libya still struggling to stabilize after Gadhafi’s overthrow.

Stevens, a well-respected diplomat both in the United States and Libya, was killed along with three other Americans on Sept. 11 during the attack on the Benghazi consulate. The incident has become a political issue in Washington and on the campaign trail as members of Congress and the Mitt Romney campaign question why the Benghazi consulate had so little protection.

Maine Sen. Susan Collins and Sen. Joseph Lieberman, I-Conn., announced plans Friday for a bipartisan inquiry into the circumstances surrounding the Benghazi incident. The inquiry will be conducted by the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee — led by Lieberman and Collins — and will focus on the State Department, the Defense Department, the Justice Department and intelligence agencies.

“We intend to examine the circumstances before, during, and after the attack, including threat awareness, U.S. security needs for diplomatic personnel in Benghazi and Libya, and communications among the intelligence community, the State Department, the Defense Department, and the White House,” the senators said in a statement.

“In our capacity as leaders of the Senate’s chief oversight committee, we believe it is our responsibility to find out what happened and why, particularly with regard to the performance of the government agencies with relevant responsibility. We intend to examine how well the interagency processes worked, including whether all the relevant agencies had timely access to necessary intelligence information. And we want to fully understand why the administration’s initial public assessments of this attack were subsequently proven inaccurate.”

Asked whether she had concerns for her husband’s safety, Elizabeth Pope said she is comforted by the fact that “he will have lots of very strong, brave Marines around him.” Pope added that her husband brings unique skills as a diplomat and a linguist to the job, albeit temporarily.

“He thought he could help, and not replace Chris Stevens but to try to continue the work he was doing” until a new ambassador is appointed, Pope said.

In 2000, President Clinton nominated Pope to serve as ambassador to Kuwait. But his nomination got caught up in a political skirmish between powerful senators and his former boss, Gen. Anthony Zinni, who was then head of U.S. Central Command.

Zinni had strongly criticized a bill signed into law by Clinton to provide $97 million in military surplus to Iraqi opposition groups with the aim of helping them topple Saddam Hussein. In an article in Foreign Service Journal, Pope would later write that senators and their staff, infuriated by Zinni’s outspoken opposition, began working behind the scenes to block Pope’s nomination because he had been an adviser to the general.

Pope opted to retire after it became clear that the Senate committee would not consider his nomination.

While ambassador nominees should be thoroughly vetted, Pope wrote, it was wrong to reject a nominee without giving him or her a chance to rebut “a whispering campaign.”

“(And) it is particularly damaging in an institutional sense to hold career officers to account for loyal service,” Pope wrote in the April 2001 edition of Foreign Service Journal. “That is a quick way to kill the tradition of a career Foreign Service capable of serving loyally across administrations — an institution which is as important to our national security as carrier battle groups, or armored divisions.”

Pope’s selection to the post in Libya was praised by members of Maine’s congressional delegation.

Sen. Olympia Snowe cited Pope’s “impressive record” with the foreign service. “In the weeks ahead, my thoughts will be with Charg?ope and the thousands of other Mainers who are making heroic sacrifices in the service of our nation in dangerous places around the world,” Snowe said in a prepared statement. She also said security must be improved at U.S. diplomatic facilities, and that those responsible for the attack in Libya must be brought to justice.

Said U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree: “We are lucky to have someone like Larry Pope to fill this complex role until a permanent ambassador can be placed. With over 30 years in the Foreign Service and a keen understanding of the Arab world, he has the knowledge and experience we need at this pivotal moment. I truly appreciate his willingness to serve the country in this very difficult situation.”

Pingree is the wife of S. Donald Sussman, majority shareholder of MaineToday Media, which owns the Portland Press Herald, Kennebec Journal and Morning Sentinel.

Washington Bureau Chief Kevin Miller can be contacted at 317-6256 or at:

kmiller@pressherald.com

Twitter: KevinMillerDC