Carlson’s memoir, In the Dark of War: A CIA Officer’s Inside Account of the U.S. Evacuation from Libya (Fidelis Books, 2020), traces the path of her unlikely trajectory from a shy preacher’s daughter to a CIA analyst in war-torn Libya. Her life began in Pennsylvania, where her father attended seminary. He eventually became the minister at a small church in rural Ohio, where Carlson spent the early part of her childhood surrounded by three active brothers, playing hide-and-seek in cornfields, camping, hiking, and learning archery. Her mother and father divorced when Carlson was 8, and the family moved back to the Pacific Northwest to be closer to extended family.
After the divorce, Sarah’s mother raised her and her brothers mostly on her own, instilling in them a strong value for independence, duty, and altruism. Helping others seems to have come naturally to Carlson: When she was about 9, she confronted a bully who was picking on her brother on the school bus; in high school, she was quick to look out for her friends and to provide care if something went awry. She and her family volunteered at their church, laying the foundation for a lifetime of service work.
It was also Carlson’s mother who inspired her to attend University of Puget Sound. Carlson started college at Western Washington University; then her mother took a job as an office assistant in Puget Sound’s School of Education, and Sarah decided to transfer soon after. “I’d take breaks between classes and go get a coffee and take it up to her, so I knew a lot of people in the education department,” she says.
Carlson earned an English degree with an emphasis in writing, rhetoric, and culture. In one of her classes, she read an ancient text, Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War. “I thought there were really important lessons about war,” she says. She also continued her volunteer work, participating in the Big Sister program.
In fall 2001, when she was a senior, she did an internship at Pierce County’s Department of Emergency Management, helping schools build emergency response plans. She found the pressure-oriented deadline work to her liking, and imagined someday working in local emergency services (she already was an EMT) and perhaps writing books on the side. Then the Sept. 11 attacks happened. The school shut down, and Carlson was called in to her internship to help prepare an Urban Search and Rescue Team to deploy to the Pentagon and World Trade Center. “I knew at that moment, when I was helping them get ready to go, that I wanted to do something more,” she says. On the advice of her manager, a retired Army colonel, she applied to the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA). All three of her brothers signed up to serve in the Department of Defense in response to the attacks.
Carlson was accepted into the DIA, but had to wait for an extensive background check to be completed. She graduated from Puget Sound in 2002 and began at the DIA a year later. She worked in counterterrorism in Baghdad, then spent two years at the National Counterterrorism Center in Washington, D.C., and two more as an analyst for the U.S. Northern Command in Colorado Springs, Colo.
She started with the CIA in 2008 as a “targeting analyst,” traveling extensively to the Middle East, North Africa, and South Asia, specializing in finding threats and identifying plans to attack the United States and Europe. She applied for an overseas assignment in Libya in early 2012. Then, on Sept. 11, 2012, members of an Islamic militant group attacked the American diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya, killing four employees—including J. Christopher Stevens, the U.S. ambassador. U.S. personnel were needed in Libya, and Carlson was assigned to go to the capital city of Tripoli.