UPDATE: Since this story went to press, President Trump issued a revised executive order on March 6 that dropped Iraq from the list of seven banned countries, following the advice of Pentagon officials. Six predominantly Muslim nations — Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen — remain on 90-day entry ban. The new order also exempts current visa holders and permanent residents and does not make note of offering preferential status to persecuted minorities such as Christians. Also dropped was the indefinite ban on Syrian refugees. They will now be included in the blanket 120-suspension of all refugees. In addition, the order lays out criteria for case-by-case waivers for those with study, work or family obligations. The order keeps Trump’s initial pledge to accept no more than 50,000 refugees in a year, down from the 110,000 cap set by the Obama administration.
President Donald Trump’s brief time in office has already been unprecedented in many ways, including the level of vociferous dissent he has triggered in the State Department.
More than 1,000 Foreign Service and civil service officers signed a dissent memo in late January objecting to Trump’s executive order banning entry visas for citizens of seven predominantly Muslim countries for 90 days along with refugees from any country for 120 days. The five-page dissent memo, labeled “SENSTIVE BUT UNCLASSIFIED,” systematically dismantled the White House’s justifications for the travel ban and spelled out the damage it would cause to America’s reputation and its interests abroad. No other dissent memo in the State Department’s history has ever gained so many signatures in such a short timeframe. A dissent memo filed last year by 51 diplomats over U.S. military involvement in Syria was the previous record holder. While the travel ban has been suspended by a federal court, there are no signs that dissent will diminish in the State Department.
The travel ban dissent memo was filed through the “Dissent Channel,” a long-standing official administrative pipeline for dissenting views created by the State Department in 1971 to quell internal tensions over the Vietnam War. Dissent memos over the past decades have raised important objections and may have led to some foreign policy reforms, but those memos are meant to be confidential and used as a means of last resort for any objections (also see “Op-Ed: Dubious Dissent”).
An Internal Matter
Even though they agree with the sentiments expressed in the travel ban dissent memo, several former U.S. ambassadors and other knowledgeable sources told The Diplomat that the leaking of dissent memos, especially in a high-profile and politicized manner, may undermine the purpose and intent of the Dissent Channel in serious ways.
“I actually don’t think dissent memos should be leaked. It’s supposed to be part of an internal debate process,” said Robert Ford, former U.S. ambassador to Syria and Algeria who is now a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute. “The future of the Dissent Channel may be called into question if it continues to be used as a political stick by the employees of the Department of State.”
Given Trump’s infamously thin skin and propensity to hurl insults and hold grudges, the leaking of dissent memos also could trigger retaliation that might jeopardize careers. There are strict rules within the State Department to protect employees who file dissent memos, but it remains to be seen whether the Trump administration will respect those rules, said Hannah Gurman, a professor of U.S. history at New York University who wrote a book about the history of dissent in the State Department.
“All the signals are suggesting that this is not an administration that tolerates dissent, even if it is internal,” she told The Diplomat. “We are in new times, and some of these old principles about the legitimacy of classified information is being subject to question. Trump is testing the bounds of what state secrecy is and what professional ethics are for people in the foreign policy establishment.”
When questioned last month about the leaked dissent memo, White House press secretary Sean Spicer didn’t pull any punches. “These career bureaucrats have a problem with it?” he said. “They should either get with the program, or they can go.”
The State Department refused to answer a list of questions from The Diplomat but did provide a brief statement from acting spokesman Mark Toner that professed respect for the Dissent Channel while also warning against leaks. “The Secretary believes this is an important channel,” Toner stated. “As part of the protection of this communication, the Dissent Channel is close-hold within the Department to encourage maximum engagement by those raising important alternatives, additions, supplements, and critiques to policy debates. The Secretary endorses and defends its use, and that means not breaking the confidentiality that it affords the employee and the Department.”
In his Feb. 2 welcome remarks at the State Department, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson sought to reassure employees about his commitment to their mission, but his comments urging unity also were perceived as a warning against rocking the boat.
“I know this was a hotly contested election and we do not all feel the same way about the outcome. Each of us is entitled to the expression of our political beliefs, but we cannot let our personal convictions overwhelm our ability to work as one team,” he said. “Regardless of the circumstances shaping our country or our department, we must all remain focused on the mission at hand before us. I remind you that our undertakings are larger than ourselves or our personal careers.”
From Vietnam to Syria
The Dissent Channel was created during the term of another combative president who also was obsessed with his public image and known for holding grudges. Richard Nixon deplored leaks and internal dissent, but he was having trouble reining in anger over the Vietnam War both inside the State Department and on the streets. In 1970, 20 Foreign Service Officers signed a letter to Secretary of State William Rogers condemning Nixon’s decision to invade Cambodia. The public nature of the protest was a departure for the usually staid Foreign Service, which traditionally had kept most of its grumblings in house. A year later, the State Department created the Dissent Channel for some self-serving reasons, Gurman said.
“It was a way to make sure that [internal] protests didn’t become too chaotic and leak out to the press,” she said.
In 1971, the first dissent memo that was filed blamed the Nixon administration for doing nothing to stem the bloodshed of death squads unleashed in East Pakistan by the ruling military junta. That memo, like the travel ban dissent memo and many others, had no effect on foreign policy. While it is difficult to judge their true effect due to their confidential nature, there isn’t much evidence that dissent memos have had lasting impact on foreign policy, but they have allowed lower-level officers to register their views with superiors and perhaps clear their conscience, Gurman said.
“It really is a protest more than an effort to influence policy,” she said. “By the time you get to a Dissent Channel message, it suggests you’re on the outskirts of what the president and his inner circle are doing.”
Some Foreign Service Officers who filed dissent memos were transferred or fired, but many went on to illustrious careers including ambassadorships, Gurman said. “In that respect, it’s been very successful and people don’t feel their jobs are at risk,” she said.
Dissent memos should be used sparingly to raise objections after other means have failed, said Georgetown University adjunct professor Anne C. Richard, who previously served as assistant secretary of state for population, refugees and migration. “I know it’s frowned upon to send a lot of Dissent Channel memos because that suggests the person who is writing them is a crank or complainer,” she told The Diplomat. “But when people judiciously choose to write something serious on a policy topic, then there is general respect for the process. That doesn’t mean they win the day, and I think the writers realize that.”
Richard said she wasn’t surprised that many Foreign Service Officers opposed the travel ban. “They are by nature internationalists, and they have served overseas so they understand the interconnected world we live in,” she said. “Some Foreign Service Officers are sons or daughters of refugees or immigrants or are refugees or immigrants themselves. They are the face of America overseas even if they weren’t born in the U.S. That is something that helps us tell the story of what it means to be American.”
The Dissent Channel has never been widely utilized, averaging less than 10 dissent memos per year in a department now staffed by 13,000 Foreign Service Officers and specialists and 11,000 civil service officers. From 1971 to 2010, the number of dissent memos ranged from a high of 30 memos in 1977 to just one memo in both 2002 and 2008. In one of the first dissent memos to receive widespread publicity, career diplomat John Brady Kiesling, who was stationed in Greece, objected to the Iraq War. He resigned a short time later in 2003 because “our current course will bring instability and danger, not security,” his resignation letter stated.
The American Foreign Service Association offers four annual Constructive Dissent Awards for Foreign Service employees “who have demonstrated the intellectual courage to challenge the system from within, to question the status quo and take a stand,” although the awards aren’t limited to foreign policy issues or dissent memos.
The Dissent Channel is managed by the State Department’s Policy Planning Staff, where a response to a dissent memo is drafted and circulated to the secretary of state’s office for consideration. Oftentimes, the dissenting employee may just receive a boilerplate response that conforms with existing policy. The response also is sent to the regional bureau in question unless the memo writer requested anonymity from immediate supervisors.
“In the end, it becomes kind of a bureaucratic exercise,” Ford said. “It’s kind of a one-time exchange, not a back-and-forth policy debate.”
Last year, 51 U.S. diplomats signed a dissent memo urging U.S. air strikes in Syria to enforce a ceasefire that was repeatedly violated by President Bashar al-Assad’s regime. Ford, who was no longer U.S. ambassador to Syria at the time, said he didn’t agree with all of the recommendations in the memo, but he understood the motivation. “I certainly understand why people signed it, and I know several people who signed it,” he said. “They were moved by an enormous sense of frustration that more needed to be done to reduce the bloodshed.”
Weighing Risks of Dissent
Despite the high level of acrimony in the State Department over Trump’s policies, Ford doesn’t foresee a massive number of resignations. “For many mid-level officers, they have families and mortgages and kids in schools. Resigning is not a small thing,” he said.
But if dissent memos or other means aren’t effective, then resignation might be the only option if Foreign Service Officers feel they are violating the Constitution by enforcing government policies, said University of Kentucky professor Carey Cavanaugh, who previously served as a State Department peace mediator and the chargé d’affaires for the first U.S. Embassy in Georgia. “Just saying you’re following orders isn’t sufficient,” he said.
The leaking of the travel ban dissent memo was inevitable given its wide circulation, but it undercut the intent of the Dissent Channel, said George Washington University professor Edward Gnehm Jr., a former U.S. ambassador to Jordan, Kuwait and Australia. He also questioned the usefulness of filing a dissent memo before Tillerson had started work as secretary of state. The State Department will probably issue a specific directive reminding employees that the Dissent Channel “is not intended to be a public document and it’s inappropriate for career service to use it to express their political views externally,” he said.
The leaking of dissent memos may help journalists and the public understand the inner workings of the State Department, but the Trump administration hasn’t shown much respect for dissenting views from any corner. State Department employees will need to weigh the potential benefit of signing a politicized dissent memo that may be leaked, Ford said.
“I suppose some level of politicization is normal in foreign policy, but I don’t think Foreign Service Officers or civil service officers in the State Department are going to find that politicizing the issue is going to move the White House,” he said.
About the Author
Brendan L. Smith (www.brendanlsmith.com) is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.