On January 30, after word got out that a large number of U.S. State Department officials were preparing a formal, well-argued dissent against President Donald Trump’s cruel executive order on immigration, the White House reacted with stung indignation. Even before the cable was submitted by an astonishing total of nearly a thousand State Department staffers, Trump’s spokesman, Sean Spicer, issued an extraordinary rebuke to the professional diplomats: “These career bureaucrats have a problem with it? They should either get with the program or they can go.”
It was precisely in order to avoid that sort of stark choice that the State Department’s dissent channel was first established. Created during the Vietnam War, when many Foreign Service officers understandably had grave misgivings about U.S. foreign policy, it offered a way for them to speak their minds while continuing to serve their country. Since then, the dissent channel, at its best, has been a source of creativity and open thinking inside the bureaucracy, allowing diplomats to question widespread assumptions and challenge ideological stances from within.
Dissent cables are rare, with only four or five written every year, and dissenters are officially protected from reprisals. They are handled by the department’s policy planning staff, which passes them up to the secretary of state and other top department officials. They usually garner only a handful to a few dozen signatures, unlike the hordes that appeared on the memo criticizing Trump’s executive order. In the past, as the historian Hannah Gurman notes, the dissent channel has been used to condemn U.S. support for the junta in Argentina in the 1970s, backing for Islamist forces in Afghanistan in the 1980s, and the imminent invasion of Iraq in 2003. Although the channel, Gurman argues, is often a way to blow off steam without really shifting policy, it’s still a powerful symbol of open debate within the foreign policy apparatus.
For that reason, presidents and secretaries of state have often been annoyed
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