Dissent Channel Leak: Who Gains the Most From Flogging the Laundry Like This?

Posted: 3:46 am ET
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The most spectacular policy dissent within the Foreign Service happened  before the creation of the “dissent channel” and outside the then Secretary of State Dean Rusk’s “Open Forum Panel” (which was created in 1967).

According to retired FSO David Jones who wrote Advice and Dissent in the April 2000 issue of the Foreign Service Journal (PDF),  50 Foreign Service Officers (FSOs) sent a letter to then Secretary of State William Rogers in April 1970 protesting an anticipated invasion of Cambodia.

Mr. Jones cited Under Secretary for Political Affairs U. Alexis Johnson’s 1984 memoir, The Right Hand of Power:

In his book, Johnson acknowledges the legitimacy of the officers’ substantive complaint, but he faults their tactics in circulating multiple copies of the letter to secure additional signatures, which led to its leak to the media. Making matters worse, the letter hit the news just as the U.S. military assault was taking place in Cambodia.

Retired FSO Ted Eliot, Jr. who was then the Executive Secretary of the State Department wrote to the FSJ that the FSOs’ letter gave rise to “what was probably the greatest crisis of confidence ever between a President and the Foreign Service.” Nixon apparently instructed Secretary Rogers to fire all the signers. Secretary Rogers did not do that and instead had two of his most senior officers (U. Alexis Johnson and William Macomber, Jr.) meet with the signers. According to Mr. Eliot, during the meeting Mr. Johnson was told that the signers had not intended that their letter be made public. He told them, nonetheless, that it showed a lack of judgment on their part.

In February 1971, the State Department revised the Foreign Affairs Manual to give FSOs the freedom to dissent.

On April 6, 1971, the dissent cable that came to be known as the Blood Telegram was sent by U.S. Consulate General Dacca to the State Department.  In a transcript of conversation between Secretary Rogers and Henry Kissinger, then President Nixon’s Assistant for National Security Affairs, Secretary Rogers referred to “that goddam message from our people in Dacca.” To Kissinger, he complained, “It’s miserable. They bitched about our policy and have given it lots of distribution so it will probably leak. It’s inexcusable.” Whatever was the public embrace or pronouncement of support, it was never the same in private when it came to dissent.

(NOTE: Read Dissent From U.S. Policy Toward East Pakistan Cable (April 6, 1971); click here for the April 10, 1971 follow-up cable; click here for the State Department’s response drafted by Assistant Secretary of State Sisco and cleared by the senior leadership of the Department of State, USIA, and AID, to the charge made by the staff of the Consulate General that the U.S. had failed to condemn what it viewed as atrocities in East Pakistan).

No doubt Kissinger remembered this when he came to the State Department in September 1973.  A month after assuming charge of the Department, he issued his own guidance on the dissent policy. According to David Jones:

In October 1973, however, Secretary of State Henry Kissinger (HAK) issued his own guidance about dissent. He said the dissent should be heard, but also expected “that all officers  will keep dissenting views in the channels provided for,” and observed that “expression of differing views will of course be subject to the ambassador’s control.” Kissinger’s less than wholehearted welcome of contrarian views may help account for the fact that the dissent channel, once it was established, did not stimulate an immediate burst of cable traffic protesting the war.

The Jones article was published in April 2000:

In the almost 30 years of its existence, the Dissent Channel has received over 250 messages, ranging from a high of 30 in 1977 to a low of 3 in 1997. Of the first 200 messages from 1971 to 1991, about 50 addressed “general,” non-foreign—policy topics such as housing allowance policy. None of the other 150 or so messages can be credited with reversing existing policy; instead, at best, the dissenting viewpoint may have received some senior level consideration. During the past decade, annual totals of contributions have averaged in the single digits.

Most of these dissent messages did not make the news or change official policy.  Ambassador Tom Boyatt who previously served as U.S. ambassador to Burkina Faso (1978) and Colombia (1980) and used the Dissent Channel to protest Kissinger’s interventionist policy in Cyrpus in 1974, however, cites the Yugoslavia dissent (Serbian ethnic cleansing) as may have been “the largest factor in changing our policy from dithering to intervening bringing about the Dayton Accords.”

Army colonel and later Deputy Chief of Mission in Sierra Leone and Mongolia Ann Wright, one of the three career diplomats who quit over Iraq, writes that she sent a dissent cable to Secretary of State Colin Powell expressing her “strong concerns about the Bush administration’s hot rhetoric about the need for regime change in Iraq and predicted the chaos that a U.S. invasion and occupation would have” in February 2003. Her dissent had “no effect on the Bush administration” and three weeks later on the eve of the beginning of the war on Iraq, she sent Colin Powell another cable –her resignation.

Former FSO Ron Capps says that he used the Dissent Channel to register his opposition to USG policy in Darfur, and like this newest message, his dissent was also leaked to the New York Times.

In September 2011, 2 FAM 070 was completely revised and includes this: “Freedom from reprisal for Dissent Channel users is strictly enforced.”  In the past, Dissent Channel cables were also marked “confidentialand “LIMDIS” for limited distribution. The FAM update in September 2011 notes that “Dissent Channel telegrams must not be labeled or identified by any other distribution caption (e.g., No Distribution (NODIS)Exclusive Distribution (EXDIS)State Distribution Only (STADIS), or Limited Distribution (LIMDIS).”  The draft version published by NYT is marked “SBU” for Sensitive But Unclassified. 

Leak Reactions

Ambassador Bill Harrop who previously served as U.S. Ambassador to Guinea (1975), concurrently to Kenya and Seychelles (1980), Congo (1987), Israel (1991) and as Inspector General of the State Department (1983) told us that the Dissent Channel is a major asset of the State Department, and the articulation of strong, emotional disagreement with U.S. policy toward Syria is a perfect example of how it was designed to be used. He cited several purposes of the Dissent Channel:

  • a pressure escape valve for officers in disagreement with policy
  • a channel to inform the Secretary of what his staff truly believes
  • a step short of resignation for those in deep opposition to policy
  • a vehicle for keeping staff dissent within the Department, not publicly expressed

Ambassador Harrop also has some strong words concerning the leak:

They jeopardized an important institution, the Dissent Channel. Assuming most were FSOs, they were commissioned by the president and confirmed by the Senate. Their oath of office is to protect and defend the Constitution, but they are not free to debate publicly with their president. If they wanted to go public they should have resigned.

Ambassador Chas Freeman who previously served as U.S. Ambassador to Saudi Arabia  (1989) told us he used the channel in 1978:

— to make a contrarian case in “Open Forum Magazine” — a classified journal not circulated outside the Department of State — for sticking with Taipei and forgetting normalization with Beijing, when it appeared that the concept of strategic rapprochement with China had bogged down. As I hoped would be the case, this elicited vigorous rebuttals from more senior officers who would otherwise have been silent. There was no leak.

Ambassador Freeman also said that “the channel can only work if it is “internal use only,”  i.e., it does not become part of the political diatribe or embarrass the administration.”

Of course, we’d like to hear the battles that are fought inside the bureaucracy. But we also recognize that the intent of the dissent channel is to inform the administration of the day and that these policy disagreements are not for public consumption.

Ambassador Freeman  told Alternet: “Someone decided to leak it … for whatever irrational reason, an action as blatantly incorrect as it is most certainly politically and diplomatically counterproductive.” The Alternet author concludes that “the cable will not produce the outcome desired by the diplomats. But even so, it serves to bring U.S. politics into the domain of diplomatic procedures.”

Not/not good particularly given the perception of the politicization of the State Department and the Foreign Service in recent years. This NYT piece suggests that “the disclosure of the memo could roil the waters in an election year.”  Questions have already been asked if this leak is intended “to boost Clinton’s narrative that she wanted a more robust attack on Damascus as early as 2012?” And if this is “a campaign advertisement for Clinton, and a preparation for her likely Middle East policy when she takes power in 2017?”

In the Alternet article, Ambassador Freeman also cites what’s probably most notable about this case —  that the signatories are arguing for rather than against the use of force. Over the past 40 years, diplomats have used the “dissent channel” to caution against a rush to war. Now these diplomats are asking for an intensification of war.

Ambassador Dennis Jett who previously served as U.S. Ambassador to Mozambique (1993) and Peru (1996) told us “That there is distress over Syria is not surprising. It has become Obama’s Rwanda.” He further adds:

The dissent channel was set up to give people an opportunity to propose alternatives to existing policy without committing career suicide. I don’t know that anyone ever really thought that there was much of a chance over the years for policies to really be changed but it gave people a chance to blow off steam.  I think the dissidents had no illusions that their memo would move the president to act.  So they leaked it immediately with the hope that the publicity would. Or at least one of them did since the NY Times printed what they called a draft of the message.  It would have been preferable to give the system time to act, but I am sure the dissenters felt as much of a sense of urgency as of frustration

A trusted Foggy Bottom nightingale told us that he/she saw the earliest drafts of this memo but did not sign it because he/she “was convinced it was a waste of time.”

The nightingale also told us that he/she know most of the signers, “respect every one of them” and “hate” it that “they’ve been undermined by this having been released to the press.”

When asked about the leak, the nightingale says that  “at least among the signers they’re all saying none of them leaked it.”

We can’t say what happened individually, of course. But. Say, this is true — that none of the signers leaked the dissent message to NYT and the WSJ — who gains the most from flogging the laundry like this?

The NYT article went online after 6 pm EST on June 16.  The State Department spokesman acknowledged on June 17 that the agency received it the day before.  According to the FAM, the Director of Policy Planning (S/P), that is, Jon Finer who is serving concurrently as Secretary Kerry’s chief of staff is responsible for acknowledging receipt of a Dissent message within 2 working days and for providing a substantive reply, normally within 30-60 working days.

In this case, S/P was not even afforded 48 hours.  Did one of the 51 authors of the dissent memo leak it to NYT and WSJ at the same time it went to S/P?

And if the signers did not leak it, then who did?



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One response

  1. D.S.:

    Thoughtful and worthwhile essay on a complex subject. The hint that the Department itself may have been responsible for the leak strikes me as conspiracy theory gone wild. The fact that it was a draft that reached the NYT and WSJ certainly fingers one of the dissenters, or possibly an individual shown the draft to solicit his/her signature.

    Ted McNamara and I happened to meet with John Kirby on Diplomacy Center business the morning of his press briefing and discussed the Dissent Channel with him at some length (he was nonplussed by the affair, claiming that dissent was completely unknown in the Navy). I thought he handled the briefing skillfully.

    Bill Harrop