Posted: 2:52 am ET
Updated: 3:55 pm ET
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The State Department’s Dissent Channel was created “to allow its users the opportunity to bring dissenting or alternative views on substantive foreign policy issues, when such views cannot be communicated in a full and timely manner through regular operating channels or procedures, to the attention of the Secretary of State and other senior State Department officials in a manner which protects the author from any penalty, reprisal, or recrimination.” Note that management, administrative, or personnel issues that are not significantly related to matters of substantive foreign policy may not be communicated through the Dissent Channel according to the Foreign Affairs Manual.
There is a reason we don’t hear often about the messages sent through the “dissent channel”:
Freedom from reprisal for Dissent Channel users is strictly enforced; officers or employees found to have engaged in retaliation or reprisal against Dissent Channel users, or to have divulged to unauthorized personnel the source or contents of Dissent Channel messages, will be subject to disciplinary action. Dissent Channel messages, including the identity of the authors, are a most sensitive element in the internal deliberative process and are to be protected accordingly.
Neither the identity of a Dissent Channel user nor the contents of any Dissent Channel message may be shared with anyone outside of the procedures as outlined in 2 FAM 074.1, paragraph (b)
We understand that in 1977, the Executive Secretariat logged in some 32 Dissent Channel messages. By contrast, in 2005, you apparently could count by the fingers of one hand the number of Foreign Service professionals who used the Dissent Channel.
In 2009, USA TODAY (October 12, 2009) publicly reported the use of the dissent channel on a USAID program in Pakistan (see Dissent Channel: USAID/Pakistan Program.
Probably, one of the more famous use of the dissent channel was one signed by 20 diplomats on the U.S. policy toward East Pakistan, also known as the Blood Telegram, the subject of the book by Gary Bass. Archer Blood was our top diplomat in Bangladesh. He was the Consul General to Dhaka, East Pakistan and was famous for sending the strongly-worded dissent telegram protesting against the atrocities committed in the Bangladesh Liberation War. [See cable: Dissent From U.S. Policy Toward East Pakistan Cable (PDF); Also see Wanted: Patron Saint for Dissenting Diplomats).
On June 16, NYT’s Mark Lander reports that dozens of diplomats have signed a dissent memo over the administration’s Syria policy, and that a State Department official provided a draft of the dissent memo to the newspaper:
More than 50 State Department diplomats have signed an internal memo sharply critical of the Obama administration’s policy in Syria, urging the United States to carry out military strikes against the government of President Bashar al-Assad to stop its persistent violations of a cease-fire in the country’s five-year-old civil war.
The memo, a draft of which was provided to The New York Times by a State Department official, says American policy has been “overwhelmed” by the unrelenting violence in Syria. It calls for “a judicious use of stand-off and air weapons, which would undergird and drive a more focused and hard-nosed U.S.-led diplomatic process.”
So, what happens next?
According to the regs, the Secretary’s Policy Planning Staff (S/P) is responsible for management of the Dissent Channel, including receipt, storage, distribution, and acknowledgment of all Dissent Channel messages received, and drafting, clearance, and timely transmission of all Dissent Channel responses. Note that Jon Finer, is Secretary Kerry’s Chief of Staff and also the Director of Policy Planning
Immediately upon receipt of all incoming Dissent Channel messages, S/P distributes copies to the Secretary, the Deputy Secretary (Blinken), the Deputy Secretary for Management and Resources (Higginbottom), the Under Secretary for Political Affairs (Shannon), the Executive Secretary, and the Chair of the Secretary’s Open Forum (who is not identified on the state.gov website). The director of S/P may distribute the dissent message to other senior officials in the Department, both for information purposes and for help in drafting a response. No additional distribution may be made without the authorization of the S/P director.
The Director of Policy Planning is also responsible for acknowledging receipt of a Dissent message within 2 working days and for providing a substantive reply, normally within 30-60 working days. At the discretion of the Director of the Policy Planning, S/P may also clear replies with other senior Department of State officials.
Will this change the policy on Syria? Don’t count on it.
According to Kal Bird in Dissent in the Foreign Service, the first dissent cable was filed by Jack Perry, protesting the Christmas bombing of North Vietnam in 1972, on the eve of the Nixon-Brezhnev summit. Perry’s arguments had no impact on the Nixon-Kissinger Vietnam policy. Also this:
The first major test of the dissent channel as a means of not only venting views, but changing policy, came in Cyprus in 1974. In that year of the CIA-sponsored coup d’etat in Nicosia, Thomas Boyatt filed a dissent cable protesting Kissinger’s interventionist policy. Within days Boyatt was fired from his position as director of the Office of Cypriot Affairs. His dissent cable was not answered for five months, and even then, the response was merely an acknowledgment of receipt.
(Note: The Blood telegram is dated April 6, 1971, so while we do not have a date for the Perry cable protesting the 1972 bombing of North Vietnam, the Blood dissent appears to predates the Perry dissent).
Mr. Bird’s article notes that “precisely because few dissent cables have ever changed policy, use of the dissent channel is considered a desperate last resort.”
A “desperate last resort” and might just be the reason why this dissent channel memo was leaked to the New York Times.
What a dissent cable looks like — read Dissent From U.S. Policy Toward East Pakistan Cable via National Security Archive/GWU: