30+ Years of Freedom of Information Action

Department of State’s Dissent Channel Revealed

Published: Mar 15, 2018
Briefing Book #620

Edited by Nate Jones, Tom Blanton, and Emma Sarfity

For more information, contact:
202-994-7000, nsarchiv@gwu.edu

Foreign Service Officer Protests of: US Inaction over My Lai atrocities “similar to those of Nazis;” “Selective Genocide” in Bangladesh and Burundi; Cooking the Books on Vietnam Intelligence; and US Policy towards the USSR, China, and the World.

Cables Report “Blatantly Illegal” Congressional Gemstone Smuggling and the use of embassies for the “soliciting of female companionship.”

Responses to Dissent Cables from Policy Planning Staff including from Tony Lake, Warren Christopher, Paul Wolfowitz.

Department of State’s Dissent Channel Revealed

Washington D.C., March 15, 2018 - A US Foreign Service officer warned that “blatantly illegal” Congressional requests, including the use of a diplomatic pouch to smuggle gemstones and utilizing embassy employees for the “soliciting of female companionship,” were harming “the personal integrity of employees of the Department of State,” according to a Dissent Channel cable newly released to the National Security Archive after a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit.

This 1974 cable from the US Embassy in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, one of the earliest sent via the Dissent Channel, is one of dozens of messages, together with responses by the State Department’s Policy Planning Staff, posted today by the National Security Archive. Cables sent via the Dissent Channel are formal critiques of US policy by employees of the State Department. State responded to the Tegucigalpla dissent by stating that “current guidance...regarding Congressional travel is adequate.”

The topics covered in these formal cables vary widely, from moral concerns over embassies soliciting female companionship for US Congressmen, to calls for the US to act to stop “genocide,” to warnings of errors in intelligence reporting from the Vietnam War, to recommended changes in grand strategy towards the Soviet Union and China. Among the dissents and responses posted today by the Archive are:

  • A dissent over the 1972 “attacks against fuel and other storage facilities in Haiphong [Harbor]” arguing that the renewed bombing was “a breach of the spirit if not the letter of our stated policy to disengage from the Indo-China conflict.” According to the authors, “military triumph, at this juncture, is well beyond the grasp of the United States.”
  • A dissent over the US “policy of non-intervention in Burundi during massive murdering of Hutu tribesmen” which the author characterized as “waiting until reported ‘selective genocide’ has resulted in the elimination of any dissident Hutu leaders.”
  • A dissent over the executive branch’s decision to “initiate[] no steps to discipline a military unit that took action at My Lai” and the “systematic use of electrical torture, beatings, and in some cases, murder, of men, women, and children by [U.S.] military units in Vietnam.” These actions by US soldiers, according to the dissenter, Alexander Peaslee, were “atrocities too similar to those of Nazis.”
  • A dissent over the “hypocritical” US support of the Somoza regime in Nicaragua, bemoaning that the US missed a “unique opportunity … to intervene for once on the right repeat right side” of history.
  • A dissent over US recognition of Guatemalan dictator General Efrain Rios Montt, “a man who may not be in full possession of his mental facilities… who more and more is taking on the image of a despot who believes he rules by divine will” which “stretch[ed] our concept of democracy to its limits.”

These Dissent Channel cables were previously withheld from an Archive FOIA request under the FOIA's "predecisional" Exemption 5, but the 2016 FOIA Improvement Act amendments made it illegal for agencies to use this exemption after 25 years. The first impact of this change was the CIA’s release of the fifth volume of its Bay of Pigs history, which it previously hid from the public as a “draft.”

Following passage of the FOIA Improvement Act, the National Security Archive re-requested these key Dissent records. After the State Department failed to respond to the National Security Archive’s FOIA request, we sued with pro bono representation from Alex Haskell, Cliff Sloan, and Gregory Craig of Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom. The agency then agreed to release these historically important records drafted by its dissenters on a rolling basis. The Archive will post them as they are released.

The Dissent Channel was created as a result of the US war in Vietnam. By 1968, each unmarried junior Foreign Service officer who had not performed active duty military service was required to go to Vietnam for his first Foreign Service tour. High FSO casualty rates, and the fact that, according to a Foreign Service Journal article by David T. Jones, “a critical mass of officers had genuinely come to believe that the US policy in Vietnam was wrong, ineffective or both” led to the gradual creation of State Department mechanisms for its employees to voice dissent.

The initial iteration under Secretary of State Dean Rusk was the Open Forum Panel, which served as a “general conduit” for the previously underrepresented views of junior officers on issues including foreign policy. But the Forum was a “steam valve, not a steam turbine” and in April 1970, 50 FSOs sent a letter to Secretary of State William Rodgers protesting the pending US invasion of Cambodia. 

At the same time, the American Foreign Service Association began awarding annual awards for dissent to US policy Foreign Service officers. The pressure led to the publication of a State Department report entitled “Diplomacy for the ‘70s, which included over 500 recommendations for improvement. One of these was to establish “a general principle… that officers who cannot concur in a report or recommendation submitted by the mission are free to submit a dissenting statement.” These developments culminated in February 1971 when the Foreign Affairs Manual was updated to include the explicit freedom of FSOs to dissent.[1]

Today, the Foreign Affairs Manual states that the Dissent Channel was created “to allow its users the opportunity to bring dissenting or alternative views on substantive foreign policy issues… 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.”[2] In the words of Ambassador and dissenter Thomas Boyatt, “In the US federal government (and probably the world) [the institutionalization of dissent] exists in only one place – the US Department of State. For more than 40 years, whistleblowers and those prepared to tell truth to power have been protected and respected there.”[3] Now, we can read the cases that diplomats made against their government’s foreign policy.

In the words of one now-declassified cable, “The Dissent Channel can be a mechanism for unclogging the Department’s constipated paper flow” related to pressing employee dissent against current foreign policy actions. The Director of Policy Planning for State is responsible for “providing a substitutive reply, normally within 30-60 working days.”The responses to the critiques posted today are drafted by high level diplomats including Anthony Lake, Warren Christopher, and Paul Wolfowitz.

The Dissent Channel remains in active use today. In January 2017, nearly 1,000 State Department Foreign Service officers and civil service members signed a document transmitted through the Dissent Channel in opposition to an executive order signed by President Trump halting the issuance of visas to people from seven Muslim countries. The dissent, which has been published, states, that the executive order “runs counter to core American values of nondiscrimination, fair play, and extending a warm welcome to foreign visitor and immigrants.” Moreover, “[t]he end result of this ban will not be a drop in terror attacks in the United States; rather, it will be a drop in international good will towards Americans and a threat towards our economy.” The text or existence of any Policy Planning response to this Dissent has not been made public.

Included among the Dissent Channel cables and Policy Planning responses posted today by the National Security Archive are formal dissents over:

  • Arms sales to Pakistan used for atrocities in Bangladesh
  • An FSO being asked to hire “female companionship” for congressmen in Honduras and other “blatantly illegal actions” including the use of the diplomatic pouch to smuggle gemstones and cash
  • Allegedly inaccurate intelligence reported by the Ambassador to South Vietnam.
  • US policy towards China and Taiwan
  • The Vietnam Paris negotiations
  • The 1972 Bombing of Haiphong Bay
  • The 1972 "genocide" in Burundi
  • “Helping totalitarian governments of the right"
  • “The imperative of US action on the Palestinian question"
  • “Hypocritical” US policy toward Italy
  • The use of "aid as a weapon"
  • US policy on the Korean peninsula
  • "Ostentatious living" by US government employees in Indonesia
  • The US policy of supporting the Somoza "dictatorship" in Nicaragua
  • The "Syria, Lebanon, and Israel Convergence and Divergence" on 1977
  • The relationship between President Carter and Augusto Pinochet
  • US policy " not [to] negotiate with terrorists"
  • The "State Department and Human Rights in Cuba"
  • "US Policy toward Zaire"
  • US Policy Toward Kenya and the Horn
  • The “US and Syria: The Special Relationship Crumbles" in 1978
  • US acquiescence to drug trafficking in Paraguay
  • US economic animosity toward the USSR in 1972
  • The handling of the 1974 Cyprus crisis
  • US policy toward Lebanon in 1981 
  • US policy towards Israel in 1982
  • The 1982 Recognition of the Rios Montt presidency in Guatemala
  • The policy of Sanctions and the Atlantic Alliance
  • US-Palestine relations in 1982
  • The issue of sexual harassment at the State Department in 1983, and
  • Using “carrots and sticks” to influence the actions of Poland in 1983

Peruse these and other Dissent Channel cables, and flag new insights on Twitter with the hashtag #dissentchannel. As the Department of State continues releasing documents in response to our FOIA lawsuit, the National Security Archive will post the full corpus of Dissent Channel cables on a special section of our website. 

Read the Documents

Note

[1] For the best account of the creation of the Dissent Channel, see David T. Jones, “Advise and Dissent: The Diplomat as Protester,” Foreign Service Journal, April 2000, 36. For a summary of the subsequent history of the Dissent Channel, see Kai Bird, “The Decline of Dissent,” Foreign Service Journal, February 1985, 26.

[2] From the Foreign Affairs Manual, 2 FAM 070 Dissent Channel,

[3] Thomas Boyatt, “What if I Disagree? Dissent in the Foreign Service,” excerpted from Inside a U.S. Embassy, 2011. Boyatt also includes helpful instructions on how to best draft and argue a dissent.

[4] For the full history of the genocide in East Pakistan, the State Department officials reporting it, and Nixon and Kissinger’s support of West Pakistan, read Gary J. Bass, The Blood Telegram: Nixon Kissinger, and a Forgotten Genocide (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2013).