USA Politics

State Department dissent: What does it mean for Trump's travel ban?

Roughly 900 State Department employees have signed on to "dissent cables" criticizing the Trump administration's travel ban on citizens of seven Muslim-majority countries.

Hundred of Syrian families wait to register at the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) headquarters in Beirut, Lebanon on Monday. By executive order, U.S. President Donald Trump imposed a 90-day ban on Friday that affects travel to the U.S. by citizens of Iraq, Syria, Iran, Sudan, Libya, Somalia and Yemen and puts an indefinite hold on a program resettling Syrian refugees.
Hassan Ammar/AP
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In the wake of President Trump's travel ban, hundreds of career diplomats have signed on to an official protest of his policies in an unusually widespread "dissent cable," underscoring discontent over his executive order from those on the front lines of promoting US interests abroad. But the US State Department officials' protest does more than complain: they've offered alternative steps to improve US security.

On Friday, Mr. Trump signed an executive order that bars nationals of seven Muslim-majority countries from entering the country for 90 days, suspends refugee admissions for 120 days, and indefinitely bars Syrian refugees from resettling in the US. Rather than increasing US security and preventing terrorist attacks – the ban's stated aims – these diplomats say the ban will tarnish America’s reputation as a welcoming country, and reduce intelligence about potential terrorists from Muslim nations. 

Roughly 900 officials have signed on to the document since Friday, a source familiar with the cable told Reuters.

Alone, this protest is unlikely to shape policy, knowledgable observers say. But as the concerns expressed by State Department employees go up the chain to the next secretary of State, and even to senior members of Congress, they may spur the Trump administration to adjust course.

“The likelihood of this administration taking the protest of career state department officials seriously is very low,” explains Robert Loftis, a longtime State Department diplomat who was formerly the ambassador to Lesotho, in a phone conversation with The Christian Science Monitor.

State Department officials are not the only ones objecting to the travel ban. The American Civil Liberties Union, along with other activist groups, filed a lawsuit against the ban on Friday afternoon. In Silicon Valley, the chief executives of Facebook and Google spoke out against the ban. Among elected officials, Rep. John Lewis (D) of Georgia, a civil rights legend, decided to camp out in Atlanta airport until the issues were resolved, while Sen. Bob Casey (D) of Pennsylvania and the state’s governor, Tom Wolf (D), paid a visit to the Philadelphia airport, where many visitors and refugees were detained for hours or sent back to their countries of origin.

But the protest by State Department officials is particularly interesting because it’s a surprisingly strong objection to official policy by the very people charged with justifying that policy to the rest of the world. Career diplomats are accustomed to policy changes with each new president, and they normally don’t trigger widespread dissent.

“The vast majority of people are willing to work with an incoming administration,” says Ambassador Loftis, who is now a professor at Boston University's Pardee School of Global Studies. “That’s your job.”

In most cases, however, officials at government agencies also get an opportunity to weigh in on a new policy before it is enacted. During this process, they bring their experience in the field to bear, discussing the purpose of a policy, whether it will achieve this purpose, and whether the benefits of the policy outweigh any potential costs. Thus, even if some employees disagree with the policy, they at least know why the government selected the policy it did.

“You want to have all the interests of the United States considered before you take a major step like this,” Loftis explains. The travel ban, by contrast, was “put into place, as far as anyone can tell, without any consultation whatsoever.”

At a background briefing for reporters on Sunday, a senior administration official defended the decision not to give government agencies advance notice, saying, “I think everybody here can … imagine 25 reasons why that wouldn’t make sense from a security standpoint,” the Monitor’s Peter Grier reported on Monday.

But the unusual approach may have driven State Department employees to seek redress of their grievances in another way. The “Dissent Channel,” established under president Richard Nixon, “allows State employees to express divergent policy views candidly and privately to senior leadership,” Mark Toner, State Department acting spokesperson, said in a statement emailed to the Monitor.

Typically, the Department receives four or five of these messages in a year, a State Department spokesperson said. In July, around 50 dissenters critiqued President Obama’s Syria policy. But the scale of the latest protest is “extraordinarily unusual,” Loftis says.

State Department dissenters express concern that denying hundreds of millions of people access to the US “runs counter to core American values of nondiscrimination, fair play, and extending a warm welcome to foreign visitors and immigrants.”

Given its focus on Muslim-majority countries, the travel ban may also increase hostility toward America from the Muslim world, making cooperation more challenging in the long term and potentially cutting off the flow of crucial information needed to fight terrorism.

“We are directly impact[ing] the attitudes of current and future leaders in these societies,” the dissenters write, going on to outline alternative approaches they say would maintain openness while improving security.

Rather than a blanket ban on the travel of over 200 million citizens, or a focus on specific nationalities, they suggest both a broader and more focused effort:

  • Expand existing interagency cooperation as well as cooperation with state and local law enforcement, who are in many cases best situated to detect threats. 
  • Expand the program to continuously vet visa holders – looking at all visa holders, not just those of specific nationalities.
  • Employ a targeted interagency approach to deterring, detecting, and subverting attacks – including those who may hold “friendly” or even US passports.

Every message sent through the dissent channel has to be seen, responded to, and have its concerns addressed, according to Loftis. That means the protest can’t just be dismissed: the next secretary of State – expected to be former ExxonMobil chief executive Rex Tillerson – will be responsible for explaining the policy to employees.

The Trump administration may choose to stay the course – and if they do, there isn’t much State Department officials can do about it. As public servants, they are obligated to follow the policies laid out for them.

But the very act of doing their job may ultimately compel the government to shift direction. Diplomats working abroad are responsible not only for representing US interests abroad, but also for reporting back about other countries’ reactions to US policies.

“It’s not a defense of those countries,” Loftis explains. “[You have to] have a good idea of how the other side is reacting and whether [a policy] is going to be effective.”

As the international response percolates from foreign service officers abroad up to the Secretary of State and high-ranking members of Congress, they may pressure the government to rethink its policy, Loftis indicates.

He adds that the State Department protest is about more than a policy change: it’s a question of combating the narrative that describes refugees and Muslims as a threat to the United States. 

“The people that they’re keeping out are not the people that we should be worried about,” he says.

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