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Blinken’s Breach of Faith

Sharing dissent cables with Congress is a surprising betrayal of State Department tradition.

United States Deputy Secretary of State Antony Blinken in Ukraine
Antony Blinken speaks to the press in Kiev, Ukraine on March 6, 2015. (Vladimir Shtanko/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

Something quite significant in American diplomatic history is taking place—a State Department Dissent Channel message, concerning the evacuation and withdrawal from Afghanistan, is going to be officially shared with members of Congress.

Rep. Michael McCaul of Texas, the House Foreign Affairs Committee chairman, announced that his panel investigating the final days of American presence in Afghanistan will view the Dissent Channel cable. McCaul threatened to hold Secretary of State Antony Blinken in contempt if he did not provide him access to the diplomatic cable, which came from a “dissent channel” that allows State Department officials to discuss views that differ from White House policy.

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It is believed the July 2021 cable discussed concerns from the rank-and-file diplomatic staff not fully shared by senior embassy executives and management about the upcoming American withdrawal from the country, warning that the U.S.-backed Afghan government could fall. The cable specifically advised an earlier withdrawal date than was ultimately chosen by the Biden administration, and may have addressed the decision to conduct one of the largest-ever civilian evacuations from a single airport under fire in Kabul.

So, what is the Dissent Channel and why is this particular cable so important?

The Dissent Channel was set up in 1971 during the Vietnam War era as a way for Foreign Service officers and civil servants at State (as well as United States Agency for International Development, the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, and the former United States Information Agency) to raise concerns to senior management about the direction of U.S. foreign policy without fear of retribution. 

The cables (formal, official State internal communications are still referred to as “cables,” harking back to early diplomatic days when telegrams were used exclusively to communicate between Washington and embassies abroad) are sent to the State Department’s policy planning director. He distributes them to the secretary of State and other top officials, who must respond within 30 to 60 days. There are typically about five to ten each year. “Discouragement of, or penalties for use of, the Dissent Channel are impermissible,” according to the State Department internal regulations.

Historical messages include a dissent over the executive branch’s decision to “initiate...no steps to discipline a military unit that took action at My Lai” in Vietnam and the “systematic use of electrical torture, beatings, and in some cases, murder, of men, women, and children by military units in Vietnam.” These actions by U.S. soldiers were “atrocities too similar to those of Nazis.”

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Another dissent was over the “hypocritical” U.S. support of the Somoza regime in Nicaragua, bemoaning that the U.S. missed a “unique opportunity to intervene for once on the right repeat right side” of history. One older atypical dissent cable complained about having to arrange female companionship in Honduras for a visiting U.S. congressman. One now-declassified cable says, “the Dissent Channel can be a mechanism for unclogging the Department’s constipated paper flow."

What the channel does is one thing; who gets to see it is another. Until now, dissent messages have generally been regarded as something sacrosanct, not to be shown to outsiders and not to be leaked. “Release and public circulation of Dissent Channel messages,” State wrote to one inquirer, “would inhibit the willingness of Department personnel to avail themselves of the Dissent Channel to express their views freely.”

The messages were first withheld from the rest of government (and the public) by State under the rules that created the system, and later under the Freedom of Information Act's (FOIA) “predecisional” Exemption 5, until the 2016 FOIA Improvement Act amendments made it illegal for agencies to use this exemption after 25 years. So, sharing the Afghan dissent cable with members of Congress, especially so soon after the administration's evacuation policy failed in Afghanistan, is a very big deal at the State Department.

One publicized exception to how closely held dissent messages are took place in 2017, when nearly a thousand State Department Foreign Service Officers signed a five-page dissent message opposing President Donald Trump’s executive order, “Protecting the Nation from Foreign Terrorist Entry into the United States,” which prohibited seven additional Muslim nationalities from entering the U.S.—a.k.a., “the Muslim Ban.” As a result of an anti-Trump contingent inside the generally liberal and mostly Democratic-leaning State Department, the message was leaked in its entirety. Even more against precedent, Trump’s spokesman Sean Spicer issued a public rebuke to the diplomats: “These career bureaucrats have a problem with it? They should either get with the program or they can go.”

An almost-leak (a State Department official provided a draft, though the final version was not published, to The New York Times) took place in 2016 during the Trump-Clinton presidential election. Fifty-one Foreign Service Officers criticized the Obama administration via the Dissent Channel for failing to do enough to protect civilians in Syria in what was widely seen as an endorsement of Hillary’s pseudo-promise to put U.S. boots on the ground in Syria. Other Trump-era dissent cables not shared outside the Department called for consultations on Trump’s prospective removal from office and rebuked the secretary of State for not forcefully condemning the president over January 6.

To understand fully what the Dissent Channel is requires a better understanding of the State Department culture: academic in nature but frighteningly risk-averse. The academic side reflects the Department’s modern origins: a body composed of members who are “male, pale, and Yale,” a place where a tradition of loyal opposition holds sway. But it is the risk-averse side that explains how important revealing the Afghan cable is. Dissent messages are signed; anonymity is not allowed. While Blinken promised to not show the names of those who signed the Afghan cable to Congress, State senior management will know exactly who wrote what.

In addition, Dissent Channel messages must still be cleared at the post of origin for transmission to the secretary of State, although there is no requirement everyone at the mission agree with the contents per se (authorization does not imply concurrence). Thus, one’s colleagues also know who wrote what, potential dynamite in an organization where dissent is otherwise not encouraged and corridor reputation plays a deciding role in promotions and future assignments. It is a significant step to write or sign a dissent cable and, despite the regulations’ admonishment that use of the Dissent Channel not be discouraged by supervisors, it is often discouraged anyway.

Nobody at Kabul who signed that dissent message, basically telling the ambassador and the Biden administration that they were wrong, expected to have their opinions shown to Congress; quite the opposite. Blinken, by sharing the cable with Congress, is breaking faith with his institution and with his frontline workers in an uncollegial way that they could imagine only during the Trump administration. Once upon a time, something like that would have called for dissent.