Yesterday, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer, referring to a dissent channel cable working its way around the Department opposing the executive order banning immigration or travel to the U.S. from seven particular countries, said that State Department employees should "get with the program or they can go."
The comments represent a profound misunderstanding about the State Department in general, the dissent channel process specifically, and in fact, the nature of a nonpartisan civil service.
To put it succinctly, this IS the program.
Spicer seems to think that federal employees should just agree with everything coming from the White House without questioning. But if that is the case, why have us at all?
Let's have a little history, shall we?
The idea behind the reform of the civil service from what that was simply based on a spoils system (winner of the election gets to put their own people in all jobs) was to replace patronage appointees with nonpartisan employees qualified because of their skills. The idea is pretty old by U.S. standards. President Ulysses S Grant supported civil service reform and rejected demands to suspend it and make patronage appointments. It was his cabinet who implemented a merit system to increase the number of qualified candidates. Those efforts went a step further with the Civil Service Reform Act (also called "the Pendleton Act") of 1883. This act created the United States Civil Service Commission and eventually placed most federal employees on the merit system. It was supposed to mark the end of the so-called "spoils system."
And America is better for it. Do we really want to return to the days when our generals were chosen not for their military skills but for their connections (granted, we still have a degree of that with political Ambassadors, but that is another post)? Do you want the person developing a bridge on an interstate highway to know nothing about engineering? I hope you want those positions to be awarded based on merit and qualifications.
The Foreign Service is a good example of a meritocracy. Each year, some 50-80,000 people take a written exam. The ones who score enough to pass move on, regardless of their background or who they know. Those who pass write essays, and those who pass that get to take the oral examination. That exam is scored on a point system from 1-7, with passing being around 5.5 (it varies by career track). You can get extra points if you pass a language test, because we need people who possess foreign language skills. You can also get extra points if you are a veteran. Then you get all your clearances (security and medical). You are then place on a roll of highest score to lowest, and people are offered slots in the orientation class starting with the highest scorers first. None of it has anything to do with who you know or what political party you support. It is all about how you would do at the job.
And this system gets a lot of really exceptional people, people with real world experiences they can offer to the service of the country. And what you get when you bring in a variety of people from a variety of backgrounds and a variety of experiences is a lot of smart people with good ideas on how to help the country.
Which brings me to our dissent channel.
We communicate through cables (mostly by email now but the name cable harkens back to older times). And we will absolutely support and implement the President's foreign policy, or if we can't, we will quit. But the dissent channel gives us the opportunity to say, without fear of reprisals, that we think a particular policy is a bad idea. It was started back during the Vietnam War and according to the Foreign Affairs Manual (the FAM as we call it): "The State Department has a strong interest in facilitating open, creative, and uncensored dialogue on substantive foreign policy issues within the professional foreign affairs community, and a responsibility to foster an atmosphere supportive of such dialogue, including the opportunity to offer alternative or dissenting opinions without fear of penalty. The 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.
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."
It is meant to be internal, and I admit I am not happy it was leaked. And so I'll only discuss the contents of the memo generally and I won't mention any of the signatories (since there are already fears of reprisals and we have apparently been instructed not to even discuss it with Congress!). Basically, it says that the undersigned believe that the policy will hinder rather than help our mutual goal of making the United States safer. The drafters believe the executive order will actually serve as a recruiting tool for terrorists (and there is already evidence this is happening,) while actually souring our relations with the countries included in the ban.
So. Mr. Spicer, this IS the program. We are the country's foreign policy experts, hired for our skills and now with decades of experience. It is our obligation as public servants to warn the administration of dangers we see. If you are about to get into a car, and we know there is a bomb in it, I would think you would want us to warn you. And we would want to warn you. Because we love this country and what it stands for just as much as you do and have devoted our lives to serving it.
This IS the program. And I would hope that would be the way you would want it."