The World Trade Center ruins were still smoldering when the Voice of America did a rare 12-minute interview with Mohammad Omar, the Afghan leader who had harbored Osama bin Laden. Reached by phone from the VOA's Washington offices, Omar said his government would not surrender bin Laden and would prepare for war.
"America has created the evil that is attacking it," Omar asserted in mid-September. "It should stop trying to impose its empire on the rest of the world, especially on Islamic countries."
Word of the interview ricocheted through the State Department. Deputy Secretary Richard L. Armitage and other high-ranking officials tried to stop the VOA from airing Omar's words. Officials said taxpayers' money should not be used to provide a platform for the Taliban leader.
In the VOA newsroom, news director Andre de Nesnera felt the heat. He broadcast comments by Omar, telling the VOA staff that State's efforts were a threat to the station's attempts to present a balanced story. The piece included strongly anti-Taliban comments from President Bush and an Islamic scholar's criticism of Omar's interpretation of Islam.
Yesterday, de Nesnera stepped to a podium in the State Department's elegant eighth-floor reception rooms to accept an award for "constructive dissent" at a ceremony attended by Secretary of State Colin L. Powell. Scores of department staff members applauded him and three foreign service officers who were given citations and champagne for having "the courage to challenge the system from within."
Theodore E. Strickler gathered 1,614 signatures on a petition to reform the State Department and improve morale. Carol J. Volk battled within the chain of command to improve the teaching of Hebrew by the department's Foreign Service Institute. Peter E. Cozzens, working in Panama, challenged a post-Sept. 11 visa requirement that seemed to him vague and ineffective.
"His respectful but candid open-channel questions won him the gratitude and respect of ambassadors, deputy chiefs of mission and consuls general worldwide," the nomination letter said of Cozzens, who is also a military historian and author. "It also generated a groundswell of support from the field for the reconsideration of the new requirement."
In making the awards since 1968, the American Foreign Service Association, the department's professional association, seeks to reward people who "challenge conventional wisdom, intelligently and tenaciously." They apply to a department historically afflicted, according even to loyal supporters, by rigid adherence to hierarchy and devotion to rules.
When Powell took office 18 months ago, he began renewing and reforming the agency. He has achieved budgetary and hiring increases, while making clear to aides that he appreciates forceful arguments conducted within channels. Yesterday, he spoke of developing an "esprit de corps."
Powell praised a special constructive dissent award that went posthumously to Hiram Bingham IV, who defied State Department policy during World War II by surreptitiously issuing more than 2,500 visas to Jews desperate to flee Nazism. In some cases, Bingham hid Jews in his villa in Marseilles, France, or provided disguises and arranged travel.
Bingham created an escape route to the United States for such artists and literary figures as Marc Chagall, Max Ernst and Lion Feuchtwanger. He lost his post as a result, after then-Secretary of State Cordell Hull instructed the consulate that it risked offending the puppet French government. Bingham was transferred and soon made unwelcome in the foreign service.
Powell called Bingham a diplomat "who risked his life and his career" to do the right thing. Thomas Pickering, a seven-time ambassador who received an award yesterday for contributions to U.S. diplomacy, paid homage to Bingham's "creative integrity."
Bingham's story is little-known. He was the son of a U.S. senator and adventurer who rediscovered the Inca city of Macchu Picchu. After leaving the foreign service in the 1940s, he lived out his life in Salem, Conn.
Following Bingham's death, his children discovered a hidden closet behind a fireplace. In the small room, they found Bingham's descriptions of the Marseilles events and diplomatic correspondence. They knew he had saved Jews -- Chagall sent holiday cards each year -- but he had never been volunteered the rest of the story.
Bingham's actions "went against the policy of the time, but my father put humanity above career," said Robert "Kim" Bingham, a Justice Department lawyer. "The lesson is that in the worst of times you can have heroes."