If confirmed by the Senate as secretary of state, Rex Tillerson will immediately confront a major test, and it won’t come from abroad.
The issue? Will the nation’s top diplomat be loyal to his troops or will he cave to a possible White House-inspired witch hunt against State Department employees who signed an internal memo to senior officials objecting to President Trump’s executive order suspending the nation’s refugee program and denying U.S. entry to citizens of seven predominantly Muslim countries?
As a State Department employee in 1970, I lived through such threatening moments when President Richard Nixon’s White House sent a sleuth crawling on all fours for the names of 250 State Department employees who, like today’s State officials opposing Trump’s order, had signed an internal petition to higher-ups criticizing Nixon’s invasion of Cambodia and his administration’s demonizing of antiwar protesters.
Today’s memo is expected to work its way up the department’s “Dissent Channel” to the most senior State Department officials — a process put in place after 1970 that is beneficial to both top department leadership as well as the employees charged with carrying out administration orders.
Not that a “Dissent Channel” may matter to a White House staff with allegiance seemingly sworn to Donald Trump, and not the flag or the United States of America.
For evidence of hostility to government employees with divergent views, look no further than White House press secretary Sean Spicer who, when speaking of the dissent over Trump’s policy on refugees and immigrants, said, “And these career bureaucrats have a problem with it? I think they should either get with the program or they can go.”
With this Trump-centric government, don’t be surprised if plans aren’t in the works to silence dissent by making Spicer’s “they can go” suggestion a reality. Should that effort be attempted, will Tillerson step up for his troops or will he sheepishly stand down?
William P. Rogers, another Republican secretary of state, was faced with a similar situation in 1970.
Within days of stories hitting the papers about an employee petition concerning Nixon’s actions, an FBI agent showed up in the Special Assignment Staff, an arm of State’s now-Office of Diplomatic Security where I worked as an agent on highly sensitive personnel security cases.
The FBI, we were told, had been tasked by Clark Mollenhoff, Nixon’s special counsel and resident gumshoe, with obtaining names of State’s petition-signers so that files could be opened for investigation.
I had signed the petition.
We immediately brought the FBI request to the attention of G. Marvin Gentile, deputy assistant secretary for security — a former FBI and also a former CIA agent — who, in turn, sent word up the line to Secretary Rogers.
Rogers hit the ceiling. He let the White House know that he, not Mollenhoff, ran the State Department, and no one else would deal with his officials.
Soon thereafter, Mollenhoff left the White House.
The “Dissent Channel” was born. A communication channel to be used by employees candidly and in privacy without fear of retaliation was opened.
But that was done at a time when alternative views and perspectives were valued and respected. It was before “get with the program or they can go” became the watchword.
So who — Tillerson or Trump’s mouthpiece Spicer — will have the last word?