State Department diplomats on Monday circulated various drafts of a memo objecting to President Trump’s executive order last week to suspend the nation’s refugee program and deny U.S. entry to citizens of seven predominantly Muslim countries.
The document is destined for what’s known as the department’s “Dissent Channel,” which was set up during the Vietnam War as a way for diplomats to signal directly to senior management their disagreement with foreign policy decisions. The communications are typically confidential, and may even be done anonymously if any of the signatories fear retaliation.
Several versions of the draft are floating around the State Department as diplomats weigh in and ask for revisions. More than 100 diplomats have signed, according to diplomats familiar with the matter.
Yet even as the memo was still being circulated, White House press secretary Sean Spicer said Trump’s travel ban makes the United States safer, and had this to say to the dissenters: “And these career bureaucrats have a problem with it? I think they should either get with the program or they can go.”
The memo probably will be submitted to acting secretary of state Thomas Shannon, a holdover from the Obama administration who will be in charge of the department until a new secretary of state is confirmed. The Senate is expected to vote on Rex Tillerson’s nomination this week. As the memo underscores, the staff he will lead, if confirmed, is not fully on board with the administration’s agenda.
The State Department officially acknowledged the existence of the memo Monday morning, and vowed to respect it — and the right to dissent.
“The Dissent Channel is a long-standing official vehicle for State Department employees to convey alternative views and perspectives on policy issues,” acting spokesman Mark Toner said in a statement. “This is an important process that the Acting Secretary and the Department as a whole value and respect. It allows State employees to express divergent policy views candidly and privately to senior leadership.”
According to a draft version of the memo, first reported by ABC News, the dissenters say the ban will not deter attacks on American soil, but will generate ill will toward U.S. citizens.
“A policy which closes our doors to over 200 million legitimate travelers in the hopes of preventing a small number of travelers who intend to harm Americans from using the visa system to enter the United States will not achieve its aim of making our country safer,” it said. “Moreover, such a policy runs counter to core American values of nondiscrimination, fair play and extending a warm welcome to foreign visitors and immigrants.”
Over the decades, employees of the State Department have submitted hundreds of dissent memos, which are restricted to policy matters and do not involve personnel issues. Most dissents remain private, and it is not known how effective they are in influencing policymakers.
One critical memo burst into public view in July when 51 diplomats signed a cable they submitted through the Dissent Channel that urged the Obama administration to adopt a more aggressive Syria policy and consider using military force.
It is not clear how many more State Department employees will sign the latest dissent memo, particularly after Spicer’s remarks. The memo’s criticisms parallel many of those made by human rights activists and immigration lawyers.
In one of the early versions making the rounds, the memo acknowledges that the visa process can be improved, largely through more cooperation among agencies.
“We do not need to alienate entire societies to stay safe,” the memo states. “And we do not need to sacrifice our reputation as a nation which is open and welcoming to protect our families. It is well within our reach to create a visa process which is more secure, which reflects our American values, and which would make the Department proud.”
Separately, more than 100 former officials who have served Democratic and Republican administrations issued an open letter urging Trump to rescind his executive order on refugees and immigrants.
The signatories all worked on foreign policy and national security. They include senior officials from the White House, State Department and CIA, and retired generals and admirals. Among them are former secretary of state Madeleine Albright and former CIA director Michael Hayden.