White House Brushes Off Foreign Service Dissent Over Immigration Order

STATE DEPARTMENT - U.S. State Department personnel who have a problem with President Donald Trump's immigration order "should either get with the program or they can go," White House spokesman Sean Spicer told reporters Monday. "This is about the safety of America."

Spicer acknowledged that the dissent memo circulating among foreign service officers and other State Department employees is a legitimate channel for them to express concern. But he said that objection to the president's ban on travelers from seven predominately Muslim countries has been "blown way out of proportion and exaggerated."

"The time-honored tradition of respectful dissent at State is supported by the very American and constitutional values that this cable honors and that the executive order tramples," Yale University Law School professor Harold Hongju Koh, a former assistant secretary of state and State Department legal adviser, told VOA.

The Dissent Channel memo objecting to the recent order on refugees' travel restrictions asserts the administration's move "will not achieve its aims and will likely be counterproductive."

The State Department says it is aware of the memo, but declined to comment on the contents.

"As is standard, the State Department remains in contact with its embassies around the world on foreign policy issues. We will not comment on internal communications," a department official speaking on the condition of not being named told VOA.

"The Dissent Channel is a longstanding official vehicle for State Department employees to convey alternative views and perspectives on policy issues," said acting spokesman Mark Toner. "This is an important process that the acting secretary, and the department as a whole, value and respect."

Trump last Friday signed an executive order banning entry to refugees and people from seven Muslim majority countries. The order includes a 120-day suspension of refugee admissions and a 90-day entry ban for people from Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen.

According to an early draft seen by VOA, the dissent memo expresses grave concerns that the travel ban will not achieve its goal "to protect the American people from terrorist attacks by foreign nationals admitted to the United States." It also warns that the action will "immediately sour relations" with key allies in the fight against terrorism, given many of the nations whose citizens are now restricted from traveling to U.S. soil.

The memo suggests alternatives, including improving visa and immigration screening.

How it works

The Dissent Channel was established in 1971 - amid disputes about Vietnam War policies - to allow U.S. diplomats to speak freely about foreign policy matters.

Typically, four to five Dissent Channel messages are received each year, according to the State Department.

When State Department or U.S. Agency for International Development employees believe their voices are not heard by supervisors, they may use the Dissent Channel. At the State Department, the policy planning staff is supposed to review it, circulate it to authorized people and reply in substance to the dissenters within 60 days.

Those utilizing the Dissent Channel are protected from reprisals, disciplinary action or unauthorized disclosure of its use, according to the government's Foreign Affairs Manual.

A prominent use of the Dissent Channel last year concerned Syria. More than 50 State Department diplomats signed a memo sharply criticizing the Obama administration for not carrying out a military strike against the forces of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad for constant violations of the cease-fire in the civil war.

Foreign anger

Officials on Monday also revealed that the State Department is receiving multiple cables from its embassies about foreign anger concerning the restrictions on travel to the U.S. from the predominately Muslim countries in the executive order.

The president's nominee to be secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, has yet to be confirmed by the Senate. A vote on Tillerson, a recently retired oil and gas company executive, is expected this week.

Source: Voice of America