• Dissent Channel, Afghanistan and Confidentiality

    August 7, 2023

    Tags: , ,
    Posted in: Afghanistan, Biden, Democracy

    Something quite significant in U.S. diplomatic history is going to take place — a State Department Dissent Channel message, concerning the evacuation and withdrawal from Afghanistan, is going to be shared with Members of Congress.

    House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Michael McCaul announced his panel investigating the final days of American presence in Afghanistan will view the Dissent Channel cable. McCaul threatened to hold Secretary of State Antony Blinken in contempt if he did not provide him access to the diplomatic cable, which came from a confidential “dissent channel” that allowed State Department officials to discuss views which may be different from  administration policy.

    It is believed the July 2021 cable discussed concerns from the rank-and-file diplomatic staff not fully shared by senior embassy executives and management about the upcoming American pullout from the country, warning the U.S.-backed Afghan government could fall. The cable specifically advised an earlier withdrawal date than that ultimately chosen by the Biden Administration, and may have addressed the decision to conduct the entire evacuation from a single civilian airport in Kabul.

    So what is the Dissent Channel and why is this particular cable so important?

    The Dissent Channel was set up in 1971 during the Vietnam War era as a way for foreign service officers and civil servants at State (as well as United States Agency for International Development, the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, and the former United States Information Agency) to raise concerns with senior management about the direction of U.S. foreign policy, without fear of retribution. The cables (formal, official State internal communications are still referred to as “cables” harking back to early diplomatic days when telegrams were used to communicate between Washington and embassies abroad) are sent to the State Department’s policy planning director, who distributes them to the secretary of state and other top officials, who must respond within 30 to 60 days. There are typically about five to ten each year. “Discouragement of, or penalties for use of, the Dissent Channel are impermissible,” according to the State Department internal regulations.

    Use of the Channel covers the scope of diplomatic mission. Historical messages include a dissent over the executive branch’s decision to “initiate no steps to discipline a military unit that took action at My Lai” in Vietnam and the “systematic use of electrical torture, beatings, and in some cases, murder, of men, women, and children by military units in Vietnam.” These actions by U.S. soldiers were “atrocities too similar to those of Nazis.” Another dissent was over the “hypocritical” U.S. support of the Somoza regime in Nicaragua, bemoaning that the U.S. missed a “unique opportunity to intervene for once on the right repeat right side” of history. One older atypical dissent cable complained about having to arrange female companionship in Honduras for a visiting U.S. congressman. In the words of one now-declassified cable, “The Dissent Channel can be a mechanism for unclogging the Department’s constipated paper flow” related to employee dissent against current foreign policy actions.

    What the Channel does is one thing; who gets to see it is another. Until now, dissent messages have generally been regarded as something sacrosanct not to shown to outsiders and not to be leaked. “Release and public circulation of Dissent Channel messages,” State wrote to one inquirer,” would inhibit the willingness of Department personnel to avail themselves of the Dissent Channel to express their views freely.” The messages were first withheld from the rest of government (and the public) by State under the rules which created the system, and later under the Freedom of Information Act’s (FOIA) “predecisional” Exemption 5, until the 2016 FOIA Improvement Act amendments made it illegal for agencies to use this exemption after 25 years. So sharing the Afghan dissent cable with Members of Congress, especially so soon after the administration’s evacuation policy failed in Afghanistan, is a very big deal at the State Department.

    One publicized exception to how closely held dissent messages are took place in 2017 when nearly a thousand State Department Foreign Service Officers signed a five page dissent message opposing President Donald Trump’s executive order, “Protecting the Nation from Foreign Terrorist Entry into the United States,” which prohibited seven additional Muslim nationalities from entering the U.S., aka “The Muslim Ban.” As a result of an anti-Trump contingent inside generally liberal and mostly Democratic-leaning State, the message was leaked in its entirety. Even more against precedent, Trump’s spokesman Sean Spicer issued an extraordinary public rebuke to the diplomats: “These career bureaucrats have a problem with it? They should either get with the program or they can go.”

    An almost-leak (a State Department official provided a draft, though the final version was not published, to The New York Times) took place in 2016 during the Trump-Clinton presidential election, after 51 Foreign Service Officers criticized the Obama administration via the Dissent Channel for failing to do enough to protect civilians in Syria in what was widely seen as an endorsement of Candidate Hillary’s pseudo-promise to put U.S. boots on the ground in Syria. Other Trump-era dissent cables not shared outside the Department called for consultations on Trump’s removal from office, and rebuked the secretary of state for not forcefully condemning the president over January 6.

    To fully understand what the Dissent Channel is requires a better understanding of the State Department culture, academic in nature but frighteningly risk adverse. The academic side reflects the Department’s modern origins as being made up of those who were “male, pale, and Yale” where the tradition of loyal opposition holds sway. But it is the risk adverse side of State that tells how important internally revealing the Afghan cable is. Dissent messages are signed, no anonymous ones allowed, and while Secretary Blinken has promised to not show the names of those who signed the Afghan cable to Congress, State senior management will know exactly who wrote what.

    In addition, Dissent Channel messages must still be cleared for transmission to the secretary of state in Washington at post, though there is no requirement everyone agree with the contents per se (authorization does not imply concurrence.) So one’s colleagues know who wrote what, potential dynamite in an organization where dissent is otherwise not encouraged and corridor reputation plays a deciding role in promotions and future assignments. It is a significant step to write or sign a dissent cable and despite the regulations’ admonishment that use of the Dissent Channel not be discouraged by supervisors, it is discouraged.

    Nobody in Embassy Kabul who signed that dissent message, basically telling their boss the ambassador and the Biden Administration they were wrong, expected to have their opinions shown to Congress; quite the opposite. Blinken, by sharing the cable with Congress, is breaking faith with his institution and with his front line workers in a uncollegial way only imagined by them during the Trump administration. Once upon a time something like that would have called for dissent.

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  • Recent Comments

    • John Poole said...


      I’m not surprised at Blinken’s “sharing”. He is a weasely guy who regularly sucks up to his superiors.
      A dissent channel for government employees is a joke unless dissenters sign their names. PVB and I will strongly disagree on that for sure. Reform from within is far beyond likely. The GAMA (Get Along or Move Along) ethos rules in the foreign service as elsewhere in government employment. Where is the citizen’s dissent channel? Oh I forgot that hollow faux leader (s)election process every four years.

      08/8/23 8:50 AM | Comment Link

    • John Poole said...


      So……….shouldn’t the public know the names at the Kabul Embassy who had enough integrity to question the evacuation plan and thus put their career on the line? If they were punished at least the public would then have a chance at expressing forceful disapproval. Am I being naive?
      Dissent is perhaps guaranteed to engender punishing retribution but on the bright side playing along has guaranteed rewards. Maybe if you have personal integrity you should stay out of government work or any organizational employment.

      08/8/23 9:55 AM | Comment Link

    • John Poole said...


      So……. an American pullout in Afghanistan might mean the US backed government could fall? That’s a prevarication cable not a dissenting warning. Switch could to would and the term dissent might mean something.

      08/8/23 10:05 PM | Comment Link

    • Rich Bauer said...


      “To fully understand what the Dissent Channel is requires a better understanding of the State Department culture, academic in nature but frighteningly risk adverse.”

      The culture at State has always been Career over Country. The number one rule is don’t do anything to risk your career. That is the most honest assessment of State one could make. It explains how so many in the Foreign Service signed up for assignments for war crimes in Iraq. If you didn’t, your career was seriously hindered.

      So go ahead and write your Dissent Cables if it helps your guilty conscience. If you had a conscience you would have signed a Resignation cable. What if you had a war and nobody came?

      Worried about State taking vengeance against those who signed a silly cable? Nobody cared.

      As for those at State who did protest the war and didn’t serve in the war zones – and there weren’t many- we were targeted by Diplomatic Security, threatened with loss of our security clearances. So yeah, you were right to be frighteningly risk averse.

      08/9/23 3:31 AM | Comment Link

    • Rich Bauer said...


      And if you did speak out publicly about the illegal wars, you would end up like Joe Wilson and his wife. At least Joe did not die with a guilty conscience like Anthony Schinella.

      08/9/23 3:59 AM | Comment Link

    • John Poole said...


      Bauer-as you know there are always enough young and single hotheads ready to serve hazardous posts and it isn’t out of a sense of patriotic duty. It’s the money and getting a cushy subsequent post.
      Today one had better be on board with the DEI mantra and agenda of our ridiculous government or you will find yourself passed over and stuck.

      08/9/23 3:39 PM | Comment Link

    • John Poole said...


      Bauer-any word from PVB? Let’s hope he wasn’t visiting overnight in Lahaina.

      08/18/23 8:06 PM | Comment Link

    • Rich Bauer said...



      Peter is taking his annual vacation in the States before his daughter goes back to law school….OR he is undergoing his annual brainwashing checkup so he can continue to pander to the morons who subscribe to Am Con.

      08/19/23 5:17 PM | Comment Link

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