© 2024 WLRN
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

State Department Dissent Memo Opposes Trump's Immigration Order


Some U.S. diplomats think President Trump's executive order - blocking refugees and visitors from certain countries is a really bad idea. Many are preparing to say so in a memo warning that this particular restriction will not make the country safer. The White House bluntly said yesterday it's not interested in their concerns.

Spokesman Sean Spicer said diplomats should, quote, "get with the program or they can go." The memo was drafted for the State Department's dissent channel which is a special way to air objections. So let's talk about that with Jon Finer who once worked in the office - ran the office that received such memos. He was also Secretary of State John Kerry's chief of staff. Mr. Finer, good morning.

JON FINER: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: What is the dissent channel?

FINER: Well, the dissent channel dates actually to the era of the Vietnam War where it was established as an outlet for people at the State Department at times of kind of internal tension and disagreements to be able to express their views if they were contrary to administration policy directly to the level of the secretary of state through the Office of Policy Planning, which I used to run.

INSKEEP: So the idea is free debate even though everybody is an employee of the president. They can speak truth to power so to speak.

FINER: That's exactly right. And it's meant to be generally kept private. That office tends to receive, you know, a handful of these a year. When I was running that office, we received one memo that was quite sensitive and got some attention on, for example, the Obama administration's policy on Syria.


FINER: It's actually quite important that the foreign affairs manual that governs how the State Department is run - as - that people that write these memos should be free from reprisal which seems a bit at odds with the statement from the press secretary yesterday. When Secretary Kerry received this memo again on Syria policy, what he decided to do was invite the authors of that memo in to brief him on their views, and then explained to them how the administration had landed where it landed on Syria policy which...

INSKEEP: How is this at odds with Sean Spicer's statement in hearing people say get with the program or you can go, you hear a threat of some kind?

FINER: I think there is an implicit threat in that statement and, unfortunately, it seems like the latest example of an - of a series of attacks that this new administration has made against career professionals, against experts. You know, there were several career Senior Foreign Service officers who were dismissed from their jobs in the very early days of the new administration without much explanation, people that were involved in sort of basic management of the building things like issuing passports and responding to FOIA requests that are not typically political. And then now you see, essentially, an implicit threat against people who are expressing dissent through an established channel that was designed for this purpose.

INSKEEP: You mentioned that these dissents are supposed to be private, in this case a draft, which I gather has not even been formally sent through the dissent channel has become largely public and so we know what the objections are. And tell me what you make of these objections. The administration, of course, is insisting this is a precautionary move. It's temporary. It's not formally targeting Muslims. It's a relative handful of countries. They're trying to keep the country safe. What is the nature of the dissent from that from a diplomat's point of view?

FINER: Well, I think you're seeing diplomats who are the ones actually charged with implementing and explaining this new approach to foreign counterparts expressing a lot of the views that you've seen others express in the public domain. And, you know, one of the things I think this highlights is that this - these problems that the administration is running into probably could have been avoided if they had sought to avoid them by having a process in advance of this - issuing this order in which they brought in experts and - as is typical when you're making new policy - and ask them for their views.

You know, there's a reason why you have this process - one, to make sure that the product that is produced. The order in this case is of a higher quality because it benefits from everybody's expertise and experience and then the other is that the implementers, in this case the State Department, DHS and others, actually have some degree of awareness and understanding of what is supposed to be done before the order goes into effect. And I think you could have avoided against some of the problems that happened if that was the desire in advance of this.

INSKEEP: Are you saying the professionals might have helped to frame or even rewrite this so it would not be seen as a Muslim ban, not be seen as inhumane, not be partially stopped in court as it has been, it could have been done better with professional help?

FINER: What I'm saying is I think a lot of the objections that you're now seeing in the aftermath of the order would have been raised through the course of a normal policy process if one had been applied. And the administration then would have had to decide whether to go forward knowing full well the types of objections that were likely to be raised in the aftermath. Instead what you have - yes?

INSKEEP: Oh, no. Jon Finer, keep going, keep going.

FINER: I was saying - instead what you have is a bunch of objections that were raised while the train was already moving and frankly had left the station which makes it much more confusing to people who are using the program in addition to foreign counterparts who are trying to understand what exactly it is that the United States is doing here.

INSKEEP: Mr. Finer, thanks for joining us early on this morning, really appreciate it.

FINER: Thanks for having me.

INSKEEP: Jon Finer was the chief adviser to Secretary of State John Kerry. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

More On This Topic