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At State Department, 'Dissent Channel' In High Gear With Refugee Ban Protests

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At the State Department, employees are expressing concern via an official dissent channel about the Trump administration's temporary visa and refugee ban.

At the State Department, there is an easy — and usually private — way for employees to register their concerns about U.S. policy. It's called the "Dissent Channel." And today, an unusually large number of foreign service officers are using it.

A dissent cable says Donald Trump's temporary visa and refugee ban "runs counter to American values" and could be "counterproductive."

The White House says it consulted for "many weeks" with the State Department before issuing its executive order on Friday, temporarily banning visas for citizens of seven predominantly Muslim countries and suspending the U.S. refugee resettlement program.

State Department officials who were involved in the refugee program deny this. One retired ambassador, Laura Kennedy, says the executive order did not read as though it had been reviewed by State Department lawyers or by consular or refugee officials.

"It is just, as the dissent message makes clear, inconsistent with values, with security aims of the administration, with process, with any number of things," Kennedy says.

The Dissent Channel was set up during the Vietnam War era as a way for foreign service officers and civil servants to raise concerns with upper management about the direction of U.S. foreign policy, without fear of retribution.

The cables 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 four or five each year. "Freedom from reprisal for Dissent Channel users is strictly enforced," according to the State Department.

During her 40-year State Department career, Kennedy never signed a dissent cable herself. She remembers one time in the 1990s when more than a dozen diplomats raised concerns about U.S. policy in the Balkans. Last year, about 50 foreign service officers criticized the Obama administration for failing to do enough to protect civilians in Syria.

But this executive order, titled "Protecting the Nation from Foreign Terrorist Entry into the United States," is generating much more attention.

"I know that many serving officers were horrified by this message," Kennedy says, referring to the order.

The draft dissent cable — which has been published by the Lawfare blog — points out that the overwhelming majority of attacks on U.S. soil are committed by native-born or naturalized U.S. citizens, individuals who have been living in the U.S for decades or since birth. And it points out that terrorist attacks carried out by foreign nationals entering the U.S. on visas have come from countries that are not included in the ban, such as Pakistan and Saudi Arabia.

On Monday, White House spokesman Sean Spicer was dismissive of the dissent cable. "I think they should get with the program or they can go," he said.

All this comes at a time when the Trump administration has cleared out top management positions at the State Department without naming anyone new to replace them. Rex Tillerson, Trump's nominee for secretary of state, is still awaiting confirmation.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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