The Dissent Channel

Since 1971, US diplomats and State Department workers who disagree with government policy can communicate their opposition through the Dissent Channel.

Blood Telegram
Archer K. Blood, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Diplomats, like most government agents, execute the will of the state, regardless of their own political opinions or (in extreme cases) professional judgement. If the leadership of the United States makes a bad, dangerous, unethical, or immoral call, diplomats can ignore it and stew, or they can resign, or they can send a message via the Dissent Channel.

This means of communication was explicitly set up to allow for public servants in the State Department or the US Development Agency to register their opposition to government policy. It’s supposed to encourage such dissent – hence the name – by protecting the users from retribution for offering constructive criticism. Also, any wise government is always keen to hear the other side of the story; only ideologues ignore experts.

The memo above is one of the most famous communications to come through the Dissent Channel. During the Bangladesh Liberation War, the Pakistani military engaged in a systematic and brutal genocide against the people of East Pakistan – now Bangladesh. Between 200,000 and 3 million people were killed, and tens of millions fled the country. Those that remained were subjected to systematic and targeted atrocities. The United States, under Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger, wanted to keep Pakistan as an ally in the hope that they could open up communications with China and establish an Asian wedge against the Soviet Union – so they did nothing to condemn this genocide.

The US Consul General on the ground, Archer Blood, used the Dissent Channel to strongly protest this decision:

Our government has failed to denounce the suppression of democracy. Our government has failed to denounce atrocities. Our government has failed to take forceful measures to protect its citizens while at the same time bending over backwards to placate the West Pak dominated government and to lessen any deservedly negative international public relations impact against them. Our government has evidenced what many will consider moral bankruptcy.

Blood Telegram

That, by the way, is one of the most strongly worded things you’ll ever read from a diplomat – not that it changed anything for the Bangladeshi people. The so-called Blood Telegram was countersigned by twenty more State Department staff.

The funny thing about the Dissent Channel is that people still feared reprisal for speaking up. Archer’s diplomatic career basically ended with that telegram. Nevertheless, the channel was heavily used during the Carter presidency… but highly underused during the Reagan presidency. That’s likely to be because people feared more retaliation from Reagan than from Carter (and I think they were probably 100% accurate in that assessment). The channel is still open today. That time when a thousand career diplomats co-signed a protest against the 2017 Muslim travel ban? That protest was sent via the Dissent Channel.

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