A large number of foreign service officers and civil service personnel of the U.S. State Department signed a dissent document that was formally submitted Tuesday.
The State Department confirms to VOA that the memo in opposition to the president's executive order on immigration was received. But officials will not reveal the total number nor the ranks of those signing. Sources tell VOA the number is nearly 1,000.
The number of signatures, if it does total about 1,000, is “unprecedented” and about 20 times the number of dissenters for last year's memo from diplomats sharply criticizing the Obama administration's Syria policy, said former U.S. Ambassador to Syria, Robert Ford.
The huge numbers for the immigration memo and its early leaking “are clear indicators of the widespread concern within the department over this specific policy step and unease over the broad direction of foreign policy,” said Laura Kennedy, former deputy assistant secretary for European and Eurasian Affairs.
“These are extraordinary times,” she added.
Spicer rejects criticism
The Trump administration argues that the new measures are necessary to “ensure the safety and security of the American people.” In a statement last weekend, it said the executive order “affects a minor portion of international travelers, and is the first step towards reestablishing control over America's borders and national security.”
But the Dissent Channel memo, a draft of which has been seen by VOA, says the order “will not achieve its aims and will likely be counterproductive.”
White House spokesman Sean Spicer rejected the criticism on Monday, telling reporters that those at the State Department who oppose President Donald Trump's immigration order “should either get with the program or they can go.”
Former diplomats comment
Former diplomats bristled at what is being perceived as a implicit threat against the foreign service community.
“The Dissent Channel is an entirely appropriate means of expressing opposition to the top leadership of the Department of State,” Ford told VOA. “The Trump people shouldn't take it so personally.”
“I was appalled by (Spicer's) comment,” said Kennedy, also a former ambassador to Turkmenistan, told VOA. “It either implied a complete misunderstanding of the dissent channel or the legal protections there are, or it's intended to send a signal that dissent, whether private or public, will not be tolerated.”
“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 safety of Americans'
President Trump last Friday signed an executive order prohibiting 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.
Spicer added from the podium Monday the order is “about the safety of Americans” and the steps the president ordered are “common sense."
The draft of the dissent memo that was leaked 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.
Channel started in 1971
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. Last year's Syria Dissent Channel memo had 51 signatures, according to diplomats.
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.
Channel users protected
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.
Ford, who was a career member of the U.S. Foreign Service, predicted that if the White House tries to retaliate “they'll end up with lawsuits.” But Ford added that after expressing their opinion through the proper channels, foreign service officers are obligated to implement administration policy.
“It is their job to implement what the president and his team decide," explained Ford. " If they can't implement it then, frankly, they should think whether they should be in a government job."
Ford, currently a Senior Fellow at the Middle East Institute in Washington, acknowledged the challenge of U.S. diplomats in Baghdad having to explain “why this policy is a good policy” to their counterparts who fought alongside U.S. forces against terrorist elements.
“I can't imagine anything more difficult,” Ford said. Without proper guidance from Washington “they have to wing it which is even harder.”
Embassies sound off
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.
“As is standard, the State Department remains in contact with its embassies around the world on foreign policy issues,” a department official, speaking on condition of not being named, told VOA when asked about the cable. “We will not comment on internal communications.”
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.