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 You are in: Bureaus/Offices Reporting Directly to the Secretary > Policy Planning Staff > Secretary's Open Forum > About the Open Forum > Dissent Channel

Origins and Procedures

Secretary of State Christopher's Message on the Dissent Channel
August 8, 1995

As we approach the 25th Anniversary of the State Department's Dissent Channel, I want to restate my commitment to this vital forum.

Secretary of State William Rogers created the Dissent Channel in 1971 as controversy rose over the Vietnam War and he determined that existing channels for transmitting new or dissenting ideas were inadequate. Since that time, well over 200 Dissent messages have been received, providing eight successive Secretaries of State and their principal advisors with responsible alternative views on policy. Having benefited from the Dissent Channel as Deputy Secretary and Secretary, I want to reiterate to you my commitment to seeing it continue to serve the goals Secretary Rogers set for it.

The Value of the Dissent Channel
The State Department has a strong interest in facilitating open, creative, and uncensored dialogue on substantive policy and programmatic issues within the professional foreign affairs community. All of us in the Department have a responsibility to foster an atmosphere supportive of such dialogue, including the opportunity to offer alternative or dissenting opinions without fear of penalty. I want to emphasize that, as a general matter, post managers are expected to encourage and support the free exchange of ideas and criticism throughout the mission, and to communicate the full range of responsible policy options and concerns to Washington through regular channels in a timely manner. This will stimulate new thinking, force all of us to examine our assumptions and conclusions on a regular basis, and result in a better policy process.

At the same time, there may be occasions when the normal process appears inadequate, whether due to the seriousness of the issue or a perceived inattention to alternatives. The Dissent Channel provides an established, proven, and effective instrument for ensuring that those alternative views are heard by senior policymakers.

The value of the Dissent Channel depends not only on its free availability but also on its appropriate use. Chiefs of mission and principal officers must ensure that officers at their posts understand how and when to use the Dissent Channel, including both the protection afforded its users and the fact that it is not used for nonpolicy issues (e.g., personnel complaints, for which other channels are available), or for issues that are not of central policy import. Because the Dissent Channel is not a routine channel and its messages are handled at the highest levels of the Department, authors should ensure not only that their views are well-grounded and well-argued, but that other channels are not available to them. Although there is no requirement to do so, as a professional courtesy, I encourage users of the Dissent Channel to discuss their messages with supervisors before sending them to the Department.

Dissent Channel messages must be transmitted promptly. Chiefs of mission or principal officers authorize all outgoing traffic from their posts, including Dissent Channel messages. This role imposes on them a special responsibility to approve transmission of Dissent Channel messages without delay and to make sure that the drafter is not penalized in any way due to the use of the Dissent Channel. I want to remind all concerned that no clearance is required for transmission of a Dissent Channel message, either in Washington or overseas. Prompt authorization to disseminate Dissent messages is obligatory; it is understood that such authorization does not imply concurrence in the contents of the message. Any delays in transmission of a Dissent Channel message must be documented and quickly and fully justified to the Department. (Additional information regarding the handling of Dissent Channel messages is given in Tabs A and B.)

Confidentiality is a key aspect of the Dissent Channel both in the field and in the Department. Dissent messages must be handled with absolute discretion. To protect their authors, Dissent messages must not be discussed with or shown to uninvolved parties, and in no case may they be shared with persons outside the government or foreign nationals. To add a further layer of protection from now on, Dissent authors have the option of having their names deleted from their messages when distributed beyond S/P and the core recipients (See Tab A, para 1).

The Dissent Channel - An Essential Tool
The Dissent Channel remains an essential element in our efforts to ensure that we have the most informed and consistent foreign policy for our nation. It has my strong support and I want to stress it can be used with confidence.

Attachment A: Handling Dissent Channel Messages
The Role of the Policy Planning Staff
Consistent with its mandate to stimulate innovation and creativity in the Department, the Secretary's Policy Planning Staff (S/P) is responsible for handling dissent messages in the Department. Normally, S/P distributes copies of all incoming Dissent Channel messages to the Secretary, the Deputy Secretary, the Under Secretary for Political Affairs, and the Chairperson of the Open Forum. If the author of a dissent message is employed by an agency other that the Department of State (e.g., AID, ACDA, USIA), the head of that agency shall be added to the core distribution list. With due regard for the sensitivity of the message and the wishes of the drafter, the Director of Policy Planning may also distribute the Dissent message elsewhere in the Department, both for information purposes and for help in preparing a response. The author has the option of requesting anonymity for any such additional distribution. No further distribution will be made without S/P authorization. Questions regarding any aspect of the Dissent Channel - including proper address forms or use of captions - should be directed to the S/P staff assistant. Information about the Dissent Channel can also be obtained from the Chair of the Secretary's Open Forum (S/P-OF).

Official Response to Dissent Channel Messages
The Director of Policy Planning is responsible for acknowledging receipt of a Dissent message within 2 working days, and for providing a substantive reply, normally within 30-60 days.

Freedom from Reprisal
It is essential that there not be any discouragement of, or any penalties for, use of the Dissent Channel. Over the years, there unfortunately have been occasional instances where Dissent Channel authors either have been - or feared they have been - subjected to reprisals. As provided for in the Foreign Affairs Manual, which is being revised to conform to this message, individuals who believe that they were pressured or penalized for their use of the Dissent Channel, that negative references to their use of the Dissent Channel were made in their evaluation reports, that the transmission of their Dissent messages was deliberately delayed or prevented, or that the confidentiality their Dissent message was jeopardized by improper treatment, should make a report to the Director of S/P, with copies to the Under Secretary for Management, the Chair of the Open Forum, and the Inspector General, using the OIG channel if by cable. The Director of S/P will consult with the Office of the Inspector General about such allegations, and, if warranted, OIG will investigate and recommend appropriate action.

Attachment B: Current FAM Provisions Relating to the Dissent Channel*
*Currently being revised and consolidated. Any prospective substantive changes are noted.

"As a matter of general policy, the chief of mission, the deputy chief of mission, and the principal officer of a consular post shall encourage and support the free exchange of ideas and criticism throughout the mission. Staff members are encouraged to make known their ideas and opinions on operations, management, and all other activities of the post. Persons who may conclude, after carefully weighing all views, that they cannot concur in a report or a recommendation are free to submit a dissenting statement, including use of the Dissent Channel, without fear of pressure or penalty. While staff members should make every effort to resolve differences within the mission, the policy of openness is intended to encourage the candid debate which at time is necessary to reach a consensus on issues within a mission without appeals to the Department." (2 FAM 041.1, Policy of Openness in Post Operations and Management.)

"Reports should generally reflect the approval of the principal officer and conflicts should be resolved on the spot. However, it is incumbent upon the principal officer to submit significant reports from subordinates to the Department even when he does not agree with the views expressed." (11 FAM 243.1, Disagreement Over Interpretation Within Post, General Principle.)

"When there are concrete differences of opinion on relatively important matters which cannot be resolved to the mutual satisfaction of the drafting and reviewing or signing officers, the drafting officer's report shall be submitted and accompanied by whatever comments other officers might wish to make." (11 FAM 243.2, Submission of Two Points of View.)

"Dissenting views on substantive foreign policy issues may be sent to the Secretary though the Dissent Channel. Department principals want to hear significant views and recommendations, including those not sent forward through regular channels. Any employee of State, the Agency for International Development, the U.S. Information Agency, or the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency may use the Dissent Channel without fear of pressure or penalty. Users are encouraged to discuss issues with supervisors and show messages to them. A dissent channel message, however, requires no clearance. The chief of mission or a designated subordinate shall authorize prompt transmission of such messages, with the understanding that authorization does not imply concurrence. Any action that delays transmission or penalizes anyone using the Channel should be reported via the Dissent Channel or whatever other means are available to the Director of the Policy Planning Staff and the Under Secretary of Management, with the Open Forum chairperson kept informed. The Director of S/P will investigate any such complaints, attempt to determine whether interference has taken place, and, if so, recommend appropriate action to the senior officers of the Department, which may include an official reprimand of any persons found violating these guidelines." (11 FAM 243.3, Use of Dissent Channel.) *Please note: Reports regarding delay or penalties should also go to the Inspector General's Office via the OIG Channel. The OIG has assumed the responsibility to investigate all such complaints and this FAM provision is being amended accordingly.

The following subjects are inadmissible in any part of the (evaluation) report either as direct or indirect comments. . .(14) Negative reference to sue of the dissent channel or direct or indirect reference to, or consideration of, judgments in dissent channel messages as a basis for an adverse evaluation of performance or potential. When the rated member's expression of dissenting views on policy, outside of the dissent channel, raises substantial question of judgment or obstructionism relevant to the member's performance, it may be the subject of comment. However, general comment may not be used to get around proscription of this section. Specific instances must be cited." (3 FAM 527.c, Inadmissible Comments.)

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