You are a dedicated civil servant and you have loyally performed your job for years, but suddenly you are confronted with tasks and policies that horrify you. Should you carry on, or should you quit?
This unusual question is presenting itself with urgent regularity as President Trump tries to overturn a wide array of sensible policies in his drive to implement a far-right agenda, including a chaotic travel ban aimed at Muslim immigrants. Yet it’s a familiar question to a particular species of government official: those who have resigned to protest deplorable initiatives they disagreed with. The last time it happened on a significant scale was in the early 1990s, and George Kenney was at the epicenter.
Kenney joined the State Department in 1988, and after serving overseas, he took a post in Washington as the deputy chief of Yugoslav affairs. He managed day-to-day policy on the region and pored over intelligence reports as well as news articles. He disagreed with the U.S. policy of standing aside as Serbian fighters seized large parts of Bosnia in a conflict that involved ethnic cleansing and siege warfare. As the author of the first drafts of State Department position papers, Kenney saw his strong language watered down by layers of higher officials who sought to minimize the justification for U.S. intervention. Six months after the war began in 1992, he quit.
“I can no longer in clear conscience support the administration’s ineffective, indeed, counterproductive handling of the Yugoslav crisis,” he wrote in his letter of resignation, which was front-page news.
Four State Department officials quit over Bosnia policy in the early 1990s, and their actions are newly relevant as the Trump era gets underway. “All over the nation’s capital, panicked job searches are underway,” noted a Washington Post story about bureaucrats looking for escape hatches in advance of what they fear will be a reversal of key policies on law enforcement, reproductive rights, and national security. The Environmental Protection Agency is on a virtual lockdown, with a freeze in its grant programs and a gag order on any of its employees talking with outsiders about what’s going on. A temporary ban has been instituted that prohibits a broad swath of refugees and green card holders from entering the United States. And there’s even a war over things that in ordinary times would be innocuous, such as social media postings by national parks.
What should a frustrated civil servant do? In recent weeks, The Intercept interviewed Kenney and the other officials who quit over Bosnia, and to a surprising degree, they generally agreed that dissenting officials should stay in their jobs as long as possible in the Trump administration, working inside the always-powerful machinery of bureaucracy to keep destructive policies from being implemented.
“My advice would be to throw sand in the gears,” said Kenney, who was the first State Department official to resign over Bosnia. “You’re not going to do anybody any good by leaving. Nobody is going to listen to you. If you work in the EPA and think the Trump people are the devil, you and every mid-level person who can, mount an internal resistance. There should be opportunities for people who are smart to act in a classic bureaucratic passive-aggressive manner and just be obstructionist. It’s a situation that lends itself to creative opposition from within.”
Kenney’s advice tracks the parting words of at least one of the Obama-era political appointees who had to step down in recent weeks — Vanita Gupta, head of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, which is expected to follow a discernably different agenda in the Trump era. “My ask of you today is that I need you to keep pushing,” Gupta told her career staff on her last day at work. “Even when it’s hard, I need every single one of you to keep pushing, because there are too many people in this country who are depending on us.”
Kenney’s public resignation shocked Washington, as did the ones that followed. Marshall Harris was next, then Jon Western, then Stephen Walker — all of them 30-something diplomats who publicly turned their backs on secure lives working for the U.S. government. The unique “Saturday Night Massacre” in 1973 notwithstanding — when Attorney General Elliot Richardson resigned and his deputy, William Ruckelshaus, was dismissed after President Richard Nixon demanded they fire Watergate Special Prosecutor Archibald Cox — the last wave of resignations-in-principle was among officials who opposed the invasion of Cambodia during the Vietnam War. But those resignations, in 1970, were quiet and unnoticed. When Anthony Lake and three other mid-level aides quit the staff of National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger, they did not publicize their reasons.
“We never should have heard of them,” noted a 1993 story in the Washington Post about the Bosnia dissenters. “They were mid-level bureaucrats, dots in the State Department matrix. But they’ve gone and done something extraordinary in Washington: They quit their jobs on moral grounds.”
Kenney said his views were shaped by a seminal text he read as a graduate student at the University of Chicago. Written by economist Albert Hirschman, the book was called “Exit, Voice, and Loyalty: Responses to Decline in Firms, Organizations and States,” and it examined the choices that confronted dissatisfied consumers and officials. “Exit” was a euphemism for going elsewhere, “Voice” meant speaking up from the inside, and “Loyalty” meant staying silent. Hirschman, whose work is regarded as path-breaking, explained in a later essay that his original analysis of the efficacy of voice had been “too timid.” He noted the candidacies of George McGovern and Barry Goldwater — outsiders within their respective parties who rather than quitting or staying silent kept fighting and eventually won their parties’ presidential nominations.
“My point,” Hirschman wrote, “was of course that power grows not only out of the ability to exit, but also out of voice, and that voice will be wielded with special energy and dedication by those who have nowhere to exit to.”
Hirschman, who died in 2012, was speaking directly to the dilemma of federal workers who at this moment might feel a bit like Hamlet — “to resign or not to resign?” For Hirschman, doubt was not paralyzing but liberating, leading to action of some sort — he described it as proving Hamlet wrong. Hirschman’s own life was an example. Before becoming an academic, he fought in the Spanish civil war against Franco, with the French in their (very short) battle against invading Germans at the start of World War II, and he stayed in France during the German occupation and perilously helped several thousand refugees escape, including Hannah Arendt and Marc Chagall.
But how much can an oppositional bureaucrat accomplish in the Trump era? One of the State Department officials who resigned in 1993, Jon Western, noted that particularly in the first months of a new administration, bureaucrats possess an unusual amount of influence because many appointees who are supposed to call the policy shots have not started their jobs. Political appointees are not just the brand names who lead the various agencies and departments of government. In every one of them, there are as many as five layers of political appointees, and it can be months or more before they are in place. Many of them have to be confirmed by Congress and obtain security clearances, some haven’t lived in Washington D.C. and must arrange to move there, while others are so new to their jobs that they don’t yet know enough to question the civil servants under them.
Western, now a professor of international relations and dean of faculty at Mount Holyoke College, recalled that when Bill Clinton took office in early 1993, an immediate policy review was ordered for Bosnia. Clinton became president after four years of George H.W. Bush and eight years of Ronald Reagan, so the exodus of political appointees was particularly deep — few Republicans wanted to stay on to help the other side, and the other side didn’t want them to stay. “None of the third, fourth or fifth layer people were in place,” Western recalled. The review was largely carried out by career civil servants who had helped design and execute the do-nothing policy that was under review. The White House “was left with a report that said there’s not a whole lot you can do,” Western recalled. “The bureaucracy can really slow things down. At the end of the day, policy has to be implemented by people on the ground, and for people on the ground to get their instructions, it has to go through a pretty cumbersome process.”
The number of federal career employees is 2.1 million, which is separate from the 3.7 million people who work as federal contractors. The growth of the government workforce since World War II has inevitably spawned a cascade of academic studies of bureaucratic politics, with a foundational text written by a Harvard professor, Graham Allison, whose 1971 book on the Cuban missile crisis examined three models for understanding how and why the crisis unfolded the way it did. Allison drew attention to what at the time was a relatively new model for making sense of how a state acts: the behind-the-scenes struggles of bureaucrats and bureaucracies. Allison compared it to a chess match in which the moves of one side are determined not by a single player (the president) or by a predictable strategy that is planned in advance, but by several bureaucratic players with distinct interests and strategies who battle each other over each move.
Even in the age of Twitter and stream-of-consciousness edicts from the commander-in-chief, “It’s not as though the president picks up the phone and says ‘This has to be done,’ and immediately things will be done,” Western said.
On January 24, 1993, the New York Times published a story based on a leaked intelligence assessment that Serbian forces operated 135 prison camps, months after they had promised to shut down all of their camps. Western, who was an intelligence analyst at the State Department at the time, was surprised to read about it in the Times because he had written the classified assessment just a day earlier. Someone else had slipped it to the Times — “I wouldn’t have felt comfortable” disclosing it, Western said — but he was glad it had been done.
Leaking to journalists is another way that civil servants can perform their jobs in the public interest, Western and the other Bosnia dissenters agreed. With Congress and the White House controlled by a political party that prefers “alternative facts,” the truth of what the government knows is less likely to see the light of day unless it is leaked. Even Western, who describes himself as “not a big fan” of the massive leaks of Edward Snowden and Chelsea Manning, notes that without leaks the American public wouldn’t know about the Pentagon Papers and other truths the government did not want to share with the American public. “Leaking is part of the process of making sure information gets out,” he said.
During the run-up to the Iraq war, when senior officials in the George W. Bush administration falsely claimed that intelligence assessments confirmed Saddam Hussein’s regime was building weapons of mass destruction, the messier truth made its way into the public realm only because mid-level officials talked to journalists about the absence of hard evidence to back up the administration’s erroneous claims. By staying on the inside, midlevel bureaucrats can function as the fact-checkers of senior-level spin.
Stephen Walker, who was the fourth and final State Department official to resign over Bosnia, recalled in an interview that after Secretary of State Warren Christopher refused to say in 1993 that Serbian forces were systemically killing Muslims in Bosnia, somebody leaked a classified State Department memo that said the exact opposite. This was an example, Walker said, of a leak being the best and perhaps only way to present evidence that a senior official was lying about what the government knew. “While I never would have leaked myself, I’m glad people did it,” said Walker. “I’m glad that the things that got leaked at that time got leaked, because they were important documents that needed to be in the public domain and didn’t involve sources and methods.”
Of course a key difference between then and now is that unauthorized leaks are investigated far more aggressively than before, and the consequences of being caught are more severe. The Obama administration prosecuted more leakers and whistleblowers under the Espionage Act than all previous administrations combined, and the Trump administration, with its ingrained hostility toward the major media, is expected to continue the crackdown, if not intensify it.
When Marshall Harris began working at the State Department in 1985, he had to attend a six-week orientation course known as A-100, the department’s version of basic training. There were about 60 youthful diplomats in the course, and each day they received instruction in everything they would need to know as they started their careers — such as security protocols, how to write cables, the structure of the department, the do’s and don’ts of public speaking and negotiating.
One day, a lecturer told a story about a diplomat who disagreed with U.S. policy and resigned on principle. The punch line was that the righteous diplomat couldn’t find a job on the outside — his skills were so impractical that he ended up pumping gas in northern Virginia. The story might sound a bit apocryphal but the point it conveyed to Harris and his young colleagues-in-diplomacy was clear — if you resign, you will forever lose the prestige and security you enjoyed as a Foreign Service Officer. Don’t do it.
Just a few years later, Harris ignored that advice. He was a Bosnia specialist in the State Department and disagreed with the U.S. policy of looking the other way as genocide occurred. In 1993, after failing to change the policy, Harris decided to resign. “I can no longer serve in a Department of State that accepts the forceful dismemberment of a European state and that will not act against genocide and the Serbian officials who perpetrate it,” he wrote in his resignation letter, which quickly got into the hands of reporters.
For him and the three other Bosnia dissenters, resignation was a last resort that for each of them turned out to attract far more attention than they expected. Kenney, the first to quit, became an influential voice at the outset of the Bosnian conflict (though his views changed after a few years and he eventually expressed doubts about the scale of killings in Bosnia). Harris, after leaving the State Department, worked for a congressman, the late Frank McCloskey, who was a leading figure on Bosnia, and then he helped form a pro-Bosnia advocacy group with Walker. Western took a slightly different path, speaking out less than the others and going into the academic world (Walker is now a high school teacher, while Western is a professor).
The Bosnia dissenters, while not regretting their choices, recognize that the media landscape has shifted since their resignations catapulted them to durable perches in the public eye. When they resigned, the web was just a few years old, not much of a platform for public debate. The velocity of today’s news cycle is radically quicker. Harris recalled that when he resigned, “everyone wanted to talk to me,” so he did frequent television interviews that were serious and respectful. When I spoke with Harris on the phone earlier this month, he mentioned that on the previous night he had watched CNN’s Anderson Cooper show and the panel discussion included eight participants who competed for precious airtime for their seconds-long sound bites.
“Back in my day, you had a one-on-one interview,” Harris said. “But in a heartbeat today, you can get 50 people on a panel.”
The warning Harris received as a diplomat-in-training remains painfully relevant. Although some things have changed in a good way — Harris notes there are now more career opportunities outside government for people who resign — in general, leakers and whistleblowers tend to be shunned and punished by the institutions they leak against, even if the public welcomes their disclosures. While there is little hard data, a 1975 study looked at the resignations of high-level officials between 1900 and 1970. Only 34 of those resignations involved a public protest of some sort, and only one of the officials who resigned in public eventually returned to an equivalent or higher post in government.
“If you want somebody to stand up and say no and be noticed, you can’t have somebody like me, who was midlevel,” Kenny said. “You have to have someone quite senior to throw themselves on the barbed wire. But I’m not sure anyone who is in a position to be listened to would want to do it.”
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Correction: January 29, 2017
This story has been updated to reflect that Stephen Walker formed a Bosnia advocacy group with Marshall Harris.