The State Department legislative office prepared a four-page memo for Secretary of State Rex Tillerson warning of the dangers of leaking by State Department employees. It was promptly leaked, to me. That’s only the latest sign that the relationship between the Trump administration political appointees and the State Department professional workforce is still very much a work in progress.
The Feb. 20 memo by State Department acting legal adviser Richard Visek to Tillerson is titled “SBU: Protecting Privileged Information.” The SBU stands for Sensitive But Unclassified, a designation used on documents that are not technically secret but also are not supposed to be shared. The memo itself is marked SBU and begins with detailed explanation of how and when Tillerson has the privilege of protecting certain types of information from public disclosure, such as anything that has to do with internal State Department deliberations.
But the bulk of the memo is devoted to arguments for clamping down on unauthorized disclosures of sensitive information, also known as leaking.
“When such information is leaked … It chills the willingness of senior government officials to seek robust and candid advice, which ultimately is to the detriment of informed policymaking and the reputation of the institution from which the leak emanated,” the memo states.
State Department officials unhappy with a policy have many perfectly good alternatives to leaking, the memo argues. They can participate in the policy process as it develops or convey their concerns about a policy afterwards to their co-workers, supervisors or department leadership.
“The Department has also benefitted (sic) from the existence of the Dissent Channel, which is itself a confidential deliberative channel that seeks to facilitate open, creative, and uncensored dialogue on substantive foreign policy issues,” the memo says.
Even before Tillerson was in place, more than 900 State Department employees used the Dissent Channel to object to President Donald Trump’s executive order banning immigration from seven majority-Muslim countries. The Dissent Channel cable was leaked to the media even before it was filed.
The memo makes the case for plugging leaks wherever they be found. “If the Department is going to be able to influence policy deliberations, we need to have a reputation for engaging responsibly in those deliberations,” it states.
State Department acting spokesperson Mark Toner told me that as a matter of policy the State Department will not discuss the contents of an internal memo that was not intended for publication. But he echoed the memo’s warnings about the dangers of leaking.
“It is essential that employees protect classified and other sensitive information from unauthorized disclosure,” he said. “This is a basic understanding that employees have when they enter federal service, and it is a condition of employment since mishandling of information jeopardizes their security clearances.”
It makes sense that Tillerson would want to show a White House very paranoid about leaks that he runs a tight ship. But many State Department bureaucrats don’t feel that they are able to affect policy through the normal channels due to what they see as lack of communication between Trump’s and Tillerson’s people.
Several also feel that the State Department’s experts and career officials are often being left out of the loop by the secretary’s office, causing a lack of clarity on what U.S. policy is in many cases.
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