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Career Officials: You Are the Last Line of Defense Against Trump
Our nation’s security depends on you.
Since Election Day, I’ve been struggling with what to say to my many friends and former colleagues in the civil and foreign service. These jobs are never easy, but it is hard to imagine a moment when they have been tougher than they are now.
I began my career as a civil servant — in the George W. Bush administration. From working on that administration’s negotiating team in the six-party talks to deal with North Korea’s nuclear program, to working in the West Wing of the Barack Obama White House on the National Security Council, I know the critical role that civil servants play in keeping our country safe across administrations.
I entered the national security field because I woke up the day after September 11, 2001 knowing that I needed to do everything possible to ensure that a horrific attack like that never happened again. I know my former colleagues are guided by a similar commitment to our nation’s security — and success. I know that for them, it has always been, and will always be, country first.
So, with the humble recognition that it is easier to say these things from the outside than it is to live them on the inside, here are a few thoughts for my career colleagues:
Your jobs have never been more important. You are patriots who work for the American people, largely out of sight and with little recognition or glory — and your job remains to keep them safe and secure, as you have always worked to do.
Keep providing fact-based, high-quality, informed analysis, advice, and recommendations. Uphold, and make sure that the U.S. government’s policies and actions reflect, the values, principles, and laws that make America exceptional. Speak truth to power. Identify allies and upend hierarchy to get your message through. Whether drafting memos or briefing principals, ensure that decisions are grounded in facts, constrained by law, and advance U.S. interests. Document and preserve everything.
You are the eyes and ears looking out for threats to the United States — emerging or imminent. The country’s adversaries will attempt to take advantage of a distracted or retrenching America. Do not assume that others are paying attention — sound the alarm bell.
In many ways, you are the last line of defense against illegal, unethical, or reckless actions — which the first week of this administration confirm will abound. History has shown us that implementation of such policies depends on a compliant bureaucracy of obedient individuals who look the other way do as they are told. Do what bureaucracy does well: slow-roll, obstruct, and constrain. Resist. Refuse to implement anything illegal, unethical, or unconstitutional.
Oona Hathaway and Sarah Weiner provide some important resources on ways for government employees to respond to illegal or unethical actions. Know your whistleblower protections — and use them. For those at the State Department, use the dissent channel — and remember it will be strongest if reserved for significant issues. Colleagues at the U.S. embassy in Baghdad are reportedly already setting an example by raising concerns about the dangerous impact of the administration’s executive order on immigration and refugees. Abide by federal court orders if a policy has been challenged — something Customs and Border Protection officers should already be doing after the rulings on Trump’s executive order on immigration and refugees. Think now about the lines that you will not allowed to be crossed — write them down and remind yourself of them every day. And if you see them crossed, resign — and let it be known why. Following the past week’s actions, I know many of you are already struggling with whether this has already happened.
The Obama administration made important, if insufficient, strides in ensuring greater diversity in our national security ranks. I know that many of my colleagues who are immigrants, religious, ethnic or racial minorities, LGBTQ, or who work on programs — like those addressing climate change or women’s rights — that this administration opposes, not only feel that they will be marginalized, but worry that they may become targets. Speak to your department’s office of civil rights — get to know your rights and recourses. Have one another’s backs — and it will be particularly important for hetero white men and women to have the backs of those who may feel threatened or become targets.
This White House may have intended the abrupt requested departure of senior career State Department management officials in presidentially appointed positions to have a chilling effect on other career officers. And it may have been part of an effort to weaken the institutions of our democracy. The restructuring of the National Security Council under National Security Presidential Memorandum 2 also raises real questions about the administration’s desire to marginalize facts and create its own reality. But it is the strength of our institutions — and your role in upholding them — that is one of the greatest bulwarks against unconstitutional acts.
Remember the oath you took on your first day to “support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic.” It may have seemed like a rote exercise at the time, but those are the words — about a document so essential to the essence of our country that it is stored in a bomb-proof vault — that you should think of every day. Because this is not about partisan politics — this is about the preservation of our democracy.
Know that we are cheering for you and have your backs from the outside, and that the American people, who largely do not see your daily work, need you more than ever. Our nation’s security depends on you.
Photo credit: WIN MCNAMEE/Getty Images