- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 20, 2006

The union representing American diplomats said yesterday it has had a difficult time soliciting nominations for its annual awards for “constructive dissent” in the Foreign Service because its members are reluctant to be perceived as mavericks.

The union, the American Foreign Service Association (AFSA), had to extend the deadline by two weeks, and it still received only eight nominations this year out of more than 10,000 Foreign Service members, said AFSA President J. Anthony Holmes.

“The problem is not that there aren’t people who deserve an award, but that people don’t want to be nominated,” he said. “They worry about negative repercussions. There is a feeling that questioning policy is extremely risky.”

AFSA presents the awards for “courage to speak out and challenge the system.”

Barbara Berger, coordinator for the awards, said the Foreign Service is a risk-averse culture and its members are preoccupied with important daily responsibilities around the world.

“The very nature of the dissent awards makes it hard to get nominations,” she said.

A classic example of an American diplomat bucking established policy is George Kennan’s 1946 cable from Moscow, known as the Long Telegram, which became the basis for the “containment” of the Soviet Union in particular and communism in general during the Cold War.

During World War II, Hiram Bingham IV issued U.S. entry visas to 2,500 European Jews against official government policy. Secretary of State Colin L. Powell honored him posthumously in 2003.

AFSA first gave out the dissent awards in 1969. Awards are presented in four categories: to a junior, midlevel and senior Foreign Service officer, and to a “specialist,” such as an office manager, computer specialist or diplomatic security agent.

Seventeen nominations were submitted last year, but only seven in 2003, and the deadline extension is no novelty when it comes to the dissent awards, Mrs. Berger said.

None of the nominations this year is related to a controversial foreign policy issue such as Iraq, Iran, North Korea or the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Two of those nominated voiced disagreement with visa procedures, one with a personnel issue involving a local employee of an embassy overseas, and one with a policy denying basic benefits to same-sex partners.

Several Foreign Service officers said the lack of enthusiasm for speaking out is a result of a “climate of intimidation and self-censorship” at the State Department under the Bush administration, although they did not offer specific examples.

“This administration does not tolerate dissent,” one officer said. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice “runs a tight ship, and you’d better stay on board,” he said.

Another officer said that there is “no active process in which input is solicited” from the ranks, except for several senior career officials in assistant secretary and undersecretary positions.

But State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said Miss Rice “encourages vigorous and healthy debate.”

“She has challenged the building to be at the forefront of the policy-making process with ideas,” he said.

Keith Mines, a political officer at the U.S. Embassy in Ottawa who won a dissent award in 2004 for a cable he sent through the State Department’s “dissent channel” in May 2003, said the opportunities for diplomats to speak out under the current administration are no different from those under its predecessors.

“Every time I’ve had something to say, I’ve had an outlet to say it and it’s been considered,” Mr. Mines said.

In his cable shortly after Saddam Hussein was deposed, Mr. Mines warned of serious difficulties in Iraq and wrote that “only a U.N. political mission can make of Iraq a functioning, stable democracy.”

Even though such a mission never was set up, Mr. Mines, who served in Iraq for seven months beginning in August 2003, said he felt that his cable was given consideration from key decision-makers.

AFSA plans to present the dissent awards at a ceremony in June and hopes that Miss Rice will attend, Mrs. Berger said.

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