Over the past decade, spanning two different presidencies, the U.S. government and its individual employees have faced extraordinarily important issues at the intersection of national security, law and conscience. Major American policies promulgated in the name of national security regarding war, invasion and occupation, kidnapping, extraordinary rendition, torture, indefinite detention, curtailment of civil liberties, extrajudicial killings, targeted assassinations and eavesdropping have all been called into legal question.
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For women and men in our government, these ethical issues should create crises of conscience. Public servants face the dilemma of how, within the system, to challenge policies that are ill-considered at best, or illegal at worst. Can one continue working for a government carrying out policies it claims are critical to national security, if one believes those policies constitute moral, ethical or legal failures?
These issues transcend administrations. Despite the urging of President Barack Obama to "look forward, not backward" in terms of transparency and accountability for governmental actions, I firmly believe it is imperative to take a look back over the policies of the past 10 years. That is the only way to evaluate how to approach ethical, moral and legal challenges in the future.
Ten years ago, I faced such a dilemma myself. I had been a federal government employee for more than 35 years, first in the U.S. military and then at the Department of State, serving eight presidents going back to Lyndon Johnson. Many of those administrations, of both parties, espoused controversial policies that I did not agree with. But like many other public servants, I sought to carry out programs and policies with which I concurred, morally and ethically.
The Road to War
In late 2002 and early 2003, I became increasingly concerned about the George W. Bush administration's march to war in Iraq. I had just returned from Afghanistan--having been on the small team that reopened the U.S. embassy in Kabul in December 2001 and remained there until the first permanent embassy staff arrived in April 2002 -- when I proceeded to my scheduled assignment as deputy chief of mission in Ulaanbaatar.
The war rhetoric from President Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice and my boss, Secretary of State Colin Powell, increased weekly, as did my unease. I was unable to figure out how Iraq could still have had weapons of mass destruction after intense U.N. inspections, sanctions, quarantines and blockades for 10 years, the imposition of two no-fly zones and regular U.S. attacks on military and civilian installations there.
On Feb. 5, 2003, I watched live from Mongolia as Secretary of State Powell pitched to the United Nations the "evidence" that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. His presentation did not convince me, and it did not convince the hundreds of Foreign Service colleagues who got in touch with me later. Nor did it deter the millions of U.S. citizens who marched in the streets, much less the U.N. member-states. They quickly voted against authorizing any military operations against Iraq.
I used the Dissent Channel to express my concerns in a letter to Secretary Powell in early March 2003, just weeks before the war began. My concerns were dismissed in the response from the department, signed by Policy Planning Director Richard Haass. His response paralleled the daily press guidance from the department, which rehashed the administration's rationale for why Saddam Hussein's regime was dangerous to the international community and should be eliminated.
After revising many drafts, on March 19, 2003 -- the eve of the invasion -- I sent my letter of resignation to Secretary of State Colin Powell. I became one of only three U.S. government employees, all Foreign Service officers, to resign over the issue. Several other FSOs apparently resigned later for the same reason, but did not make their resignations public. In addition, an unknown number of FSOs retired from the Service much earlier than they had planned because of their opposition to the war.
However, neither dissent within the government, nor elsewhere, affected the Bush administration's decision to wage war on Iraq.
"Dissent Is Difficult"
A decade later, I still wonder whether the resignation of a senior policymaker might have had an effect on that decision. In a 2006 interview, Sec. Powell's chief of staff, Larry Wilkerson, reflected: "My participation in that presentation at the U.N. constitutes the lowest point in my professional life. I participated in a hoax on the American people, the international community and the United Nations Security Council."
Wilkerson went even further in 2011, when he said that his role in preparing the presentation was "probably the biggest mistake of my life." He regrets both his participation and his decision not to resign over it.
Six years after the Iraq War began, Richard Haass -- who had delivered the official response to my Dissent Channel message -- described his own reservations about the decision to go to war in a 2009 Newsweek article, "The Dilemma of Dissent." In it Haass, now chair of the Council on Foreign Relations, says: "Had I known then what I know now -- namely, that there were no weapons of mass destruction and that the intervention would be carried out with a marked absence of good judgment and competence -- I would have been inalterably opposed. Still, even then, I leaned against proceeding."
Haass added: "Dissent is difficult. It can constitute a real dilemma for the person who disagrees. On one hand, you owe it to your conscience and to your bosses to tell them what they need to hear rather than what they want to hear. Speaking truth to power is actually a form of loyalty. It is the best and at times only way to make sure that government (or any organization) lives up to its potential.
"No matter how good the advice, however, there will be times when it is resented or rejected," Haass concluded. "It may be rebuffed on the merits, or because of politics or personalities. Some times, smart people just see things differently. It doesn't matter."
But in issues of war and peace, it does matter -- to the thousands who will kill and be killed, or spend the rest of their lives maimed physically or emotionally, due to the decisions of those in power.
It also matters to the rest of the world, symbolically and practically, when the country with the strongest military in the world decides to attack and occupy a small, oil-rich country that had been under extreme sanctions and inspections for 10 years.
And it matters that even a handful of U.S. government employees resigned in opposition to that policy. We became symbols to the rest of the world that not everyone in the U.S. government was willing to go along with a war opposed by the member-states of the United Nations, and by the people who voiced their concerns in the largest stop-the-war marches in history.
The Lessons of History
We now know the lengths to which Bush administration officials went to ensure the silence of those who opposed their policies, by classifying controversial and illegal policies and operations. As a result, anyone trying to challenge those policies in public automatically risked being charged with revealing classified information.
Those brave souls who challenge such policies anyway have seldom fared well. Here is just a partial list of U.S. government employees who have experienced retaliation, either for trying to work within the system to end these practices or becoming whistleblowers: Peter Van Buren and Matt Hoh (State); Jesselyn Radack and Thomas Tamm (Justice); Mike Gorman, Coleen Rowley and Sibel Edmonds (FBI); Bunnatine Greenhouse, Commander Matthew Diaz, Specialist Joe Darby and Specialist Samuel Provence (Defense); John Kiriakou (CIA); and Russell Tice and Thomas Drake (National Security Agency).
One can add to this list Katharine Gun and Craig Murray, both British whistleblowers, and Danish Major Frank Grevil, all of whom were accused of criminal acts. Murray was fired from his job, Grevil was court-martialed, and Gun was threatened with prosecution in civilian court, though the British government dropped the charges against her the night before the trial.
In addition, Private First Class Bradley Manning was court-martialed in June for releasing classified cables from both Defense and State that have rounded out our knowledge of U.S. involvement in Afghanistan, Iraq and many other countries. While I recognize that many Journal readers may be extremely concerned about his disclosure of a large volume of classified information, and do not see him as a dissenter, I see Manning's actions as similar to those of Pentagon Papers whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg, who believed Americans had the right to know the secret history of their government's involvement in Vietnam.
The point of my including Manning in this list is that in each case, the government's response appears to be disproportionate retaliation that does not take into account the rationale for disclosing the information (whether classified or unclassified): a government coverup of malfeasance.
Moreover, many inside and outside the government note the lack of investigation, much less prosecution, of senior officials (across all administrations) who leak classified information to advance official policy. In contrast, Uncle Sam seems eager to go after anyone who reveals classified information that documents criminal activity committed by government officials.
Sadly, despite its pledges to be open and transparent, the Obama administration has continued in its predecessor's footsteps. For example, it refuses to make public the memoranda that authorize the assassination by drone of American citizens and the rationale for its "signature" assassination program targeting Afghans, Pakistanis, Yemenis and Somalis.
Despite efforts to cover up the truth, we now know a great deal about the machinations that led up to the Iraq War--both through the Downing Street memos and the huge cache of documents released through Wikileaks (although I understand that U.S. government employees have been told not to look at the Wikileaks cables).
We know the pervasive untruths told by senior government officials to take the nation into war, as well as the protection of criminal acts committed by government officials: kidnapping, torture, eavesdropping and assassination. Whether such measures were authorized via secret memoranda or by legislation that attempted to retroactively legalize previously illegal acts, the truth has now been exposed.
Of special note, this past March the bipartisan Constitution Project released a report documenting the torture of prisoners detained by the United States. One of America's most experienced ambassadors, Thomas Pickering, summarized the damage done by those policies in an April 16 Washington Post op-ed: "By authorizing and permitting torture in response to a global terrorist threat, U.S. leaders committed a grave error that has undermined our values, principles and moral stature; eroded our global influence; and placed our soldiers, diplomats and intelligence officers in even greater jeopardy."
Yet whistleblowers who revealed the torture program years earlier have lost their jobs and even gone to jail.
Let Your Conscience Be Your Guide
In the decade since our resignations, John Brown, Brady Kiesling and I have spoken to thousands of groups, both in the United States and all over the world, about our decisions to resign from the Foreign Service. We are treated with great respect for that decision precisely because resignation on principle from the United States government is so rare.
I have worked with many veterans and their families, and have traveled to countries to meet with families uprooted and destroyed by U.S. wars. I have visited Iraqi refugees in Jordan and Syria, and interviewed victims of torture in U.S. prisons in Iraq. I have met with families of prisoners who have been released from Guantanamo and with families of prisoners who have been cleared for release years ago, but are still held by the United States. And I have met in Pakistan and Afghanistan with families of victims of U.S. drones.
I've also met hundreds of U.S. military personnel who did not have the luxury of resigning to protest war policies they decided were wrong. The consciences of these men and women serving in Iraq or Afghanistan would not allow them to continue killing others in wars they believed were based on lies. Many of them have gone to prison for their decisions to refuse to go along with policies they oppose.
Their statements leave no doubt of the severe conflict they experienced after volunteering to join an organization implementing policies that were fundamentally wrong -- and knowing that refusal to help carry them out could mean jail time.
That, of course, is the great dilemma inherent in confronting policies that one disagrees with -- particularly when the policies concern life and death. There is no doubt that dissent may cut short your government career. But living dishonestly may cause you a lifetime of anxiety and grief.
Ultimately, the nagging feeling you have in your stomach that something is profoundly wrong is a much better guide than the comments of senior government officials on whether policies are right or wrong, legal or illegal.