State department sees unprecedented flood of internal dissent memos over Gaza war

State department staff sent at least eight internal dissent memos to express disagreement with US policy on Israel and Gaza during the first two months of the war, The Independent can reveal.

A further memo was sent last month from the US embassy in Jordan, warning of increasing instability across the region due to Israel’s ongoing war, according to a person familiar with the matter, bringing the total number to at least nine.

Such a high number of internal dissent memorandums – a formal process by which staff can express concerns internally to a policy – highlights the widespread opposition within the department to the Biden administration’s support for Israel’s war in Gaza.

By comparison, only one internal dissent memo was filed during the first three years of the Iraq War, widely considered to be one of the United States’ biggest foreign policy disasters.

Josh Paul, who resigned from the state department in protest over US support for the war in October, said such a high number was unprecedented in recent memory.

“To the best of my knowledge, it is the most on any issue in such a timespan,” he said.

Dissent memorandums can be written and signed by any state department staff member, at which point they are sent to the secretary of state’s planning office, before being passed up the chain to senior department officials and secretary of state Antony Blinken. They are not made public or shared with the wider state department staff.

The dissent channel was created during the Vietnam war for state department staff to express criticism and disagreements without fear of retribution. The content of such cables is fiercely protected by the department, and they rarely leak. It is likely that many more dissent memos were sent since the war began and have not been made public.

The devastation of Khan Younis following Israel pulling their troops from the city (Getty)
The devastation of Khan Younis following Israel pulling their troops from the city (Getty)

Mitchell Reiss, a former director of the office that handled dissent memos between 2003 and 2005, the first three years of the Iraq war, said he received one such dissent memo during his tenure.

“It’s not just sort of a paper-pushing exercise. It was taken very seriously by the highest levels of the department,” Mr Reiss, who served under secretary of state Colin Powell, said.

But he cautioned that it would be impossible to know if all the memos had taken an anti-war stance without seeing them.

The most recent dissent memorandum was sent last month from the US embassy in Amman, Jordan, and focused on the destabilising effect of Israel’s actions in that country and across the region, one source said.

A memo that was leaked to Axios in November that was signed by 100 state department and USAID employees, urged for the department to reassess its policy toward Israel and demand a ceasefire in Gaza.

Israel launched its offensive in Gaza following a devastating surprise attack by Hamas on 7 October that killed 1,200 people. More than 200 people were taken hostage.

Since then, Israel’s war has killed more than 33,000 people, according to the Palestinian health ministry – some 13,000 of them children. The UN and multiple aid organisations working on the ground have warned that Gaza is on the brink of a major famine, and have blamed Israel for blocking the delivery of aid into the strip.

Israel provoked international outrage last week for an attack on an aid convoy that killed seven aid workers belonging to World Central Kitchen. That brought the number of aid workers killed by Israel’s offensive to more than 220, according to Oxfam.

The UK government said it is ‘completely united’ over the conflict in Gaza as it faces continued demands to suspend arms exports to Israel (AP)
The UK government said it is ‘completely united’ over the conflict in Gaza as it faces continued demands to suspend arms exports to Israel (AP)

The Independent has previously reported on high levels of opposition within the state department over president Joe Biden’s unconditional support for Israel, some six months into the war.

Charles Blaha, former director of the state department’s Office of Security and Human Rights, told The Independent that he had “never seen this much dissent”.

“I was in the state department for 32 years, including during the Iraq war, and I have never seen this much unhappiness. It is even worse than Iraq. So yeah, people are concerned,” Mr Blaha, who maintains contact with current staffers, said.

Mr Biden has come under increasing pressure over his longstanding and unconditional support for Israel as the war has dragged on.

The killing of the seven international aid workers, including an American citizen, by three precision Israeli airstrikes, caused an uproar around the world and brought a renewed spotlight on Mr Biden’s insistence on continuing arms deliveries.

On the same day of the deadly strike, the Biden administration approved the transfer of thousands more bombs to Israel, and is currently weighing an $18bn sale that includes fighter jets and other equipment.

Despite the internal opposition in the state department, there have only been two public resignations linked to the war: Mr Paul and Annelle Sheline, who left her post at the near eastern section of the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor in March and spoke out publicly against the war after being encouraged to do so by her colleagues.

Brian Finucane, who worked for a decade in the office of the legal adviser at the state department advising on issues related to the laws of war, arms transfers and war crimes, told The Independent that there was a huge gap between the department’s rank-and-file and the messaging coming from the White House.

“Based on my conversations since October with people at the department, there is a real disconnect between the analysis and policy recommendations of state department personnel relating to Gaza and Israel-Palestine generally and decisions ultimately being made by the White House,” he said.

“The president is the ultimate decider on Gaza and he’s been largely immune to the facts of this disastrous conflict, at least with respect to actual US policy as opposed to rhetoric,” he added.

Mr Blinken responded to an initial flurry of dissent cables over the war in Gaza back in November, writing in a letter to staff to acknowledge the sentiment.

“I know that for many of you, the suffering caused by this crisis is taking a profound personal toll,” Mr Blinken said in the letter obtained by Reuters.

“The anguish that comes with seeing the daily images of babies, children, elderly people, women, and other civilians suffering in this crisis is wrenching. I feel it myself,” he said.

There were an average of almost nine dissent messages per year sent to Washington between 1972 and 2017, according to the Foreign Service Journal.

A state department spokesperson said in a statement given to The Independent that Mr Blinken “welcomes people utilising the dissent channel.”

“He takes it seriously, and it causes him to reflect on his own thinking in terms of policymaking and what he proposes to the president,” the spokesperson added.