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Outgoing State Department Official Urges Colleagues To Stay And Serve


Last night, Tom Countryman walked out of the State Department one last time. He spent 35 years as a U.S. diplomat. Last week, he learned that the new Trump administration was asking him to step down from a senior post. When he got that news, he was overseas preparing to head to a meeting on nuclear nonproliferation. Instead, he came home, cleaned out his desk and delivered a farewell speech to colleagues that mentioned the Statue of Liberty and quoted from the Bible. Tom Countryman is in our studios this morning.

Good morning, sir.

TOM COUNTRYMAN: Good morning, Steve. Thank you.

INSKEEP: What was the mood as you said goodbye yesterday?

COUNTRYMAN: Well, it's always festive because I wouldn't have a ceremony any other way. But it's also somber. There are a number of people in the department who are absolutely determined to continue serving the American people as they have, as professionals from one administration to the next, but have a genuine concern as to whether they will have the same opportunity to provide guidance and input in this new administration's foreign policy.

INSKEEP: How different is the general outlook of State Department diplomats and the outlook of this new administration?

COUNTRYMAN: Well, that's very difficult to gauge because the State Department professionals, not the very top layer of a hundred people or so who are appointed and change from one administration to the next...

INSKEEP: Political appointees, effectively.

COUNTRYMAN: The political appointees. The career employees are determinedly nonpartisan. And they serve, as I said, loyally, each successive president. There have been times before when a president has come in with a distrust of the Department of State, in part because it is difficult to explain to Americans what the State Department does. But each successive secretary of state has learned to rely on the career people. So you won't find many State Department career employees who are expressing political opinions at work or even outside of work. I am now free to do so as of 13 hours ago.

INSKEEP: Not expressing political opinions but trying to give their professional advice - and there's been plenty of news about the fact that hundreds of professional foreign service officers have signed a memo through what's called the dissent channel to say they disagree with the president's executive order that temporarily bans immigration, or visitation actually, from seven Middle Eastern countries. Why do people feel so strongly about that in the State Department?

COUNTRYMAN: Well, first, just a word about the dissent channel, which was established at the time of the Vietnam War - sometimes, that channel, for private expression of a dissenting view up to the secretary of state - sometimes, it's not used at all for years at a time. And at other times - Vietnam, Iraq, Syria, the Balkans - it was used heavily. And the key fact about it is that it was a means to privately express a dissenting point of view and that all State Department employees who participated, foreign service and civil service, were insulated from any kind of retaliation.

Now in this case - and I understand this is the largest number of people who have ever signed such a letter - but the other unprecedented part and unfortunate part is that it was in the press before it was delivered to either the acting secretary or the new secretary, and that's not ideal. But I think it reflects the depth of conviction that is there among career employees, not only in state but in other agencies, that this was an order that had sweeping implications for our foreign relations with a number of countries as well as for the values that we seek to project and share with other countries.

INSKEEP: Oh, because the president has said it's not a Muslim ban. But he's been very clear his original intent was banning Muslims, and this was the closest that he could get.

COUNTRYMAN: Yeah, I can't divine the president's intent. And to be honest, I haven't read the executive order. But the effect of it has been to immediately damage our relations with a number of countries as well as to call into question an effort that we've been leading, which is to blunt the social media/public relations offensive of al-Daesh, of the so-called Islamic State.

And the fact that that was done without any apparent coordination with the relevant departments - State, Defense, Homeland Security and Justice - gives concern to any professional. And it gives me great concern because if you do foreign policy without the input of professionals, it is, by definition, an amateur foreign policy.

INSKEEP: I think you're telling me that if the professionals had been consulted, they might have said - listen, if we're going to do this, don't do it in a way that gives a huge propaganda victory to the other side.

COUNTRYMAN: There - certainly, the order shows signs of no serious thought given to the consequences. And yes, professionals in several different agencies could have helped.

INSKEEP: So when news of this letter of dissent began spreading, Sean Spicer, the White House spokesman, was asked about it. And his response was that professional diplomats - actually, he said career bureaucrats - should, quote, "get with the program or they can go." Is that an appropriate response?

COUNTRYMAN: That's an expected response from Mr. Spicer. I think that, again, he has no appreciation for how difficult foreign policy is. The response you would hope for from the White House is to reaffirm what every other president and secretary has done, which is to say there is no retribution against people who privately express dissent.

INSKEEP: Might not take the advice, but you at least listen to the advice.

One last thing - we've got a few seconds left - in your farewell speech, Mr. Countryman, you said that the Statue of Liberty is not just a magnet for immigrants. It is a projector. Very briefly, what did you mean?

COUNTRYMAN: I mean that the promise of America is not just that people can come here and build a better life, a free life. But I've been overseas in countries where the American model of democracy has been a powerful inspiration for people to build democracy at home without the need to immigrate to the United States. And if we build walls between ourselves and other countries, we will dim that light forever.

INSKEEP: Tom Countryman, thanks very much.

COUNTRYMAN: Thank you very much.

INSKEEP: And thanks for many years of service to the United States.

He retired yesterday from the foreign service after 35 years. He last served as acting undersecretary for arms control and international security.

(SOUNDBITE OF EL TEN ELEVEN'S "NOVA SCOTIA") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.