On Bureaucrats as Pundits

In Dr. Joyner’s post about former government officers becoming pundits, I had a bit of a disagreement with him in the comments section. Perhaps part of that is protecting my own “rice bowl” as I’m a former State officer and now comment about my areas of interest/specialization. That I’m not among the talking heads constantly on CNN doesn’t really affect the issue.

I draw a clean line between speaking while you’re still a government official and when you’ve retired/resigned. In the former, you are sworn to support the Administration–no matter the party, no matter the incumbent. If you can’t do that, you have options, the foremost among them being to resign. Government bureaucrats indeed may know more than the political appointee whose setting policy; that’s often the case. But that’s a big “so what.” Government bureaucrats were not elected to set policy; they were given jobs–or sometimes even commissions–to do a job to the best of their abilities in order to support whomever is in the White House.

That does not infringe upon their consciences, though it may very well inhibit their freedom of speech. That’s part of the job; if you don’t like that, you need to find another employer. Foreign Service Officers are, in fact, commissioned officers, same as in the military. We swear the same oath to defend and protect the Constitution. We have military-equivalent ranks that are important only in inter-agency matters. We even get to join USAA for our insurance needs!

But freedom of speech is limited for FSOs as much as it is for the military, perhaps more so. We are taught from the early days of our Junior Officer Training that we may have opinions, but we are restricted in where and how we may offer them in public. Because we spend a good portion of our careers overseas, we are seen as voices of the American gov’t, whether the setting is official or private. It simply does not work to have divergent voices explaining US foreign policy. Sometimes, as during the Cold War, that’s simply a security risk. Anytime, it shows an incoherence in getting the message across. That doesn’t mean that we have to ignore dissident voices, however. We only have to make sure that our explanations are accurate and do support the policy.

Post-employment, different rules apply. There are limitations about what can be said about classified matters, naturally. Books written by former FSOs, as former CIA officers, need to go through official vetting if the subject matter is germane to the area we worked in to ensure that no classified materials get out inadvertently.

But post-employment writing offers a great temptation–and platform–to get even. It’s a terrific opportunity to show how much smarter the writer is than the knuckleheads who held the top positions. It’s a way to disclose the petty unfairnesses that intrude in any work environment. Everybody has a beef; not everybody writes about it.

Even this getting-even can have a positive reaction, as was the case of female officers who were institutionally disadvantaged in terms of promotions or hot assignments. I might argue that the cure was excessive, but that’d be my beef, not necessarily right or wrong. Putting it in print, though, makes it public, makes it fair game to be used (or abused) by any who choose to do so.

Former officials who choose to go into print need to recognize that once their opinions are published they have lost control of them. That may call for reappraisal or not. There are certainly those with such a visceral hatred of any given administration that they will be happy to have their writings used to promote anti-administration activities [Paging Joe Wilson!]. Others, though, do try to be balanced and circumspect. Dr. Joyner’s comment about how the media cherry-picks what they report, as in the case of Scheur, is absolutely to the point: the writer loses control of the message.

This comes down to a matter of responsibility to a large extent, though motivation often overrides that. If one thinks that a policy is wrong-headed, then s/he’s free to argue. After resigning or retiring. There is no right to argue, outside the office, while still employed.

If there’s an egregious wrong being committed, there are channels to express that dissent. State even has a special cable channel dedicated to dissent. Every cable sent through that channel is moved immediately to the 7th Floor (where the Secretary of State sits). If that isn’t enough, then FSOs (and CIA officers) have a right to petition their congressional representatives. In a strongly polarized time, that can be good or bad depending on where you stand on the issue. There is no constitutionally protected right, however, to bring it into the public arena.

I’ve had to support policies that I thought really sucked, were wrongheaded, or were not based on reality. But none of them was so egregious that I felt impelled to resign. Mileage for others obviously differed. I still have my beefs against State, still think they’ve got the wrong end of the stick on many issues, from personnel policies to foreign policies. But I don’t try to impugn motive. Stupidity explains so much more than conspiracy…

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John Burgess
About John Burgess
John Burgess retired after 25 years as a US Foreign Service Officer, serving predominantly in the Middle East. He contributed 35 pieces to OTB between February 2006 and April 2014. He was the proprietor of the influential Crossroads Arabia until his death in February 2016.