President Joe Biden’s approach to the ongoing violence in Israel and Palestine is fueling mounting tensions at the U.S. government agency most involved in foreign policy: the State Department.
Officials told HuffPost that Secretary of State Antony Blinken and his most senior advisers are overlooking widespread internal frustration. Some department staff said they feel as if Blinken and his team are uninterested in their own experts’ advice as they focus on supporting Israel’s expanding operation in Gaza, where the Palestinian militant group Hamas is based.
“There’s basically a mutiny brewing within State at all levels,” one State Department official said.
Since Hamas’ Oct. 7 terror attack on Israel, fighting in the region has killed more than 4,000 people, and Israel is preparing a ground invasion of Gaza that is expected to claim tens of thousands of additional lives.
Biden and Blinken say they want to help Israel decisively defeat Hamas, but that they do not want to see suffering among ordinary Gazans or a broader regional conflict. Both have recently visited Israel, and Blinken is prioritizing an attempt to open the Gaza-Egypt border to allow humanitarian aid into the besieged region and let some civilians out.
Two officials told HuffPost that diplomats are preparing what’s called a “dissent cable,” a document criticizing American policy that goes to the agency’s leaders through a protected internal channel.
Such cables are seen within the State Department as consequential statements of serious disagreement at key historical moments. The dissent channel was established amid deep internal conflict during the Vietnam War, and diplomats have since then used it to warn that the U.S. is making dangerous and self-defeating choices abroad.
The cable would come in the wake of Josh Paul, a veteran State Department official, announcing his resignation on Wednesday. After more than a decade of working on arms deals, he said, he could not morally support the U.S.’s moves to supply Israel’s war effort.
“In the last 24 hours, I’ve been getting an immense amount of outreach from colleagues... with really encouraging words of support and a lot of people saying they feel the same way and it’s very difficult for them,” said Paul, whose departure was first reported by HuffPost.
Paul described that as surprising: “My expectation was that no one would want to touch me with a 10-foot barge pole... because of the sensitivity of anything to do with Israel.”
Contacted for comment for this story on Thursday, a State Department representative directed HuffPost to remarks earlier in the day from agency spokesperson Matthew Miller.
“One of the strengths of this department is that we do have people with different opinions. We encourage them to make their opinions known,” Miller said in those remarks. “It, of course, is the president that sets policy, but we encourage everyone, even when they disagree with our policy, to let... their leadership know.”
“Secretary Blinken has spoken to this on a number of occasions, when he’s said that he welcomes people exercising the dissent channel,” he went on. “He finds it useful to get conflicting voices that may differ from his opinion. He takes it seriously, and it causes him to reflect on his own thinking in terms of policymaking.”
Biden and Blinken have publicly spoken of both Israel’s right to defend itself and their expectation that Israel will “abide by all international law,” Miller said.
“Multiple officials said they have heard colleagues talk about quitting.”
Key decisions are made at the highest level by Biden, Blinken and a handful of others. But rank-and-file State Department officials are involved in an array of other important and controversial elements of the American response to the Israeli-Palestinian violence.
On Wednesday, the U.S. mission to the United Nations ― a State office ― vetoed a U.N. resolution backed by many countries that condemned all violence against civilians, including by Hamas, and endorsed humanitarian aid for Gaza. State will also help administer the additional military aid for Israel and humanitarian assistance for Palestinians that Biden has authorized.
State Department staff are trying to simultaneously conduct delicate diplomacy, respond to calls from Congress to demonstrate huge support for Israel and regard for Palestinian lives, and manage global outrage over the impression that the U.S. is providing cover for excessive Israeli force.
Counterparts in Arab governments are telling State Department officials the U.S. is at risk of losing support in their region for a generation, a U.S. official told HuffPost.
It’s unclear whether Blinken — who returned to Washington on Wednesday after a five-day trip across the Middle East, during which he met with officials in seven countries — understands the crisis of morale in his department.
“There’s a sense within the workforce that the secretary doesn’t see it or doesn’t care,” a State Department official said, saying that the feeling extends to high-ranking figures at the agency. “And it’s almost certain he’s not aware of just how bad the workforce dynamics are. It’s really quite bad.”
The negativity is surfacing in a variety of ways. One official described peers as “depressed and angry about it all,” while another said some staff are experiencing “resignation.” That official recalled a colleague in tears during a meeting over their view “that U.S. policy statements emphasized support for Israel over the lives of Palestinians.”
Senior State Department officials have privately discouraged the agency from using three specific phrases in public statements, HuffPost revealed last week: “de-escalation/ceasefire,” “end to violence/bloodshed” and “restoring calm.”
In one office, a manager told their team that they know staff with extensive international experience are unhappy with Biden’s plan ― particularly the sense that the U.S. will do little to ensure Israeli restraint ― but they have little chance of changing it, an official present at the meeting said.
Multiple officials said they have heard colleagues talk about quitting as Paul did. One U.S. official described Paul’s decision as a shock and a major loss for the department.
The severity of the language in the dissent cable, and the number of State Department officials who sign it, will offer a picture of how alarmed staffers are at America’s response to the situation in Gaza and how broad the disagreement with Biden’s policy is ― and could determine whether it actually inspires a change in course.
Such cables often attract dozens or even hundreds of signatures, and the dissent channel is seen as a vital way to elevate opposing views without fear of retaliation because State’s policies bar retaliation against those who use it.
“I think it does make a difference to senior leadership,” Paul said.
But the process has been under threat this year, as House Republicans have pushed to access a dissent cable prepared amid Biden’s withdrawal from Afghanistan.
“The efforts to obtain the Afghanistan dissent cable by Congress do make it more difficult to talk about dissent cables in general, and do make some people think twice,” Paul said.
Global affairs professionals, particularly those with ties to the Muslim-majority world who worry about being targeted, have long been concerned about being seen as taking a stand on Israel-Palestine.
That anxiety has often affected policymaking, according to Sarah Harrison, a former Pentagon and Department of Homeland Security official now at the nonprofit Crisis Group.
“This is an environment that has been cultivated by Democratic and Republican administrations alike,” Harrison recently wrote on X. “If you work in the federal government and question anything Israel does you are sidelined and silenced.”
Staff across the Biden administration have told HuffPost they are experiencing a chilling effect at work. One person said there was “a culture of silence” around expressing their views on Israel-Palestine, and another said they felt “shame” at working within the U.S. government at this moment.
Some State Department staffers place particular blame for the bubbling discontent on Blinken’s deputy chief of staff for policy.
Tom Sullivan ― a powerful figure who is the brother of Biden’s top national security adviser, Jake Sullivan ― has “consistently overruled” the idea of greater outreach from the secretary to State Department personnel, one official said.
In high-level meetings, Tom Sullivan usually focuses on asking what Israel wants or highlighting its needs ― upsetting colleagues who feel the priority in crafting a plan for support should be on U.S. interests, a U.S. official told HuffPost.
Staffers do not feel comfortable challenging Sullivan because of his brother’s rank, the official continued.
On Thursday evening, Blinken sent out an all-staff message reviewing State Department contributions to his trip. HuffPost obtained the note.
“We asked a lot of you. And once again, under tremendous pressure, you delivered,” the secretary wrote. “I know that, for many of you, this time has not only been challenging professionally, but personally ... You are not alone. We are here for you.”
“Let us also be sure to sustain and expand the space for debate and dissent that makes our policies and our institution better,” the message continued.