WASHINGTON — Federal government workers from the State Department to NASA are circulating open letters demanding that President Joe Biden pursue a cease-fire in Israel’s war against Hamas. Congressional staffers are picking up microphones in front of the Capitol, speaking out to condemn what they say is the silence of lawmakers about the toll on Palestinian civilians.
As the deaths soar in Gaza, Biden and Congress are facing unusually public challenges from the inside over their support for Israel’s offensive. Hundreds of staffers in the administration and on Capitol Hill are signing on to open letters, speaking to reporters and holding vigils, all in an effort to shift U.S. policy toward more urgent action to stem Palestinian casualties.
“Most of our bosses on Capitol Hill are not listening to the people they represent,” one of the congressional staffers told the crowd at a protest this month. Wearing medical masks that obscured their faces, the roughly 100 congressional aides heaped flowers in front of Congress to honor the civilians killed in the conflict.
The objections coming from federal employees over the United States’ military and other backing for Israel’s Gaza campaign is partly an outgrowth of the changes happening more broadly across American society. As the United States becomes more diverse, so does the federal workforce, including more appointees of Muslim and Arab heritage. And surveys show public opinion shifting regarding U.S. ally Israel, with more people expressing unhappiness over the hard-right government of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
After weeks of seeing images of bloodied children and fleeing families in Gaza, a significant number of Americans, including from Biden’s Democratic Party, disagree with his support of Israel’s military campaign. A poll by The Associated Press and NORC Center for Public Affairs Research in early November found 40% of the U.S. public believed Israel’s response in Gaza had gone too far. The war has roiled college campuses and set off nationwide protests.
As of late this past week, one open letter had been endorsed by 650 staffers of diverse religious backgrounds from more than 30 federal agencies, organizers said. The agencies range from the Executive Office of the President to the Census Bureau and include the State Department, U.S. Agency for International Development and the Department of Defense.
A Biden political appointee who helped organize the multiagency open letter said the president’s rejection of appeals to push Netanyahu for a long-term cease-fire had left some federal staffers feeling “dismissed, in a way.”
“That’s why people are using all sorts of dissent cables and open letters. Because we’ve already gone through the channels of trying to do it internally,” this person said.
The letter condemns both the Hamas killings of about 1,200 people in Israel in the militants’ Oct. 7 incursion and the Israeli military campaign, which has killed more than 11,500 Palestinians in Gaza, according to the Palestinian Health Ministry. The letter calls for the U.S. to push for a cease-fire and a release of hostages held by Hamas and of Palestinians that the signers say are unjustly detained by Israel, as well as greater action overall on behalf of Gaza’s civilians.
The organizers of the executive branch and congressional protests all spoke to the AP on condition of anonymity, citing fear of professional and other repercussions. The federal employees speaking up in opposition to the U.S. policy appear to be seeking a balance, raising their objections in a way that doesn’t deprive them of a seat at the table and risk their careers.
Some current and former officials and staffers said it’s the public nature of some of the challenges from federal employees that is unusual. It worries some, as a potential threat to government function and to cohesion within agencies.
The State Department has an honored tradition of allowing formal, structured statements of dissent to U.S. policy. It dates to 1970, when U.S. diplomats resisted President Richard Nixon’s demands to fire foreign service officers and other State Department employees who signed an internal letter protesting the U.S. carpet-bombing of Cambodia.
Ever since, foreign service officers and civil servants have used what is known as the dissent channel at moments of intense policy debate. That includes criticism of the George W. Bush administration’s prosecution of the war in Iraq, the Obama administration’s policies in Syria, the Trump administration’s immigration restrictions on mainly Muslim countries and the Biden administration’s handling of the 2021 U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan.
But dissent cables, which are signed, are classified and not for public release.
In State Department tradition, at least, if “for whatever reason a criticism or complaint were not taken into account or were not believed to be sufficient to change policy, well, then, it was time to move on. It was done,” said Thomas Shannon, a retired career foreign service officer who served in senior positions at the State Department. “It was time to salute, and execute.”
Shannon was briefly interim secretary of state in the Trump administration. There, he fended off a recommendation from White House spokesman Sean Spicer that State Department staffers who signed a dissent cable against President Donald Trump’s so-called Muslim ban should quit.
Growing diversity of the State Department’s workforce is a positive, Shannon said. But “in the foreign service as in military service, discipline is real and it’s important,” he said, citing the need for consistent, cohesive foreign policy.
“I guess I’m just saying I’m not a fan of open letters,” Shannon said.
State Department officials say several expressions of dissent have made their way through the formal channels to Secretary of State Antony Blinken.
One State Department official, 11-year veteran Josh Paul, quit late last month to protest the administration’s rush to provide arms to Israel.
Blinken addressed internal opposition to the administration’s handling of the Gaza crisis in a departmentwide email to staffers this past Monday. “We’re listening: what you share is informing our policy and our messages,” he wrote.
State Department spokesman Matthew Miller said the dissent was welcome. “One of the strengths of this department is that we do have people with different opinions,” he said.
Unlike the dissent cables, the multiagency open letter and another endorsed by more than 1,000 employees of the U.S. Agency for International Development have been made public. They also are anonymous, with no names of signers publicly attached to them.
The USAID letter with 1,000 staffers backing it, which was given to The Washington Post, Foreign Policy and others, calls for an immediate cease-fire. But one longtime USAID staffer said it distressed some of the agency’s staffers, including some who are Jewish, by not addressing the Hamas killings of civilians in Israel. The delivery of the letter to news organizations also seemed outside the agency’s tradition of handling matters internally in a consultative way, the staffer said, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter.
In comparison, an internal State Department memorial for all civilians killed since Oct. 7, organized by Muslim, Christian and Jewish employee organizations, brought more solace, and seemed to bring colleagues of diverse outlooks and backgrounds closer together, that USAID staffer said.
The organizers of the multiagency open letter said they acted out of frustration after other efforts, particularly a tense meeting between White House officials and Muslim and Arab political appointees, seemed to have no effect.
Staying silent, or resigning, would shirk their responsibility to the public, the staffer said. “If we just leave, there’s never going to be any change.”