While serving as minister counselor for management affairs in Kabul during the pandemic and through the August 2021 fall of the capital to the Taliban, Benjamin Dille willingly challenged leadership on health policies and departure contingency preparations, protecting thousands of embassy employees.
When Dr. Dille arrived in Kabul, the city was in a full-blown COVID-19 outbreak with limited medical care available. He found stringent limitations in place: events and meetings banned, telework and social distancing mandated, and few local staff permitted on the compound. This impeded the unprecedented work related to the impending U.S. military departure. His team brought day staff into separate, safely distanced areas so they could work more effectively on-site.
In response to a State Department policy of sending vaccines only for American staff—a morale hit to locally employed (LE) staff and endangering all—Dr. Dille quickly approved the purchase of vaccines from a reputable Indian company for all LE and third-country national (TCN) staff and contractors, with first doses administered before Ramadan. He advocated for this purchase despite the Bureau of Medical Services’ reluctance, and his team’s successful vaccination program led MED to pull soon-to-expire doses from other missions to send to Kabul.
When Embassy Kabul’s policy of vaccinating LE staff family members was challenged by department leadership, Dr. Dille countered that it was implicit in mission responsibility and vital to achieving herd immunity. Thanks to his persistence, post eventually administered 14,000 doses, with all LE staff, family members, TCNs, and willing American staff protected, as well as key Afghan military and government contacts, staff of allied missions, and U.S. military and other agency members struggling to obtain vaccines from alternative sources. Almost all Afghan staff and families evacuated to the U.S. were vaccinated, protecting them as well as the U.S. communities receiving them.
American contractors’ resistance to vaccination (only 30 percent consented) endangered and provoked fear among colleagues and helped lead to a June 2021 surge of 250 cases, with some near death, and at least two deaths among LE staff. To incentivize vaccination and reopen facilities crucial to morale during a stressful time, Dr. Dille convinced the front office to adopt his interpretation—counter to department policy, but a life-and-death matter in Kabul—of Equal Employment Opportunity Committee rulings allowing employers to limit activities of unvaccinated staff. Despite institutional opposition to his efforts, Dr. Dille did this legally with a voluntary program of access for those providing proof of vaccination. The White House soon extended the policy governmentwide, and pressure on the department convinced it to require contractor vaccinations by August.
Concerned that preparations for the imminent military departure were not being taken seriously by many colleagues in the embassy, in February 2021 Dr. Dille suggested advising Americans to take their valuables with them when traveling to the U.S. on leave. Leadership initially balked, fearing this might cause panic, but agreed to the notice, with careful wording.
After finding that overall embassy staffing numbers were not decreasing following April’s ordered departure (OD), he unsuccessfully argued that many embassy offices could work remotely from the U.S.; but department leadership continued arguing for exceptions allowing select offices to bring staff in. This led to more Americans at post in late July than before the OD.
At the same time, leadership insisted that management staff be slashed, while Dr. Dille unsuccessfully argued that more management staff were needed to support evacuation, embassy closure, and operations at Kabul Airport. Days before the evacuation, Dr. Dille sought department support to retain more management staff than the few designated to remain.
Similarly, in early August, leadership insisted that the staff of Embassy Air—the air wing under the management section that included 15 aircraft and more than 100 support staff—leave post, claiming the Department of Defense could evacuate the embassy with its assets instead. With the support of the assistant chief of mission, Dr. Dille pushed back, aware that this team was best equipped to airlift embassy personnel to Kabul Airport, and gained a delay to Aug. 15. Coincidently, this was the same day Mission Kabul evacuated; Embassy Air airlifted most of the embassy’s 2,000 diplomatic staff members to the airport in just 21 hours as Taliban fighters entered Kabul. Without them, DoD would have had to operate in a Taliban-controlled city.
Through his principled stands on a number of issues, Dr. Dille always sought to protect people.
In reflecting on his time in Kabul, he tells the Journal he is proud to have secured the support of the front office for his proposed vaccination policy. “I believe the State Department has an obligation to provide our locally employed staff and their families with medical care in the midst of a health crisis,” he says.
Benjamin Dille currently serves as State Department chair at the Marine Corps War College, where he teaches diplomacy and statecraft to officers in the master’s program. Before this, he completed a short tour as chargé d’affaires in Ashgabat after six months as deputy chief of mission and chargé d’affaires in Kolonia.
Previously, Dr. Dille was executive director of the Bureau of African Affairs. He has run embassy administrative platforms in Astana, Prague, and Minsk, and handled transitions during his year of service in Iraq. Since joining the Foreign Service in 1991, Dr. Dille has also served in Managua, Shanghai, Mexico City, Caracas, Khartoum, and Freetown.
He holds a Ph.D. in international and comparative law from the London School of Economics, an LL.M. from Exeter University (U.K.), a J.D. from the University of Minnesota, and a B.A. in history and international relations from Macalester College. Prior to the Foreign Service, he worked as a lawyer and state legislative administrator in his home state of Minnesota.
For his role in supporting the largest civilian evacuation in U.S. history, Dr. Dille shared in the State Department’s Award for Heroism, and shares the American Academy of Diplomacy’s 2021 Walter and Leonore Annenberg Award for Excellence in Diplomacy with all those who worked in Kabul.
While serving as consul general in Istanbul from 2016 to 2019, Jennifer Davis faced a particularly difficult period in the U.S.-Turkish bilateral relationship. Ms. Davis and her team were challenged by terrorist attacks that killed and injured U.S. citizens, the ordered departure of family members, terrorist threats against Ms. Davis herself, a constant stream of disinformation from malign actors about the U.S. mission’s activities, and the politically motivated arrest of three of the mission’s longest-serving locally employed (LE) staff.
In 2018, against this backdrop and at the request of the chargé d’affaires, Ms. Davis conducted a media interview with a Turkish journalist who had written a story containing inaccurate information about the U.S. strategy to obtain the release of the wrongfully arrested LE staff. During the interview, she explained the U.S. position regarding the LE staff.
Two years later, after Ms. Davis had returned to Washington, D.C., she learned she was the subject of a disciplinary action related to that media interview, but was given no information about why she was under investigation by Diplomatic Security (DS). The State Department then decided her case; she was only told she could “appeal the decision.”
It was not until three years after the media interview that Ms. Davis was afforded an understanding of DS’ concerns and allowed to submit evidence in an appeals process. To her dismay, information regarding her case was leaked to the press, causing additional injury. Following her appeal, DS’ decision was reversed.
Throughout the ordeal, Ms. Davis conducted herself with grace and courage. At every stage, she told the truth—that she gave the interview in Istanbul to protect her staff, which was her paramount duty, and that she did so entirely in keeping with State Department policy.
“As an attorney prior to being a diplomat, I was concerned that some of the practices of our investigations and discipline system lacked certain basic elements of due process protections—for example, that an investigation is conducted in a timely manner so memories do not fade,” Ms. Davis tells the FSJ.
“Because details of my case were leaked, I became a public face for what far too many diplomats were also encountering. The leak was perhaps the most hurtful part of it, but it gave me the opportunity to hear from and provide support to others, particularly senior women, facing similar challenges.”
In 2021 Ms. Davis wrote a dissent letter to Secretary of State Antony Blinken and a set of reform proposals for Deputy Secretary of State for Management and Resources Brian McKeon. With contributions from senior officials, former and current diplomats, and others, she outlined the injustice caused by flaws in the department’s employee investigation and discipline processes. Several officials noted that her letter helped the new team at the department understand the struggles of career U.S. diplomats.
Relying on her more than two decades of legal and diplomatic experience, Ms. Davis provided constructive recommendations for how the department could improve these processes, including: placing a one-year time limit on investigating and issuing a decision in administrative cases; moving forward the point at which an employee has the right to review the State Department’s evidence and concerns and respond to them (before decisions are made, sometimes on incomplete or misunderstood facts, instead of after, as is currently the policy); and encouraging that DS and the Bureau of Global Talent Management officials receive unconscious bias training before evaluating the conduct of their colleagues.
Our proud tradition of dissent, to my mind, is the strongest part of our State Department.
This dissent was a demonstration of Ms. Davis’ abiding commitment to America’s foreign policy institutions and a strong testament to her character.
She says she is honored by this recognition from AFSA and proud to further the State Department’s tradition of dissent: “Diplomats throughout our history have been willing to seek a place in our department (as women or minorities), to fix broken systems, and to object to policy decisions. The right to dissent that we protect is enshrined in our First Amendment and is part of a set of rights that are essential to any thriving democracy. Our proud tradition of dissent, to my mind, is the strongest part of our State Department.”
At the end of her tour in Turkey, the U.S. Consulate Istanbul staff planted a “peace garden” for Ms. Davis. At its center is an olive tree, a symbol of their gratitude for her tireless efforts to protect them and seek the release of her wrongfully detained colleagues. One of those colleagues remains in prison.
“The presentation of that garden was the greatest honor of my career,” Ms. Davis says. “I think it is important for the department to make clear that the safety and well-being of our employees is our first priority and that when we send diplomats into complex environments to do difficult things, we have their backs.”
Jennifer Davis is a career Foreign Service officer currently serving as the chief of staff to Ambassador to the United Nations Linda Thomas-Greenfield. She previously served as a Council on Foreign Relations Fellow at Georgetown University and the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, and as the director of orientation at the Foreign Service Institute.
Ms. Davis also served as the executive assistant to Secretaries of State Hillary Clinton and John Kerry, special assistant to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, a watch officer in the Operations Center, and a staffer in the Office of Children’s Issues. In addition to Turkey, she has served overseas tours in Bogotá, Brussels (USNATO), and Mexico City.
She is a Distinguished Graduate of the National War College, where she received the George Kennan Award for Excellence in Strategic Writing and was the class vice president.
Before joining the Foreign Service, Ms. Davis was a corporate attorney specializing in media and banking law. She has a B.A. with distinction and J.D. with honors from the University of North Carolina–Chapel Hill and a BCL (LL.M.) in international law from the University of Oxford.
While serving in U.S. Embassy Kabul’s political section, Elisabeth Zentos and Anton Cooper embodied the best traditions of the Foreign Service and constructive dissent in a uniquely difficult moment, bringing to bear their intellectual courage, astute analysis, and willingness to speak an unpopular truth to power.
During 2020 and 2021, both officers watched with increasing concern as the security situation in Afghanistan worsened, negotiations with the Taliban faltered, and the Taliban began making territorial gains. They recognized that if the security situation in Kabul spiraled out of control, the embassy’s local staff and other contacts would be left dangerously exposed.
Using the appropriate internal embassy channels, Ms. Zentos and Mr. Cooper presented their concerns and a proposed course of action, including: accelerate planning for an evacuation; develop and begin implementing systems for refugee processing of locally employed staff; and help keep safe those who had assisted the United States during its involvement in Afghanistan.
When the position and recommendations they shared differed from the established views of decision-makers, Ms. Zentos and Mr. Cooper turned to the Dissent Channel with a July 2021 cable. There, they laid out a clearly articulated case for the likelihood of a swift deterioration of the security situation in Kabul and the need to take steps to prepare for a possibly imminent evacuation.
While Mission Kabul leadership supported the two officers’ use of the Dissent Channel, the pair’s view was, at the time, controversial. Nevertheless, 24 of their colleagues at the embassy believed Ms. Zentos and Mr. Cooper had tapped into the reality that negotiations were unlikely to be successful, the Taliban may take Kabul by force in the near future, and the embassy would lack sufficient security; these colleagues contributed to the cable and elected to add their signatures to it.
The cable received the required response from the Secretary of State’s Policy Planning Staff (S/P), and preparations reportedly sped up—but unfortunately, not quickly enough to avoid the events that transpired in Kabul.
Throughout this time, Ms. Zentos, Mr. Cooper, and the co-signers maintained their commitment to constructive principles of dissent and kept the text of their classified cable contained to established channels. Preservation of the confidential nature of the Dissent Channel is critical in appreciating the approach these award recipients took when sharing their objections to prevailing policy.
The pair’s approach merits further recognition because it offered concrete policy recommendations to address the concerns they outlined. Their courage in sharing their warning and their creative proposals serve as an example to others who would speak truth to power, demonstrating how to disagree and offer a practical way forward.
Ms. Zentos and Mr. Cooper are emphatic that this award for dissent belongs not just to them.
“The award is being given to two people, but many more contributed to this cable,” says Mr. Cooper. “I am certain that none of the people who signed it wanted to be in the position to have to do so. If there is any small measure of pride in recognition for something that was born of an untenable situation, it is from being in their number.”
Ms. Zentos has dedicated AFSA’s recognition to her State Department co-workers, to partners in the interagency, and to her Afghan colleagues who, she says, “demonstrated unprecedented bravery and commitment to fighting for what was right.”
Both officers also pointed to the importance of fostering dissent when constructing American foreign policy.
Mr. Cooper believes that “the tradition of saying uncomfortable things in a constructive way must ever be a foundational principle of our system of governance. Only this prevents the kind of blind obedience to power we see in other political systems from taking root in our own.”
“Accepting an award related to such a tragic situation feels uncomfortable, especially since it is our Afghan colleagues who most deserve recognition,” Ms. Zentos tells the Journal. “But I am honored to receive it, as I believe the existence of this award is vital to demonstrating the unique value the department places on dissent and the importance of speaking out.”
Elisabeth Zentos is currently deputy director of the Office of Russian Affairs. Prior to her tour as deputy political counselor in Kabul, she served in Tbilisi from 2018 to 2020 and in Moscow from 2017 to 2018, when the Russian government declared her persona non grata.
From 2015 to 2016, she served as director for Eastern Europe at the National Security Council, covering Ukraine, Moldova, Belarus, and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). From 2012 to 2014, she served as political military chief at Embassy Kyiv, where she covered Ukraine’s Maidan Revolution and Russia’s first invasion of eastern Ukraine. Other previous assignments include special assistant to the under secretary for international security and arms control and information officer in Yerevan.
Ms. Zentos has a bachelor’s degree in international affairs from The George Washington University.
Anton Cooper is currently serving temporarily in Kyiv, having volunteered for this critical assignment. His long-term current position is external political unit chief at Embassy Tbilisi, a position he had also held at Embassy Kabul from 2020 to 2021. From 2017 to 2020, he served in Ukraine, with prior tours on the Ukraine desk, in Uzbekistan, and in Moldova.
Before joining the Foreign Service, he worked as a health care policy analyst for the Washington State Health Care Authority. Mr. Cooper holds an M.A. from the Jackson School of International Studies at the University of Washington, and a B.A. from The Evergreen State College.
While serving as chief of the Criminal Investigative Liaison Branch of the State Department’s Diplomatic Security Service (DSS) in 2018, Supervisory Special Agent Steven May was alerted by interagency partners to a significant gap in the implementation of a law designed to protect children from sex offenders. Alarmed, he got to work and tirelessly advocated to amend department policies.
International Megan’s Law to Prevent Child Exploitation and Other Sexual Crimes Through Advanced Notification of Traveling Sex Offenders, known as IML, requires the State Department to include a unique identifier in the passports of registered sex offenders covered under the law based on their conviction for a sex offense against a minor. When an offender travels internationally, this identifier enables the U.S. Marshals Service National Sex Offender Targeting Center (NSOTC) to inform destination countries, and DSS to notify regional security officers.
Although IML specifically authorizes the department to ask passport applicants their sex offender registration status to identify who is covered by the law, Mr. May learned that application forms currently do not include this question. Further, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) does not have the capacity to preemptively check the estimated 900,000 registered sex offenders in the U.S. to determine who is covered by IML. Counterparts in DHS’ Angel Watch Center (AWC) indicated to Mr. May that, if checked, as many as 500,000 of those individuals have convictions against children and would therefore require a unique passport identifier. By asking the question of applicants, AWC could focus on offenders most likely to travel.
Since the law was implemented in 2017, NSOTC and AWC have urged the department to include the question of sex offender registration status on the passport application form, as intended by the IML authors. Instead, Mr. May found that the department actively denied the request for years, suggesting that anyone honest enough to answer such a question would also volunteer their registration status on the form without being asked. In reality, the policy garnered just 80 self-declarations out of an estimated 60,000 covered offenders who most likely applied for passports from 2017 to 2020.
To address this critical omission, Mr. May organized stakeholder meetings with the Bureau of Consular Affairs, AWC, NSOTC, and DSS. He informed department leadership that IML implementation problems were also of grave concern to America’s leading child protection organizations, nonprofits, and reporting centers, drawing the attention of the department’s own Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons and the White House’s National Security Council.
Mr. May dedicated significant time and expertise to improving the passport application process in order to combat the sexual exploitation of children. He repeatedly raised the issue to the appropriate bodies within the department, despite the risks involved. as some in senior positions continually dismissed the problem and rebuffed proposed improvements to the system.
“I am most perplexed as to why we have resisted so,” he tells the Journal. “At first, some in the department misunderstood the scope of the problem, believing that the number of potentially covered offenders under IML was 5,000 and not 500,000. But even after we saw the true number, no progress was made.”
In November 2021, the Policy Planning Staff responded to his dissent cable, acknowledging the current gaps in policy. Although insufficient space on paper applications remains the justification for omitting a sex offender registration status question, the department has pledged to integrate requirements for IML into the passport application modernization process when it transitions to online applications.
Mr. May hopes that further action will follow. “To save kids from sexual assault and exploitation, yes, I think adding an extra page to passport applications would be worth it,” he says.
“Every year, we publish a Trafficking in Persons [TIP] report, holding other countries accountable for not doing enough to protect people from exploitation. And yet for all the billions we spend to reduce child sexual exploitation, we in the department have failed children over the past five years, and that is largely due to our own apathy.”
Thanks to Mr. May’s courage to speak up and relentlessness in pursuing improvements to the system, the department is at last working to address vulnerabilities that limit prevention efforts and put children at risk due to the incomplete implementation of IML. For example, the department’s passport application information website now suggests that offenders should self-declare, a change that has reportedly boosted the number of self-declarations from 25 to 250 per year.
Though he says he is grateful for some advancements, “I still think we need to do more—and do it immediately—to protect children,” he adds.
Steven May is currently based in London where he works as the deputy regional security officer. He previously served in Embassy Baghdad from 2020 to 2022, most recently as chief of two branches: embassy security forces, and investigations and vetting. With these portfolios, he was the contracting officer’s representative for the State Department’s largest security contract, overseeing 1,300 guards. He has also served in the DSS San Francisco field office, Kuwait City, Moscow, Criminal Fraud Investigations in Washington, D.C., Riyadh, Kandahar, Milan, and Karachi.
Prior to joining the State Department as a special agent in 2002, Mr. May was an officer with the Houston Police Department.
As a first-tour officer in Hermosillo, Michael White demonstrated the integrity to highlight major vulnerabilities in Mission Mexico’s visa policy and adjudication standards for TN visas. This narrow visa category, also known as the NAFTA Professional Visa and based on what is now named the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement, allows specialized professionals in Mexico to work in the U.S. in prearranged business activities.
In the fall of 2020, a review of TN visas across Mission Mexico exposed inconsistent adjudication standards and lack of a policy to inform TN applicants of their labor rights. As part of a TN visa working group that tried to harmonize these standards, Mr. White highlighted the problems and proposed pathways to rectify them to the working group and Mission Mexico leadership.
For example, posts across Mexico saw large variations in approval rates for TN applicants—particularly those going to work in the pork, dairy, aviation, and auto industries. The lack of guidance and harmonized standards resulted in some unqualified applicants being issued visas while other qualified applicants were denied.
Mr. White’s suggestions to formalize TN visa adjudication practices and inform applicants of labor rights, particularly to prevent human trafficking, faced managerial and bureaucratic hurdles. Few serious actions were taken to address the growing evidence of inconsistent standards, which allowed fraudulent and exploitative companies to use vague categories such as “scientific technician” and “animal breeder” to recruit unqualified applicants for maintenance and farm work. Adjudicators at Mission Mexico approved these visas due to lack of guidance, and many workers who received them were subsequently thrust into misrepresented jobs and, in some cases, forced labor and abuse.
Further, Mr. White highlighted to post leadership that although not required by the Foreign Affairs Manual (FAM), TN visa applicants, who will be performing work in the United States, should be informed of their legal rights under federal immigration, labor, and employment laws.
He highlighted known complaints of labor trafficking among TN workers, including court cases such as Martinez-Rodriguez v. Giles, and similarly disturbing reports from nongovernmental organizations.
As he delved further into the issue, Mr. White was concerned to find that “many American companies that could not get temporary nonimmigrant H-2 visas because the job was not seasonal were instead recruiting Mexicans to apply for TN visas with fake job letters,” he tells the Journal.
“Consular officers did not have time to scrutinize every TN visa or every company; there is already immense pressure to adjudicate a large volume of visas quickly. I knew I had stumbled onto something that needed to be addressed.”
Mr. White maintained that informing TN applicants of their labor rights as standard practice might help curb these issues and prevent abuse of workers in the U.S. Some in leadership opposed this change, citing costs of printing pamphlets and added time during the interview. Despite fear of jeopardizing his opportunity for tenure, Mr. White repeatedly shared his concerns with Mission Mexico leadership.
Even after departing from Hermosillo for his next assignment, Mr. White believed the TN visa issues were still prevalent, and in 2021 he decided to formally voice his dissent through a Dissent Channel message.
Mr. White showed great initiative and courage in reaching out to top-level department leadership to highlight this important issue. Thanks to his efforts, Mission Mexico is consolidating all TN visa adjudications from 10 to three posts to limit inconsistencies and improve training, and the Bureau of Consular Affairs (CA) and other stakeholders across the government are engaging on broader questions of treaty interpretation to further improve TN visa policy.
CA has also pledged to update the FAM to require consular officers to inform TN visa applicants of their labor rights, although this revision has not yet been made.
Mr. White believes further changes are necessary. But his dissent promoted safe, legal travel to the U.S., and also protected workers who may have otherwise been exploited by their employers, furthering the department’s implementation of the President’s National Action Plan to Combat Human Trafficking, in the United States.
“Receiving this recognition is a vindication of all the hard work that went into this issue, and I’m honored to have played a part in bringing about change,” says Mr. White. “Some people actively discouraged me from pursuing it. I was an untenured officer and worried about the consequences of pushing an issue the Mission Mexico consular leaders did not want to confront. I received immense help from my fellow FAST [first- and second-tour] officers in Mexico and my A-100 colleagues.”
Mr. White says he often looked to the State Department’s culture of constructive dissent when advocating for change to TN visa standards: “I would not have had the courage to see this through without the example set by previous awardees. I hope my recognition encourages others to engage on critical issues; sometimes all it takes to fix the problem is for someone to say something.”
Michael White joined the Foreign Service in October 2018 as a management-coned officer. After serving in Hermosillo, he worked as the assistant human resources officer in Islamabad. He is currently a general services officer in Doha.
Mr. White previously served as a medic in the U.S. Army, and holds a master’s degree in public administration and a bachelor’s degree in government and politics from George Mason University. Hailing from Dallas, Texas, he is married to a fellow Foreign Service officer.
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