The emerging bureaucratic guerilla warfare

I was going out for a dinner engagement last week when I read the news that the acting attorney general Sally Yates had sent a memo to the staff that they should not defend Donald Trump’s Executive Orders on visitors and refugees that targeted Muslim nations because she felt that they were not legally defensible nor right nor just. During the dinner, I discussed this with friends and we predicted that she would be fired by Trump and sure enough, by the time I got home that had already happened, accompanied by a statement that had all the trademarked pettiness of Trump.

Career government officials are going to be increasingly faced with demands to carry out orders that they think are wrong. We should not underestimate what a difficult situation this puts them in. Peter Maass looks at their options when they come to believe that they are working for a government that has gone crazy. He says that people who have faced similar situations before, though perhaps not on this scale, suggest that rather than resigning, waging a bureaucratic guerilla warfare would be a better strategy. He spoke to four State Department people who resigned in the 1990s in protest US policy on Bosnia.

YOU ARE A DEDICATED civil servant and you have loyally performed your job for years, but suddenly you are confronted with tasks and policies that horrify you. Should you carry on, or should you quit?

[George] Kenney’s public resignation shocked Washington, as did the ones that followed. Marshall Harris was next, then Jon Western, then Stephen Walker — all of them 30-something diplomats who publicly turned their backs on secure lives working for the U.S. government.

What should a frustrated civil servant do? In recent weeks, The Intercept interviewed Kenney and the other officials who quit over Bosnia, and to a surprising degree they generally agreed that dissenting officials should stay in their jobs as long as possible in the Trump administration, working inside the always-powerful machinery of bureaucracy to keep destructive policies from being implemented.

“My advice would be to throw sand in the gears,” said Kenney, who was the first State Department official to resign over Bosnia. “You’re not going to do anybody any good by leaving. Nobody is going to listen to you. If you work in the EPA and think the Trump people are the devil, you and every mid-level person who can, mount an internal resistance. There should be opportunities for people who are smart to act in a classic bureaucratic passive-aggressive manner and just be obstructionist. It’s a situation that lends itself to creative opposition from within.”

Kenney said his views were shaped by a seminal text he read as a graduate student at the University of Chicago. Written by economist Albert Hirschman, the book was called “Exit, Voice, and Loyalty: Responses to Decline in Firms, Organizations and States,” and it examined the choices that confronted dissatisfied consumers and officials. “Exit” was a euphemism for going elsewhere, “Voice” meant speaking up from the inside, and “Loyalty” meant staying silent. Hirschman, whose work is regarded as path-breaking, explained in a later essay that his original analysis of the efficacy of voice had been “too timid.” He noted the candidacies of George McGovern and Barry Goldwater — outsiders within their respective parties who rather than quitting or staying silent kept fighting and eventually won their parties’ presidential nominations.

“My point,” Hirschman wrote, “was of course that power grows not only out of the ability to exit, but also out of voice, and that voice will be wielded with special energy and dedication by those who have nowhere to exit to.

The growth of the government workforce since World War II has inevitably spawned a cascade of academic studies of bureaucratic politics, with a foundational text written by a Harvard professor, Graham Allison, whose 1971 book on the Cuban missile crisis examined three models for understanding how and why the crisis unfolded the way it did. Allison drew attention to what at the time was a relatively new model for making sense of how a state acts: the behind-the-scenes struggles of bureaucrats and bureaucracies. Allison compared it to a chess match in which the moves of one side are determined not by a single player (the president) or by a predictable strategy that is planned in advance, but by several bureaucratic players with distinct interests and strategies who battle each other over each move.

Even in the age of Twitter and stream-of-consciousness edicts from the commander-in-chief, “It’s not as though the president picks up the phone and says ‘This has to be done,’ and immediately things will be done,” Western said.

There are already signs that a bureaucratic guerilla war is taking shape behind the scenes.

Less than two weeks into Trump’s administration, federal workers are in regular consultation with recently departed Obama-era political appointees about what they can do to push back against the new president’s initiatives. Some federal employees have set up social media accounts to anonymously leak word of changes that Trump appointees are trying to make.

And a few government workers are pushing back more openly, incurring the wrath of a White House that, as press secretary Sean Spicer said this week about dissenters at the State Department, sends a clear message that they “should either get with the program, or they can go.”

At a church in Columbia Heights last weekend, dozens of federal workers attended a support group for civil servants seeking a forum to discuss their opposition to the Trump administration. And 180 federal employees have signed up for a workshop next weekend, where experts will offer advice on workers’ rights and how they can express civil disobedience.

It seems pretty clear that Donald Trump actually does think that things will be done immediately simply because he wants it and, when it doesn’t, he is going to accuse people of disloyalty or betrayal like he did with Yates, and this is going to create stress all the way down the bureaucratic chain.


  1. says

    Well and good, but the problem with “throwing sand in the gears” is that it cuts both ways. If in four, or possibly (egad) eight years, when a new president takes the helm, those departments will all be staffed by those who survived the Trump administration — i.e., Trump loyalists. They, too, will have to choose between a quick exit (to be replaced by people whose ideas align more closely to the new president), or to stay behind and interfere with the new administration’s goals. In that scenario, I hope they leave!

  2. anat says

    Peter N, the civil servants are acting as one might in a country under a hostile occupation, but then that’s how many people on the right felt like during the Obama years and how they would feel like under a Democratic president any time in the near future. Which basically means it is an illusion that the USA is a single country. There are at least 2 countries pretending to be one, and they are in conflict with one another.

  3. Mano Singham says

    Peter N,

    Bureaucrats are used to going with the ebbs and flows that arise from changes of government. What they are encountering here is so outside the norm that it is hard to accommodate within the norma boundaries.

  4. says

    #1 Peter N assumes there will be a new president taking the helm.

    Judging by the speed the American Dear Leader is dismantling democracy, I doubt the twenty-second amendment to the US Constitution will still be effective in four years.

  5. says

    Unfortunately the intelligence community tend to be pretty full of authoritarian followers. Otherwise we could hope that perhaps there will be a gigantic stream of leaks.

  6. says

    I think there’s a good chance that if there’s any nasty skeletons in Trump’s closet, someone in the intelligence community or FBI will do a “deep throat” on him like they did Nixon. The problem is that Trump’s not a lifelong political animal; he appears to have just taken advantage of all the convenient laws that were there for him to take advantage of. There isn’t a decade of political dirt like there would be on other pols.

  7. C Sch says

    What you describe sounds less like guerilla warfare and more like malicious compliance, aka “white mutiny”, also called “work-to-rule” when in the context of job action. They key point is that you can hinder or even sabotage the system just by following rules, regulations, and orders more exactly than they were intended to be, knowing that level of compliance will not have the intended effect.

    In a workplace example, postal workers might start weighing every single package, even light envelopes, because they’re supposed to make sure there’s enough postage for the weight, with similar effect to a strike without actually walking off the job. In a government administration, workers told to prepare to comply with a morally-objectionable order to deport immigrants might “prepare” by phoning those immigrants to tell them to have their documents in order to ensure a smooth, efficient deportation process--and if that tips anyone off who might want to go into hiding, well, they were just doing exactly what they were told. If forms for a religious exemption to discrimination laws come in with one entry out of place, or signed in the wrong color pen, send them back to be resubmitted. If unlawfully required to disclose any online postings you made, send them the link to every single fanfiction review you posted, food blog you liked, and seller feedback you gave on the CDs you bought online. The more complex and tangled the rules, the more room you have to obey as many of them as possible.

    And honestly, it would take a braver soul than most to do more than that, at the rate Trump is trampling over free speech and right to privacy. You’re better fired for incompetence than arrested for criticizing the new overlord.

  8. hyphenman says

    @chigau (ever-elliptical) No. 9

    That is, of course, the big question.

    I’m old enough to remember Richard Nixon and Spiro Agnew.

    People knew that Nixon had to go, but turning the country over to an even worse person, Agnew, was just notacceptable. Agnew had to go first, and an acceptable replacement—Gerald Ford--had to be put in place before Nixon could be ousted.

    In the same way, we cannot afford to impeach Trump until Pence is gone.

    Pence is Trump’s insurance policy.

    Jeff Hess
    Have Coffee Will Write

  9. sonofrojblake says

    There isn’t a decade of political dirt

    It’s worse than that. What dirt there almost certainly is, almost certainly won’t work. Remember, this is the man who asked, repeatedly, why the US doesn’t just use the nukes. There are certain things career politicians take for granted: you don’t use nukes, you don’t piss off China or Israel, and if you get caught sticking your dick somewhere you shouldn’t, well, obviously you have to resign in disgrace. NONE of that applies to Trump. He doesn’t see why you can’t use nukes, he certainly doesn’t give a monkey’s about annoying China, and if you caught him fellating a goat and told him that the shame of that meant he had to resign, his immediate response would be “Why?” (or possibly to query the definition of that “sh” word you just used). And on one level, he has a point. I never really understood why being caught banging an actress meant someone couldn’t be chief secretary to the treasury or minister for heritage or whatever. But I pity anyone who tries to blackmail him.

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