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How Federal Civil Servants Are Waging Bureaucratic War Against Trump

Some protest movements happen in the streets, others happen behind a desk.

by Justin Caffier
Feb 13 2017, 10:32pm

Photo via WB Digital/Getty

On January 20, This American Life aired a segment on the subtle and surreptitious ways in which civil servants will be opposing the incoming Trump administration. Producer David Kestenbaum spoke with federal employees, many of whom dutifully work their desk jobs over the course of decades while control of the government changes hands from Democrat to Republican to back again. But with Donald Trump taking over, lots of them were preparing to be very unwilling tools.

The subjects of the segment described scrubbing documents of hot-button phrases, hiding information in arcane filing systems, or referring items for legal review as a way to chew up time. While such intentional foot-dragging may sound borderline treasonous to some, the interview subjects made it clear that this sort of bureaucratic firewall is employed only by those civil servants who legitimately feel they're protecting the long-term interests of their country.

In an ironic twist, some of these tactics have been approved by the US government itself as a way to wreck organizations from the inside out. The Simple Sabotage Field Manual, a declassified handbook issued by the Office of Strategic Services (a precursor to the CIA) during World War II, listed a number of methods by which Ally-sympathetic bureaucrats in Axis-controlled territories might covertly resist.

Suggestions for those in management included pleasantries and promotions for Goofuses and scorn and complaints for Gallants as a means fomenting bad morale. For the average employee, the guide suggested benign sabotage methods like working slowly, "accidentally" disconnecting calls or switchboard wires, and constantly referring things to other departments "for further review," one of the very tactics mentioned in the TAL segment.

But this isn't 1944. As sluggish as bureaucratic institutions are to adapt with the times, they have changed. While some of the methods of this guidebook still undoubtedly hold up, keystroke logs and other advancements have rendered many of the tactics obsolete. Despite the hurdles presented by modern technology, many additional opportunities for resistance have emerged to complement the handbook's list. When God closes a door, he boots up an ancient federal PC still running Windows XP.

As reported by Politico, a number of EPA employees have adopted a mixture of old and new communication methods to discuss concerns about Trump administration policies while still complying with government regulations concerning correspondence. Civil servants have been downloading encrypted, paper-trail-less messaging apps like WhatsApp and Signal in an effort to establish a secure dissent network should legally gray (or worse) orders come down the pike. By communicating exclusively via these apps, burner personal email accounts, and even old-fashioned clandestine face-to-face chats, these anonymous employees are able to strategize, contact media, and draft pleas for help without being monitored by the increasingly paranoid and vindictive administration. (At the National Security Council, some nervous staffers have been reportedly meeting at a bar after work to talk about scrubbing their social media accounts of anti-Trump talk.)

The Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee has been the recipient of a number of these petitions or calls for assistance, drafted and signed by thousands of civil servants from federal buildings around the country. One such letter, by former and current Department of Labor workers, raised concerns over the nomination of Andrew Puzder as secretary of labor, citing the fast food magnate's anti-discrimination lawsuit beleaguered past as well as his history of anti-worker rhetoric and practices. At the State Department, where employees can make use of an official Dissent Channel, many have objected to the travel ban.

But government petitions rarely, if ever, have an effect. Though already well past the 100,000-signature requirement for response, the Whitehouse.gov petition for Donald Trump to release his tax returns will likely go unacknowledged. (Ignoring these petitions was pretty common in the Obama White House as well.) When dealing with an administration seemingly uninterested in acquiescing to public demands, more aggressive methods of resistance may be appropriate.

Jennifer Nou, a law professor at the University of Chicago who's written extensively on the topic of bureaucratic resistance, notes that given the inevitability of the Trump administration cracking down on those they deem enemy operatives, "the most important tool is likely going to be to leak."

Nou suggests that would-be leakers familiarize themselves with an agency called the Office of Special Counsel, a council founded to protect federal employees from top-down retaliation for whistleblowing and other protected activities and just so happens to be "currently headed by an Obama-appointee with a strong reputation for independence." "Bureaucratic resistance should not be undertaken lightly," says Nou. "Democratically elected presidents deserve loyalty and respect. But the separation of powers depends on checks and balances, and civil servants are uniquely well-situated to bolster them."

Ian Samuel, a Harvard lecturer who once worked for the Department of Justice, points out that refusing to work when asked to break federal law it not just a great method of resistance, it's also a protected one. Samuel points to the case of Robert Olsen, a foreign service officer who was fired in 1997 for failing to follow racist profiling guidelines for rejecting visa applications. Olsen sued the State Department for wrongful termination and won, a victory that Samuel believes will be used to defend rebellious servants under the Trump administration.

Samuel cautions that people should do their research and have all their affairs in order before attempting the "outright refusal" method of resistance, as there's a veritable Russian nesting doll of review boards and committees to contend with once that line is crossed. That said, he feels that federal employees who would choose to neglect orders for something like Trump's travel ban, which "violates the law in certain ways," are likely safe. (The battle over whether some or all of the travel ban is illegal is still playing out in court.)

"Once you get past the political appointees," says Samuel, "who are selected by the president, confirmed by the Senate, and can be dismissed for any political reason—once you get down into the thousands of civil servants who make up the vast majority of our federal government—they're covered by our civil service rules."

A provision of the Whistleblower Protection Act makes it illegal for a civil servant to be fired "for refusing to obey an order that would require the individual to violate a law," as these servants swear an oath to uphold the Constitution at the outset of their careers. Though these protections are in place, how a specific instance of insubordination is framed for the court will make or break the servants ability to employ them. If there's too much uncertainty or risk involved to refuse a marching order, there are still other ways to resist.

A person I'll call "JT," who operates the @Alt_Labor Twitter account, one of the many popular unofficial departmental resistance efforts that are equal parts fly-on-the-wall reporting and online roasting, notes that not everyone gets to use sexy, secret agent tactics when resisting, especially those working with openly available data. Unless some massive scandal were to suddenly hit the Bureau of Labor and Statistics, a simple display of solidarity is the best a team like his can offer at the moment.

"Our numbers are all public domain," says JT, who claims to be a Department of Labor employee. "There's no corruptible channel the data could go through, so I don't see us breaking news anytime soon. Unless they were about to suddenly scrap unemployment [benefits] or something, all we can really do is call [the administration] out in tweets."

Follow Justin Caffier on Twitter.