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DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Debbie Elliott.

The Bush administration doesn't have a reputation for encouraging or listening to dissenting views. But that hasn't stopped some State Department officials from sending home cables critical of U.S. policy. It's part of the State Department's culture - a culture the department's professional association tries to foster by giving out annual awards to those who speak up.

NPR's Michele Kelemen has this report on this year's winners.

MICHELE KELEMEN: Washington must seem far away from a U.S. diplomatic outpost in Darfur, Sudan. Ronald Capps joked about it at an award ceremony in the State Department's Diplomatic Reception Room on Thursday.

Mr. RONALD CAPPS (Recipient, William R. Rivkin Award; Former Political Officer): I've been working on Darfur for about three years now. It is undoubtedly the most complex problem I've ever worked on. And now that I'm back here in Washington, I'm learning about true complexity.

(Soundbite of laughter)

KELEMEN: Capps is an understated diplomat who spent 18 months in Darfur and now works on the issue back at headquarters in the Bureau of Intelligence and Research. He was given an award for a cable he sent back to Washington from Darfur when he post a question to policymakers: Who will have to apologize for not stopping the genocide?

Mr. ROBERT RIVKIN (Ambassador William R. Rivkin's Son): To Ronald Capps whose arguments were prescient about the likely inability of the proposed Darfur Peace Agreement and the African Union Mission to stop the horrific genocide that we've all seen continue in Darfur.

(Soundbite of applause)

KELEMEN: Robert Rivkin was the one announcing the award in the name of his late father William Rivkin, an ambassador during the John F. Kennedy years. Rivkin says his father liked lively debates and didn't like to be surrounded by yes men. So for four decades, his family has been recognizing State Department officials who dissent.

Former Secretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger was at the ceremony to offer another award, but he couldn't help but chime in on the issue.

Mr. LAWRENCE EAGLEBURGER (Former Secretary of State): The fact of the matter is this foreign service of ours needs more dissenters, not fewer. And it needs to encourage them, not discourage them.

(Soundbite of applause)

Mr. EAGLEBURGER: And if there were more of that, maybe we wouldn't be in the mess we're in right now. Thank you very much.

(Soundbite of applause)

KELEMEN: The award winners worried about their careers wouldn't delve into politics the way Eagleburner did, however. In an interview, Capps said simply he feels dissent is part of the job and he's no newcomer.

Mr. CAPPS: I've written cables from Kosovo, from Afghanistan, from Iraq, from Rwanda, from Sudan, from all sorts of places that have suggested policy changes that have made my opinion known.

KELEMEN: Capps says he's always been supported by the local ambassadors. But without that support, diplomats have another option - the so-called Dissent Channel, straight to the secretary's policy planning step.

That's the route Michael Zorick took when he warned about U.S. policy in Somalia. He was a Somalia watcher at the U.S. Embassy in Nairobi at a time when the U.S. was funneling money and support to Somali warlords who claimed to be fighting terrorism - a policy that badly backfired.

Mr. MICHAEL ZORICK (Recipient, William R. Rivkin Award; Former U.S. Diplomat): In my personal opinion, it was the moment to ensure that I went on the record. My tour was ending, anyway, in Nairobi and so it was time to try to go on the record.

KELEMEN: His advice was ignored and Zorick was moved to a different assignment. Others saw that as punishment, though he insists it wasn't.

Mr. ZORICK: I wasn't banished to Chad. I had two months left of a tour to fill and I looked for a good place to be of service. Chad was shorthanded. Ambassador Mark Wall is a fabulous guy, and N'Djamena asked for help and I was more than happy to go and give him a hand.

KELEMEN: In recent months, Zorick has been training diplomats heading to Africa. Now he's doing what many State Department employees feel they need to do to move ahead these days - volunteering to serve in Embassy Baghdad.

Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington.

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