Regular and Irregular Channels

Some of the witnesses at the ongoing Congressional hearings seem quite disturbed at the use of “irregular channels” for decision-making and implementation, supplementing and bypassing the “regular” channels. (here, for example) Reminds me of a Churchill story…

In February 1940, Churchill was not yet Prime Minister but rather was First Lord of the Admiralty. He received a letter from a father disappointed that his son had been turned down for a commission, despite his qualifications and his record. Churchill suspected class prejudice and wrote to the Second Sea Lord, saying that “Unless some better reasons are given to me, I shall have to ask my Naval Secretary to interview the boy on my behalf.”

The Second Sea Lord, unhappy with the meddling from above, responded to the effect that it was inappropriate to question the decisions of “a board duly constituted.” To which Churchill replied:

I do not at all mind “going behind the opinion of a board duly constituted” or even changing the board or its chairman if I think injustice has been done. How long is it since this board was re-modeled?… Who are the naval representatives on the board of selection? Naval officers should be well-represented. Action accordingly. Let me have a list of the whole board with the full record of each member and his date of appointment.

General Louis Spears was present when Churchill, after taking the above hard-line, saw the candidates. After chatting with the boys, Churchill explained the matter to Spears:

“They have been turned down for the very reason that should have gained them admission. They are mad keen on the Navy, they have it in their blood, they will make splendid officers. What could be better than that they should rise higher than their fathers did? It is in their fathers’ homes that they grew to love the Navy, yet they have been turned down because their fathers came from the lower deck,” and he pouted and glared with fury.


As a manager and executive, I have always preferred to use the formal organization structure…modifying it when necessary and possible…rather than engaging in endless ad-hoc approaches. But sometimes, ad-hoc or “irregular” approaches are necessary. Especially, I suspect, in government, where modification of the formal structure is likely to be much more difficult and time-consuming than in business. Too many of the government officials we have been hearing from lately seem to deeply resent any challenge to their established ways of doing things, just as the naval official in the story disapproved of Churchill’s action in “going behind the opinion of a board duly constituted.” The sense of entitlement among many senior (non-elected) American government officials seems to be very strong.

See also this post from The DiploMad, a very experienced (now retired) US Foreign Service officer.

(Churchill story from The Gathering Storm and from General Spears’ valuable memoir, Assignment to Catastrophe.)

(also posted at Ricochet, where there is a comment thread)

16 thoughts on “Regular and Irregular Channels”

  1. On the topic of “irregular channels” one might ask if they know about Harry Hopkins or Colonel House. The use of informal agents goes back to the American Civil War where Lincoln had people checking on Grant’s drinking. In a more modern example, you could read “The Rebellion of Ronald Reagan,” where he used a woman who spoke Russian and visited the USSR to tell him what was going on. From a review:

    Mr. Mann delivers an interesting perspective on the mechanics of Ronald Reagan’s Soviet foreign policy. Using four separate themes, Mann describes how Reagan ostensibly parted company with many on the right to bring about the end of the Soviet Union. Mann covers the Nixon-Reagan relationship (perhaps the best part of the book), the role of Reagan’s informal advisor/diplomat Suzanne Massie, the Berlin Wall speech, and the summits in highlighting the complexity of US-Soviet relations from 1980-88.

    Nancy thought she was “pushy.”

  2. One of the Dem questioners…I believe it was the majority counsel…asked LTC Vindeman whether what Trump said on the phone call was consistent with “official US foreign policy.”

    Colonel Vindeman’s response SHOULD have included: “Well, of course, the constitution states that it is the President who ESTABLISHES official US foreign policy.”

    The attitude of the Dems seems to be that it is the government-official mandarinate that establishes policy, and should hold a veto power on an policy actions or ideas outside their framework. And don’t expect this attitude to be limited to *foreign* policy.

    Someone at Ricochet pointed out that this attitude is like a cable box deciding what programs it wanted you to be able to watch. My alternative analogy: if the air traffic controllers decided that they should have the authority to *choose the destinations* of flights, not just to help them in getting there.

  3. There was a time, not so long ago, that the Republicans held the House, the Senate, and the Presidency. One of the obvious actions for them to have taken was to change the law with respect to government employees, making them much easier to fire (especially for the higher grade positions). They should also have cut government pensions and made it much easier to deny pensions to fired government employees.

    They should have done this, but they did not. Stupid Republicans.

  4. The fact that Republicans did not do a lot of things they should have with the majority just conforms Angelo Codevilla’s argument that the “Ruling Class” is bipartisan.

  5. The State Dept bitterly opposed Reagan’s “Tear Down This Wall” speech – but he decided to do it anyway.

  6. Literally no one is concerned about “irregular channels” here. It’s ludicrous hand-wringing nonsense. Our governing and media class is insanely decadent.

    It’s absurd that the GOP is going along with using the term “whistleblower” here, when it has zero applicability. Just call Ciaramella and Vindman leakers, working with Schiff, who has no rival in leaking since the good old days of Leaky Leahy.

    The only person in all this mess who should be concerned about their legal culpability is Joe Biden. It seems most likely that he decided to run for president only to avoid being able to be investigated for the brazen corruption.

  7. And don’t expect this attitude to be limited to *foreign* policy.

    One sees the attitude everywhere. Some of it is partisanship but there is also credentialism. Obama was qualified for national office because he graduated Harvard Law, scientific consensus is an important criterion for evaluating global-warming theories, graduate degrees signify expertise, etc. How are the real-world results? Don’t ask stupid questions.

  8. And don’t expect this attitude to be limited to *foreign* policy.

    One sees the attitude everywhere.”

    Especially on PBS / BBC re-runs of “Yes, Minister” and “Yes, Prime Minister”. Humphrey Appleby is a comic archtype — a modern inversion of the “Tricky Slave” stock theater clowns. But instead of a servant more clever than the master who actually helps resolve the conflicts of the plot, the “permanent secretary” of civil “service” (who may well be more clever than the elected responsible official) does NOT resolve ANYTHING but instead perpetuates the unsatisfactory status quo. Were a problem actually solved, what would the service do?

  9. @ Gavin and others – The Democrats and the corporate press make a big deal about it whenever the Republicans gain the barest majority in either house, or in some possible description on the Supreme Court. They will say that the Republicans “control” the Senate with 51. This is both tactical and paranoid on their part. They want to keep their own people in peak panic, and they want to set the Republicans up for failure to meet expectations. They only have to pick off a couple of votes and the general Republican voter will blame the whole party as being ineffective. Examining the party balance since 1958 shows that the Democrats have had a few periods of very large majorities, while the Republicans have squeaked into a majority only a few times.

    I may be biased because the Republicans from New Hampshire in my adult lifetime have been exceptionally good, including Judd Gregg and John Sununu most recently.

  10. Where I live the GOP has been exceptionally incompetent and now almost a non-entity. I support local candidates as best I can, but most aren’t competitive enough to bother. There is still some hope in a few pockets of the state. Otherwise, the Republicans have conceded Illinois, the state of their birth.

    On the national level, the past few years have been a real gut check, seeing how McCain and Romney have responded to the Trump era. I don’t honestly believe much would have been different from Obama had either one been elected. The swamp needs to be drained or it will just be more of the same after Trump.

  11. One thing that is annoying me in FL is these RINO Republicans who support ever more victim disarmament regulations and laws. Including the AG and, to a lesser extent, the Governor.


  12. So, yesterday I was trapped in a BBQ place near a TV tuned to MSNBC. At learnt the BBQ was good, but my brief exposure to the leftist media, was informative where a panel discussion consisted of taking turns of stretching hearsay and opinions converted into facts and mind reading. Lots of head nodding. One particularly interesting term I thought I heard was at least one of the panelists referring to the “inappropriate” channel (of diplomatic affairs). Wondering if that term will catch on. The ever present banner displayed was “Impeachment: White House in Crisis”.

    I agree about the republicans not using the term “whistleblower”. I would suggest they also stay away from “irregular and regular channels” and substitute “informal” or better “direct” versus “formal” or better “bureaucratic”.


  13. I may be biased because the Republicans from New Hampshire in my adult lifetime have been exceptionally good, including Judd Gregg and John Sununu most recently.

    We had a nice test of party effectiveness in California after the earthquake in 1994, which destroyed freeways and much infrastructure. About 70 people died.

    Pete Wilson was Governor and set up a program to repair and rebuild infrastructure using private bids and incentive clauses that resulted in early restoration of the infrastructure involved.

    California is now ruled by Democrats as a result of profound shifts in population including the closing of defense plants and the migration of millions of poor Hispanics into the state and middle class whites out.

    The supposed “Bullet Train” is an example of current competence.

  14. The fact that all these career staff are participating in this travesty by spreading all their gossip and hearsay proves that Trump was right to not trust them and bring in “informal” channels.

    QED. Also, res ipsa loquitur.

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