Diplopundit has written a sad, excellent piece about the State Department’s hypocritical stance on online freedom of speech, how the Department spends millions abroad to ensure the rights of Mideast bloggers to criticize their governments, while spending tax dollars at home silencing its own employees who choose to blog objectively about State.
There are three kinds of State Department blogs (a whole list is here). The most benign are the so-called travelogue types, where families chronicle their adventures abroad. These blogs do sometimes run afoul of Mother State when they create anything less than a fully happy family picture of a particular country but usually putter along with their small familiar audiences.
The second category are the echo chambers, blogs written by State officials that simply reiterate the party line. They could be taken right from the day’s official talking points, and often are. State seems to leave these alone, allowing even one of its spokespeople in Iraq to have one.
Finally, there are those who write objectively about State, pointing out that some things are alright, some just OK and some in need of change. In contrast to the military, which has always encouraged soldiers to speak their minds and allowed/tolerated soldier blogs (some excellent writing about Iraq came out of this genre), State can act more like the Mafia than a freedom advocate, demanding that “nobody talks about the family outside the family.”
Diplopundit talks about this, and has served as a repository of State blogs that have gone dark under pressure. He refers to the people at Foggy Bottom whose apparent job it is to enforce the family rules as “tigers,” and notes that they try very hard to scare people into compliance because today, in a Wikileaked world, anything written down seems to splatter across the web. State has little interest in providing written blog fodder for those who might “talk about the family outside the family.”
The State Department has been known to muzzle its Foreign Service (FS) bloggers in various different ways. It had already driven an FS blogger to “sail into the sunset” (shaky current assignment, no forward assignment, etc, etc.). These FS bloggers write on their own free time, not on taxpayers’ dime. It has caused the shutdown of several blogs and continues to threaten its diplomats and their spouses who blog or tweet about stuff outside the chalked lines with all sorts of punishments. Always behind closed doors, of course, and in almost non-existent paper trail.
If you hear very little about this, it’s because the shutdown also comes with a non-disclosure agreement; if the blogger squeaks, they can send you to a mission in the Arctic region, or they send the employee, then the offending spouse blogger dines with guilt every single day afterwards.
Some will say that the “privilege” of speaking ends when you take a job at Foggy Bottom. Not true. The State Department has an official policy on its employees writing personal things and participating in social media. You can read it here and here.
There is actually nothing in there that prohibits employees from writing and speaking per se. There is a pre-clearance process, which on paper at least focuses mainly on three things: that the writing contain nothing classified, that the writing not contain anything protected by the Privacy Act and that the writer not misrepresent his/her personal views as State Department policy. There are some other common-sense restrictions on talking about contracts and procurement deals, and giving away details on policy arguments.
Nothing written down however that says “don’t write anything we won’t like or you’ll get whacked.”
One of the unexpected things about operating a blog like this is the emails we receive. Some of course are selling Viagra and manly growth pills, some (mostly written ALL IN CAPS!1!) are threats and many are thoughtful responses from Foreign Service people. These people, like the critical bloggers, are not out on a witch hunt despite sometimes being the targets of witch hunts themselves. They bought into the idea learned somewhere along the way that open discussion is good, that airing problems can help solve problems, that responsible criticism can make an organization’s other statements more credible, that free speech is not an abstract, or a tool swung just against foreign regimes that we oppose, but in fact an obligation.
Copyright © 2013. All rights reserved under International and Pan-American Copyright Conventions. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity. Follow me on Twitter!