At the White House ABC’s Jake Tapper called out spokesperson James Carney on how the Obama Administration could square lauding free speech and internet freedom abroad while engaging in a record-setting campaign to silence whistleblowers at home. Carney (what a name, you can’t make this stuff up) ignored the question of why exposing government wrongdoing is desired when the target is Syria, China or Iran, but despicable when the target is the United States.
Free Speech Hypocrisy at the White House
Carney said “I’m not making the assumption” that the Espionage Act prosecutions suppress whistleblowers, yet the Justice Department is using the prosecutions for exactly that purpose. In the now-failed case against National Security Agency (NSA) whistleblower Thomas Drake, prosecutor William Welch II demanded a harsh sentence for Drake specifically to “send a message” to other employees. Of the six Espionage Act prosecutions under the Obama Administration, all involve journalists working with consciencious government employees trying to bring illegal, wasteful or immoral acts into the daylight. The Obama administration, which arrived in Washington promoting “sunshine” in government, turns out to be committed to silence and the censoring of less-than-positive news about its own workings. This administration fears the noise of democracy, preferring the silence of compliance just like in China, Iran and elsewhere.
Free Speech Hypocrisy at Other Agencies
At the Food and Drug Administration, they spy on their own employees’ email to prevent them from exposing wrongdoings.
At the Department of Defense, a soldier who speaks out about government lies in Afghanistan finds himself under investigation. Four employees of the Air Force Mortuary in Dover, Delaware, attempted to address shortcomings at the facility, which handles the remains of all American service members who die overseas. Retaliation against them included firings and suspensions. Bradley Manning is in his second year of confinement without trial for allegedly leaking Secret level documents that embarrassed the government, while a Top Secret leak that favors the Department of Defense position goes unpunished.
Free Speech Hypocrisy at the State Department
The same level of hypocrisy that applies to the White House also applies to the State Department. Secretary of State Clinton has made internet freedom and the rights of bloggers and journalists a cornerstone of her foreign policy, going as far as citing the free use of social media as a prime mover in the Arab Spring. At the Conference on Internet Freedom at the Hague, Clinton said:
When ideas are blocked, information deleted, conversations stifled, and people constrained in their choices, the internet is diminished for all of us.
In China, several dozen companies signed a pledge in October, committing to strengthen their – quote – “self-management, self-restraint, and strict self-discipline.” Now, if they were talking about fiscal responsibility, we might all agree. But they were talking about offering web-based services to the Chinese people, which is code for getting in line with the government’s tight control over the internet.
The United States wants the internet to remain a space where economic, political, and social exchanges flourish. To do that, we need to protect people who exercise their rights online.
Yet inside her own Department of State, Clinton presides over the censoring of the internet, blocking objectionable web sites that refer to Wikileaks, such as TomDispatch (above), while allowing sites that play to State’s own point of view, such as Fox.com, which also refer to Wikileaks. The use of specialized software and VPNs that State recommends to Iranians to circumvent the firewall block placed by the Tehran government are prohibited by the State Department to its own employees to get around State’s own firewall blocks.
While Clinton mocks Chinese companies, claiming terms like “self-management, self-restraint, and strict self-discipline” equate to censorship, her own Department’s social media guidance reminds employees to “be mindful of the weight of your expressed views as a U.S. government official,” and to “Remember that you are a Foreign Service USG employee.” Official guidance reminds employees that “All Department organizations with a social media site must monitor user-generated content,” and cites 27 laws and regulations that must be followed to be acceptable to the government. Self-censorship is the byword at State, as it is in China. Government bureaucrats know that this sort of slow-drip intimidation keeps people in line. They are meant to see what’s happening and remain silent.
One web site reported that when Matt Armstrong was hired as Executive Director for the now defunct Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy, a condition to his hiring was to stop blogging. The condition was set by the office of Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs.
Whistleblower Ray McGovern was arrested merely for physically standing and turning his back on Clinton at a public rally where she was speaking about the importance of freedom of speech. Did Secretary of State Clinton say anything about the arrest? She remained silent.
Another State Department official wrote in the Foreign Service Journal:
Anyone who has been called on the carpet for blogging — especially those who have been summoned more than once — can tell you that the only consistent aspect of the State Department’s feedback is inconsistency. Blogging is encouraged by some elements within the department and is even discussed on the official careers page, complete with a substantial set of links to popular Foreign Service-related blogs. Yet even bloggers listed there are sometimes targeted for official harassment by other elements within the department for having a blog in the first place.
Free Speech: All Politics is Local
I am told that, in its 223 years of existence, I am the only Foreign Service Officer ever to have written a critical book about the State Department while still employed there. We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People exposed what State did not want people to know: that they had wasted enormous amounts of money in Iraq, mostly due to ignorance and a desire for short-term successes that could be trumpeted back home. For the crime of writing this book and maintaining a blog that occasionally embarrasses, State Department officials destroyed my career, even as they confirm my thesis, and their own failure, by reducing the Baghdad Embassy to half its size in the face of Iraq’s unraveling.
“The State Department was aware of Mr. Van Buren’s book long prior to its release,” explained attorney Jesslyn Radack of the Government Accountability Project, who now represents me. “Yet instead of addressing the ample evidence of fraud, waste, and abuse in the book, State targeted the whistleblower. The State Department’s retaliatory actions are a transparent attempt to intimidate and silence an employee whose critique of fraudulent, wasteful, and mismanaged U.S. reconstruction efforts in Iraq embarrassed the agency.”
The State Department banned me from their building because I did not get permission for this article.
The State Department threw me out of my job because this posting offended the Secretary of State.
The State Department even chastised me for using its official seal in a satirical piece, showing censorship can be comprehensive, and petty, and that they know no boundaries between the two.
What is Not Petty
It is easy to magic-wand the problem of hypocrisy away– didn’t those government whistleblowers “break” rules? Well, yes, US government rules, the same as Syrian journalists broke Syrian government rules. Aren’t those websites blocked by the State Department objectionable on national security grounds? Yes, of course, the same way Tehran or Beijing claims its own national security is harmed by the web sites they block. The State Department blocks Wikileaks with its firewall same as China does not block the same site. But aren’t this blog’s posts offensive and not always “mindful of the weight of your expressed views as a U.S. government official”? Perhaps, but the highest standards we pretend to uphold in the First Amendment make no exceptions for offense nor include special categories for US government officials.
What is considered innocent, mindful and respectful today can be found to be offensive tomorrow by a government scared that its own employees will reveal its sad inner workings to the people it purports to serve. You cannot pick and choose among free speech; you get Richard Pryor, Kid Cudi and the KKK saying the N-word, Bill Maher and Glenn Beck, Your Candidate and that Other Idiot, the Pledge and flag burning. Inside of State, my blog and the so-called innocuous “Mommy Blogs” are no different, just occupying different points on the same continuum. My rights taken today, yours tomorrow.
If the US government in general, and the Secretary of State in particular, wish to be taken seriously around the world as advocates of a free internet and for free speech, they need to practice the same inside their own organizations. They cannot advocate for such abroad while using bully boy tactics to silence those at home.
As one Foreign Service blogger remarked about State’s free speech hypocrisy, “Your actions speak so loudly I can hardly hear what you’re saying.”
Can you hear us Mr. President? Madame Secretary? We are standing just outside your door, shouting.
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