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Foreign Policy in Focus offers up a review of We Meant Well:
We Meant Well is a tour of the highlights and lowlights of Van Buren’s time in Iraq reminiscent of Joseph Heller’s Catch-22. In that novel, the protagonist, an Air Force bombardier in World War II, is the only source of lucid and critical thought in a world gone mad. The most disturbing difference between We Meant Well and the masterful 1960s novel is that Peter Van Buren’s story is not fiction.
Van Buren’s central message is that we must learn from history and our mistakes, and consider the consequences of actions before we commit to them. “Courage takes two forms in war. Courage in the face of personal danger, a requirement for tactical success … and courage to take responsibility, a requirement for strategic success.” Instead of continuing to prosecute any employees who expose abuse, mismanagement, and authoritarian policies, the Obama administration should take these lessons to heart and listen to these courageous whistleblowers.
Read the full review online now at Foreign Policy in Focus.
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!
For those not in Washington DC, Al Kamen’s Washington Post column “In the Loop” is a must-read source of local gossip and snark, dishing it out to DC’s finest long before Wonkette and Gawker came on the scene. So it is with great pleasure that Wednesday’s column cited out this blog:
State stretch on blogdom?
Employees getting in trouble at work for their extracurricular blogging are hardly a new story line, but when the blogger in question is a former model fond of posting pictures of herself doing yoga in scant clothing — and she claims to be a “diplomat” — well, the Loop takes notice.
We were directed to the site of one Jennifer Santiago, who says she’s a Foreign Service officer with the State Department, by Peter Van Buren, another State Department employee. State is in the process of firing Van Buren for a variety of reasons, including his own blogging (which does not include provocative pics, but rather more substantive offenses, the State Department says, such as linking to the whistleblower site WikiLeaks and disclosing classified information, among others).
Basically, Van Buren is calling out the State Department for going after his online writings while leaving others’ alone. It seems that Foreign Service officers are governed by a code of conduct that mandates a “high degree . . . of prudence” and bars “conduct demonstrating . . . poor judgment” — anything that might hamper an officer’s reputation and ability to represent the United States abroad. Might Santiago’s racy photos and blog posts about samba-ing through Brazil be considered taboo?
“They’re being very selective about it,” Van Buren claims. “Or else they can’t monitor everything.”
But the State Department takes a broader view of officers who blog about nonwork subjects. A spokesman explains the three levels of blogdom: “Department employees who wish to write about matters of official concern must obtain department clearance,” he says. “When writing on matters of official concern in their private capacity, they must also include a disclaimer. Matters clearly not of official concern are not subject to the clearance process.”
Santiago did not respond by our deadline to an e-mail.
William Randolph Hearst once said “Show me a magazine cover with a pretty girl, a baby and a dog, and I’ll show you a magazine that sells.” We’re looking now for a photo.
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!
So, with all the good news in Iraq these days (didn’t you see, Disney is buying up land for an oil-based water park), you’d think that some new thinking might be just the thing.
Looking back on events since 2003 (looting, dissolution of civil society, disbanding the army and police, losing trillions of dollars, Sunni-Shia-Kurd slaughter, civil war, Stalingrad on the Tigris in Falluja, more civil war, Abu Ghraid, failed reconstruction, failed US base strategy, failed US elections strategy, failed US oil strategy, failed US Kurd reconciliation strategy, World’s Largest and Most Expensive White Elephant Embassy, Iran-sympathetic autocracy emerging, etc) it sure seems that the US has made its share of mistakes.
So let’s look at the resume of the guy Obama wants as the new American Ambassador to this pile of failed foreign policy doo doo, Brett McGurk:
After law school and clerking, McGurk was a legal advisor to the Coalition Provisional Authority in Baghdad.
Advisor to the last three US Ambassadors to Iraq: Jim Jeffries, Ryan Crocker, and Christopher Hill.
National Security Council, director for Iraq and later as senior director for Iraq and Afghanistan.
Lead negotiator for the 2008 US-Iraq security agreement that extended the U.S. troop presence there until the end of 2011 and leader of the failed negotiations in 2011 to extend the US troop presence in Iraq even longer.
McGurk is 38 years old and has never done any job other than help fuck up Iraq on behalf of the United States. Dude only graduated in 1999. Despite essentially doing nothing but Iraq stuff his entire adult life, McGurk has also avoided learning any Arabic. You’d kind of think that maybe that wouldn’t be the resume for the next guy in charge of cleaning up some of his own mistakes, like maybe you’d want someone who had some… depth or experience or broad knowledge or understanding of something other than failure in that God-forsaken country. Normally when you are a hand maiden to failure you don’t get promoted, but then again, this is the State Department. This is almost as good as Harriet Miers.
How could this possibly not work out?
Oh yeah, a lot of Iraqis don’t like McGurk because he is seen as a toady for Prime Minister Malaki, our brother freedom fighter in Baghdad. “Many Iraqi players outside Maliki’s circle view McGurk as an advocate for the prime minister. That may not be a fair characterization, but the perceptions are there on the ground. There’s the possibility that this sentiment could undermine our perception of neutrality and therefore our ability to effectively mediate disputes between all Iraqi factions,” one expert said.
Also, Gordon Gecko called and wants his hairstyle back. Party on, McGurk!
As alert readers of this blog know, I am in the process of being fired from the Department of State in large part because of this blog. The firing part revolves around me “writing about matters of official concern without authorization, “identifying myself as a foreign service officer,” not using the required disclaimer, and “poor judgement and notoriously disgraceful conduct.”
A big one was that bit about “poor judgment and notoriously disgraceful conduct,” which the State Department defines helpfully for me as “lack of discretion which may reasonably affect an individual or agency’s ability to carry out its responsibilities or mission.”
The idea is that if a blog has, well, undiplomatic things on it, the writer will not be able to represent the US, be taken seriously as a professional diplomat, that sort of thing. The blog’s message in other words will get in the way of the State Department job, distract from the professionalism required to represent the United States. At least that’s what is bothering State about me and my blog.
Fair enough I guess, at least if State applied the rules equitably. On its own “careers” web page, State lists dozens of Foreign Service blogs which quite obviously talk about matter of official concern and, given how they often post daily updates, do not appear to have gone through any authorization or clearance process. Some do, and some don’t, have the required disclaimer.
And then of course, there is the blog of budding Foreign Service Officer Jennifer Santiago, who self-identifies online as “diplomat, photographer and world traveler.” Ms. Santiago was apparently many other things before joining the Foreign Service, and helpfully includes a number of pictures of herself online. Here are a couple more:
I have no way to verify it and make no claims to its veracity, but Ms. Santiago’s Wikipedia entry (doesn’t everyone have one?), which says her birth name is “Jennifer Klarman,” claims she also once posed unclothed in Playboy. It is a not safe for work type of link, but the Playboy photos are here, so you can judge for yourself if care to do so. One article states “Then known as Jennifer Klarman, Santiago posed in 1998, she says, to help pay off $100,000 in law school loans. The pictures were intended for a Playboy special on lingerie. “If I had known they might end up in a book called Voluptuous Vixens, I might have declined.” Two Facebook pages link “Jennifer Klarman” with “Jennifer Santiago,” listing her as a “public figure” and using one of the photos above.
Back to her own blog, Ms. Santiago wrote that she was sent to Brazil for a language immersion program as part of her Portuguese training, at a school conveniently located just two blocks away from the famous Ipanema Beach, in Rio.
As Ms. Santiago says on her blog, “Momma didn’t raise no dummy– I chose a school that is just four blocks from the beach… I’m convinced tropical weather is medicine for the body and soul. So, I am beyond grateful for this two-week respite from life in bone-chilling Washington DC… This isn’t a vacation after all, this is language immersion (and Atlantic Ocean immersion). So, I’ll be sure to continue sharing my experiences in and out of the classroom. I’m looking forward to a week on the beach, learning Samba, touring the favelas and catching a futebol game.”
She helpfully adds that she’ll be working the visa line at our Sao Paulo consulate. She posted some photos from her trip:
The blog does not display the required State Department disclaimer anywhere I could locate. We are forced to assume that either Ms. Santiago has sought and received State Department authorization for her comments on matters of official concern such as her training and assignment, or that she, like me, is allegedly guilty of unauthorized blogging and should be punished.
I don’t know Ms. Santiago, and we have never spoken. I found her blog online as anyone might; after all, it is online, subject to worldwide availability just like mine, via a Google search or two. Everything here came through some online searches, all subject to the whims of the web as to content and veracity. Just as State claims my blog renders me ineffective as a Foreign Service Officer, the blogs of other FSOs are hanging out there too waiting to be discovered by anyone dealing with us professionally.
The point here is to suggest that the Department of State willfully chooses to enforce its blogging rules when it spies a blog whose content it dislikes (mine) and then ignores those same rules for a blog that it does like.
Or, that the State Department can’t possibly locate, monitor and assess all the Foreign Service blogs out there, and thus selectively picks some (mine) for multi-month forensic investigation through its Diplomatic Security Stasi while remaining purposely ignorant of the others, a case of highly selective persecution, er, um, prosecution.
Or, maybe it has something to do with the photos on my blog. Maybe if I hit the gym more often the State Department would let me keep my blog unfettered as they obviously are doing with others?
My employer, Hillary Clinton and her Department of State, is working on firing me for writing a book about State’s failures in Iraq, and for expressing dissent here on this blog. I refuse to resign in protest.
In Iraq, Saddam’s Foreign Minister Tariq Aziz, told the CIA (“Mutuality of Fear”) that he opposed the invasion of Kuwait in 1991, but could not dissuade Saddam. Asked why he did not resign in protest, he denied he thought he would be killed, but said, “…there would be no income, no job.”
Saddam and Hillary, approaching employees who say things they don’t like in just exactly the same way.
Enjoy an angry, funny interview with Peter B. Collins on his show, Boiling Frogs (I am one of the frogs I think). The show promises:
Peter Van Buren, author of We Meant Well, defends other whistleblowers even as he is being forced out of his 20+ year career at the State Department in this Boiling Frogs interview, co-hosted with Sibel Edmonds (pictured above)
Van Buren joins us to discuss the Obama administration’s unprecedented persecution and prosecution of government whistleblowers, and how they have already charged more people under the Espionage Act for alleged mishandling of classified information than all past presidencies combined. He talks about the retaliation he has experienced as the only Foreign Service Officer ever to have written a critical book about the State Department while still employed there, including the suspension of his security clearance, demotion, and being placed under surveillance at work.
Listen in on the whole interview, online at Boiling Frogs.
(This article originally appeared on the blog, Ranger Against War)
We have many friends and acquaintances her at RangerAgainstWar whom we have never met, save in the ether world. Among these is one each, Peter Van Buren, a true American patriot and razor sharp thinker.
We first heard Mr. Van Buren in his NPR interview regarding his book, We Meant Well, and were impressed with his cogency and wit. It convinced us that at least one person in the State Department uses his head as something other than a hat rack. To their shame, he seems to be in the minority.
Peter was fired by State this week in a confusing welter of accusations suggesting improper leaks, but it looks like a simple case of bullying an employee for exercising his right of free speech — Oh, yeah, that thing the U.S. was supposedly spreading with those Provisional Reconstruction Teams (PRTs) which Peter helped lead. He has laid the situation and players out well over the past several weeks @ WeMeantWell.com.
Bottom line: The State Department (DoS) cannot brook free speech, and in that way is unlike the Department of Defense (DoD), or any federal agency. So the U.S. spends Trillions of dollars exporting fanciful democratic ideals, all the while stomping on those very same concepts here in The Homeland ™.
The treatment of the Branch Davidians during the Clinton White House might reveal Secretary of State Clinton’s proclivities when dealing with a DoS whistleblower. She will attempt to roll over him like an Engineer Assault vehicle crushing the Branch Davidian compound. Peter needs our support if that still has relevance in our democratic scheme.
His case is similar to Bradley Manning’s in many respects, except Manning (being in DoD) has less rights. At least Van Buren has not been charged with espionage (at least, not yet!)
Ranger finds it curious that there at least three Constitutions: One for domestic consumption, one for export, and one for DoD and DoS. We just presume that the military does not have free speech because they cannot criticize the Commander in Chief and Chain of Command (even if what they say is correct and factual.) If Van Buren is fired (following appeal), then free speech will not be tolerated in any government office, obviating the need for federal whistleblower laws.
Men who march in lock step to their next promotion talk the talk but don’t walk the walk, and sadly, they will be the ones judging men like Van Buren. Screw the War on Terror — let’s defend freedom over here.
Our best wishes go out to Peter van Buren who is stuck out on point without a battle buddy.
In America, we are proud of our long and distinctive record of championing freedom of speech… we have worked to share our best practices.
–Secretary of State Hillary Clinton
We hope that others will join us in advancing a basic freedom for the Iranian people: the freedom to connect with one another and with their fellow human beings.
–President Barack Obama
On March 9, 2012, the Department of State issued a 16 page list of offenses I allegedly committed, for which they seek to fire me. Chief among those offenses is writing this blog, on my own time and on my own computer, an exercise of the very same rights to communicate and free speech Obama and Hillary demand for others:
(This article by William Astore originally appeared on Huffington Post)
When you dare speak truth to power, the reality is that power already knows the truth, doesn’t want you to share it, and will punish you for your trouble.
That’s the clear lesson from the State Department’s persecution of Peter Van Buren, who dared to tell the American people about the failures of Iraq reconstruction in his book We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People (2011). His “crime” was his unflattering portrayal of misguided and mismanaged U.S. projects in Iraq, from American books translated into Arabic that were never read to a high-tech chicken factory that never worked to sewerage systems that grew worse rather than better despite infusions of machinery and countless millions of dollars.
Van Buren deserves a commendation for his honesty. A true servant of the American people, his cautionary (and often wryly amusing) tale should teach us that so-called nation-building efforts are difficult to implement and even more difficult to sustain. Even more: the resource-intensive, high-tech approach of U.S. government officials and private contractors is rarely well-suited for places like Iraq and Afghanistan, whose resource- and knowledge-base is less well developed, at least by American standards. Approaches that work, Van Buren suggests, are those that are better tuned to engaging and empowering the locals within specific cultural settings, an approach rarely followed by American “experts” and corporations, eager as the latter were to make a buck while trying to show quick results.
My own experience with winning the hearts and minds of Iraqis was limited but illustrative of Van Buren’s conclusions. Back in 2004, an American official in Iraq contacted the Defense Language Institute in Monterey, California, where I then worked, for help in translating a Peter, Paul and Mary song about tolerance. The idea was that Iraqi schoolchildren could be inculcated with a love of diversity, or at least a tolerance of the same, if they were taught the lyrics to this song. We engaged our Arabic translators, who quickly advised us that the lyrics to this touchy-feely American song would likely baffle Iraqi schoolchildren even when translated into Arabic. The American official at the other end of our conference call was very disappointed to hear that her bright idea to promote tolerance in Iraqi schools by translating feel-good anthems to diversity was a cultural non-starter.
A great strength of Van Buren’s account is to show how we Americans delude ourselves into believing that our approach and our culture can be grafted successfully onto Iraqi and Afghan situations. Intentions may often be good but results are mixed at best because U.S. providers want to show rapid progress even as they’re encouraged to allocate resources as quickly as possible (often a formidable task, given the bureaucratic red tape involved). Can-do spirit is frustrated by the realities of contractor and indigenous greed, cultural differences, and the short-term mentality of American managers who rarely occupy the same position for more than a few months.
Van Buren explains to us why the dedicated efforts of individuals like himself made so little difference in Iraq. His is a cautionary tale of waste, mismanagement, and hubris, one that should serve to discourage (or at least to inform) current efforts in Afghanistan.
It’s not that our government doesn’t want to hear that message; the powerful already know how much we’ve bungled these “reconstruction” efforts. It’s that they don’t want you the American people to know how much they’ve bungled these efforts.
Van Buren shines a light in places that many would prefer to remain dark. And that, sadly, is rarely rewarded, even less so today in an administration that’s determined to silence whistleblowers from all quarters.
The White House said Tuesday the thought of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad chortling over his iTunes collection while his people were being slaughtered was “sickening.” Obama’s spokesman Jay Carney was responding to reports in the Guardian newspaper about Assad’s purported emails, which lifted the lid on the lavish lifestyle enjoyed by the Syrian leader and his wife.
It’s really sickening if you think about it that a man who is overseeing the slaughter of his own people is chortling about evading sanctions and getting an iTunes account.
Good for you Jay. Good for you. Probably got a high five from the boss for that zinger.
On the other hand, back in October, I wrote on this blog:
Here is your Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, who as Secretary is America’s top diplomat. She practices diplomacy, which in one sense as been defined as “the employment of tact to gain strategic advantage or to find mutually acceptable solutions to a common challenge, one set of tools being the phrasing of statements in a non-confrontational, or polite manner.” Now, here is our diplomat talking about the death of Qaddafi. She says “we came, we saw, he died” and then laughs about that with some robo journalist.
For all those who write in complaining that I am at times crude or offensive, chortling over anyone’s death is a disgrace. What’s next, displaying the skulls of our enemies in the Foggy Bottom lobby? Oh my god America, what have we become?
In return for my chortling reference, the State Department is seeking to fire me. Here’s the charge:
Like all else in Washington, I guess it is all about who you know. Now, let’s all have a hearty chortle over some amusing tidbit in the news…
Thinking they can sell their version of events– punish the whistleblower (me) instead of investigating the allegations ($44 billion wasted on Iraq reconstruction)– the State Department continues its dripping treacle hypocrisy, proclaiming rights for internet advocates and free speech abroad while citing “regulations” they wrote themselves that prevent free speech within its own ranks.
Good news is that not everyone is swallowing this. MichaelMoore.com today asks:
Dear Hillary: Please Speak Out Against
This Attack on Free Speech in a Far-Away Land – Clinton’s State Department moves to fire Peter Van Buren, foreign service officer, author and MichaelMoore.com blogger for writing unflattering things about his time in Iraq
Powerful Words! Where Is This Lady Now?
“In America, we are proud of our long and distinctive record of championing  freedom of speech … we have worked to share our best practices.” – Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, three short months ago
Awesome, Now We Need Russia to Protest for Us
“The American media, always ready to stand behind Russian whistleblowers, shows remarkably little interest in whistleblowers operating closer to home.” –Voice of Russia, radio network run by Putin’s government
DO SOMETHING: Call Hillary Clinton at 202-647-4000. Politely remind Secretary Clinton that her nice-sounding speeches about freedom of speech would come across better if they weren’t all a bunch of crap.
Diplopundit today sadly catalogs the Foreign Service blogs (“free speech”) that have gone dark, wondering if this is “is the ‘Peter Van Buren’ effect on the FS blogosphere.”
Some inside the State Department are secretly proud of the blogs closing down, knowing that by stiffling free speech they have made their internal bosses happy. State is a terminally inward looking bureaucracy, doomed to a slow ride into irrelevancy, largely because it is so inwardly focused. Drones will continue to write speeches for Hillary demanding free speech in China while two floors below them other drones crush dissent within Hillary’s own employee ranks.
State doesn’t seem to care, or even realize, that the rest of the world sees through this hypocrisy. The result? Pretty soon no one will listen to Hillary anymore but her own loyal lickspittles, making a perfect circle inside the Department while the rest of the world turns the channel. No wonder Congress continues to cut back State’s budget and reduce its ranks year after year.
With just a little more effort, the State Department will become the late-night cable public access show of the world, watched and listened to only by its own staff. They’ll be happy then.
The article below appeared on a Russian news site. It shows the Russians, after years of autocratic governments, and after years of watching the US plead for their rights when it was politically beneficial for the US to do, understand the hypocrisy of our State Department.
While blathering about how other governments should not stifle dissent, State claims that its “regulations” do not permit writing, speaking or blogging in a free society without the Government’s permission. The State Department can talk itself into believing there is no hypocrisy in that, but the rest of the world understands what is really going on.
The American media, always ready to stand behind Russian whistleblowers, shows remarkably little interest in whistleblowers operating closer to home. There is a good example for that in the case of Peter Van Buren, a State Department officer, who recently received a termination notice from his employer. Obviously, the foreign service is not unhappy about Van Buren’s language skills (he speaks four languages) or lack of experience (in his 24 years of service he had been posted to a dozen of countries, including Iraq). The reason is Van Buren’s book We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People.
To a Russian, this title sounds familiar, since it reminds us of the immortal formula coined by Russia’s former prime minister Viktor Chernomyrdin for bungled government action: “We always mean well, but we invariably do it the usual way.”
One could easily imagine how the American correspondents in Moscow would pounce on a similar author from some government service in Russia after the news of his receiving a termination letter. But when the “Terminator” is Mrs. Clinton, there is surprisingly little fascination about the case.
And this is certainly an undeserved lack of attention, since Van Buren’s story has all the elements of a whistleblower drama (or shall we call it a “human rights thriller”?) Here we have the State Department’s bureaucrats moving to fire Mr. Van Buren on 8 charges such as linking his blog to the WikiLeaks site (what about access to information acts?); disclosing classified information (as if the results of George W. Bush’s action in Iraq are a secret to anyone); and publishing an unauthorized blog (what about freedom of speech?)
The most interesting accusation, although, is the one of “bad judgment” which consisted in Mr. Van Buren’s criticism of Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and some of his blogged remarks on the then-presidential candidate Rep. Michelle Bachmann (R.-Minn.). The “coup de grace” on top of it all was Van Buren’s failure to clear each blog posting with his bosses. (Never read the stories about “tight-lipped officials” in other countries, such as Russia? But even the Soviet bureaucrats did not have to “clear” their letters with their superiors.)
So, what was so bad about Mr. Van Buren’s “judgment”? In his blog, he almost never uses previously unpublished materials, most of the space is filled with comments on the recent killing of 16 civilians by a US soldier, on failures of the American economic aid to Iraq, on the generally flawed character of American “nation building” in Moslem countries.
“Quite obviously, the State Department is prosecuting me for exercising the right to freedom of opinion and expression. No, not really: they say they’d love for me to write stuff they don’t agree with, all I need is to ask their permission first,” Van Buren writes sarcastically in his blog.
One cannot find any personal calumnies against Mrs. Clinton on Van Buren’s blog, there is just some pretty sound judgment on the “American empire” and its future. Here is a typical quote:
“America faced a choice and blew it. As an empire, we either needed to take control of the world’s oil or create a more equitable and less martial global society to ensure our access to it. We did neither. We needed either to create a colonial system for adventures like Iraq or Afghanistan along the Victorian model, or to not invade and rebuild those places. We did neither. Simply pouring more and more lives and money into the military is a one-way street going in the wrong direction. We can keep spending, but when the millions of dollars spent on weapons can be deflected by acts of terrorism that cost almost nothing, we will lose.”
Is it “bad judgment?” A lot of people, having read the stories about the “postwar” (or is it wartime?) reconstruction in Iraq and Afghanistan would argue that this judgment actually hits the spot. New York Times
But, obviously, such a judgment would not get a “clearance” from the State Department’s officials. So, who is making a “bad judgment” in this case?
Of all the institutions in government that should be wary of smear tactics, use of personal attacks to silence critics and falsehoods morphed into fact, it should be the State Department. The Department was decimated in the 1950′s by Senator McCarthy and should not stoop to such actions itself.
It thus saddens me to see a once-great institution I served with pride for some 24 years, our first cabinet agency, the Department of State, reduced to crude retaliation against one of its own employees for writing a book and a blog– me. Despite all the huff-puff from State about “regulations,” this is all about free, critical speech that the organization does not like and seeks to squash. When they couldn’t stop my writing, they seek to punish me. Instead of rebutting what I say, they seek to attack me as a person. I always planned on retiring in September, so all this effort is about cutting my career short by only a few months. If that does not show the retaliatory intent of State, I don’t know what does.
Actually, maybe this does. I filed my complaint for retaliation as a whistleblower with the Office of the Special Counsel early in January 2012, about which the State Department was officially put on notice at that time. After sitting on their own report of investigation for three months, it was only days after the Office of the Special Counsel referred my complaint to its investigatory and prosecutorial section, and days before the Counsel’s discovery request, that the Department issued the termination notice. Very curious timing.
Have a look at my interview with Democracy Now! to hear more about this and other issues in chilly Washington, DC:
(If the video is not showing above, please follow this link to watch it)
I joined Jess Radack of the Government Accountability Project (GAP) on the Alyona Show to talk about the government’s war on whistleblowers, how free speech may be an export item for the US, but is not wanted at home when it criticizes our own government.
(If the video is not showing above, please follow this link to view it)
Serious this one. The recent massacre (tragically, most recent massacre in Afghanistan) raises many questions that need answering to allow us to answer a more important question: is this indeed another sad, isolated incident or is it an ugly sign of a system in breakdown, the Army?
Let’s stick with the official version of things for argument’s sake: a single soldier left his base, killed 16 people, set their bodies on fire and then returned to that base. An areostat (balloon) was overhead and some images were recorded. So…
The uber question is should this soldier have deployed at all? Did his PTSD, injuries or previous experiences make him unfit to be sent out again and did the system fail him?
On the ground, bases, even small bases in rural Afghanistan, are surrounded by walls, wire, towers and sensors. While we don’t know exactly what was out there that night, how did this guy bypass it all and just leave without being seen? Nobody watching?
Every soldier has an assigned “battle buddy.” No soldier is supposed to walk around alone, with kidnap threats and who knows what else. Where was this guy’s battle buddy? Your buddy is also supposed to watch out for you, watch your mood, contact someone when things turn dark. In one instance I personally know from Iraq, a battle buddy took the bolt out of the rifle of another soldier who was talking suicide.
Did no one notice anything about the guy in the days/hours/minutes leading up to the attack? Can someone appear fully “normal” outwardly and then turn into a monster in a flash? Soldiers live very close in the field, physically and emotionally. There is no privacy. You eat together, sleep with a roomate(s) and are around each other constantly. This wasn’t the TV cliche of some guy sitting in his basement alone brooding, sharpening his knife. Nobody saw nothing? Nobody did nothing?
If the shooter had been drinking, where/how did he get the hooch? Drinking is illegal for soldiers in Afghanistan. In Iraq, the units I was with enforced that rule ruthlessly. Were others drinking? Was there a discipline problem?
The areostat and whatever else was flying that night have optics that work day and night, maybe thermal and sound imaging, motion detectors and lots of other tech stuff, watched 24/7. How did none of the activity get picked up? Does more video exist? If it was picked up, why didn’t anyone react to it?
The site of the killings was not far from the base. Every soldier knows the difference in sound between his US rifle’s sound and the sound of the weapons the bad guys use. Knowing that difference saves your life every day. It is very dark and very quiet at night in rural Afghanistan. Lots of people heard lots of shots. Why was there no response? Every base has a group of soldiers on immediate standby, a rapid reaction force, for such things. A lot of shooting nearby should attract a lot of attention.
How did the shooter get back on to the base? Someone must have been alerted by the noise, by sensors, by guards in the towers. Walking up to an alerted base with a weapon in your hand at night is a very dangerous thing to do. Was no one watching, or was the base alerted and knew it was somehow an American outside the wire?
We’ll possibly learn more about what really happened, but the underlying question is this. Did the safeguards break down? Did no one see the change in the shooter? Did none of the people who were supposed to be watching the perimeter see anything? Are there discipline problems, leadership problems, command and control problems exposed here? And are those problems isolated, or are they signs of an Army that is tired from eleven years of war and needs to be pulled back home before it starts eating itself again– Vietnam.
Mother Jones really uncorks one here, using my case against the State Department to frame the debate: there is more at stake here than the jobs of whistleblowers. When the government seeks to punish and thus silence debate, we’re risking the very freedom we purport to export.
Peter Van Buren—a veteran US diplomat whose blog and 2011 book, We Meant Well, detail his futile experiences as a nation builder in Iraq—was formally fired from the State Department this week. Officials at Foggy Bottom say Van Buren is guilty of eight major policy violations, including linking to Wikileaks documents on his blog, leaking classified info in his book, and displaying a “lack of candor” in interrogations by State security officers, according to a statement from his publicist. (A State Department spokesman confirmed the charges to the Washington Post on Wednesday.)
But Van Buren maintains he’s being singled out for “dirty tricks in retaliation” for embarassing his employer—a simple exercise of his free-speech rights. “It’s hard for me to objectively look at this as anything other than revenge and vindictiveness,” he told the Post.
In the book (part of which was published here at MotherJones.com), Van Buren recounts how, as the leader of two Provincial Reconstruction Teams in Iraq, he was party to one tragicomic, Kafkaesque misstep after another: shipping trucks full of unwanted English-language books to Iraqis who promptly dumped them; distributing soccer balls that nobody would kick because they had Koranic verses printed on them; chilling out at the US embassy in Baghdad, the world’s largest, playing lacrosse on a dead $2 million lawn.
His Iraq experience led Van Buren to broaden his criticisms, blogging about the government’s excesses and secrecy obsession on his own site and for TomDispatch. In a post last August, he referred to a State cable leaked by Wikileaks about US arms sales to Libya (a move, he says, he ran by his superiors). The following month, my colleague Andy Kroll wrote about the grilling Van Buren received from the Diplomatic Security Service. At the time, Kroll described Van Buren as “the only State Department employee who may be fired because of Wikileaks.”
But in recent media appearances like the one on Democracy Now! I’ve embedded below, Van Buren says the State Department is mostly sauced about his personal jibes against the bosses, because he hasn’t leaked any classified info. “Can State point to a single instance where I have released official information not already available elsewhere, absent perhaps my book, which was approved (perhaps by accident) by the State Department?” he asks on his blog. “I criticized the Secretary of State,” he told a DC news station this week. “I criticized the president and I’ve criticized other members of the State Department and the administration, and I did that because when I signed up 24 years ago, my oath was to the Constitution, not to Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama or anyone else.”
Talking back certainly isn’t a crime. One thing the Wikileaks cables show is that diplomats don’t always have to be diplomatic: They can be critical of world leaders, policies, and events, but evidently only if they have achieved sufficient rank and subtlety—and only if they do it behind State-approved firewalls.
Van Buren plans to appeal his dismissal. Regardless of the outcome, he’s likely to keep fighting—for all whistleblowers, not just himself. Just last month, he wrote a broadside for TomDispatch—reposted by MoJo, in which he includes a disclaimer that his words “do not in any way represent the views of the Department of State, the Department of Defense, or any other entity” of the federal government. “There is a barely visible but still significant war raging between a government obsessed with secrecy and whistleblowers seeking to expose waste, fraud, and wrongdoing,” he writes. “Right now, it is a largely one-sided struggle and the jobs of those of us who are experiencing retaliation are the least of what’s at stake.”
The following story appeared in the Washington Post:
Peter Van Buren, a foreign service officer who wrote an unflattering book about his year leading two reconstruction teams in Iraq, was stripped of his security clearance, banned from State Department headquarters for a time and transferred to a telework job that consists of copying Internet addresses into a file.
Now the State Department is moving to fire him based on eight charges, ranging from linking on his blog to documents on the whistleblowing site WikiLeaks to disclosing classified information.
In 24 years as a diplomat, Van Buren was posted around the world and speaks four languages. He called the termination notice he received Friday the coup de grace in a series of blows he received since his book, We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People was published last fall.
With his book, based on a year he spent in the Iraqi desert in 2009-2010, and an unauthorized blog he started in 2011 that frequently skewers American foreign policy, Van Buren has tested the First Amendment almost daily.
He and his attorneys maintain that his right to free speech has been trampled, and they say he is a victim of retaliation for whistleblowing— not only because his account of the reconstruction effort alleges unqualified staff, corruption and billions of dollars in wasted programs.
A State Department spokesman said the diplomat’s claims of retaliation are “without merit.”
“There are protections within the government for freedom of expression and for whistleblowers,” spokesman Mark C. Toner said. “The State Department has followed process and acted in accordance with the law.”
Van Buren’s termination letter came within days of a decision by the Office of Special Counsel, an independent agency that investigates government wrongdoing and complaints of retaliation by those who report it, to look into his case.
“It’s hard for me to objectively look at this as anything other than revenge and vindictiveness,” Van Buren said from his house in Falls Church.
Jesselyn Radack, National Security and Human Rights director for the Government Accountability Project, which represents Van Buren, said: “It’s awfully curious timing, given the Office of Special Counsel complaint.”
He’s one of few federal employees —and maybe the only one at the State Department—who wrote a book about life on the job while still on the job.
Van Buren can appeal his termination to a five-member grievance board at the agency. “It’s the beginning of a process,” Toner said. “He’ll have ample opportunity to defend himself.”
He was charged with eight violations of State Department policy. They include linking in his blog to documents on WikiLeaks; failing to clear each blog posting with his bosses; displaying a “lack of candor” during interviews with diplomatic security officers; leaking allegedly sensitive and classified information in his book; and using “bad judgement’ by criticizing Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and then-presidential candidate Michelle Bachmann on his blog.
Van Buren disputes some of the charges, and says others were within his First Amendment rights.
Van Buren submitted his book manuscript to State Department officials for review in the fall of 2010. He heard nothing after 30 days, when the rules require reviews to be completed. When he heard nothing, he said, he assumed the book had been approved.
Shortly before it was due out last fall, the State Department wrote to the publisher and objected to three brief passages in the book officials claimed contained classified information. Van Buren says the information is widely known— such as the Central Intelligence Agency’s financial support for Iraqi intelligence agencies.
In an Oct. 21 blog post headlined “Hillary Clinton Disgraces America,” Van Buren called a “disgrace” a comment the Secretary of State made to a journalist after the death of Moammar Gaddafi. “We came, we saw, he died,” Clinton tells a CBS News reporter in a video clip he posted on his blog, showing her laughing.
Van Buren made references to Clinton’s private parts that he later removed from the posting. According to a report by the State Department, the agency put him on a watch list for the Secret Service and identified him to Clinton’s own security details as a potential threat.
“I’m a chubby 52-year-old,” Van Buren said. “I’ve never threatened anybody in my life. It’s a cheap shot.”
He called Bachmann a “Republican crazy person” in a blog post three days after the Clinton posting for saying Iraqis should reimburse the American government for its costs to “liberate” them.
The charges against him are based on a 25-page investigation of Van Buren that the State Department concluded last December. He said he was not aware of the probe until the report was provided to him with his termination notice.
Last fall, he announced plans to retire next year. He said he plans to challenge his termination.
(Note: For those interested and/or concerned, I am still technically employed by the State Department, for now, as my lawyers and I fight back against what is crude retaliation and blatant disregard for the First Amendment. For the record, the State Department’s statement that they “followed process and acted in accordance with the law” ranks with the more hilarious things ever said within Foggy Bottom. Also, unicorns fly out of my ears.
For the record, as the Washington Post claims, I must admit that I am a bit chubby but I am trying to lose some weight, maybe via stress.)
WUSA, channel 9 in Washington DC, ran an interview with me, detailing the reasons why I wrote about Iraq at the risk of my career, and shedding light on the State Department’s dirty tricks in retaliation. Twitter version: those people really can’t take a joke. Nor can they tolerate dissent.
Here’s the interview:
(If the video does not appear above, please follow this link to watch it)
WUSA also ran this excerpt from our interview. Note that it is only since I filed a complaint with the Office of the Special Counsel detailing the State Department’s retaliation toward me that State has started to comment on the record. Before the complaint, Foggy Bottom was all about “no comment.” Now, with the complaint closing in on their misdeeds, they suddenly are on the record, albeit denying any wrong doing:
FALLS CHURCH, Va. (WUSA) – Veteran Foreign Service Officer Peter Van Buren sits in his suburban Virginia home, assigned by his superiors at the State Department to online busy work while he fights the Department decision to fire him in a case that he says violates whistleblower protections that are guaranteed to federal workers who point out government wrong-doing.
“Nine months ago, I wrote a book about my experiences in Iraq called We Meant Well. It exposed tremendous waste and mismanagement in the reconstruction of Iraq. The State Department is very unhappy about that, embarrassed about that, and has taken retaliatory steps against me, trying to kick me out, throw me out of the State Department and make it all go away,” Van Buren told 9News Now.
“I came to Iraq and realized that the discrepancy between what we say we were doing and what we were doing at the risk of peoples lives, including my own, and billions of taxpayer dollars, was too wide to stand silent. The waste of lives, the waste of money was so extreme and the lies that were being told in Washington were so egregious that I decided to risk my career and speak out,” he said.
The government believes Van Buren improperly disclosed classified information.
“As far as permission is concerned, The State Department, in fact, approved my book in October of 2010 for publication, I suspect accidently or negligently, but they approved it nonetheless,” he said.
The tension between Van Buren and his employer grew worse when he started to promote the book.
“I started the blog at the publisher’s suggestion as a way to promote the book. I tried to find out first what a blog was, and then started writing it. However, as I started working on the blog, a world that was unavailable to me before opened up to me. Other people who had risked their careers as whistleblowers began contacting me, information became available to me, and I realized there was an audience that was willing to listen to some of the remarks that I had about what had happened in Iraq, and the blog grew to the popularity that it has now, and as it grew, the State Department got angrier and angrier at me, ” he said.
On his blog, Van Buren is harshly critical of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, his boss.
“Absolutely. I criticized the Secretary of State. I criticized the president and I’ve criticized other members of the State Department and the Administration, and I did that because when I signed up 24 years ago, my oath was to the constitution, not to Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama or anyone else. I’ve served under Republicans and I’ve served under Democrats, but my oath has always been to the constitution, and therefore it shouldn’t matter,” Van Buren said.
In some postings, Van Buren has been insulting to Republicans liike former Republican presidential candidate Michelle Bachman, calling her insane. In other postings, Van Buren
is so vile that his comments can not be repeated here. Those include references to Mrs. Clinton’s anatomy and sexual practices.
“Absolutely, and those statements are protected by the first Amendment. The First Amendment doesn’t have any cutouts for offensive or words you don’t like.
“My statements were made to show my disgust at the Secretary of State’s chortling over the death of Muammar Gaddafi. He was a lousy human being, no question about that, but to laugh about his death was undiplomatic,” Van Buren said.
And why was it necessary to be so profane?
“It’s necessary sometimes to cause people to pay attention. There’s so much noise out there, so much flim flam, so much huff puff, that occasionally it’s necessary to say ‘Wait a minute, you need to look at this’.
“In addition, I’ve tried by hard to separate my statements from any official statements by the State Department or by the US Government, and I suspect my use of occasional profanity, sometimes vile terms, and oftentimes sarcasm, does set it aside from anything that is official,” he said.
In private business, he concedes, those are firing offenses.
“Fair enough, but I don’t work in private business, I work for the government. I work for you, the people, and I have an obligation to tell you what goes on inside your government. If I didn’t tell you what happened in Iraq who would, who could?
“People inside the government are different. You don’t have a choice. You can go to McDonalds or you can go to Burger King. If you don’t like one company, you can shop at another, but if we don’t tell you, the people who work inside the government what’s going on, then you, the people don’t know,” he said.
“The thing that disturbs me most is the gap between what the State Department says publicly and what they’re doing to me privately.
“The Secretary of State has stood up for the rights of bloggers in Syria and Iran and China and Viet Nam while at the same time saying I, as an American citizen, don’t have my First Amendment rights because I work in her building,” he said.
“Due to privacy considerations, we cannot comment on Mr. Van Buren’s specific case, or that of any other employee, except to say that the claims of retaliation in this case are without merit. With respect to his filing a special complaint with the Office of Special Counsel, there are protections within the government for freedom of expression and for whistleblowers.
“Though we cannot speak to this case specifically, I can tell you that the State Department has followed process and acted in accordance with the law. All employees have the right to present their positions before a final decision is made by the independent Foreign Service Grievance Board, ” said Mark Toner, a Deputy Spokesman at the State Department.
If you have seen the Washington Post article explaining how the State Department is moving to fire me for writing this blog, and for criticizing the Secretary of State (and, oddly, Michelle Bachmann), before you do anything else, remember that Hillary Clinton supports the rights of people online to speak back to their governments. In fact, she said this:
No individual should be prosecuted for exercising the right to freedom of opinion and expression. Vietnam’s prosecution of individuals for expressing their views contradicts the government’s commitment to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
OK, that was bullshit, because quite obviously the State Department is prosecuting me for exercising the right to freedom of opinion and expression. No, not really: they say they’d love for me to write stuff they don’t agree with, all I need is to ask their permission first. Which… they… will… not…provide. They ignore nice blogs from inside State, however. It is the same thing in the end for me: prior restraint, shut up, don’t criticize the government and especially don’t criticize the woman who runs the same agency that says bloggers should be free.
Except in her agency, the State Department. Yeah, it’s complicated.
Many have written in to ask how you can help:
– Send an email to Hillary at DGDirect@state.gov and voice your opinion.
– Send an email, or better yet, call your Congressperson (except Michelle Bachmann). Contact info is here. Ask them to contact the State Department Congressional Liaison and request a fair hearing for me. If they wish to call, the House Liaison office is at 202-226-4642 and the Senate Liaison Office is at 202-228-1602/1603.
– If you know someone in the media who’d be interested in this story, have them contact me at info (@) wemeantwell.com
– If you’d like to give money, I am being defended by the Government Accountability Project (GAP). Donate to them, as they are helping me, and many other whistleblowers. You can donate anonymously online. NONE of the money goes to me, I don’t want it, but people keep asking about donating.
– Hillary Clinton does support bloggers who talk back to the Syrian, Chinese, Vietnamese and Iranian governments, just not her own government. If you know a way I can pretend to be a blogger from one of those places, let me know and my troubles will be solved. I prefer not having to move to Syria if I can help it.
From the US perspective, a soldier in uniform, representing the United States to the people he encounters in Afghanistan, murders sixteen people including nine children and it is called an unfortunate, isolated incident. When the US accidentally blows up sixteen Afghan civilians with a 500 pound bomb, to the US it is just another day at the office, “collateral damage.”
Meanwhile, only 36 hours after the murder of those Afghan children, the US Embassy in Kabul sends out this chirpy Tweet:
It is obvious that inside the Embassy, as witnessed by their most public of faces, that the incident is already old news.
Speaking to her collected Ambassadors, SecState Hillary Clinton said the same day without irony “Only America has the reach, resources & relationships to anchor a more peaceful and prosperous world.”
Each time one of these horrors occurs in Afghanistan, the US response is that it is an isolated incident. How many isolated incidents must accrue before we acknowledge we have a collective problem?
It is obvious to everyone in Afghanistan that the US really could care less about burning Korans, pissing on Afghan dead or even the murder of children, except perhaps as a PR issue to be managed.
That is why we lost in Afghanistan. Time, now, after twelve years of war, to call it quits.
(For those unfamiliar with the case of State Department Diplomatic Security “Special” Agent Chris Deedy, who appears to have shot and killed an unarmed man in Hawaii while on duty there for the APEC Conference, see some previous postings.)
Details on the Deedy case are harder to find than intellectuals at a Gingrich rally. However, one of our Hawaiian operatives offers up a few ideas:
– Why was Deedy charged with 2nd degree murder instead of 1st? It turns out that in Hawaii, unlike most of the other states, 1st degree murder only applies in very limited cases, with strict definitions. Under Hawaii law, second-degree murder is defined as occurring simply ‘if the person intentionally or knowingly causes the death of another person,’ while first-degree murder involves specific kinds of victims. First-degree murder would pertain to someone who intentionally or knowingly causes the death of: more than one person in the same or separate incident; a law enforcement officer, judge or prosecutor involved in the prosecution; a witness in a criminal prosecution; a person by a hired killer, in which case the killer and the person who did the hiring would be charged; or a person while the defendant was imprisoned. Deedy is being charged with 2nd degree (Hawaii Revised Statutes, HRS 707-701.5) because Elderts was not a judge, a law enforcement officer, a witness in a case, etc., and because Elderts was the only victim. It has nothing to do with Deedy’s intent or foreknowledge of Elderts.
– Federal law allows law enforcement officers to carry concealed weapons on duty or off, but one of the stipulations is that the officer absolutely may not carry when under the influence of alcohol or drugs, with one exception: if he is undercover and has to enter a bar and have a drink while investigating a suspect during an authorized investigation. Rather doubt such was the case here. I don’t think Deedy identified himself as law enforcement in the first place – if he had done so, wouldn’t they be charging him with negligent homicide rather than murder, and wouldn’t his attorney have brought it up vociferously as a defense against the charges?
– Deedy is charged with two offenses. The issue of whether Deedy was acting as law enforcement and/or whether or not he was drinking seems to be addressed by the second charge he is facing: Use of a Firearm in the Commission of a Felony, Hawaii Revised Statutes, HRS 134-21. Surely they would not have charged him with this one if they thought he was acting properly in the role of law enforcement.
As far as we know, the other details of the case remain unchanged: Deedy is still employed at the Department of State, and his trial in Hawaii is still postponed until September for reasons unknown and unspoken.
The victim’s family is also suing Deedy, a civil suit in addition to the Hawaii State charge of murder. You can see the full text of their lawsuit online as well.
Also, at least one of his neighbors likes Deedy because he is nice to his dogs; see the interview here. The neighbor also oddly identifies Deedy’s alleged Arlington, Virginia address for some reason. I guess that info is helpful if you’re looking to avoid a nearby McDonald’s at 3am.
There is a risk of anti-American feelings and protests in coming days.
I am willing to offer a bet with anyone willing to take it that no US Government official will characterize this cold blooded murder as “terrorism.” I am willing also to bet that had an Afghan killed American children and women, US Government officials would immediately characterize that cold blooded murder as “terrorism.”
I am willing to offer a bet with anyone willing to take it that US Government officials will apologize, as if that apology ends the issue (see Koran burning, peeing on Afghan dead, etc.). I am willing also to bet that had an Afghan killed American children and women US Government officials would not consider an apology the end of the issue. We’d bomb the shit out of someone in an act of vengeance.
I am willing to offer a bet with anyone willing to take it that had these Afghan children and women been killed “accidentally” by a 500 pound bomb dropped from a US warplane thousands of feet above them we would not hear much of an apology at all.
I am willing to offer a bet with anyone willing to take it that US Government officials will announce an investigation into the soldier who did the shooting, and that his ultimate punishment, if any (see Haditha) will be less than the punishment Bradley Manning will receive for his alleged Wikileaks disclosures.
Any takers on these bets, hit me up in the Comments section below.
I sat down with Professorial Lecturer at the Women & Politics Institute at American University Stephenie Foster for an interview, published on The Fair Observer. Stephenie and I talked about the military’s role in peace building:
The military is often thrust into roles it is little prepared for, simply because it has lots of people who will do what they are told (shovel snow, hand out candy, shoot to kill, etc.), all the hardware needed to move things around, and a code that says they never say “no” to an order when given one.
None of that means the military is good at every task (and they’ll be the first to admit they are not), only that they will step up when told to. The military are not diplomats, not development specialists, not democracy trainers, and not conflict resolvers. We should play to our strengths and use the military for things they can do well: provide security, handle logistics, transport personnel, and be a ready supply of labor when needed. Interface those capabilities with real development professionals and you have a very powerful tool for foreign influence. If instead you just send soldiers in to “fix everything,” well, the results are obvious.
We also discussed the state of the American Empire, and its future:
America faced a choice and blew it. As an empire, we either needed to take control of the world’s oil or create a more equitable and less martial global society to ensure our access to it. We did neither. We needed either to create a colonial system for adventures like Iraq or Afghanistan along the Victorian model, or to not invade and rebuild those places. We did neither.
Simply pouring more and more lives and money into the military is a one-way street going in the wrong direction. We can keep spending, but when the millions of dollars spent on weapons can be deflected by acts of terrorism that cost almost nothing, we will lose.
Read the entire interview online now at The Fair Observer.
A guest blog post by John W. Whitehead of the Rutherford Institute.
U.S. v. Jones: The Battle for the Fourth Amendment Continues
In a unanimous 9-0 ruling in United States v. Jones, the U.S. Supreme Court has declared that police must get a search warrant before using GPS technology to track criminal suspects. But what does this ruling, hailed as a victory by privacy advocates, really mean for the future of privacy and the Fourth Amendment?
While the Court rightly recognized that the government’s physical attachment of a GPS device to Antoine Jones’ vehicle for the purpose of tracking Jones’ movements constitutes a search under the Fourth Amendment, a careful reading of the Court’s opinion, written by Justice Antonin Scalia, shows that the battle over our privacy rights is far from over.
Given that the operable word throughout the ruling is “physical,” the ruling does not go far enough. The Court should have clearly delineated the boundaries of permissible surveillance within the context of rapidly evolving technologies and reestablishing the vitality of the Fourth Amendment. Instead, the justices relied on an “18th-century guarantee against un-reasonable searches, which we believe must provide at a minimum the degree of protection it afforded when it was adopted.”
As Justice Samuel Alito recognizes in his concurring judgment, physical intrusion is now unnecessary to many forms of invasive surveillance. The government’s arsenal of surveillance technologies now includes a multitude of devices which enable it to comprehensively monitor an individual’s private life without necessarily introducing the type of physical intrusion into his person or property covered by the ruling. Thus, by failing to address the privacy ramifications of these new technologies, the Court has done little to curb the ’s ceaseless, suspicionless surveillance of innocent Americans.
In the spirit of the Court’s ruling in US v. Jones, the following surveillance technologies, now available to law enforcement, would not require government officials to engage in a physical trespass of one’s property in order to engage in a search:
Drones—pilotless, remote-controlled aircraft that have been used extensively in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan—are being used increasingly domestically by law enforcement. Law enforcement officials promise to use drones to locate missing children and hunt illegal marijuana plants, but under many states’ proposed rules, they could also be used to track citizens and closely monitor individuals based on the mere suspicions of law enforcement officers. The precision with which drones can detect intimate activity is remarkable. For instance, a drone can tell whether a hiker eight miles away is carrying a backpack.
Surveillance cameras are an ever-growing presence in American cities. A member of the surveillance camera industry states that, “pretty soon, security cameras will be like smoke detectors: They’ll be everywhere.” The cameras, installed on office buildings, banks, stores, and private establishments, open the door to suspicionless monitoring of innocent individuals that chill the exercise of First Amendment rights. For example, the New York Police Department has adopted the practice of videotaping individuals engaged in lawful public demonstrations. The government also uses traffic cameras as a form of visual surveillance to track individuals as they move about a city. In some areas, a network of traffic cameras provides a comprehensive view of the streets. In 2009, Chicago had 1500 cameras set up throughout the city and actively used them to track persons of interest.
Smart dust devices are tiny wireless microelectromechanical sensors (MEMS) that can detect light and movement. These “motes” could eventually be as tiny as a grain of sand, but will still be capable of gathering massive amounts of data, running computations and communicating that information using two-way band radio between motes as far as 1,000 feet away. The goal for researchers is to reduce these chips from their current size of 5 mm to a size of 1 mm per side. In the near future law enforcement officials will be able to use these tiny devices to maintain covert surveillance operations on unsuspecting citizens.
RFIDs, Radio Frequency Identifications, have the ability to contain or transmit information wirelessly using radio waves. These devices can be as small as a grain of rice and can be attached to virtually anything, from a piece of clothing to a vehicle. If manufacturers and other distributors of clothing, personal electronics, and other items begin to tag their products with RFID, any law enforcement officer armed with an RFID reader could covertly search an individual without his or her knowledge.
Cell phones, increasingly, contain tracking chips which enable cellular providers to collect data on and identify the location of the user. The collected geodata is stored on the device, anonymized with a random identification number, and transmitted over an encrypted Wi-Fi network to the cell phone provider. It is reasonable to expect that government will eventually attempt to tap the troves of information maintained by these cellphone providers.
Collection of Wi-Fi Data: Recently, a professor at Stevens Institute of Technology invented for a mere $600 an aerial drone that can spy on even private Wi-Fi networks. The drone the professor created was a mere eighteen inches long. Such a device could be used to detect financial information, personal correspondence, and any other data transmitted over the wireless network. Coupled with the visual component of the aerial drones, these drones will be capable of detecting almost all intimate or personal activity.
Facial-recognition software is another tool in police forces’ surveillance arsenal in which police take a photograph of a person’s face, then compare the biometrics to other photographs in a database. Such a system can easily be placed onto the back of a smart phone and only weighs 12.5 ounces. Facial-recognition software is currently being used in conjunction with public surveillance cameras at airports and major public events to spot suspected terrorists or criminals. Cities such as Tampa have attempted to use this technology on busy sidewalks and in public places.
Iris scanners have quickly moved from the realm of science fiction into everyday public use by governments and private businesses. Iris recognition is rarely impeded by contact lenses or eyeglasses, and can work with blind individuals as well. The scanners, which have been used by some American police departments, can scan up to 50 people a minute without requiring the individuals to stop and stand in front of the scanners. The introduction of sophisticated iris scanners in a number of public locations, including train stations, shopping centers, medical centers, and banks in Leon, Mexico, is merely a foreshadowing of what is coming to the U.S. The information gathered from the scanners is sent to a central database that can be used to track any individual’s movement throughout the city.
As this list shows, the current state of technology enables government agents to monitor unsuspecting citizens in virtually any situation. One of the hallmarks of citizenship in a free society is the expectation that one’s personal affairs and physical person are inviolable so long as one conforms his or her conduct to the law. Otherwise, we are all suspects in a police state. Any meaningful conception of liberty encompasses freedom from constant and covert government surveillance—whether or not that intrusion is physical or tangible and whether it occurs in public or private. Thus, unchecked technological surveillance is objectionable simply because government has no legitimate authority to covertly monitor the totality of a citizen’s daily activities. The root of the problem is not that government is doing something inherently harmful, but rather that government is doing something it has no lawful basis to be doing.
Unfortunately, by failing to establish a Fourth Amendment framework that includes protection against pervasive electronic spying methods that are physically unintrusive and monitor a person’s activities in public, the Court has ensured that the core values within the Fourth Amendment will continue to be fundamentally undermined. New technologies which enable the radical expansion of police surveillance operations require correspondingly robust legal frameworks in order to maintain the scope of freedom from authoritarian oversight envisioned by the Framers.
Obviously, the new era of technology, one that was completely unimaginable to the men who drafted the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, requires an updated legal code to enshrine the right to privacy. The courts, first of all, must interpret the Fourth Amendment protection against unreasonable search and seizure as a check against GPS technology as well as future technologies which threaten privacy. Second, as Justice Alito recognized, “the best solution to privacy concerns may be legislative. A legislative body is well situated to gauge changing public attitudes, to draw detailed lines, and to balance privacy and public safety in a comprehensive way.” I would take that one step further and propose that Congress enact a technological Bill of Rights to protect us from the long arm of the surveillance state. This would provide needed guidance to law enforcement agencies, quell litigation, protect civil liberties including cherished First Amendment rights, and ensure the viability of the Fourth Amendment even at the dawn of a new age of surveillance technology.
Uberfurher der Obama Reich Eric Holder of course famously announced this week that the Government of the United States now asserts that it has the legal right to kill American Citizens (foreigners were always fair game) abroad when Der Furher determines said Americans are terrorists. If you have not read my renunciation of this horrific turn of events, please do read it on this blog, or at the Huffington Post.
The US-sanctioned assassinations of native-born American Citizen al Zawaki and his 16 year old American Citizen son were the unspoken centerpieces of Uberfurher Holder’s speech. Those murders were carried out using US military drones, bureaucratically assigned to CIA “control” in the air over Yemen. The illusion of CIA (i.e., civilian) control of the drones even though it was likely a pair of rugged military hands on the stick is needed to keep within the letter of the law Obama still wishes to follow, those still-secret naughty post 9/11 decrees that grant the CIA hunting rights to the entire planet. Military actions abroad require more internal US government paperwork, so whenever a drone strike will cross that bureaucratic line, they just say it was a CIA op. Indeed, the kill mission that whacked bin Laden was officially classified as a CIA op, even though the murderers were US military Seal Team 6 members in uniform. Nice to know there are still some rules, right?
Given that there are rules, albeit rules no one outside a very tight group in the Reichstag know, FBI Director Mueller’s remarks on Wednesday are very, very frightening.
Mueller, appearing before a House subcommittee, said that he simply did not know whether he could order an assassination of his own against an American here in the US. “I have to go back. Uh, I’m not certain whether that was addressed or not” and added “I’m going to defer that to others in the Department of Justice.”
Note that Mueller indeed had the option of saying flat-out “No, no, the FBI can’t order an American killed in the US” or maybe “No, even the President can’t order a hit on an American here in the US where the full judicial system, Constitution and other protections apply.”
Nope, Mueller did not say those things.
Instead, in 2012 under oath before Congress, the senior G-man of the United States, who to get his job had had to swear an oath to uphold the Constitution, was so worried about perjury that he was unable to say whether or not the US government can indeed kill, murder and otherwise assassinate one of its own Citizens inside the United States without trial.
Iraq has been free for about two months now. As idiots debate whether or not “it was worth it,” the Agency France Press (AFP) cuts to the money shot with a terse summary of the deadliest attacks in Iraq since only January:
January 5: Attacks against Shiite Muslims in Baghdad and south Iraq kill 68 people and wound more than 100.
January 14: A suicide bomber kills 53 people and wounds 137 in an attack on Shiite pilgrims on the outskirts of the southern port city of Basra.
January 27: A suicide bomber detonates an explosives-packed car at a funeral procession outside a Baghdad hospital, killing 31 people and wounding 60 others.
February 19: A suicide bomber detonates a car bomb in front of a Baghdad police academy, killing 15 people and wounding 21.
February 23: A wave of attacks nationwide, blamed on al Qaeda, kill 42 people and leave more than 250 wounded.
March 5: Suspected al Qaeda gunmen, some wearing police uniforms, and rage through the western city of Haditha in a pre-dawn shooting spree that leaves 27 policemen dead.
Even as the AFP posted this macabre list, violence in Iraq continued.
A recent wave of violence in Iraq has resulted in the kidnapping, torture, and killing of about 40 people perceived to be gay or lesbian, with the murder weapon sometimes being a concrete block to the head. The killings began in early February after an unidentified group put up posters with death threats against “adulterous individuals” in largely Shiite neighborhoods of Baghdad and Basra, reports the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission. The threats listed the targets’ names and ages, and gave them four days to change their behavior or face divine retribution.
On March 7 a car bomb attack in the Mansour neighborhood of Baghdad left three dead as the capital prepared for the Arab League summit. The same day, a suicide blast killed 14 in the predominantly Shia Turkmen city of Tal Afar. Al Jazeera summed up the continuing violence in a photo essay.
In general, don’t hug Muslim women. It offends and makes you look like a pimp.
From Maine Public Radio, an interview and some excerpts from a public speaking event. I talk about Iraq, our failures there, whistleblowers and the sad, petty reaction to my book by the State Department.
Listen to the whole broadcast online now.
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