Dave Seminara, himself a once-Foreign Service Officer, has pulled together a list of the best foreign service blogs, along with some commentary to help you sort out what might appeal to you. Dave does caution:
There’s no doubt that [Van Buren's We Meant Well] experience has had a chilling effect across the board, so visit the sites below to get the low-down on the Foreign Service lifestyle and the travel opportunities, not the dirty underbelly of how diplomacy plays out overseas.
As for his description of We Meant Well, Dave writes
You might not agree with Peter Van Buren but you will want to read his blog, which is sometimes offensive but never boring.
It is here I must take offense. I am aiming at near 100% offensive, and bristle at the accusation that I am lamely only “sometimes” offensive. Hmm. I shall have to speak to the staff about this.
Seriously, Dave is a friend of this blog and I am sure he meant well in his remarks. Check out the entire list to see what’s out there in the surviving foreign service blog universe. But hurry– these types of blogs tend to disappear at the whim of a Secretary of State who when she isn’t proclaiming freedom of speech abroad is crying out “Off with their heads!” at home.
Copyright © 2014. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity. Follow me on Twitter!
(This article was originally published on the Huffington Post, June 1, 2012)
As other parts of the Federal government begin to examine their own practices toward social media and publication review, the State Department stands alone in clinging to a 19th century model emphasizing lack of transparency and message control. That State seeks this modus in a largely unclassified world and while other agencies move toward change makes even more ripe State’s policies for a judicial challenge.
Introspection at the CIA
The CIA, for example, has begun a voluntary internal investigation into whether a process designed to screen books by former employees for classified information is wrongly and unconstitutionally being used to censor agency critics. The investigation is aimed at determining whether some redactions have been politically motivated. The target of the probe is the agency’s Publications Review Board, which is supposed to focus on whether publication of material would threaten national security interests. CIA critics said the disparities in the review process are particularly apparent in books that deal with controversial subjects, including waterboarding and other forms of “authorized” torture. (The Washington Post story on the CIA’s internal reform was of course not included in the State Department’s own internal press summary of the same day’s “Federal News.”)
Embracing Social Media in the Army
The State Department’s regulations also trail behind other government agencies, particularly the military. Military regulations concerning blogging and social media are not onerous and do not involve pre-clearance requirements. The Army encourages blogging in both official and private capacities, and has published glossy brochure-ware highlighting best practices for each. Though the Army heavily regulated military blogging briefly in 2008, it quickly reversed course. Military Law statutes, regulations, and cases available do not contain any references to pre-clearance requirements.
In fact, the Army social media guidelines are all online, in a colorful, user-friendly slideshow. They begin with the stated premise that “It is important to be as transparent as possible. As communicators, we need to be the first with the truth, whether it’s good or bad.” The emphasis in the Army guidelines is on good judgement– don’t post things online that could endanger soldiers’ lives– with not a word mentioned about the need to pre-clear (indeed, the Army emphasizes the value of social media is in its immediacy) or the requirement to say only “nice things.” Indeed, the introduction to the social media guidelines emphasizes displaying the good with the bad, with “truth” as the goal. The Army guidelines provide lots of examples and include easy-to-understand (“soldier-proof”) checklists of Do’s and Don’t's.
State Stands Alone
And then, standing alone, is the State Department.
State has its own regulations (not “guidelines”) on social media. No slick slide shows at State. The social media regs start with 15 pages of text, and begin by citing 27 Executive Orders, OMB decisions and Federal laws the user is responsible for following, including 18 U.S.C. 713 and 1017, Use of Department and Government Seals (rather than prohibiting the use of Seals and logos, as State does, the Army includes links to web-ready artwork so social media users get the images right) and whatever the Anti-Lobbying Act of 1913, is.
The secret sauce hidden in State’s hefty social media regulations is 3 FAM 4170, Official Clearance of Speaking, Writing, and Teaching. That reg is State’s requirement that all social media, even when posted as a private citizen, be pre-cleared, and that the State Department is allowed up to 30 working days to act.
That means the State Department demands of all of its thousands of employees that they seek pre-clearance for every blog post, update and Tweet, every day, 24/7. An exaggeration on my part? Sorry, no– have a look at the compliance letter I was forced to sign as a condition of employment, which specifically mentions these things even when done by an employee in his or her private capacity.
Obviously State cannot pre-clear what must add up to millions of social media utterances each week, and so it does not. In many instances when I have sought pre-clearance for a blog post on some timely matter, State simply sat on a response until, weeks later, the blog post was so irrelevant that it was not usable anymore. The law anticipated this type of government-foot-dragging-as-shadow-censorship, and in a seminal case on the free speech rights of Federal workers, stated:
But even then insistence on advance approval would raise a further question, as before-the-fact condemnation of speech raises special concerns such as undue delay-the review itself plus time needed for a speaker to secure judicial relief-and stifling of expression that in hindsight would have been viewed as harmless or not worth the enforcement effort.
Droppin’ Some Law On ‘Ya
It was actions such as this that lead the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) to assert that the State Department violated my First Amendment free speech rights and acted unconstitutionally. My attempts to clear items for publication were met with lengthy delays and periods of no contact. It was indeed such actions by the Department that often lead me to publish without preclearance so that the material was relevant to breaking news.
Want some law? Specifically on the issue of foot dragging on pre-clearance as a clever technique to kill a story, in Weaver the Court noted “if the prior review were extensive, of course, it might delay constitutionally protected speech to a time when its only relevance was to historians.” In Crue v. Aiken, the 7th Circuit found a pre-clearance directive without a schedule for the review of proposed communications problematic because nothing prevented the reviewing official from delaying approval of communications until they were no longer relevant. (Crue v. Aiken, 370 F.3d 668, 679 (7th Cir. 2004)).
In Davis v. New Jersey Dept. of Law & Pub. Safety, the NJ Superior Court recognized that “before-the-fact review and approval requirements restrict employee speech—and raise special concerns such as undue delay and stifling of expression that in hindsight may be viewed as harmless or not worth the enforcement effort.” (Davis v. New Jersey Dept. of Law & Pub. Safety, Div. of State Police, 742 A.2d 619, 628-29 (Ch. Div. 1999)). Davis citing the Supreme Court in Freedman v. State of Maryland, notes that the danger present when a regulation “is made unduly onerous, by reason of delay or otherwise, to seek judicial review, the censor’s determination may in practice be final.” (Freedman v. State of Md., 380 U.S. 51, 58, 85 S. Ct. 734, 738, 13 L. Ed. 2d 649 (1965)).
I know, I know, too heavy Doc. It took the ACLU five dense pages to spell out in legal detail all the ways the State Department social media regulations were unconstitutional and violated my First Amendment free speech rights.
So it is not as simple as some claim, broadly announcing that Federal employees give up their First Amendment rights, or that social media and the responsibilities of a classified job are incompatible. Federal employees do not give up their First Amendment rights, and there is plenty of law to substantiate that.
The bottom line is this: If the hyper-classified CIA recognizes the need for an internal review of its pre-clearance process, why doesn’t the State Department? If the military, with its obvious day-to-day operational need for secrecy and its immediate impact on soldiers’ lives, can co-exist without pre-clearance restraints on blogs, why can’t State?
Given the chance to make sane, voluntary changes to an obviously out-dated social media policy that stands outside the boundaries of other Federal agencies with a whole lot more secrets to protect, State appears ready to instead insist on having those changes dictated to it by a court. That is an expensive, and in this case, unnecessary way to change out-dated regulations.
Copyright © 2014. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity. Follow me on Twitter!
The Department of State, which apparently does not care whether anyone actually believes what they say, said this:
At the Human Rights Council (HRC), the United States has consistently placed special emphasis on the protection and promotion of the freedoms of expression, peaceful assembly and association, because we understand that these fundamental freedoms are essential to facilitating the exercise of other universal rights.
As activity in the economic, social, and the political realms gravitates from the offline world to the online world, we have an additional responsibility to ensure that human rights and fundamental freedoms are not eroded simply because they are being exercised in the digital realm. The United States is committed to the principle that the same rights that people have offline must also be protected in the online world.
Now, Welcome to My World
Imagine a world where your emails, web browsing, Facebook and Twitter are monitored, where you are threatened with prosecution at work, where government agents dig through your credit report and ask your neighbors and officemates for “dirt” (some, scared, try to supply it), and where sudden “compelled” interrogations shatter your life. Imagine being jerked out of your job of 24 years and placed on a Secret Service Watch List for publicly criticizing a government official, and then allowed back to work only in a capacity designed to humiliate you, and send a message to others to remain silent.
Welcome to my world.
Since writing a book and beginning this blog, all of the things listed above have happened to me, here, in the United States, and all done by my employer, the Department of State. The same organization that speaks out for the rights of bloggers in Syria, offers sanctuary to dissidents in China and promotes web freedom in Iran, has used all of the security tools at its disposal to silence a minor critic within its own ranks.
Mine is a simpler version of the current Administration’s war on whistleblowers. It illustrates the way that the government uses the tools of security to silence dissent and punish whistleblowers. As those tools continue to increase in power, and as the definition of troublemaker continues to expand, it is safe to say you might be next.
For me, it began simply enough, with my book We Meant Well that chronicled my experiences leading two State Department Provincial Reconstruction Teams in Iraq, supposedly helping to reconstruct that country after years of war, hearts and minds stuff. Instead, I found a vast sinkhole in the desert, filling with American money while my bosses sought propaganda pictures and feel-good stories to bump up their own chances of promotion.
What is revealing about my case is not so much that the government has renewed zero tolerance for dissent (the Obama Administration has begun prosecutions under the 1917 Espionage Act against twice as many whistleblowers as all previous administrations combined), but that the tools used to silence that dissent are all security-related. Slightly more benign in practice (for now), in theory this is little different than the Soviets executing dissidents as spies after show trials or the Chinese using their courts to legally confine thinkers they disapprove of in mental institutions. Turn the volume up and you’ve jumped from vengeance to totalitarianism. It appears that America’s goal is to become East Germany.
On Becoming East Germany
It has become common wisdom within the Department of State that when senior officials want to deep six an employee for no officially allowable reason (i.e., writing a book and blogging in my case), they turn the case over to their internal police, the Bureau of Diplomatic Security (DS). Originally created to protect diplomats overseas, DS has emerged in recent years more as a new world Stasi, with greater and greater emphasis on its internal security function over its traditional, more benevolent, role.
In my case, DS was supposedly summoned first because of an accusation (made by the Human Resources office) that a link on my blog to another web site displaying Wikileaks documents constituted a breach of security. As absurd as the accusation was (if linking was the standard of guilt the whole Internet stands accused), it was good enough internally to invoke DS doing a deep dive into my life in search of “evidence” to terminate me. Once that door was opened, DS commenced forensic analysis of my computers, the aforementioned monitoring and three separate interrogations, a total of six hours in a windowless room with a good cop and a bad cop crudely hammering away. The tools of security are many: DS claimed my interrogations were “compelled” as a condition of employment and thus took place without the Fifth Amendment protection against self incrimination. When I refused to answer their questions about charities I donate to, medicines I take or my finances, they charged me with impeding an investigation and “lack of candor.” In a perfect Catch-22, one can either incriminate oneself, or be punished for not incriminating oneself.
Your, er, my choice.
Handling personnel problems using security tools has other advantages for the government. The official Report of Investigation in my case contains significant redactions, as if parts of my own life cannot be revealed to me. Facts can be hidden from Freedom of Information Act requests and even court-ordered discovery in the name of “security,” and thus manipulated to document pre-determined outcomes. What is called an investigation morphs into an indictment, where the goal is to keep fishing until something, anything, comes up. Actions by Diplomatic Security at the State Department occur without any independent review, and are largely not appealable to the Courts. Diplomatic Security, unlike its counterparts at the Department of Defense and other agencies, even refuses to use the “substantial evidence standard” mandated by the Administrative Procedures Act.
As another commenter put it, “That freedom from oversight (the quo) is the plausible deniability factor that allows the State Department to use every dirty trick imaginable to terminate anyone, deserved or not (the quid). Diplomatic Security leadership gets the kind of absolute power that the corrupt enjoy absolutely, in exchange for using that power, when desired, to eliminate the problem employee of the day.”
Gay Bashing as Precedent
The use of security as the bully boy at the State Department is not new. Sad precedent shows that security investigations were used regularly up until about 1992 at State to out gay and lesbian employees. It began with a McCarthy-era campaign known as the “Lavender Scare” in which more than 1000 State Department employees suspected of being gay or lesbian lost their jobs even as the US also pressured United Nations and NATO allies into joining the campaign. The thought in those days was that hidden sexuality made one vulnerable to blackmail, while of course being openly gay made one unsuitable for employment, another Catch-22. Hundreds of men and women lived false lives in fear, sometimes labeling partners as domestic servants to hide relationships from Diplomatic Security. A well-known very senior official traveled with her partner on the manifest as a “valet” to keep the fiction alive. Whispered accusations of homosexuality to DS ruined many careers.
The seminal example of use of security at State to destroy bothersome employees comes from the 1950’s, again during the dark McCarthy years. John Paton Davies, in a new autobiography called China Hand, tells of his own termination from the State Department. Davies was one of a generation of brilliant scholars and diplomats known collectively as the “China Hands” during WWII. He predicted that Mao would win the Chinese Civil War and advocated better relations with Communist China to counter Soviet influence. Davies, of course, was prescient in his advice, though being right did not save him. Instead, for his views counter to popular policy that saw all Communist countries as a caliphate, Davies faced nine Diplomatic Security investigations between 1948 and 1954, all of which failed to produce any evidence of wrongdoing. Nevertheless, in 1954, under political pressure from Senator Joe McCarthy, the gutless Secretary of State John Foster Dulles asked Davies to resign. Davies refused, and Dulles terminated him, claiming he had “demonstrated a lack of judgment, discretion and reliability,” charges that curiously echo the ones against me for poor judgment, lack of candor and mishandling classified material I never once handled.
In the topsy-turvy world that now is our new reality, the Obama administration charged former CIA officer John Kiriakou under the Espionage Act after he blew the whistle on the waterboarding of al-Qaeda suspects and refused to participate in torture. His sociopathic CIA counterpart, Jose Rodriguez, meanwhile, is proudly promoting a new book in which he brags about torturing the same people and gloats over destroying the video evidence of his actions. The Espionage Act itself favored by the Obama people harkens back to dark times in American history, having been used against the government’s political opponents. Targets included labor leaders and radicals like Eugene V. Debs, Bill Haywood, Philip Randolph, Victor Berger, John Reed, Max Eastman, and Emma Goldman. Debs, a union leader and socialist candidate for the presidency, was, in fact, sentenced to ten years in jail for a speech attacking the Espionage Act itself.
The First Amendment
To understand what this all means, it is important to take a step back. Here’s the First Amendment, in full:
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
Those beautiful words are the sparse poetry of the American democratic experiment. The Founders purposely wrote the First Amendment to read broadly, and not like a snippet of tax code, in order to emphasize that it should encompass everything from shouted religious rantings to eloquent political criticism. The Founders would retch to see what has become of the spirit of the Enlightment that drove them, simply because America got frightened after 9/11. Our nation was founded by bigger men, to be stronger than to casually throw away hard-won rights.
The effect of all these security-as-bully-boy-personnel-tactics is to chill free speech within government. Government is different than private business. If you don’t like McDonald’s because of its policies, go to Burger King, or eat at home. You don’t get the choice in governments, and so the critical need for employees to be able to speak informs the Republic. We are the only ones who can tell you what is happening inside your government. It really is that important.
James Madison understood these dangers, and warned “The means of defense against foreign danger historically have become the instruments of tyranny at home.” As the tools of security increase in quality and quantity, and the courts continue to pay false deference to anything tagged as “security related,” the line between actions directed against enemies abroad and perceived enemies at home continues to blur. Many of the illegal things Richard Nixon did to the famous Pentagon Papers whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg are now both legal under the Patriot Act and far easier to accomplish with new technologies. There is no need, for instance, to break into anyone’s psychiatrist’s office looking for dirt, as happened to Ellsberg, when the National Security Agency can penetrate your doctor’s electronic records as easily as you can read this page. The use of those security tools expands, from true enemies of the state to bothersome employees of State.
Yes, welcome to my world indeed. Criticize any government you like, as long as it isn’t the one at home.
Copyright © 2014. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity. Follow me on Twitter!
Alec Ross will introduce himself to you as an “innovator.” A close confidant of Hillary Clinton and a veteran of the 2008 Hope and Change Obama charade, instead of finding a job he got himself appointed as the State Department’s “guru” (their word, not mine) of social media. Alec just loves social media; he so “gets it” so darn much that he can’t stop himself from advising the State Department about having more social media. It is what he does.
For today’s lesson in public diplomacy at the State Department, we feature one of Alec’s own Tweets, crafted by the hand of the master himself:
If Alec would ever answer my emails, Tweets or Facebook messages (I guess he is just so busy, right?), here’s what I’d like to ask:
What is the freaking point of this Tweet? Are you working on the Ben Franklin campaign now?
Where can I get a “Fact o’ the Day” desk calendar like you have so I can make Tweets like this?
Why did thirty people “retweet” this, sending a pointless message to others. Are they all on your staff? Why do you have such a big staff?
Or do you have 30 dummy accounts you control?
When Time Magazine named @AlecRoss one of the best Twitter feeds of 2012, did they have their head up their ass or is there some other Alec Ross Twitter feed they looked at? Does it cost a lot of money to buy your way on to those kind of lists and can you use Paypal?
Would it be possible to convince you to say stand on the roof in a thunder storm this weekend with wet feet and try and repeat Franklin’s historic experiment? You know, for science and all.
In addition to the ACLU, the Government Accountability Project, the Project on Government Oversight and others chastising the Department of State for hypocritically supporting web freedom abroad while planning to fire me here at home for writing this blog, former US Ambassador to Mozambique and Peru Dennis Jett now joins the growing list of prominent critics.
Ambassador Jett writes:
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton forcefully intervened recently on behalf of Chen Guancheng, the blind Chinese dissident, who has been hounded by his government for criticizing official policy. It’s too bad she won’t afford the same consideration to the employees of her own department.
Secretary Clinton has made defending the kind of freedom of expression that Chen tried to practice one of the hallmarks of her time in office. In a speech at the Newseum in Washington in early 2010, she insisted citizens must have the right to criticize their governments not just in the public square, but also in blogs, emails, social networks, text messages and other new forums for exchanging ideas. Governments should not attempt to censor or limit such activity she asserted, noting proudly that the State Department was working in more than 40 countries to help individuals silenced by oppressive governments.
Why, then, is the State Department trying to silence one of its employees for remarks it does not like and attempting to criminalize his exercise of freedom of speech? The book and a blog by Van Buren were apparently more freedom-of-expression than the State Department could tolerate however.
The chilling effect on State Department employees of such a blatant attempt to silence unwelcome opinions is apparently not limited to Van Buren’s case. The American Foreign Service Association, the professional association of the Foreign Service, gives four annual awards each to recognize employees who have “exhibited extraordinary accomplishment involving initiative, integrity, intellectual courage and constructive dissent.” In three of the last four years, there has been no winner of the award for either junior officers or senior officers.
Read Ambassador Jett’s full article online now.
Today’s Washington Post featured a story on how the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has continued to support my case that the Department of State has continued to violate my First Amendment rights by moving to fire me because of this blog. You can read the entire story here.
The State Department puts together an overnight, internal-use only media summary for busy diplomats to read first thing in the morning as a way of quickly knowing what happened whilst they acquired their beauty sleep. Though the summary features most every story about the Department from the Washington Post, inexplicably today’s WaPo piece about the ACLU was omitted. One day the State Department will realize that its lame efforts to control every message only end up making them look dumber and dumber all the time. That day is, however, not today.
I was very gratified to see that the nation’s premier authority on free speech, the ACLU, studied the State Department’s actions and, in five pages of legal analysis, concluded unambiguously that the Department of State acted unconstitutionally and violated my First Amendment rights.
The ACLU didn’t just say that government employees retain their free speech rights, it laid out the legal doctrine behind that statement in great detail. This helps not only me, but also every other US government employee out there who still believes his/her oath is to the Constitution, and is not some silly loyalty pledge designed to hide their agency’s dirty laundry.
The State Department may still fire me, but they now are on notice that the issues they will fire me for will not go away. Ultimately, State’s actions against the Constitution will need to be judged not by their own misguided ideas but by a court.
It is also a shame that the State Department, the part of the US government directly charged with speaking abroad about America’s democracy and freedoms, feels it necessary to deny its own employees those same freedoms. It weakens the institution, and it weakens the State Department’s own credibility overseas.
Who knows, maybe the Chinese government will step in and demand the US recognize my rights as a citizen?
Holding one of her endless signature “Town Hall Meetings,” this time on the role of enhancing civil society, Secretary Clinton stated (apparently without irony as she is programmed to do):
Each time a reporter is silenced or an activist is threatened it doesnt strengthen government, it weakens a nation… We have to continue making the case for respect, tolerance, openness, which are at the root of sustainable democracy.
Meanwhile, in a parallel universe, The American Conservative said:
The American Civil Liberties Union has weighed in on the case of Peter Van Buren, saying his [planned] firing from the State Department this year is unconstitutional, as it violates his First Amendment right to free speech “and creates the appearance of impermissible retaliation for Mr. Van Buren’s criticism of the State Department.”
So what is it about Van Buren’s writings that the U.S government fears so much? In plain language and with honesty, Van Buren was able to open a window into the Iraq War policy that very few, if any, had been able to do before.
“I’ll be gone one way or the other soon enough,” said Van Buren, “but there will be another blogger and another author and another employee unafraid to speak out coming up behind me…The government thinks they can bully us, but not when we stick together and fight back. That’s a good thing about America.”
To be continued.
In other news, Obama’s Nobel Peace Prize statue momentarily became alive, and immediately tried to commit suicide by jumping off a high shelf. After having it thrashed, Obama then ordered that it be melted down and re-manufactured in Hellfire missile parts.
Peter B. Collins Radio Show (West Coast, California and Pacific NW)
The Pulse Morning Show (Maine, New England)
Maybe I should drink less (or maybe drink more, I’ll try it both ways), but the blog Diplopundit seems to say what I think more articulately than I can muster.
Writing about the recent controversy where the State Department dropped, then after protests and a critical WaPo story, quickly restored a blog from its favored list because the author discussed her own battle with breast cancer, Diplopundit draws out the obvious issue still on the table: why am I still being fired by State for my blog?
I don’t know the other blog’s author, Jen, personally, but I do read her stuff. Her topic put State into an easy position– no one can be against a breast cancer survivor’s story, and the decision to drop her was so obviously boneheaded that the easy right thing was to make amends. To its credit, the State Department did that and even threw in an apology. Instead of looking like a mean old dog, State came off looking, well, human. The nipple story will fade away, lessons learned.
No one banned Jen from the building, pulled her security clearance, chastised her for talking to the Post, put her on security watch lists, threw her out of her job or embarked on a months’ long series of personnel actions. Sadly, of course, the Department is finalizing my termination ahead of my planned retirement in September. Along the way the ACLU is involved, the Office of the Special Counsel is investigating, the Government Accountability Project is defending me and a lot of media have done stories unfavorable to the State Department’s reputation.
The harder right is me, or after I get fired, the next State Department blogger who is not evergreen. It is easy to see the correct answer in Jen’s case; in mine, well, sometimes my writing offends. Sometimes it offends because I bring up unpleasant truths like the atrocious waste and mismanagement of State’s Iraq reconstruction projects, sometimes because I call out State on it hypocritical attitudes and practices, sometimes because I use potty language and sometimes because I shock and offend to get your attention, or because something has angered me. Sometimes it just happens because people get offended easily these days.
The point is that almost everyone who reads this blog has found things to disagree with, in substance, style or commonly both. It is much harder then to step back and say “but the point is he has a right to say it.” With Jen, and meaning no disrespect, we never have to confront that tough question. She writes pleasantly about serious topics seriously. I don’t always do that. Myself, I would not burn the flag in protest, but I accept with a lump in my throat that other people must be allowed to do so. Wide boundaries to the left and the right create the middle.
Diplopundit paraphrases Chomsky in his article:
If you believe in freedom of speech, you believe in freedom of speech even for views you don’t like.
Mr. Van Buren’s late and sudden non-adherence to a shared social code of Foreign Service life never to wash dirty laundry in public, and for crossing the boundaries of polite expression so valued in the diplomatic service makes him an FSO-non grata in most parts of the Foreign Service community. But if the members of the community are only willing to defend the views that they like, wouldn’t they, too, be guilty of censorship by consensus?
People write to me all the time saying some version of “Why don’t you quit if you don’t like the rules?” or “You should know you don’t have free speech rights if you work for the government.” The latter question was answered conclusively by the ACLU, in five dense, concise pages of legal explanation adding up to yes, government employees do indeed have free speech rights.
As for rules, what State has on the books are actually not bad as a start, if they were enforced fairly, equitably and without the behind the scenes adverse actions. The rules as they exist are good at what the rules should do– no classified info, no insider info on contracts, etc– but what State wants to do is control the message, the content, of every blog, Tweet and post, and that is neither practical nor Constitutional.
As for the former question of why don’t I just quit, we hang together, or we will hang separately. Free speech is not just for what you want to hear; you don’t need rights for that. I’ll let Diplopundit respond for me:
One could vigorously argue that if you don’t like the free speech restrictions imposed on you, then you can find a job elsewhere. I imagine that’s a similar argument given to women who complained of discrimination not too long ago and we know how that turned out.
In a statement to the Washington Post, State Department spokesman Mark C. Toner said the censored Foreign Service blog that addressed one breast cancer survivor’s story “has been restored” on the State Department’s recruitment page. “It had been taken down as part of a periodic effort by a contractor to review and freshen the blog links on the site.”
Does this mean I’m still getting fired for my blog? My story was also in the Washington Post but I am being punished, not rewarded, for the interview I gave.
It sure seems the primary difference between the blogs you endorse and mine is simply the content; judging based on what I write is why the ACLU admonished the Department for violating my first amendment rights. The current “Nipple-gate” story just enforces that.
Can I haz my job pleaz?
Don’t bury the lede: The State Department disowned a blog by a Foreign Service officer’s spouse because it discussed her own struggle with breast cancer instead of the happy traveling tales they seek.
I’m sure by now you’ve seen the ACLU statement, which basically says the State Department rules on blogs and free speech would not withstand a Constitutional challenge, and that my First Amendment rights were violated. In support of me, the ACLU did a deep dive into the books, and found State’s regulations wanting, particularly as they apply to new media/social media.
I am not the only Foreign Service blogger out here, of course. There are hundreds of us. In fact, to cozy up to “young people” who are considering a career in the Foreign Service, State even links to some illegal Foreign Service blogs on its own US Government web page. Have a look! Linking to those blogs is an attempt to show that the State Department is a “with it” place to work, a “groovy gig” for “teens” who Twitter or something.
Some are More Equal Than Others
Now the question is of course why are some blogs that violate the rules quite officially accepted by the State Department, and why are other blogs that violate the rules (mine!) fodder to get the author fired. It seems to have something to do with content; if what you write fits State’s agenda, you can break the rules all you want. You don’t even have to update– one linked blog hasn’t been touched for over a year but since it paints a happy-rosy picture of our 51st state in Iraq, it is all OK.
Since State refuses to join the current century and update its social media guidelines, and since writing down “we’ll screw you if you cross us” would not help attract job candidates, we in the blogosphere are forced to identify the boundaries by bumping into them, like walking through the house in the dark.
Cancer is Not Allowed
A new boundary at State is nipples. Can’t talk about them. Or breast cancer, don’t talk about that either. One long time Foreign Service blogger, Jen, was dumped from the official list of good blogs by the Department of State. She received an email from State explaining why:
Hopefully, you can understand that some topics covered in your blog are very personal in nature, e.g. nipple cozies, and wouldn’t necessarily resonate with the majority of potential candidates who are interested in learning about the FS life overseas. Through our years of recruitment experience, we found that FS prospects want to learn more about the work that’s conducted, the people and cultures with whom they will interact, the travel experiences, and the individual stories our employees have to share.
Jen’s response was straightforward:
So you mean describing stories about life after a diagnosis of breast cancer while your FS husband is serving in Iraq on an unaccompanied tour 6,219 miles away is not an individual story? You mean detailing how you got through said issue, how you managed to pick yourself up off the floor each day despite feeling like your world had completely fallen apart (oh, wait, it had) and managed to somehow dust yourself off and keep going with your Foreign Service life is of no interest? Guess that means I am the *only* one who will ever have to deal with such a thing.
The fact that we ended up doing a second unaccompanied tour? Booooring. Or that I had what, 4 surgeries in the past 18 months (scheduled AROUND my husband’s most recent posting, so that he would be able to complete his obligations?)? Um, hello, that’s *too* personal, repugnant even!
So, as a public service, all State Department personnel should in their blogs a) not mention nipples; b) pretend everything is as happy as pooping out unicorns and gold dust and c) tell spunky stories of adventure abroad so that gullible young people will continue to join the ranks of we few, we happy few.
Meanwhile, Hilary Clinton’s State Department will continue to pretend to support breast cancer awareness when it has propaganda value, while hoping any of her employees or their family members afflicted with the disease will just shut the hell up.
And to bring it all full circle, the State Department censored Jen’s blog about her breast cancer the day after they got the ACLU letter talking about first amendment rights.
A comment on the story below of the ACLU’s support of free speech for federal employees humorously remarked
The State Department has classified the ACLU letter and issued a warning to its busy workers in the hive not to read the letter: “federal employees and contractors who believe they may have inadvertently accessed or downloaded this letter without prior authorization, should contact their information security offices for assistance.”
Well, fiction became reality as the State Department has stooped to a new low, censoring comments on the ACLU from a purely internal discussion Intranet forum.
Hillary Clinton initiated something at State called the “Sounding Board,” a forum available to State Department employees only on the internal Intranet. It is not available to the public. Clinton described the initiative as
I ask you to apply the same robust diplomacy and engagement inside this building and at other posts across the world, a willingness to discuss and debate, to be open-minded, forward-thinking, to share better ideas, better methods, better ways of executing the very difficult tasks confronting us.
And inaugurated the forum with the vision statement that it
Afford employees the opportunity to provide feedback on management ideas, programs, and initiatives, Promote open debate and discussion on innovation and reform, Foster discourse between employees and the Department’s senior leadership.
My Contribution to the Sounding Board
So it seemed to me that the world’s premier free speech advocate, the ACLU, declaiming that the State Department’s regulations blocking blogging and the first amendment rights of its employees were unconstitutional, might be of interest to other employees, and that the need to discuss changing those regulations is real. I posted this comment on the internal forum with links:
The ACLU, in reviewing State’s preclearance policies in relation to my case, has found them to be unconstitutional and to exercise unjustified restraint. Now, the question is, will the Department change, or again have to be forced to change?
Ok, right? No naughty words, nothing inflammatory. And so State censored it, deleted it, disappeared it so that no employee could see it, based on an anonymous accusation. Accusations at State are always made anonymously. Here’s what the moderator said
The Sounding Board wasn’t designed to handle individually-specific cases, or cases that are under formal review of any sort. Our publishing guidelines state this, but more honestly, there are issues that are much bigger than our two moderators can handle. And yours is one of them. We have to let the procedures set in place, that you’re exercising, run their course.
What it Means
The State Department now has fallen to the level of censoring its own discussion forum specifically designed to “promote open debate and discussion on innovation and reform.” They want to disappear ideas that they don’t agree with. I’ve resubmitted the comment in hopes that the Stasi at State are down at Starbucks and it’ll slip through. Jeez, grow a pair, will ya’?
State, to their credit, has now allowed a modified version of my comment online, with a note that discussion of my specific case will not be allowed.
OK, cool. I don’t really care that employees talk about me (though they are welcome). My case itself is getting plenty of media and attention beyond the internal Sounding Board. My point is to discuss the use of social media by employees, and the ACLU statement is significant. I don’t recall in my own 24 years too many other instances where some of State regulations have been labeled unconstitutional. Social media will continue to grow, and the Department needs realistic, clear rules that are applied uniformly. Without them, you have the chaos that I have participated in for the past year or so. That does no one any good.
State dragged its feet on the treatment of women and African Americans, and suffered for it. State took the lead on rights for LGBT employees and has profited from it. State should step up on the issue of social media and let itself be seen as a model of the free speech it advocates worldwide.
(This article also appeared on the Huffington Post, May 17, 2012)
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), in a letter to the Department of State, said today that the Department’s actions against my book and this blog are unconstitutional, that State’s actions “constitute a violation of Van Buren’s constitutional rights.”
Straight up, no qualifiers.
The ACLU reminds the State Department that the Courts have said that “Speech concerning public affairs is more than self-expression, it is the essence of self-government” and citing the numerous legal challenges the State Department has willfully ignored that grant government employees the same First Amendment rights all Americans enjoy.
Which is what we’ve been saying all along, here, in the New York Times, on NPR, CNN and elsewhere.
After reviewing the State Department’s policies and regulations, the ACLU states that “The State Department’s pre-publication review process, as it applies to blogs and articles raises serious Constitutional questions,” then goes on to detail those questions. The ACLU notes that State’s actions toward me are but one example of its unconstitutional actions and apply to other employees as well. They conclude that “it is highly unlikely that the State Department could sustain its burden of demonstrating that its policy is constitutional… There is no justification for such expansive prior restraint on State Department employees’ speech.”
Now them’s fightin’ words, folks.
Read the entire letter on the ACLU’s website. It is powerful stuff.
What It Means
The ACLU’s announcement that the Department of State has violated the Constitutional rights, the First Amendment rights, of one of its own employees comes to the day, 225 years later, that the Constitutional Convention opened in Philadelphia and the founders began writing an extraordinary document. The First Amendment was added later, but the spirit of free speech underlies every clause and sentence of the original document. It is embedded in the very parchment.
The Founders would retch to see what has become of the spirit of the Enlightment that drove them, simply because America got frightened after 9/11. Those beautiful words of the First Amendment, almost haiku-like, are the sparse poetry of the American democratic experiment. The Founders purposely wrote the First Amendment to read broadly, and not like a snippet of tax code, in order to emphasize that it should encompass everything from shouted religious rantings to eloquent political criticism. Madison and Jefferson were strong enough to give away the power of a government they would run, and place it in the hands of the people that government would serve. There’s courage most of us can never fully understand.
Now, very sadly, our first Cabinet agency, the Department of State, the part of the US government that speaks most directly to people abroad about freedom and democracy, is run by much smaller men and women. They are afraid of their own employees and afraid of what you– The People– will know the way they go about their wretched business. Hillary Clinton, herself a candidate to take over the seat once held by giants like Jefferson, Adams and Madison, has turned her internal security against a blog, and ordered her frightened followers to get rid of one employee because of a book. Her acts now have a label that will follow her and her Department long past my departure: Unconstitutional.
Every fluffy speech she makes to Syrian bloggers, or Chinese dissenters, will carry an asterisk– but Madame Secretary, as you criticize oppressive regimes for shutting down free speech, didn’t you order your own followers to silence a critic? Didn’t your Department act unconstitutionally? Are your actions somehow different than Bejing’s?
Did not you violate, willfully, clearly and repeatedly Madame Secretary the First Amendment rights of an American Citizen? How will you answer them Madame Secretary? Will you lie? Will you defame the ACLU? Will you apply your own legal skills to the analysis of your wrongs? Mumble about a disgruntled employee? Or will you remain silent?
Of course the State Department has not responded to all this. They have not answered me, they have not answered your letters and emails, they have not answered Members of Congress and they have not answered the ACLU. Why not? There is the ACLU letter, five dense pages of legal justification that leads to the core statement:
State’s actions constitute a violation of Van Buren’s constitutional rights.. That is the issue. Now, finally, Madame Secretary, how will you answer?
Thank you for coming in Mr. Van Buren. Image Consultants, Inc. was founded to assist people in your situation, so you’ve come to the right place.
To begin, we think that you’ve lost touch with your true narrative. You need to get back in touch with what your core story is all about. We understand the temptations—the Playgirl photo shoot was probably a fun tie-in to your blog pieces, but in the end things like that just hurt you. You can’t turn against the very people who read your blog. Yes, yes, I know God made you that way, but hanging it out in public isn’t where you want to be right now. Sometimes it is OK to not say everything that is in your head. Maybe, quite often it is OK. Try an avoid the obvious train wrecks, yes?
I think however you do need to reconsider the State Department’s offer. After all, you’ve spent a good portion of your adult life there, and working for Alec Ross is not a bad career move at this stage. Yes, we know it would be as his “Special Assistant Valet” responsible primarily for dispensing hair gel, but a year or two isn’t that long in a hardship assignment like that, and look how well your last hardship tour turned out for you! We’ve heard he usually lets his assistants watch him review the Tweet drafts sent up to him by his writing staff, so that is a bonus.
Now, looking ahead, we’ve run some numbers. Your book has sold well among your extended family, with some decent sales in the Ikea niche market. Apparently the cover art colors pairs well with their Speigleflugfluf collection and people have been buying multiple copies to decoratively fill up their shelves. Our research suggests if you can cut about 40 pages from the next edition you’ll increase sales to Ikea by 10-15%, assuming no color changes to the cover of course. Turns out it won’t matter which 40 pages you cut, so we’ll recommend taking out the parts that aren’t funny. That shouldn’t be too hard, yes?
Looking ahead, let’s sift through some of the offers. I see you’ve taken our advice and stopped returning calls to Lindsey Lohan, good. Assuming you do not go with the Alec Ross gig, we feel the offer from Trader Joe’s is probably your best bet. They are ready to give up on the no blogging rule as long as you avoid talking about competitor’s prices and you do get the free Hawaiian shirt to wear at work plus the employee discount. That other offer—whistleblower at NBA games—seems sexy and cool but our polling says the $8 an hour you’ll make at Trader Joe’s will eclipse your book earnings after only two days. Kind of a sure thing.
Anyway, I know you have to run to put in some telework OT, but think it over and we’ll talk more. We’ve got the Gingrich account coming in for a makeover any minute now…
While the State Department continues to prohibit me from working at my capacity because they do not like what I have written, the rest of the world looks on wondering how such an institution can be so petty, so hypocritical, so false in its calls for internet freedom.
NPR “All Things Considered” interviewed me about the situation:
Without his security clearance, Van Buren will likely be forced into retirement by the end of the year. But he says the trouble he’s been through was worth it.
“The story that people were hearing back home was not the story of what we were doing there on the ground,” he says.
Van Buren says he realized that this was a story that needed to be told, particularly as he watched the program in Iraq being folded up, packed up and shipped off to Afghanistan, where in fact the same process is going on right now.
“When I go home and turn on the news and listen to the Secretary of State claiming that the rights of bloggers in China need to be respected, that journalists in Syria have a right to speak back to their government … and at the same time, the same Secretary of State’s organization is seeking to oust me, to destroy me, to push me out of it,” he says, “I realize that that level of hypocrisy needs to be answered.”
Find out more about the hypocrisy of your government by listening to the full interview, now online.
The New American quotes ABC News’ Jake Tapper, the reporter that raised the whistleblower cases at a White House press conference. Tapper said “it’s not like they are instances of government employees leaking the location of secret nuclear sites. These are classic whistle-blower cases that dealt with questionable behavior by government officials or its agents acting in the name of protecting America.”
The New York Times also weighed in on the issue of government retaliation against whistleblowers:
The majority of the recent prosecutions seem to have everything to do with administrative secrecy and very little to do with national security.
In case after case, the Espionage Act has been deployed as a kind of ad hoc Official Secrets Act, which is not a law that has ever found traction in America, a place where the people’s right to know is viewed as superseding the government’s right to hide its business.
Indeed, the paper noted the irony that while former CIA Officer John Kiriakou is being prosecuted aggressively merely for leaking some information about waterboarding to journalists, “none of the individuals who engaged in or authorized the waterboarding of terror suspects have been prosecuted.”
The New American adds:
The administration doesn’t always rely on prosecution to teach whistleblowers a lesson. It has other ways of retaliating against them, as Foreign Service Officer Peter Van Buren learned when he wrote the book We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People. Van Buren is still employed by the State Department, but he has been stripped of his security clearance, transferred to what he calls “a meaningless telework position,” threatened with prosecution, and otherwise harassed. As a result, he writes, “a career that typically would extend another 10 years will be cut short in retaliation for [his] attempt to tell the truth about how taxpayer money was squandered in Iraq.”
The story of whistleblower retaliation also was featured on the Daily Kos, which included this quote from my NPR “All Things Considered” interview:
And I find that, yes, it is worth it, it was worth it, and it will be worth it to answer that level of hypocrisy and demand from that Secretary of State, Madam, why is your institution not allowing me the same rights that you’re bleating about for bloggers around the world? Why not here at home?
After months of cheap shots, bully boy retaliation, McCarthy-tactics and a damn cold shoulder, the Department of State finally responded to my book and blog. It was a wimpy, written response from the weekend spokesperson pulled away from delivering the weather and sports news to my interview on NPR, but a response nonetheless.
Let’s reprint the State Department’s response in its entirety and break it down:
The State Department values the opinions of its employees and encourages expression of differing viewpoints and is committed to fairness in the workplace. There are many examples of employees publishing articles and books in their private capacity that do not reflect Department views.
Yeah, right. I call bullshit. It would be cool if they would cite one published book besides mine critical of the State Department written by an active duty, employed Foreign Service Officer. I say they can’t because there isn’t one. And since they said “many” and “books,” let’s have more than one example please. Put up or shut up State.
At the same time, the Department of State has an obligation to ensure that official information is released in an authorized and appropriate manner, that classified and other protected material is not improperly disclosed, and that the views an employee expresses in his or her private capacity are not attributed to the U.S. government.
Actually, I agree with this.
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? Even if that is true, about when was State planning on releasing anything about the failure of the PRT program in Iraq? The only thing I have seen is a crude propaganda video about how wonderful the PRT program was.
Can State point to any classified information I have disclosed? Way back in October, the State Department’s Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Pubic Affairs Dana Smith claimed I revealed classified CIA info in my book. She sent a public unclassified fax to my New York publisher listing the alledged classified info (Doh!). That was that; we never heard back from Smith, the FBI, the Justice Department or the CIA on that made-up bunch of garbage howler.
And a link to Wikileaks counts as disclosing classified info, as State has claimed, even though the linked document is still on the web and has been quoted in several newspapers before me, and even though when I asked if I should take the link down State said not to?
Lastly, is there anyone anywhere who thinks this blog, with its daily flow of sarcasm, offensive criticism, swear words, evil clown photos, Simpsons references and sad attempts at humor might be confused with an official US Government statement? Even if the owned-by-the-People State Department seal appears? And lastly, for the deeply confused, the State Department recommended disclaimer appears below each of these blog posts. Duh.
The point is this: I agree with the State Department on these restrictions. I agree so much that I have not violated them.
Foreign Service Officers and other employees are well aware that they are expected to meet these obligations.
I have met all of my obligations State. You cleared my book. I never revealed classified info, personnel information, or pretended to be making official statements. Face it– you just do not like what I have written and you have retaliated because of that. You don’t like free speech that criticizes you. You don’t like when someone makes fun of the Secretary. You don’t like when someone blows the whistle on your massive money pit in Baghdad. You don’t like when your own employees exercise the same rights you demand for bloggers in China, because this time it is you, not the evil Reds, who are being called out.
I guess when you throw pies at clowns you can expect to get some whipped cream on your clothes.
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.
(This piece appeared originally in the New York Times on February 9, 2012)
The State Department’s reduction of staff in Iraq is the final act of the American invasion. The war is now really over.
The U.S. has finally acknowledged that Iraq is not its most important foreign policy story.
Designed as a symbol of America the Conqueror, the United States Embassy in Baghdad included buildings for an international school that never opened. It featured apartments stocked with American-size refrigerators waiting for the first Baghdad Safeway. A lawn was planted to beautify the embassy, outdoor water misters installed to cool the air so even the stark reality of the desert was not allowed to interfere with plans.
Instead, the debris of failure to resolve the demons unleashed by the fall of Saddam crushed the U.S. Literally only days after the U.S. military withdrawal, the world’s largest embassy watched helplessly as Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki tried to arrest his own vice president, who fled to Kurdistan where Iraqi government forces are powerless to intervene. Sectarian violence came back on the boil, returning if not with 2007’s vengeance, then at least with its purpose.
The U.S. has finally acknowledged that Iraq is not its most important foreign policy story, and that America’s diplomats cannot survive on their own in the middle of a civil war. The embassy will eventually shrink to the small-to-medium scale that Iraq requires (think Turkey or Jordan). America’s relationship will wither into the same uneasy state of half-antagonistic, half-opportunistic status that we enjoy with the other autocrats in the Middle East. Maliki will continue to expertly play the U.S. off the Iranians and vice versa. U.S. military sales and oil purchases will assure him the soft landing someday of a medical visa to the United States à la Ali Abdullah Saleh of Yemen, and not the sanctioned disposal awaiting Bashar al-Assad of Syria.
My book about the failed occupation and reconstruction of Iraq is called “We Meant Well.” Given the recent events, my next volume will be entitled “I Told You So.”
The Daily Kos calls State out:
State Department whistleblower Peter Van Buren writes in TomDispatch today about the escalating retaliation taken against him since he wrote a book about massive reconstruction fraud in Iraq.
Even as the Secretary of State rails against suppression of free speech abroad, the State Department continues to retaliate and threaten Van Buren for a book written in his personal capacity on his personal time.
And Van Buren understands – unfortunately firsthand – the unjust consequences that too often come with following one’s conscience. If the State Department is to promote freedom of speech abroad, it should start with protecting speech – even dissenting speech – from its own employees.
Isn’t this just a little embarrassing Madame Secretary? Aren’t you just a little ashamed at the gap between what you say and what your organization does? Because even if you don’t know or don’t care, others are watching.
Have you no shame Madame?
Read the full article on the Daily Kos.
I was invited on to a news show on RT.com to discuss whether or not my speaking out (or that of any whistleblower) was insubordination or free speech, ironically running afoul of the State Department’s rules which claim that the exercise of free speech by its employees is in fact insubordination.
Yeah, I’m confused too, so better just watch the video and see if that helps:
Still not sure if it was insubordination or free speech?
Better try again, this time in my interview with The Pulse Morning Show (audio only).
Still not sure if this is insubordination or free speech? Here’s a hint: It is free speech.
When I sought this permission to speak, I was told that I must write out my speech word-for-word for them to edit, alter, change, or refuse to allow at all, and that I could not speak extemporaneously and could not take questions from my audience. I was told that if I read out loud from my book I would be violating the State Department’s rules on divulging classified information, even though my book contains no classified information.
When I sought their permission to write, I was told people would mistake my writing for an official statement and permission was denied. As implemented, State’s rules amount to simple prior restraint.
The State Department believes that American Citizens give up their Constitutional rights for the privilege of employment. The Supreme Court said no, in Pickering v. Board of Education.
When I joined the State Department, the oath I swore was to the Constitution. When I speak, I am upholding the Constitution. When I speak, the State Department instead claims I am insubordinate.
So be it.
So it became an act of civil disobedience for the New York Times to publish my writing today. If my writing was insubordinate, then publishing was abetting my violation. Will State discipline the Times or just seek to bully me?
So it became an act of civil disobedience for RT.com to invite me to speak on camera about how whistleblowers are treated by our government. Will State discipline RT.com or just seek to bully me?
So it became an act of civil disobedience for these places to publish my writing about my case and those of other whistleblowers:
Maine has a proud Yankee tradition of standing up to tyrants and bullies, and so it became an act of civil disobedience for Maine’s Mid Coast Forum on Foreign Relations to allow me to speak in front of a group of over 150 people, most of whom work or worked in the foreign affairs field. It was with a sense of responsibility absent in today’s Foggy Bottom that several members of the audience told me they had retired from State and were saddened to learn how far from the ideals of free speech the organization that they– and I– served had fallen. Many in the audience agreed to donate to the non-profit organization that is representing me in my struggle to speak out.
The Forum recorded my entire speech, which will air throughout the State of Maine on public broadcasting in spite of the Department of State’s efforts to prevent people from hearing what I have to say.
If you want to join me in these acts of civil disobidience, do something against the State Department’s version of the law: listen to my speech in Maine.
We don’t live in Egypt, or Syria or anywhere else where the government can control what you listen to. If the Secretary of State will go before those people and speak for their rights to talk back to their governments, she should damn well allow the same for her own employees.
So it became an additional act of civil disobedience that in response to a request from the students of the University of Maine, I stood up and spoke to them too. It shouldn’t be an act of courage, but it was, because the US Department of State refused me permission. And because the students at a public university have a First Amendment right to listen, I stood up and exercised my First Amendment right to speak.
You can read about the speech here.
The State Department declared that this was an act of insubordination. I stand in broader footprints and declare it was an act guaranteed by the Constitution.
What do you say Mrs. Clinton? Is this insubordination? Is this the Department of State you lead? Is this the message, the America, you represent?
The Daily Kos runs an article today comparing shamefully the tactics used in Korea to stifle bloggers that offend the government there with tactics used by the US State Department to accomplish the same goals.
South Korea brought the recent charges under its National Security Law – which bans “acts that benefit the enemy” but fails to specify what those acts are. Apparently, tweeting satirical images, as a blogger there recently did, counts as “acts that benefit the enemy.”
“This is not a national security case; it’s a sad case of the South Korean authorities complete failure to understand sarcasm,” said Sam Zarifi, Asia-Pacific director of the human rights group Amnesty International. Of course, this week, the State Department proved it was equally unable to understand sarcasm, ordering me to remove the State Department Seal from a satirical blog I posted.
The article concludes by scolding Mrs. Clinton’s Department of State:
Stifling speech is the stuff of dictatorships, not democracies. If the U.S. is to be a leader in democracy, the State Department should take the lead and encourage free speech, even critical speech.
Our government, like the one in Korea, fears the noise of democracy and instead prefers the silence of compliance.
Read the entire piece on the Daily Kos.
Not to suggest State is overstaffed, but somehow in managing all those international thingies they also have time to demand that I remove the State Department Seal from a blog post. The post, linked here, used the Seal as part of a satirical/parody memo from Hillary to the media, instructing them on how the Department wants them to not tell the truth about events in Iraq. No sentient being could have confused that blog post with an actual State Department memo.
If you want to see the offensive blog post, click here. If you want to see a real State Department memo, go troll through the 250,000 documents on Wikileaks. I shouldn’t post a link to Wikileaks on this blog, or I’ll get in trouble again with the nancy boys who run Diplomatic Security. Read’in is hard work, and they still are sorting out a “link” from a “leak.”
If you’d like to read the State Department’s email to me demanding I remove the Seal from my blog, here it is.
There is, as always, precedent. In 2005 the George W. Bush White House demanded that The Onion stop using George’s seal. So, um, right on State, you’re in lock step with the White House on this issue, albeit seven years late.
Now of course the State Department hasn’t bothered to contact all the other people on the web using their Seal. They didn’t even bother to contact me when I last used that same Seal on this same blog a few months ago. Wonder why now?
Timing is everything in life. Earlier this month I filed a complaint against the Department for retaliatory personnel practices with the Office of the Special Counsel. By coincidence, of course, State kicked its introspection of me and my blog into a higher gear that same week. For those keeping score, that is retaliation for complaining about earlier retaliation. More on this on a later blog post.
Anyway, a lesser man would be angry, or bitter, over such pettiness, but me, I just want to be friends. Who can get mad over a cute, cuddly seal anyway? So be sure to check out my replacement seal.
Foreign Service uber blog Diplopundit, in summing up significant events in the world of the State Department, had this to say about We Meant Well:
Foreign Service Officer, Peter Van Buren pens a book of his PRT Iraq experience. The first live FSO to do so. The new author courted controversy by not resigning prior to the books hitting the stores and ostracization for well, writing the book that makes everyone looks bad. The State Department’s response was definitely without a doubt a “don’t like” — so of course, they took away his badge and threw away the key. Subject currently considered untrustworthy even to handle paper clips. Falls under the “more” category for 2011. As my blog pal, @elsnarkistani would say, this seemed important.
In a separate blog post, Diplopundit also pointed out the, um, incongruity, of State’s lofty pronouncements of the value of dissent and differing opinions and of speaking truth to power with the reality of how it treats its bloggers:
The Bureau of Consular Affairs (CA) recently announced its new leadership theme for 2012 which is “Follow Courageously.” CA, of course, is the home bureau of some of our consular officers who offended the tigers with their blogs — MLC, Peter Van Buren, to name a couple.
Nice words but really, in which State Department sector is this real? And when you are not working in a “successful office” what then? What happens when you report certain problems and the tigers bite your head off? Is there anyone in CA who would be willing to loan the courageous follower a Scottish targe or shield for protection from incoming projectiles?
Folks, the migraine line starts over there. Follow courageously and stay quiet.
Read it all now at Diplopundit.
With a blog name like Ranger Against War, you can expect a book review of We Meant Well to cut right to it:
Ranger is torqued that his country busts him for a paltry sum, while his Army and State Department wiped Iraqi asses with newly-minted benjamins. Why embark on a foreign policy dependent upon gaining the hearts and minds of Iraqis? We don’t care if they love or hate us — no American soldier’s life should be spent on such a meaningless goal.
Our government should focus primarily on its own citizen’s hearts, minds and bodily welfare. When one buys love from unwilling participants, one is pimping or whoring. WOT also means “War on Truth”, and a war on truth equates well with a reign of terror.
Ranger also found the quote that should have opened my book, from Parliament of Whores: A Lone Humorist Attempts to Explain the Entire U.S. Government, by P. J. O’Rourke:
It is a popular delusion that the government wastes vast amounts of money through inefficiency and sloth. Enormous effort and elaborate planning are required to waste this much money
I say: Rangers Lead the Way. Read the whole review at Ranger Against War.
I saw on your DipNote blog post that you wrote:
As information networks become more ubiquitous and powerful, new movements and power structures are forming, others are being disrupted, and the speed of communications is making all of this take place at a blistering fast pace. Connection technologies are changing the ecology of politics and government.
In a speech last February, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton reaffirmed the United States’ commitment to Internet Freedom, the necessary backbone for people to be able to exercise their universal rights in an increasingly networked world. In her speech to a global audience, Secretary Clinton said:
“I urge countries everywhere instead to join us in the bet we have made, a bet that an open internet will lead to stronger, more prosperous countries. At its core, it’s an extension of the bet that the United States has been making for more than 200 years, that open societies give rise to the most lasting progress, that the rule of law is the firmest foundation for justice and peace, and that innovation thrives where ideas of all kinds are aired and explored. This is not a bet on computers or mobile phones. It’s a bet on people.”
See, I am under written order to preclear my every article, blog post, Facebook update, and Tweet with State. Your Public Affairs Bureau regularly monitors me online and sends daily written reports to my “telework” boss declaring another blog post has slipped through (they aren’t always very good at it and often miss stuff, but I’ll never tell).
Our Department’s “preclearance” requirements are totally out of date. Originally designed for a 19th-century publishing model, its leisurely 30-day examination period is incompatible with the requirements of online work, blogs, Facebook, and Tweets. But the Department has refused to update its rules for the 21st century, preferring instead to use the 30 days to kill anything of a timely nature. What blog post is of value a month after it is written, never mind a Tweet? Worse yet, the rules are used selectively against blogs that offend, and allowed to silently pass on blogs that do not (list here on your own site).
In fact, I have been told (off the record, of course) by four Department officials that the “last straw” was a late October blog post that spoke offensively about Secretary Clinton. I guess one is not allowed to say things about the Dear Leader, even though in America free speech covers stuff as offensive as crude criticism of our public figures.
It is almost as if State is using the tools of its bureaucracy to silence voices it does not like. Sure, no one has pepper sprayed me, but c’mon, isn’t destroying someone’s otherwise pretty standard career after 23 years in retaliation just a leftward spot on the same continuum as those countries who also seek to silence those they find disagreeable? Start the reforms at home, because even if State wants to pretend none of this exists, people are watching.
Two blogs today pointed dumbass, ignorant Republican presidential candidates to We Meant Well in hopes that they would learn some lessons from our almost nine year Occupation of Iraq (slogan: Not Living Free, Just Die).
PoliticalDog101.com shakes its finger at hollow action figure and troglodyte Rick Perry, who proposed re-invading Iraq recently:
[Perry] might have been better advised to read something on the subject from one who knows, so I would like to point Mr Dumb-as-a-mud-wall 1976 towards We Meant Well: How I helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People where Peter Van Buren, a long term veteran of the Foreign Service, has written on his time as head of the embattled and embedded Provincial Reconstruction Team. Not that he made any friends in the Foreign Service doing this though. He was part of the biggest nation-building exercise in history, and his descriptions written in clear style with vinegar dry humour would make a stone weep. He most famously describes the entire exercise as “past[ing] together feathers year after year, hoping for a duck”. Money poured anywhere and everywhere, squandered by everyone in charge who ever touched it, with no thought and only the hope that some might do some good along the way. Pastry making classes for Iraqi widows, chicken processing factories that unpredictably produce no chickens and push bikes for local kids to ride on roads too pock marked by shells to use. Building an embassy the size of the Vatican state in the middle of a city staffed by thousands, doing God alone knows what.
Moving on to frothy candidate Rick Santorum, blogger FredonEverything also recommends reading We Meant Well, as well as other books on the military and national security so that Rick will stop saying stupid, ignorant things:
In my decades of covering the armed services, I noticed among men a belief in their innate jock-strap competency regarding wars. Men who would readily admit ignorance of petroleum geology, ophthalmology, or ancient Sumerian grammar nonetheless believe that they grasp matters military. Usually they do not. In particular, they have an utterly unexamined belief in America’s military invincibility.
Candidates should be wary of this. Instead, most of you propose ultimata to Iran as one would threaten a three-year-old with a spanking. You clearly think that the American flotilla would quickly thrash the impudent Persians with no unexpected consequences. Do as we say, or the fleet will teach you a jolly good lesson. So thought Philip II in 1588.
So, if either candidate’s staff would like to get in touch, my email’s info (at) wemeantwell.com. I’d be happy to sell you a couple of copies of the book guys, but wouldn’t want to violate the Hatch Act by getting too deep into your failing campaigns. No comps for fear I’d end up on your mailing lists.
(This article originally appeared in the Washington Post’s “Federal Diary” column, and was written by Joe Davidson)
(NOTE: There is no classified material in my book, We Meant Well. The book for sale today is an unredacted version. –Peter)
The best way for the federal government to publicize a book? Attempt to muzzle the author.
You probably wouldn’t be reading about Peter Van Buren right now had the State Department not stripped him of his security clearance and suspended him after publication of his book, “We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People.”
Van Buren’s case provides lessons that go beyond the number of books the censors at State will help him sell. The lessons concern what the government chooses to classify, the way it handles situations involving books with classified information and how the government can use its power to suspend employees.
Ironically, Van Buren now has free time to promote his book, complete with the classified information, because he was suspended until Nov. 10, with pay, earlier this week. He can’t appeal the suspension, the purpose of which, according to a letter from the department, “is to continue review your situation.”
The situation is the publication of his book without State’s stamp of approval. State Department officials would not comment on Van Buren’s case.
In a Sept. 20 letter faxed to publisher Macmillan, State said the book’s “circulation and publicizing have been done without authorization from the Department. The Department has recently concluded that two pages of the book manuscript we have seen contain unauthorized disclosures of classified information.”
To its credit, the publisher did not fold. “Their specific requests concerned passages in the book that on their face clearly did not contain classified information,” Macmillan said a statement. “In any event, these belated requests were received after the initial shipments of the book had already been sent to booksellers.”
What State’s letter does not say is that it had plenty of time to review the book. Van Buren said that he submitted his book in September of last year but that State had no comment on it until the September fax of this year.
According to State’s Foreign Affairs Manual: “All public speaking, writing, or teaching materials on matters of official concern prepared in an employee’s private capacity must be submitted for a reasonable period of review, not to exceed thirty days.”
Since the 30-day period had long expired with no word from State, Van Buren understandably concluded that the department had no problem with his book.
“I followed the rules,” Van Buren said at a National Press Club briefing Thursday. “I submitted my book for clearance.”
But the book wasn’t the only problem. In an Oct. 12 memo to Van Buren, State said his top-secret security clearance was suspended, pending an ongoing investigation, because the Big Brother- sounding “Office of Personnel Security and Suitability . . . has determined that your continued access to classified information is not clearly consistent with the national security interests of the United States.”
The memo said that by publishing articles and blog posts “on matters of official concern . . . without submitting them to the Department for review . . . your judgement in the handling of protected information is questionable.”
State’s memo did not identify the objectionable blog item, but Van Buren said it was “a link, not a leak, a link from my blog to a WikiLeaks document that was already on the Internet.”
The fact that the document was available to everyone in the world did not matter.
“I did write blog postings and online articles without permission,” Van Buren admits. But he understandably questions whether his punishment is in line with the little or no harm done by linking to a document that was readily available anyway.
Foreign Service Officer Peter Van Buren claimed Thursday that he was suspended indefinitely from his position at the State Department earlier this week after writing a book that was critical of U.S policy in Iraq and linking to Wikileaks on his blog.
Van Buren’s book “We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People” details his experiences in Iraq as a diplomat and the lack of purpose and success in US policy in Iraq.
“I got off the helicopter at my first operating base and I said the equivalent of ‘so what are we working on?’ and the guy said ‘I thought you were telling us,’” Van Buren told an audience at the National Press Club on Thursday. “It only went downhill from there.”
“No one was particularly concerned about what we were doing, how much money we were spending, and the results of our endeavors,” Van Buren added.
And this is exactly what he writes about in his book. Whether detailing a chicken factory built in Iraq from $2 million of U.S taxpayer money that laid dormant or how an Ambassador paid between $2 to $5 million to have seeds and sod imported to grow grass on the Embassy Grounds, Van Buren details what he describes as irresponsible use of billions of dollars in Iraq that brought them no closer to a reconstructed society.
Upon completing the book, Van Buren submitted the manuscript to the State Department for clearance. Because he received no response, he proceeded with the book publishing and blogged to promote it.
At the end of August, however, Van Buren’s security clearance was revoked for disclosing classified information by linking to the whistleblowing site wikileaks in one of his blog posts.
While wikileaks did expose classified information illegal for Van Buren to reveal, Van Buren defends sharing the link by saying the information was already out there and he was merely linking to it.
On September 20, the State Department requested he remove a chapter in his book disclosing classified material. The chapter, entitled “A Spooky Dinner,” depicts intelligence officials dining in Saddam Hussein’s palace.
Van Buren refused to remove it from his book.
On October 21, Van Buren angered the State Department once again when he critically blogged about Secretary of State Hillary Clinton laughing about Gadaffi’s death in an interview with Diane Sawyer. As a result, Van Buren was suspended indefinitely from his position at the State Department and was escorted from the building on Monday, October 24. His ID badge was confiscated and he is prohibited from entering any state department facility.
Yet while Van Buren will not be working, he is still receiving full pay.
When asked by TRNS if all of this was worth writing the book, Van Buren responded that it was.
“I thought it was a story worth telling but to be honest I never thought I would have to sacrifice my career to tell it, but that’s what happened,” Van Buren remarked. “Was it worth it? I have to say yes. Time will tell.”
Though you cannot yell “Fire!” in a crowded theater, actual restraints on free speech are rare (though law enforcement constantly seeks to criminalize political statements). Our courts have generally been loathe to support limits on speech, and particularly have demanded the government justify any instances where it believes it can regulate speech. Speaking freely, in all its forms, is the cornerstone of a government of, by and for the people. We need to be free to talk back, to be rude, to be foolish, to be offensive, to question. It is what America is when America is at its best.
The State Department seems to know this. The Department famously asked Twitter to stay online while Iran was fussing around with an election, and State has spoken out for the rights of bloggers in China and elsewhere. Hillary herself said the Arab Spring owes much to social media and the free speech it engenders. State stated in reference to a Vietnamese blogger:
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.
Closer to home, actually at home, State takes a different point of view. The Department has brainwashed its staff into believing they give up their First Amendment rights at the Foggy Bottom door, using internal regulations and the boogy man of “security” to exercise prior restraint inside its own hallways.
The conundrum is seen clearly in the yes-no language concerning diplomats’ right to free speech in social media. Have a look at the regulations; State imposes a lot of restraints on speech quite casually, including a prohibition against its employees using the State Department Seal in any blog posting.
State of course can’t stop real citizens from using the Seal, and a quick Google search shows it is employed by bloggers, news sites, commercial sites and pretty much anyone else.
Now it seems the law has chipped away at State’s arbitrary restraints on speech, specifically the prohibition directed at its employees toward the damn Seal.
In US District Court, restrictions on the use of a government seal were made clearly unconstitutional. In Rothamel v. Fluvanna County, the court very clearly stated that the government cannot restrict the use of a Seal. The court wrote:
The loss of First Amendment freedoms, for even minimal periods of time, unquestionably constitutes irreparable injury. Elrod v. Burns, 427 U.S. 347, 373 (1976) (plurality opinion). The chilling of Rothamel’s expressive activity since the promulgation of the ordinance, causing Rothamel to forgo constitutionally protected activity out of a fear of arrest, thus constitutes irreparable injury.
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