For those joining our story already in progress, here’s the Twitter-length summary: I’ve worked for the State Department as a Foreign Service Office for some 24 years. I spent a year in Iraq, wrote a book critical of the State Department’s waste and mismanagement in Iraq, blogged about it and now am being fired from the State Department for all that.
Diplopundit, still the best blog and perhaps the best news source on the State Department, has written a long piece trying to answer the question of what all that means:
Had Mr. Van Buren, a midlevel FS-01 quit after his return from Baghdad, then wrote his book, we probably would be talking about his book for like, 15 minutes, then forget about it. But that’s not how it happens. He got his 15 minutes of fame plus more. Along the way, we learned a bit more not only about how we spent $44.6 billion in taxpayer funds on rebuilding Iraq but also on the the shallowness of our convictions– from our tolerance to dissenting views, to our much touted push for Internet Freedom and 21st Century Statecraft, as long as they’re not our guys.
The State Department spends much money and effort to recruit and train the “best and the brightest” to represent America overseas, then proceeds to hammer and shape them into, I’m sorry to say, drones, who follow directions, not cause waves and most importantly, whose stingers are without barbs… How can we cultivate leaders, risk takers, innovators and independent thinkers for the 21st century in an environment that penalizes such traits?
No matter how Peter Van Buren’s case turns out, the signal had been sent loud and clearly. A Director General of the Foreign Service once testified in the case of a DS agent dismissed for “notoriously disgraceful conduct” and said, “I think it’s important to send a message to the entire State Department that. . . you cannot do this.” That’s the same message broadcasted now in Foggy Bottom’s billboard.
I’m sure the State Department can argue that “enforcing” the rules is done to promote the proper functioning of the Service. But does the proper functioning of the Service trumps everything else? If the State Department can make sure that another Peter Van Buren will never happen again in the future, that is good for the organization.
But are we, the American public better served?
Best to read the entire article, over at Diplopundit.
Copyright © 2015. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity. Follow me on Twitter!
The news is less positive for bloggers inside the State Department. Jesslyn Radack of the Government Accountability Project wrote on Salon:
(The State Department’s) actions are a transparent attempt to retaliate against Mr. Van Buren for his book—by trying to impose bureaucratic and constitutionally-questionable prior restraints on his blogs, evidenced by the facts that 1) Mr. Van Buren is being subject to disparate treatment (hundreds of State Department blogs flow out onto the Internet uncleared); 2) the State Department links to uncleared blogs it likes; 3) none of Mr. Van Buren’s writing or speaking has contained classified orpersonally identifiable information; 4) all his written works (including his book) contain the State Department disclaimer that they do not represent the views of the government; and 5) he has never misrepresented himself as an official spokesman for the State Department (instead, he speaks in the first person and uses bland designators such as “Author”).
Tại sao là Alec Ross một kẻ ngốc như vậy?
Copyright © 2015. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity. Follow me on Twitter!
(This story originally appeared on Salon. It was written by Jesselyn Radack, filling in for Glenn Greenwald)
Today, I’m not writing about the Espionage Act being used to chill journalists and whistleblowers, but something equally as troubling: the assault on whistleblowers’ First Amendment rights, illustrated by the creepy case of Peter Van Buren.
Van Buren is a Foreign Service Officer with the State Department who wrote a book critical of U.S. reconstruction projects in Iraq, We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People. He also maintains a personal blog at www.wemeantwell.com. A 23-year veteran of the State Department, Mr. Van Buren began to experience a series of adverse personnel actions a month before the publication of his book, which are ongoing today. These actions include suspension of his security clearance, confiscation of his Diplomatic Passport, being placed on administrative leave, being banned from the State Department building, losing access to his State Department computer, and being reassigned to a makeshift telework position better suited for a high schooler.
The State Department cleared Mr. Van Buren’s book by default because State exceeded its own 30-day deadline by nearly a year. Now the State Department is retaliating against him viciously for his book by taking adverse personnel actions — ostensibly based on not seeking pre-publication review for his blogs and live media appearances, done on his personal time — which are being used as a pretext to punish him for his book.
Even more disturbingly, the State Department admits that it is actively monitoring Mr. Van Buren’s blogs, Tweets and Facebook updates that he posts during his private time on his personal home computer.
Read that sentence again to absorb its full impact.
All government employees should be alarmed by this. Peter Van Buren’s book dovetailed with WikiLeaks’ bursting onto the world scene, and the government’s assault on whistleblowers with the full force of the entire Executive branch.
The WikiLeaks Edicts Transmogrify into Censorship
This slippery slope, which has now turned into a sheet of ice, began with the State Department announcement on November 26, 2010, that Department officials are authorized to view WikiLeaks documents for “legitimate work reasons . . . using either the Department’s unclassified computer network (OpenNet) and associated peripheral devices or home computers.” No problem there.
But less than three weeks later, State almost completely reversed itself, instructing the Directors of the Bureau of Consular Affairs/Passport Services (CA/PPT)—whose self-described mission is to “contribute significantly to the USG goal of promoting international exchange and understanding . . . [and] to help American citizens engage the world”—that “PPT employees shall not access any classified documents, including ‘Wikileaks documents’, during business hours or on their personal time.” (Scare quotes in original.)
A year later, Mr. Van Buren received his very own, personalized Orwellian directive from the State Department: “[Y]ou must comply fully with applicable policies and regulations regarding official clearance of public speeches, writings and teaching materials, including blogs, Tweets and other communications via social media, on matters of official concern, whether prepared in an official or private capacity.”
As a former government employee who was subject to horrible surveillance and monitoring for blowing the whistle (described in my new book for which Glenn Greenwald wrote the Foreword, I find it outrageous that a public servant is being told that his personal blogs, Tweets, and Facebook updates done on his own time in his personal capacity must go through pre-publication review. Moreover, in Mr. Van Buren’s case, this special pre-clearance requirement is being applied only to him and to things not capable of pre-publication review, such as live radio broadcasts.
These actions are a transparent attempt to retaliate against Mr. Van Buren for his book—by trying to impose bureaucratic and constitutionally-questionable prior restraints on his blogs and media interviews (even though the latter have been live), evidenced by the facts that 1) Mr. Van Buren is being subject to disparate treatment (hundreds of State Department blogs flow out onto the Internet uncleared); 2) the State Department links to uncleared blogs it likes; 3) none of Mr. Van Buren’s writing or speaking has contained classified orpersonally identifiable information; 4) all his written works (including his book) contain the State Department disclaimer that they do not represent the views of the government; and 5) he has never misrepresented himself as an official spokesman for the State Department (instead, he speaks in the first person and uses bland designators such as “Author”). Mr. Van Buren’s style of writing and speaking is clearly identifiable as in his own “voice” and is dramatically dissimilar to the official, wooden style used by the State Department in its own messaging. Moreover, Mr. Van Buren does not use other official symbols that might potentially confuse an audience. Finalloy, the State Department never argued, until after Mr. Van Buren went to the U.S. Office of Special Counsel, which adjudicates whistleblower complaints, that Mr. Van Buren’s book or writings have disrupted normal State Department operations or affected the agency’s operational efficiency, the legal standard for when an employee has crossed the First Amendment line.
Death by a Thousand Paper Cuts: The Slow Immolation of a Whistleblower
On September 7, 2010, Mr. Van Buren submitted his book manuscript for pre-publication review. It disclosed numerous examples of rampant reconstruction fraud in Iraq. Mr. Van Buren submitted his manuscript to the State Department’s Bureau of Public Affairs (PA) in accordance with 3 Foreign Affairs Manual (“FAM”) 4170, which governs official clearance of speaking, writing, and teaching. It specifically requires pre-clearance for any speech or writing on “matters of official concern.” The Supreme Court held that an earlier version of the State Department’s pre-publication review scheme was valid in a case called Weaver. However, the current regulation is outdated, vague and overbroad, defining “matters of official concern” as matters that “relate to any policy, program, or operation of the employee’s agency or to current U.S. foreign policies, or reasonably may be expected to affect the foreign relations of the United States.” Matters that relate to U.S. foreign policies can be just about anything. Also, Weaver was decided years prior to the advent of social media, and such a requirement on new media is more constitutionally-questionable than when applied to traditional publications.
The State Department defaulted on pre-publication review according to its own 30-day deadline. A month before the book was published, the State Department commenced a series of retaliatory actions that continue today.
A couple weeks before Mr. Van Buren’s book was published, the State Department’s Diplomatic Security (DS) interviewed Mr. Van Buren on a “voluntary basis.” DS asked Mr. Van Buren about his forthcoming book and a blog he posted on August 25, 2011. (Mr. Van Buren had been blogging without incident since April 2011 and the questions regarding his blog post were clearly a pretext to interrogate him about his book and intimidate him from promoting it.)
The week before his book’s publication, DS interrogated Mr. Van Buren on a “compelled basis” regarding his book and the August 25, 2011 blog post. As to the book, DS grilled him about the details of the publishing contract, including how much of an advance he received and to whom, if anyone, he donated the proceeds. (If you listen closely, you can hear government strains of “material support for terrorism” lurking in the background.) As to the blog, DS wanted to know who had helped him with his blog and told him that every blog, Facebook update, and Tweet by State Department employees had to be pre-cleared by the Department prior to posting. DS told Mr. Van Buren that refusal to answer their questions could lead to his firing. They also warned him against writing about the interrogation, saying he could be charged with interfering with a government investigation if he did so.
After his book had been shipped to bookstores, the Bureau of Public Affairs wrote to his publisher stating that “its circulation and publicizing have been done without authorization” and that “[t]he Department has recently concluded that two pages of the book manuscript we have seen contain unauthorized disclosures of classified information.” Although the State Department tacitly admitted (with the word “recently”) that its designated period for pre-publication review had expired, this fax constituted a direct threat of discipline because unauthorized disclosure of classified information is both a regulatory infraction and a criminal felony that can carry up to 10 years in prison under . . . wait for it . . . part of the Espionage Act, the government’s new favorite tool to use against whistleblowers.
When criminal threats failed, the State Department confiscated Mr. Van Buren’s Diplomatic Passport and suspended the Top Secret security clearance he had held continually since 1988 (by suspending, rather than revoking his security clearance, the State Department made it impossible to challenge.) He was issued a workday-only limited-access badge so that he could continue his unclassified work.
It was not long, however, until Mr. Van Buren was placed on paid administrative leave, on which he remained for nearly two months with no job duties or assignment. His access card was confiscated by Human Resources (HR), and he was banned from entering any State Department facility or accessing any State Department computer. (No reason was given for banning Mr. Van Buren from State Department facilities, and no regulation was cited justifying HR in doing so.) The State Department ended the job assignment that Mr. Van Buren had served in for over a year (with the Board of Examiners for the Foreign Service) because “You have been counseled repeatedly regarding your 3 FAM 4170 obligation to submit writings and media appearances for review when they pertain to matters of official concern.” This is disparate treatment because numerous Foreign Service Officers maintain blogs and post Facebook updates about matters of official concern without pre-clearance. Moreover, it is impossible to pre-clear the content of live media appearances before they occur.
At the end of 2011, the State Department informed Mr. Van Buren that he would be “teleworking,” and forced him to sign an unprecedented “Compliance Letter” as a condition of employment, referenced above: “[Y]ou must comply fully with applicable policies and regulations regarding official clearance of public speeches, writings and teaching materials,including blogs, Tweets and other communications via social media, on matters of official concern, whether prepared in an official or private capacity.”
Long story short, Mr. Van Buren continued to exercise his First Amendment rights to blog, Tweet, speak, and use Facebook. And he continued to be jacked up over things that would be laughable if they were not so serious, like blogs that were sarcastic or pure parody.
The end is so cliché: the State Department has now proposed removing (bureaucratese for “firing”) Mr. Van Buren, a mere six months before his already-announced retirement date.
We can only hope that the government’s attempts at prior restraint and blatant censorship don’t become cliché.
Copyright © 2015. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity. Follow me on Twitter!
Ah, the power of social media. My thanks to Michael Moore, who Tweeted the article from Salon describing my First Amendment fight against the State Department to his over 1,000,000 followers, and reposted it on his Facebook page.
A very large number of those people then went on to read the full story of the denial of my First Amendment rights by the Department, and jumped over to this blog to read about my latest ham-fisted interrogation by the goons at Diplomatic Security.
You know Alec Ross, there just might something to this social media thing you always talk about.
#SmartPower uber alles!
So we’ll just throw it into the ever-growing stinky coincidence pile that the same day another of my articles appears on TomDispatch (and Salon, Huffington Post, The Nation, etc.), I get called into another interrogation session with the State Department’s Stasi, Diplomatic Security. I say Stasi just to invoke an image; these guys succeed at “security” only in the Alice in Wonderland written by George Orwell land they live in.
Today’s session lasted two and a half hours and involved two contractor investigators, my lawyer and me. Figure a couple of hundred bucks in Government salaries alone, plus the time for the goons to type it all up. Your tax dollars at work.
Two key issues emerged right up front, serious accusations that a) I divulged US government “policies and procedures” and b) I failed to report contacts with foreigners. Both accusations where made apparently by some fellows in my telework office, so-called colleagues in Consular Affairs (State Department friends who wrote in last week all over collegiality take note).
The first accusation, divulging US government policy and procedure, was apparently based on this blog post from December 2011, some 13 weeks ago. Take a quick look.
Not sure where the divulging is in there? Neither was I until it was divined that it must have been this smoking gun paragraph:
While I don’t know the specifics behind that announcement, the usual play inside any Embassy is a) A threat is identified; b) The Political or Economic section wants to downplay it to keep good relations with the host government; c) The Consular section frets that Americans need to be warned; d) Much dithering is snapped when the security office announces the threat already circulating informally inside the Embassy community in an internal memo which e) Triggers the “no double standard rule” and forces/allows the Consular section to go public. It is not a process that takes place casually, so probably bad stuff is a’ brewin’ in the old Green Zone for it to get to this point.
Huh? So is the State Department now admitting that disagreements between the Political Section and the Consular Section at an Embassy are “policy and procedure”? Now back in my day such push and pull was part of the informal process, but I must have missed the memo where it was codified into an actual policy or procedure. I really need to check my work email more often.
The second big issue today was those foreign contacts. People with security clearances are supposed to report certain foreign contacts, say if a beautiful Soviet spy named Natasha slides up to you at a bar somewhere and offers to trade ‘licks for some secrets. Fair enough. In my case the evidence was hidden in this blog post. Again, take a peek, and then come back here.
Find it? Apparently the evidence against me was this statement from that blog post:
One question from the audience stood out.
A student asked who in the State Department had spoken to me about the contents of my book, the errors and mismanagement I wrote about. The answer of course was no one. Not a single person in the entire State Department has asked me about what I saw and chronicled. Kind of a poor showing for an organization that purports to represent free speech abroad and dissent within in its own ranks.
On the other hand, since the publication of this book, my commentary has appeared in the New York Times, Le Monde, The Guardian, Huffington Post, Mother Jones, Foreign Policy, Rolling Stone, TomDispatch.com and elsewhere. I have been interviewed on NPR’s Fresh Air and All Things Considered, as well as Democracy Now. I have spoken with with journalists from the UK, Russia, France, Belgium, the Netherlands and Japan, and at several major universities, the National Press Center twice and with Army units deploying for Afghanistan. I have appeared on camera in two documentaries and am now working with Academy Award nominated documentary filmmaker James Spione (Incident in New Baghdad). My book is also assigned reading in a course taught at George Washington University.
Now leaving aside the freedom of the press and the freedom of association that does allow Americans to speak with journalists, exactly who said the journalists representing those foreign news sources were foreigners? Does everyone who works for a Dutch newspaper have to be Dutch? How about at CNN, or CBS, are all those employees automatically American? They did not ask me about the “American” news sources but I’ll spill the beans and tell you (shh…) that one of the reporters I talked to from an “American” newspaper was a… Canadian! She talked all American, but broke down under my own questioning and admitted being a foreigner. I knew it right away when she refused a warm Budweiser.
I am really hoping that Diplomatic Security was not asking me to name all the reporters I’ve talked to under this flimsy excuse.
The point here is that I have no idea what nationality everyone is that I speak with, swap emails with or interact with on Twitter and Facebook, or in conversation on the bus for that matter. And neither do the colleagues who thought this was the smoking gun and told Security. I do know that I spoke with lots of people about a book available to anyone, approved by the State Department in autumn 2010 and I neither had any classified info to disclose nor did I/could I have disclosed anything. To accuse me of unreported foreign contacts because of that blog post is comical, if it wasn’t seriously what your government did today.
Now It Is Personal
Then it got personal. I’ve worked for State for 24 years, been married to the same lovely woman for 25 years. Yet today the fact that that woman was born abroad (in Japan, still a US buddy that we have not bombed in some 70 years) became “Did I ever have a relationship with a foreign national?” Yes, yes I did, for 25 delightful years and counting, including all my overseas assignments where my dear wife joined me on State Department orders.
Luckily they did not know that my dog is also a foreigner. She was a rescue we saved in Hong Kong. Bitch is 100% Chicom canine.
So What’s the Big Deal?
So there went a couple of hours of my life. I’ve wasted more time in line for Space Mountain, so what’s the big deal?
The deal is this comrades: When an organization such as the State Department wants to deep six an employee for no allowable reason (i.e., rude blogging), they turn the case over to Security. Knowing that their own human resources regulations won’t work, never mind the sticky Constitution, the State Department in the specific and the Government in general are hiding behind security, where even accusations can become fatal, where facts can be hidden from Freedom of Information Act requests and even court-ordered discovery, and thus manipulated to a desired end. What is called an investigation morphs into an indictment, where the goal is to keep fishing until something, anything, comes up.
Worse than that (the Stasi, and Diplomatic Security, can at least hide behind the old “just doing my job, I don’t make the rules” sissy excuse) is how once the institution labels you a target, people inside turn on you with crazy accusations (see above). Diplomatic Security fanned out into every office I worked in since returning to the US in 2006 and asked for dirt. They did the same with my neighbors. The investigator today had my credit report in front of him. He asked me questions about what medical provider I see and was very interested in the names and dosages of any prescription medications I take.
Am I a threat to anyone’s security? I guess that’s up to the “experts,” but I don’t think so. I have not had need for and have not accessed the State Department classified network since 2005. My work has been all in the unclassified realm. In Iraq, embedded with the US military, I was entrusted with operational info that, had it been disclosed, could have quite literally killed soldiers, never mind some dumb ass memo from 2006 already on Wikileaks. The Army had no apparent concern with me having that info, so we are left wondering what State is afraid of here.
Just to remind, the charges against me by the State Department are all related to this blog, nothing more. 100% of the evidence is right here for your viewing pleasure, my crimes conducted in full view.
I get it, they are afraid. They want me destroyed, and they apparently have no limit to how much money and time can be devoted to just that. Since I lead a boring life, with no international intrigue to speak of, they have their work cut out for them. However, by playing the McCarthy card and turning any accusation into a hammering point, then serving as judge of their own dirty handiwork, State assures itself of the win. It is just a matter of time.
Nothing New at the State Department
John Paton Davies in a new autobiography called China Hand tells of his own termination from the State Department. Davies was an acknowledged expert on China, one of a generation of brilliant scholars and diplomats known collectively as the “China Hands” during WWII. Davies 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.”
Out with the Garbage
I certainly do not place myself anywhere near where men like Davies reside in history so save your emailed rage, and the whistleblowers I have come to know also occupy various niches. What we do share is being thrown away by the government we served because that government was scared of us.
A government seeking to hide from its own people acts that way, suppressing dissent first to preserve order and good discipline, and then soon down the slope to simply preserve its own power.
We’re all out of a job and out of government, that is a fact. It is up to you to judge what that means and whether your interests as the people are best served by our terminations.
In America, we are proud of our long and distinctive record of championing freedom of speech… we have worked to share our best practices.
–Secretary of State Hillary Clinton
We hope that others will join us in advancing a basic freedom for the Iranian people: the freedom to connect with one another and with their fellow human beings.
–President Barack Obama
On March 9, 2012, the Department of State issued a 16 page list of offenses I allegedly committed, for which they seek to fire me. Chief among those offenses is writing this blog, on my own time and on my own computer, an exercise of the very same rights to communicate and free speech Obama and Hillary demand for others:
The article below appeared on a Russian news site. It shows the Russians, after years of autocratic governments, and after years of watching the US plead for their rights when it was politically beneficial for the US to do, understand the hypocrisy of our State Department.
While blathering about how other governments should not stifle dissent, State claims that its “regulations” do not permit writing, speaking or blogging in a free society without the Government’s permission. The State Department can talk itself into believing there is no hypocrisy in that, but the rest of the world understands what is really going on.
The American media, always ready to stand behind Russian whistleblowers, shows remarkably little interest in whistleblowers operating closer to home. There is a good example for that in the case of Peter Van Buren, a State Department officer, who recently received a termination notice from his employer. Obviously, the foreign service is not unhappy about Van Buren’s language skills (he speaks four languages) or lack of experience (in his 24 years of service he had been posted to a dozen of countries, including Iraq). The reason is Van Buren’s book We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People.
To a Russian, this title sounds familiar, since it reminds us of the immortal formula coined by Russia’s former prime minister Viktor Chernomyrdin for bungled government action: “We always mean well, but we invariably do it the usual way.”
One could easily imagine how the American correspondents in Moscow would pounce on a similar author from some government service in Russia after the news of his receiving a termination letter. But when the “Terminator” is Mrs. Clinton, there is surprisingly little fascination about the case.
And this is certainly an undeserved lack of attention, since Van Buren’s story has all the elements of a whistleblower drama (or shall we call it a “human rights thriller”?) Here we have the State Department’s bureaucrats moving to fire Mr. Van Buren on 8 charges such as linking his blog to the WikiLeaks site (what about access to information acts?); disclosing classified information (as if the results of George W. Bush’s action in Iraq are a secret to anyone); and publishing an unauthorized blog (what about freedom of speech?)
The most interesting accusation, although, is the one of “bad judgment” which consisted in Mr. Van Buren’s criticism of Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and some of his blogged remarks on the then-presidential candidate Rep. Michelle Bachmann (R.-Minn.). The “coup de grace” on top of it all was Van Buren’s failure to clear each blog posting with his bosses. (Never read the stories about “tight-lipped officials” in other countries, such as Russia? But even the Soviet bureaucrats did not have to “clear” their letters with their superiors.)
So, what was so bad about Mr. Van Buren’s “judgment”? In his blog, he almost never uses previously unpublished materials, most of the space is filled with comments on the recent killing of 16 civilians by a US soldier, on failures of the American economic aid to Iraq, on the generally flawed character of American “nation building” in Moslem countries.
“Quite obviously, the State Department is prosecuting me for exercising the right to freedom of opinion and expression. No, not really: they say they’d love for me to write stuff they don’t agree with, all I need is to ask their permission first,” Van Buren writes sarcastically in his blog.
One cannot find any personal calumnies against Mrs. Clinton on Van Buren’s blog, there is just some pretty sound judgment on the “American empire” and its future. Here is a typical quote:
“America faced a choice and blew it. As an empire, we either needed to take control of the world’s oil or create a more equitable and less martial global society to ensure our access to it. We did neither. We needed either to create a colonial system for adventures like Iraq or Afghanistan along the Victorian model, or to not invade and rebuild those places. We did neither. Simply pouring more and more lives and money into the military is a one-way street going in the wrong direction. We can keep spending, but when the millions of dollars spent on weapons can be deflected by acts of terrorism that cost almost nothing, we will lose.”
Is it “bad judgment?” A lot of people, having read the stories about the “postwar” (or is it wartime?) reconstruction in Iraq and Afghanistan would argue that this judgment actually hits the spot. New York Times
But, obviously, such a judgment would not get a “clearance” from the State Department’s officials. So, who is making a “bad judgment” in this case?
Of all the institutions in government that should be wary of smear tactics, use of personal attacks to silence critics and falsehoods morphed into fact, it should be the State Department. The Department was decimated in the 1950’s by Senator McCarthy and should not stoop to such actions itself.
It thus saddens me to see a once-great institution I served with pride for some 24 years, our first cabinet agency, the Department of State, reduced to crude retaliation against one of its own employees for writing a book and a blog– me. Despite all the huff-puff from State about “regulations,” this is all about free, critical speech that the organization does not like and seeks to squash. When they couldn’t stop my writing, they seek to punish me. Instead of rebutting what I say, they seek to attack me as a person. I always planned on retiring in September, so all this effort is about cutting my career short by only a few months. If that does not show the retaliatory intent of State, I don’t know what does.
Actually, maybe this does. I filed my complaint for retaliation as a whistleblower with the Office of the Special Counsel early in January 2012, about which the State Department was officially put on notice at that time. After sitting on their own report of investigation for three months, it was only days after the Office of the Special Counsel referred my complaint to its investigatory and prosecutorial section, and days before the Counsel’s discovery request, that the Department issued the termination notice. Very curious timing.
Have a look at my interview with Democracy Now! to hear more about this and other issues in chilly Washington, DC:
(If the video is not showing above, please follow this link to watch it)
WUSA, channel 9 in Washington DC, ran an interview with me, detailing the reasons why I wrote about Iraq at the risk of my career, and shedding light on the State Department’s dirty tricks in retaliation. Twitter version: those people really can’t take a joke. Nor can they tolerate dissent.
Here’s the interview:
(If the video does not appear above, please follow this link to watch it)
WUSA also ran this excerpt from our interview. Note that it is only since I filed a complaint with the Office of the Special Counsel detailing the State Department’s retaliation toward me that State has started to comment on the record. Before the complaint, Foggy Bottom was all about “no comment.” Now, with the complaint closing in on their misdeeds, they suddenly are on the record, albeit denying any wrong doing:
FALLS CHURCH, Va. (WUSA) – Veteran Foreign Service Officer Peter Van Buren sits in his suburban Virginia home, assigned by his superiors at the State Department to online busy work while he fights the Department decision to fire him in a case that he says violates whistleblower protections that are guaranteed to federal workers who point out government wrong-doing.
“Nine months ago, I wrote a book about my experiences in Iraq called We Meant Well. It exposed tremendous waste and mismanagement in the reconstruction of Iraq. The State Department is very unhappy about that, embarrassed about that, and has taken retaliatory steps against me, trying to kick me out, throw me out of the State Department and make it all go away,” Van Buren told 9News Now.
“I came to Iraq and realized that the discrepancy between what we say we were doing and what we were doing at the risk of peoples lives, including my own, and billions of taxpayer dollars, was too wide to stand silent. The waste of lives, the waste of money was so extreme and the lies that were being told in Washington were so egregious that I decided to risk my career and speak out,” he said.
The government believes Van Buren improperly disclosed classified information.
“As far as permission is concerned, The State Department, in fact, approved my book in October of 2010 for publication, I suspect accidently or negligently, but they approved it nonetheless,” he said.
The tension between Van Buren and his employer grew worse when he started to promote the book.
“I started the blog at the publisher’s suggestion as a way to promote the book. I tried to find out first what a blog was, and then started writing it. However, as I started working on the blog, a world that was unavailable to me before opened up to me. Other people who had risked their careers as whistleblowers began contacting me, information became available to me, and I realized there was an audience that was willing to listen to some of the remarks that I had about what had happened in Iraq, and the blog grew to the popularity that it has now, and as it grew, the State Department got angrier and angrier at me, ” he said.
On his blog, Van Buren is harshly critical of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, his boss.
“Absolutely. I criticized the Secretary of State. I criticized the president and I’ve criticized other members of the State Department and the Administration, and I did that because when I signed up 24 years ago, my oath was to the constitution, not to Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama or anyone else. I’ve served under Republicans and I’ve served under Democrats, but my oath has always been to the constitution, and therefore it shouldn’t matter,” Van Buren said.
In some postings, Van Buren has been insulting to Republicans liike former Republican presidential candidate Michelle Bachman, calling her insane. In other postings, Van Buren
is so vile that his comments can not be repeated here. Those include references to Mrs. Clinton’s anatomy and sexual practices.
“Absolutely, and those statements are protected by the first Amendment. The First Amendment doesn’t have any cutouts for offensive or words you don’t like.
“My statements were made to show my disgust at the Secretary of State’s chortling over the death of Muammar Gaddafi. He was a lousy human being, no question about that, but to laugh about his death was undiplomatic,” Van Buren said.
And why was it necessary to be so profane?
“It’s necessary sometimes to cause people to pay attention. There’s so much noise out there, so much flim flam, so much huff puff, that occasionally it’s necessary to say ‘Wait a minute, you need to look at this’.
“In addition, I’ve tried by hard to separate my statements from any official statements by the State Department or by the US Government, and I suspect my use of occasional profanity, sometimes vile terms, and oftentimes sarcasm, does set it aside from anything that is official,” he said.
In private business, he concedes, those are firing offenses.
“Fair enough, but I don’t work in private business, I work for the government. I work for you, the people, and I have an obligation to tell you what goes on inside your government. If I didn’t tell you what happened in Iraq who would, who could?
“People inside the government are different. You don’t have a choice. You can go to McDonalds or you can go to Burger King. If you don’t like one company, you can shop at another, but if we don’t tell you, the people who work inside the government what’s going on, then you, the people don’t know,” he said.
“The thing that disturbs me most is the gap between what the State Department says publicly and what they’re doing to me privately.
“The Secretary of State has stood up for the rights of bloggers in Syria and Iran and China and Viet Nam while at the same time saying I, as an American citizen, don’t have my First Amendment rights because I work in her building,” he said.
“Due to privacy considerations, we cannot comment on Mr. Van Buren’s specific case, or that of any other employee, except to say that the claims of retaliation in this case are without merit. With respect to his filing a special complaint with the Office of Special Counsel, there are protections within the government for freedom of expression and for whistleblowers.
“Though we cannot speak to this case specifically, I can tell you that the State Department has followed process and acted in accordance with the law. All employees have the right to present their positions before a final decision is made by the independent Foreign Service Grievance Board, ” said Mark Toner, a Deputy Spokesman at the State Department.
If you have seen the Washington Post article explaining how the State Department is moving to fire me for writing this blog, and for criticizing the Secretary of State (and, oddly, Michelle Bachmann), before you do anything else, remember that Hillary Clinton supports the rights of people online to speak back to their governments. In fact, she said this:
No individual should be prosecuted for exercising the right to freedom of opinion and expression. Vietnam’s prosecution of individuals for expressing their views contradicts the government’s commitment to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
OK, that was bullshit, because quite obviously the State Department is prosecuting me for exercising the right to freedom of opinion and expression. No, not really: they say they’d love for me to write stuff they don’t agree with, all I need is to ask their permission first. Which… they… will… not…provide. They ignore nice blogs from inside State, however. It is the same thing in the end for me: prior restraint, shut up, don’t criticize the government and especially don’t criticize the woman who runs the same agency that says bloggers should be free.
Except in her agency, the State Department. Yeah, it’s complicated.
Many have written in to ask how you can help:
— Send an email to Hillary at DGDirect@state.gov and voice your opinion.
— Send an email, or better yet, call your Congressperson (except Michelle Bachmann). Contact info is here. Ask them to contact the State Department Congressional Liaison and request a fair hearing for me. If they wish to call, the House Liaison office is at 202-226-4642 and the Senate Liaison Office is at 202-228-1602/1603.
— If you know someone in the media who’d be interested in this story, have them contact me at info (@) wemeantwell.com
— If you’d like to give money, I am being defended by the Government Accountability Project (GAP). Donate to them, as they are helping me, and many other whistleblowers. You can donate anonymously online. NONE of the money goes to me, I don’t want it, but people keep asking about donating.
— Hillary Clinton does support bloggers who talk back to the Syrian, Chinese, Vietnamese and Iranian governments, just not her own government. If you know a way I can pretend to be a blogger from one of those places, let me know and my troubles will be solved. I prefer not having to move to Syria if I can help it.
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.
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.
“It is impermissible,” the Judge told the courtroom, “for the U.S. Government to prosecute differently on the basis of the content of First Amendment speech.”
A Department of Justice memorandum from its procedure manual for DOJ attorneys describes the standard in court “to establish a prima facie case of vindictive prosecution,” stating, “[A] defendant must make a ‘showing that charges of increased severity were filed because the accused exercised a statutory, procedural, or constitutional right in circumstances that give rise to an appearance of vindictiveness.'”
Hmmm… could this apply to the way the State Department treats its bloggers? Stay tuned.