• Wide Boundaries to the Left and Right Create the Middle

    May 21, 2012 // 1 Comment »




    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.




    Related Articles:




    Copyright © 2014. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity. Follow me on Twitter!

    Posted in Democracy, Embassy/State

    Open Government? Not in this Lifetime

    January 20, 2012 // 10 Comments »

    Once upon a time, our government did one of the coolest things ever, creating the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). In simple terms, the Act said that absent one of nine specific reasons not to, most parts of the US Government had to release records and documents requested by the public. This opened the door for journalists, scholars and everyone else to see what the government was up to, and to expose government lies, corruption and other naughty stuff.

    Over time, the government has gotten clever about applying those limited exceptions (which can be appealed). The government has also figured out that simply d-e-l-a-y-i-n-g processing of requests is an even better way to make them go away.

    As readers of this blog know, the State Department has used a number of bureaucratic tools to retaliate against me for speaking out on their crap-fest in Iraq.

    So, to try and defend myself, I filed a FOIA request in June 2011. The request was very specific, asking for records kept in the Director General’s office (head of HR for State), and for any emails between that office and my then-supervisor. Nothing too involved: everything was either electronic or in a domestic office. The time period was short, and the records all pertained to just me, my book and this blog. No third party agencies involved. Nothing should have been classified. And it is not like they did not know my name in that office.

    After not hearing back from anyone since I filed the request seven months ago, I inquired. Here is the emailed response:


    I am responding to your e-mail dated January 18, 2011 inquiring about the status of your Freedom of Information Act request. We have assigned case number 201105098. Please make reference to this case number in the future. We are awaiting response from the pending searches. The estimated completion date for your case is January 2013.



    January 2013

    I wrote back to the nice emailer person, double-checking the date was 2013, a year from now. She quickly responded, even adding it would be January 31, 2013.

    So that means it will take State some 18 months, 540 days, to respond, and that the delay is caused by the Director General’s office not responding to the FOIA folks.

    OK, bureaucracies are slow, so maybe somehow 540 days isn’t that uncommon, right? No.

    The State Department’s own FOIA accounting (they are required to produce an annual report; 2010 is the latest one online) shows that for “simple” FOIA requests, the average number of days for a response is 144. For complex ones, the average number of days is 284 (there are a couple of cases in there pending now into their eleventh year, wonder what those are asking for, the nuclear launch codes?).

    For simple requests like mine, out of 10,308 requests processed, only 50 took more than 401 days.

    Something is Wrong

    Without a doubt there exists a file with my name on it in the Director General’s office. It will not require a spelunking expedition to locate it– it is probably on his desk as we speak. Of course mine is not the only request received, and judging by my case number might even have been the 5098th taken in last year, although those were spread among the entire Department.

    Still, why will it take 18 months to conduct that search? Hard to defend yourself under these circumstances, or… is that the plan? And these are the people America pays to export democracy?

    Look, I’ll help, it is in the bottom drawer marked “V.” I’ll even drop by anytime with Krispy Kremes for the office and make my own copies, ‘K?



    Related Articles:




    Copyright © 2014. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity. Follow me on Twitter!

    Posted in Democracy, Embassy/State