• Media Profile: Defying the State to Publish His Story

    July 13, 2014

    Tags: , ,
    Posted in: #99Percent, Economy, Minimum Wage

    Our Town, a New York City newspaper, recently published this article by Daniel Fitzsimmons, profiling me and my book, Ghosts of Tom Joad: A Story of the #99Percent.

    Peter Van Buren is an Upper East Sider and a 24-year veteran of the State Department. His experience there – including a one-year deployment to Iraq – led to him write his first book, We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People (MacMillan, 2011). Even before it was released, the book was frowned upon by higher ups at the State Department and they began proceedings against him for allegedly publishing classified information. He managed to beat the rap and retire with full benefits, with help from the same lawyers now representing Edward Snowden. For several years, however, Van Buren’s pension and the future of his family were at risk.

    During his legal battle with the State Department, Van Buren was forced to work in the low-wage retail sector of the American economy to make ends meet. That experience is the basis for his second book, a novel, Ghosts of Tom Joad: A Story of the #99 Percent, published this year by Luminis Books. The book examines the social and economic changes in America between World War II and the decline of the blue collar middle class in the 1980s.

    Van Buren, 53, grew up in New York and now lives at 2nd Avenue and East 93rd Street.

    “I was born in New York, went to college in Ohio, and then moved around the world with my State Department job as a diplomat for 24 years,” he said. “After retirement, I wanted to leave Washington D.C. and re-immerse myself in this amazing city. Best decision I ever made.”

    What would you say the central thesis is of your first book? Why did you decide to write it and what were some of the obstacles you faced?

    We Meant Well’s thesis was two-fold: One, to document exactly how the U.S. failed in its hearts and minds mission in Iraq, the failure on the ground of the counter-insurgency “win over the people” plan of then-general David Petraeus and Secretary of State Condi Rice. The larger point was to offer lessons for how to better accomplish those goals in the hearts and minds campaign in Afghanistan. Given how poorly U.S. efforts are going in Afghanistan, now 13 years and $109 billion of reconstruction spending into the war, I guess no one took my advice. I’m actually thinking of franchising the title, We Meant Well, Too.

    It was published in 2011, how long after its release did you start receiving attention from the State Department? What was their case against you built upon?

    The State Department is a lot like the Mafia: rule number one is that you don’t talk about family business outside the family. I broke omerta and, through my book, pointed out in quite specific detail the things State did and did not do in Iraq that contributed to the failures there. Reaction from State was sharp, and began even before the book was officially published.

    Why did you decide to take a position with your book that you knew would be frowned upon by the administration?

    When anyone decides to blow the whistle and take on the entire resources of the U.S. government, it is motivated by conscience, the idea that what needs to be said is bigger than yourself. My whistle-blowing was nowhere close to what Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden did, and my punishment nowhere as severe, but the motivations are the same. I saw terrible waste and mismanagement in Iraq, wastes of money and, more significantly, both American and Iraqi lives. No one else was reporting on this; indeed, because of the way State presented itself, no one but someone from the inside could have reported it to the American people. It was on me to step up. I did.

    How, ultimately, were you able to withstand the State Department’s efforts against you and retire with full benefits?

    State tried first to stop the book, then to claim, falsely, that the book contained classified information, then to unsuccessfully prosecute me, then to fire me and take away my pension. I’ll admit, pre-Manning and pre-Snowden, I was naïve. I thought I’d get into some kind of trouble, but never saw the tsunami coming. I prevailed over the government thanks to the efforts of the Government Accountability Project, specifically Jess Radack and Kathleen McClellan. Both of these women now help represent Edward Snowden, by the way. I also was defended by the ACLU, who saw my struggle as a First Amendment issue, the right to publish. I won and the government lost. I went on to retire from State, and collect the benefits I earned from my 24 years of service.

    After your first book, how did you come to the decision to turn to domestic issues in Ghosts of Tom Joad: A Story of the #99 Percent?

    Following State, I went to work in the minimum wage economy, not planning on another book. But what I saw shocked me. In an odd way, I had my first taste of the life of the one percent while in Iraq: unlike most Iraqis, I had more food and amenities than I could squander, nearly unlimited funds to spend as I wished (as long as the spending supported us one-percenters) and plenty of Army muscle around to keep the 99 percent at bay.

    I returned to America to find another sort of regime change underway, only I wasn’t among the one percent for this one. I worked instead in America’s new minimum-wage economy, and saw firsthand what a life based on lousy wages and barely-adequate food benefits adds up to. There were no cruise missiles deployed to create the changes, but the cumulative effects of years of deindustrialization, declining salaries, absent benefits, decimated unions, the undertow of meth and alcohol abuse pulling at our people, the broad-based loss of jobs and of course wealth inequality on a radical scale was quite familiar. The willful destruction of a way of life in service to the goals of the one percent anywhere was hard to miss, but I still wanted a clearer picture. My research and experiences drive me to write about this all, and the result is Ghosts of Tom Joad.

    Ghosts of Tom Joad is a reimagining of Steinbeck’s classic Grapes of Wrath, brought into our own era. The book traces the dilution of our middle class, their replacement with the working poor, and examines the effects of this not just on our economy, but on our society, our nation, our America. Like Grapes of Wrath, Ghosts is a factual look at ourselves wrapped in fiction, in this case, a single Ohio family touched by the changes in America from the 1950s through today.

    I think of it as a good story, but with a conscience.

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    Copyright © 2020. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity.

  • Recent Comments

    • Rich Bauer said...


      “The State Department is a lot like the Mafia.”

      True. But the Mafia doesn’t facilitate the killing of women and kids.


      07/13/14 3:41 PM | Comment Link

    • pitchfork said...


      Great interview. Haven’t listened to your prior post yet, but I will. But I have a question that I’ve wanted to ask for a long time.

      quote” Reaction from State was sharp, and began even before the book was officially published.”unquote

      Peter, someone at State had to be the “decider” to punish you. State, like all government entities are not people, and as such can not decide things, and is not vindictive. Actions take people making decisions. Do you know WHO decided in the first instance to attack you? If so, was it someone you knew, or had a grudge against you? It just seems that the attacks on whistle blowers must get started by one person. And he pushes it up the chain of command all the way to the DOJ. Am I wrong?

      If not..it sure would be interesting to find out who all these people are that start the process. I’d start a webpage to call them out if I knew. Fuckin bastards.

      07/13/14 3:45 PM | Comment Link

    • wemeantwell said...


      I’ll never know for sure, as State never responded to my FOIA requests. Best I can tell, it all started with some drones in State’s Public Affairs section, who got ahold of a pre-release copy of the book and panicked. When I did not resign or roll over, HR and security got involved. When that did not work, or somewhere in the midst, the whole thing shifted to Pat Kennedy. Pat is State’s “Vice Principal,” the guy who handles messy problems and discipline. He papers over things for the powerful, and whacks the lowers. Google him and you’ll see his name in every scandal, including Benghazi.

      07/13/14 4:42 PM | Comment Link

    • pitchfork said...


      quote”True. But the Mafia doesn’t facilitate the killing of women and kids.”unquote

      Wasn’t she the one that said the Iraq war “was worth it”? No matter, she’s still a pus sucking maggot who I’m sure is in the top 25 of the 100 Heads Life and Casualty Co. list of 4th Gen warfare targets should the SHTF. They get hollow point rounds.

      07/13/14 3:53 PM | Comment Link

    • Rich Bauer said...


      If State didn’t punish Peter, Pat was afraid “low level staff” would make the Dept look like idiots. As the Rice-erronis proved, that is the job of senior management.

      07/13/14 6:26 PM | Comment Link

    • Kyzl Orda said...


      How much faster we could have won, definitively too, both wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, not to mention save the lives of our troops and Iraqi and Afghani civilians — if only our officials had sent State’s HR to Iraq and Afghanistan.

      What better way to serve justice than to thrust the most bureaucraticaly-minded and conscience-less members of our Human Resources upon Al Qaeda and the Taliban?? We could have confounded the enemy and give reason for even Russia to rethink invading Ukraine. And not one American life would have had to been lost

      Too bad such officials wimped out of going to serve in Iraq and Afghanistan. They missed their chance at that meeting in State’s auditorium that made the airwaves. I saw in the audience and watched the entire event. What a farce those officials offered

      07/14/14 2:10 AM | Comment Link

    • Kyzl Orda said...


      Instead, these officials at State’s HR behaved as if State’s whistleblowers were the enemy, and forgot about the real war on terror

      07/14/14 2:12 AM | Comment Link

    • Kyzl Orda said...


      ..And as State devotes lots of money and resources to root out its whistleblowers and try to ruin their careers ….

      It has installed people via a broken hiring system into key Iraq and Afghanistan jobs and on their watch, uranium goes missing in Mosul.


      Would be interesting to hear State’s HR take on how its war on American whistleblowers is going?

      07/14/14 2:21 AM | Comment Link

    • pitchfork said...


      quote”Google him and you’ll see his name in every scandal, including Benghazi.”unquote

      I did. Now how do I get the stench out of my computer?? 🙂

      quote”How much faster we could have won, definitively too,..”unquote

      Won what? Hearts and minds? In reality, the Neocons already won before the war started. Hundreds of billions in contracts for them and their buddys..to be exact…care of DOS and our wunnerful Congress full of buffoons.

      quote”..not to mention save the lives of our troops and Iraqi and Afghani civilians — if only our officials had sent State’s HR to Iraq and Afghanistan.”unquote

      Indeed. The term “human resources” in the context of DOS is an oxymoron. The only thing “human resources” means to the USG is targets. Like I said though..one of these days..100 Heads Life & Casualty Co. youbetcha. They don’t have a clue.

      07/14/14 4:30 PM | Comment Link

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