• Google, the “Good Censor,” is Going to Think for You

    October 24, 2018 // 7 Comments »




    Google might soon add its Terms of Service to the First Amendment.

    A leaked document written by Google argues because of a variety of factors, including the election of Donald Trump, what they call the “American tradition” of free speech may no longer be viable. The document lays out how the company can act as the world’s “Good Censor,” protecting us from harmful content and, by extension, harmful acts like electing the wrong president again.

    The document, which Google has officially characterized as research, is infuriatingly vague about whether the company has made any decisions or taken any action. So think of all this as a guidepost, like the Ghost of Christmas Future showing us the worst case scenario.

    The company is talking about changing the rules so the freedom to speak will no longer exist independent of the content of speech. What you can say could depend on Google’s opinion of whether or not it will negatively affect others. To Google, the personal liberty of freedom of speech might need to be balanced against collective well-being. The company acknowledges for the first time it has the responsibility and power to unilaterally adjudicate this battle between “free-for-all and civil-for-most” versions of society.

    We probably should be paying more attention to how they plan to do this, but because the document leaked on Breitbart, and because the initial rounds of censorship have impacted right of center, it has received little critical attention. But the significance of Google’s plans extends beyond the left-right fight; which content is censored is easily changed. If this plan is implemented, everything you will ever read online will be judged before it reaches you. Or doesn’t reach you.

    The old ideas seem as archaic to Google (Facebook, Twitter, and their successors) as the powdered wigs the Founders wore when they wrote them. People should be free to say nearly anything they want. In the marketplace of ideas good will overpower bad. If we block one person’s speech, we can soon block others, right up to when it comes to us. The collective right to free speech is more important than an individual’s reaction to that speech. There is an uncomfortable duty to protect speech irrespective of its content.

    Jefferson had a good run. Then the election of Donald Trump scared the free speech ideal out of Google. Could they have been… responsible… for helping elect a threat to democracy, the last president, someone who would shape-shift into a dictator? Should they have tried to stop him? Wouldn’t you have killed baby Hitler if you could have?

    Under such circumstances, free speech is reimagined by many as a liability which bad actors will exploit judo-style, the tools of democracy used to destroy democracy. The Google document warns “online manipulation and disinformation influenced elections in more than 18 countries, including the U.S. [as] free speech becomes a social, economic and political weapon.”

    The irony is the Internet was supposed to be, and maybe briefly was, the highest expression of what is now the legacy definition of unfettered speech. Anyone could start a website to stand alongside the .govs. One voice was as loud as anyone else’s, and search engines were the democratizing connective tissue. Google was created to organize the world’s knowledge, not help control it. Free speech flourished online. Government censors had real restrictions; we know them as borders.

    Not so for global entities like Google. What doesn’t pass through their search engines or social media travels through their servers and cloud storage. There is no more pretending any but a minority of users can use another tool, or ignore the web, and still functionally live in the real world. Google sees itself at the nexus of this historic change, saying “Although people have long been racist, sexist, and hateful in many other ways, they weren’t empowered by the Internet to recklessly express their views with abandon.” We apparently can’t handle that, and Google is, for the first time in human history, in a position to do something about it. After all, they acknowledge they “now control the majority of our online conversations” so the Internet is mostly whatever they say it is.

    At that point, Google worries, the “we’re not responsible for what happens on our platforms” defense crumbles. How much the last election was influenced doesn’t matter as much as the realization the tools are in place to do it more effectively next time. Existing laws can limit foreigners buying political ads stuffed with controversial news, but if Americans want to do the same thing laws not only don’t limit them, the legacy version of the 1A demands they be allowed to blast out hate speech and gendered bigotry. Something has to be done. Google’s document says they as the apex predator can now create online “well-ordered spaces for safety and civility.”

    There is no one to stop them. It is very clear what private companies can do vis-a-vis speech; the argument is over what they should do. Thanks to Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, Google is shielded from traditional publishers’ liability and responsibility. The 1A does not apply. No one at Google stands for election. Users matter only in the aggregate of millions of clicks. Google as the Good Censor would be accountable to pretty much no one (though the Supreme Court last week agreed to hear a long-shot case that could determine whether users can challenge social media companies on free speech grounds.)

    As proof-of-concept – what they are capable of doing – the Google document cites Charlottesville. Following racial violence, Google, GoDaddy, and Cloudflare quietly ganged up to end their relationships with The Daily Stormer, “effectively booting it off the Internet.” Google noted “While some free speech advocates were troubled by the idea that ‘a voice’ could be silenced at its source, others were encouraged by the united front the tech firms put up.” Same with Alex Jones, as corporations serially kicked him off their sites. Facebook and Twitter also actively censor, with Facebook removing over 800 political pages for “coordinated inauthentic behavior,” an Orwellian term Facebook claims means they were not forums for “legitimate political debate.”

    Google and the others aren’t acting in a vacuum. Some 69% of American college students believe intentionally offensive language should be banned. The ACLU now applies a litmus test to cases it defends, weighing their impact on other rights (for example, the right to say the N-word versus the rights of POC not to hear it), declaring free speech can be secondary to other political goals. As Google suggests, censorship has a place, per the ACLU, if it serves a greater good.

    The document makes clear Google understands current censorship efforts have fallen short. Decisions have been imprecise, biased, and influenced by shares and likes. Yet while acknowledging they never will please everyone, Google is emphatic it can’t escape “its responsibility for how society functions and progresses.” So the document is rich in words like transparency and fairness as it wrestles with the complexity of the task, with Google envisioning itself as more an imperfect but benign curator than Big Brother. But like a bad horror movie, you can see the ending from miles away.

    Eliminating voices to “not influence” an election is influencing an election. Once one starts deleting hate speech, there is no bottom to the list of things offensive to someone. Once you set your goal as manipulating thought via controlling information, the temptation to use that tool will prove great. Why not manipulate stock prices to fund “good” nonprofits and harm bad ones? Who should be elected in Guatemala? What’s the Google solution for that land dispute in St. Louis? It is so easy. Just placing links for one candidate above another in a test search increased the number of undecided voters who chose that candidate by 12%.

    The cornerstone of free speech – the absolute right to speak remaining independent of the content of the speech – is now in the hands of corporate monopolies, waiting for them to decide whether or not to use the power. Where the Supreme Court refused to prohibit hate speech, Google can do so. Where the 1A kept the government from choosing what is and isn’t called true, Google may decide. Journalists can take a first pass at writing news, but Google is the one positioned to determine if anyone sees it. Like some TV murder mystery, Google is perched on the edge of a terrible decision, having tested opportunity, means, and method. All that’s left is the decision to pull the trigger.




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    Corporate Censorship Brought Us the America I Always Feared

    August 13, 2018 // 4 Comments »

    When I was in Iran earlier this year, the government there blocked Twitter, deciding for a whole nation what they can not see. In America, Twitter purges users, deciding for a whole nation what they can not see. It matters little whose hand is on the switch, the end result is the same. This is the America I always feared I’d see.

    Speech in America is an unalienable right, and goes as deep into the concept of a free society as any idea can. Thomas Jefferson wrote of the right flowing from his notion of a Creator, not from government. Jefferson’s 18th century invocation is understood now as less that free speech is heaven-sent and more that it is something existing above government. And so the argument the First Amendment applies only to government and not to all public speaking (including private platforms like Twitter) is thus both true and irrelevant, and the latter is more important.

    The government remains a terrifying threat to free speech. An Espionage Act prosecution against Wikileaks’ Julian Assange will create precedent for use against any mainstream journalist. The war on whistleblowers which started under Obama continues under Trump. Media are forced to register as propaganda agents. Universities restrict controversial speakers. The Trump administration no doubt will break the record (77%) for redacting or denying access to government files under the Freedom of Information Act.

    But there is another threat to freedom of speech now, corporate censorship. It is often dressed up with NewSpeak terms like deplatforming, restricting hate speech, or simply applying Terms of Service. Corporations always did what they wanted with speech. Our protection against corporate overreach used to rely on an idea Americans once held dear, enshrined as “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend your right to say it.” The concept was core to a democracy: everyone supports the right of others to throw ideas into the marketplace independent. An informed people would sort through it all, and bad ideas would be pushed away by better ones. That system more or less worked for 240 years.

    For lack of a more precise starting point, the election of Donald Trump did away with near-universal agreement on defending the right to speak without defending the content, driven by a belief too much free speech helped Trump get elected. Large numbers of Americans began not just to tolerate, but to demand censorship. They wanted universities to deplatform speakers they did not agree with, giggling over the fact the old-timey 1A didn’t apply and there was nothing “conservatives” could do. They expressed themselves in violence, demanding censorship by “punching Nazis.” Such brownshirt-like violence was endorsed by The Nation, once America’s clearest voice for freedom. The most startling change came within the American Civil Liberties Union, who enshrined the “defend the right, not the speech” concept in the 1970s when it defended the free speech rights of Nazis, and went on to defend the speech rights of white supremacists in Charlottesville.

    Not so much anymore. The ACLU now applies a test to the free speech cases it will defend, weighing their impact on other rights (for example, the right to say the N-word versus the rights of POC.) The ACLU in 2018 is siding with those who believe speech can be secondary to other political goals. Censorship has a place, says the ACLU, when it serves what they believe is a greater good.

    A growing segment of public opinion isn’t just in favor of this, it demands it. So when years-old tweets clash with 2018 definitions of racism and sexism, companies fire employees. Under public pressure, Amazon removed “Nazi paraphernalia and other far-right junk” from its online store. It was actually just some nasty Halloween gear and Confederate flag merch, but the issue is not the value of the products — that’s part of any free speech debate — it’s corporate censorship being used to stifle debate by literally in this case pulling things out of the marketplace.

    Alex Jones’ InfoWars was deplatformed off download sites where it has been available for years, including Apple, YouTube (owned by Google), Spotify, and Amazon, for promoting “hate speech.” Huffington Post wondered why more platforms, such as Instagram, haven’t done away with Jones and his hate speech.

    That term, hate speech, clearly not prohibited by the Supreme Court, is an umbrella word now used by censorship advocates for, well, basically anything they don’t want others to be able to listen to or watch. It is very flexible and thus very dangerous. As during the McCarthy-era in the 1950s when one needed only to label something “Communist” to have it banned, so it is today with the new mark of “hate speech.” The parallels are chilling — it was in the McCarthy-era Hollywood created its infamous blacklists, actors and writers who could not work because of their political beliefs.

    Twitter is perhaps the most infamous platform to censor its content. The site bans advertising from Russian media outlets RT and Sputnik. Twitter suspends the accounts of those who promote (what it defines as) hate and violence, “shadow bans” others to limit their audience, and tweaks its trending topics to push certain political ideas and downplay others. It regularly purges users and bans “hateful symbols.” There are near-daily demands by increasingly organized groups calling on Twitter to censor specific users, with Trump at the top of that list. The point is always the same: to limit what ideas you can be exposed to and narrow debate.

    Part of the 2018 problem is the trust people place in “good companies” like Amazon, Facebook, and Twitter. Anthropomorphizing them as Jeff, and Zuck, and @jack is popular, along with a focus on their “values.” It seems to make sense, especially now when many of the people making decisions on corporate censorship are the same age and hold the same political views as those demanding they do it.

    Of course people age, values shift, what seems good to block today might change. But the main problem is companies exist to make money and will do what they need to do to make money. You can’t count on them past that. Handing over free speech rights to an entity whose core purpose has nothing to do with free speech means they will quash ideas when they conflict with what they are really about. People who gleefully celebrate the fact that @jack who runs Twitter is not held back by the 1A and can censor at will seem to believe he will always yield his power in the way they want him to.

    Google has a slogan reading “do no evil.” Yet in China Google will soon deploy Dragonfly, a version of its search engine that will meet Beijing’s demands for censorship by blocking websites on command. Of course in China they don’t call it hate speech, they call it anti-societal speech, and the propaganda Google will block isn’t from Russian bots but from respected global media. In the U.S. Google blocks users from their own documents saved in Drive if the service feels the documents are “abusive.” Backin China Apple removes apps from its store on command of the government in return for market access. Amazon, who agreed to remove hateful merch from its store in the U.S., the same week confirmed it is “unwaveringly committed to the U.S. government and the governments we work with around the world” using its AI and facial recognition technology to spy on their own people. Faced with the loss of billions of dollars, as was the case for Google and Apple in China, what will corporations do in America?

    Once upon a time an easy solution to corporate censorship was to take one’s business elsewhere. The 2018 problem is with the scale of platforms like Amazon, near global monopolies all. Pretending Amazon, which owns the Washington Post, and with the reach to influence elections, is just another company that sells things is to pretend the role of unfettered debate in a free society is outdated. Yeah, you can for now still go through hoops to download stuff outside the Apple store or Google Play, but those platforms more realistically control access to your device. Censored on Twitter? No problem big guy, go try Myspace, and maybe Bing will notice you. Technology and market dominance changed the nature of censorship so free speech is as much about finding an audience as it is about finding a place to speak. Corporate censorship is at the cutting edge of a reality targeting both speakers (Twitter suspends someone) and listeners (Apple won’t post that person’s videos made off-platform). Ideas need to be discoverable to enter the debate; in 1776 you went to the town square. In 2018 it’s Twitter.

    In the run up to the midterm elections, Senator Chris Murphy, ironically in a tweet, demanded social media censor more aggressively for the “survival of our democracy,” implying those companies can act as proxies for those still held back by the First Amendment. We already know the companies involved can censor. The debate is over what happens when they do.

    A PERSONAL NOTE: Some readers are aware I have been permanently suspended from Twitter as @wemeantwell. This followed exchanges with several mainstream journalists over their support for America’s wars and unwillingness to challenge government lies. Twitter sent an auto-response saying what I wrote “harasses, intimidates, or uses fear to silence someone else’s voice.” I don’t think I did any of that, and I wish you didn’t have to accept my word on it. I wish instead you could read what I wrote and decide for yourself. But Twitter won’t allow it. Twitter says you cannot read and make up your own mind. They have in fact eliminated all the things I have ever written there over seven years, disappeared me down the Memory Hole. That’s why all censorship is wrong; it takes the power to decide what is right and wrong away from you and gives it to someone else.

    I lost my career at the State Department because I spoke out as a whistleblower against the Iraq War. I’ve now been silenced, again, for speaking out, this time by a corporation. I am living in the America I always feared.

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    Posted in Democracy, Post-Constitution America, Trump

    Google, YouTube, Facebook, Others, Now Using Automated Blocking of ‘Extremist’ Content

    June 25, 2016 // 25 Comments »

    GoogleEvil



    The web’s biggest content providers have started using automation to remove “extremist propaganda” videos from their sites.



    Censoring Content

    YouTube (owned by Google) and Facebook are among the sites deploying systems to block or rapidly take down Islamic State videos and other similar material, sources said, though no company would confirm the action.

    The technology employed was originally developed to remove copyright-protected content on video sites. It looks for “hashes,” unique digital fingerprints that Internet companies automatically assign to specific videos, allowing all content with matching fingerprints to be removed rapidly. Someone finds an offensive video, tags it, and then searches find other copies across the Internet.

    Newly posted videos would be checked against a database of banned content to identify unauthorized information.

    The system was kicked off in late April, amid pressure from an Obama White House concerned about online radicalization. Internet companies held a conference call to discuss options, including use of a content-blocking system put forward by the private Counter Extremism Project, a nonprofit controlled in part by George W. Bush Homeland Security Advisor Frances Townsend.



    Get it yet?

    Government and private industry will decide what content you (as well as journalists and academics) may see on the Internet. What is and is not allowable will be decided by a closed process, and will be automated. A database will be drawn upon for decision making.

    Databases and tagging can be hacked/manipulated, perhaps by governmental intelligence organizations, maybe some bad guys, hell, even by advertisers to control what is available to you online.

    Since content removed equals content prohibited, you’ll never know what you can’t see. The obvious slippery slope is in decisions about what is “extremist” and what is legitimate free, political speech that, while offensive, has a right to be heard and a place in the market of ideas.

    So how about blocking all videos of police violence during say a Ferguson/Baltimore scenario, so as not to “inflame” a situation?

    And even if Government A plays nicely, Government B may not, and dictatorships and oligarchies will have a new tool for repression. In the same way Western companies are forced now by China, for example, to adjust content, they will likely be forced to add things to the no-fly database of ideas. Corporations will be in a position to censor things on behalf of governments.

    Via the Edward Snowden documents, we already know that many tech companies cooperate directly with the NSA and others, either voluntarily, or under pressure from secret national security practices and laws. It is not a matter of “it can happen here,” but one of “it is already happening here.”

    But, some will say, Google, et al, are private companies. They can do what they want with their businesses, and you don’t have to use them.

    Certain private businesses, such as power companies and transportation providers, have become clearly so much a part of society that they indeed can’t just do what they want. They become public utilities, and there is no doubt that organizations like Google are squarely in the category.

    Lastly, for those who prefer dictionary things, do check up on the definition of true fascism: a collusion between government and industry.



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    State Department to Have USG’s Most Restrictive Social Media Rules

    December 6, 2012 // 5 Comments »

    Diplopundit has a copy of the (leaked) revised rules for the use of social media by State Department employees. The rules have not been formalized, so let’s hope some smidgen of change is still possible, but my own sources confirm that what you can read about here are authentic. These rules are horrible and childish, a pathetic over-reactive lashing-out over how poorly State handled the media swirl around my book We Meant Well.

    For example, there are some wonderful catch-all “standards” that would not pass legal review at a junior high student council but which will control America’s diplomats. Here’s one:

    Employees at all levels are expected to exhibit at all times the highest standards of character, integrity, and conduct, and to maintain a high level of efficiency and productivity.

    Leaving aside the yucks so obvious even I won’t crack jokes about them concerning efficiency and productivity, what definitions and details will define and explain what the hell the “highest standards” of character, integrity, and conduct are? For example, is lying about what happened in Benghazi a highest standard? What about making a sex tape on the roof of the Baghdad embassy? Shooting an unarmed man in a McDonald’s? Wasting billions on faux reconstruction projects in Iraq, Haiti and Afghanistan? I guess all that is OK just as long as you don’t Tweet about it.

    The new standards also seek to codify that what can’t be disclosed is “protected information.” In addition to the legally-based actual USG-wide standard classifications of Top Secret, Secret and Confidential, the State Department created its own unique category called Sensitive But Unclassified (SBU). State then declared that everything it does on its Unclassified network is actually SBU, meaning under the new rules “disclosing” an email from Diplomat A to Diplomat B asking when lunch is will be a violation. FYI, State is also seeking desperately to invoke the SBU rule against Bradley Manning to make his alleged Wikileaks leaks seem more horrible. State also cited my own release of SBU information (in my case, a Diplomatic Security memo written to me about me) as justification for suspending my security clearance. Of course such nonsense makes no sense in that outside of the State Department possession of such documents is not a crime, and of course as unclassified documents they should be all available under the Freedom of Information Act.

    State’s new Brazil-like rules stand in sharp contrast to the military’s. Of course the military also trusts its people with guns and sharp instruments, so maybe that does make sense.

    The State Department will have the most restrictive social media rules of any Federal agency under these new standards, proposing, among other amazing things, that all Department employee Facebook posts and Tweets of “matters of official concern” (whatever your boss chooses to define that as) undergo a two-day review process. Such rules will either require hundreds of full-time reviewers, or, most likely, be ignored in most instances and hauled out selectively when needed to punish an individual. Such selective application begs for a lawsuit.

    These changes show clearly that the State Department fears what its own employees will say about it, what truths they will reveal. Like the corrupt Communist bureaucracies of the old Eastern Europe, more and more resources will be devoted to monitoring one’s own workers, with snitches no doubt favored and promoted for “outing” social media deviants. Perhaps next Foreign Service children, no doubt more computer-savvy than their diplo-parents, will be schooled in spying on what Mommy and Daddy do online. One can only see this as positive, the bureaucracy at State consuming itself, with no one in the organization willing to trust anyone else. Whatever shreds of free speech credibility abroad are left will clearly dissipate. One can hear laughter in Beijing. 21st Century Diplomacy indeed.

    Really, these people are pathetic. Very sad, very paranoid, for a once-distinguished organization that purports speak for free speech around the globe. We’ll keep all this at hand for 2016 as a further example of how Hillary Clinton really rolls. And when are we going to stop saying “1984-like” and start saying “State Department-like”?

    The Washington Post is also covering this story. It quotes State Department deputy spokesman Mark Toner as saying with a straight face the changes are merely updates “to recognize the dynamic and decentralized nature of the 21st century information environment.”



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    NPR “All Things Considered:” The Ghosts of the State Department

    March 4, 2012 // 3 Comments »

    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.



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    State Department Responds

    February 29, 2012 // 1 Comment »

    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.



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    My Weekly Memo from State

    February 2, 2012 // Comments Off on My Weekly Memo from State

    I get an email like this one every week from the State Department.

    They apparently have someone/someones’ whose job it is to cut and paste articles from this blog into a handy weekly gazette format. Since I am a certified teleworker for the State Department, as well as the author of these blog posts, perhaps I could be tasked directly with making up the gazette each week as a way to save some money in these tough budgetary times, though apparently the State Department has enough people working for it that someone has as their daily duty to read and cut and paste my blog fodder.

    Entry Level Officers at the State Department, be cautious if someone offers you a “social media” job!

    Be sure to see that though the gazette is for last week, they also mention a Financial Times interview with me from December. That one must have slipped through their poorly-worded Google Alert! See, if I was making up the gazette myself I would have definitely caught that one, just saying.

    Of course, why bother to cut and paste the gazette when all the articles are just right here online anyway?
    When I was interrogated about this blog by the big bad wolves in Diplomatic Security, they at least had printed out, in color, the hundreds of articles from this blog’s inception in April 2011, a serious phone book-sized stack o’ dead trees. State and technology have never really gotten along well I guess.

    Plus the gazette format really does not take full advantage of the medium, as it does not include the funny/ironic photos and occasional cartoons I feature on the blog. I mean, this blog post does not work at all without the visuals. Oh well, that’s a bureaucracy for you, no real sense of humor.

    Just for grins, I have today filed a Freedom of Information Act request for all of the past gazettes. Let’s see how long it takes State to respond and if they respond with some sort of Ministry of Silly Walks-like excuse about why they won’t release to me my own writing.

    And finally here’s a cartoon especially for the anonymous troll inside State who compiles my weekly gazette.





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    State Department Demands I Remove Their Seal

    February 1, 2012 // 3 Comments »

    With war maybe on its way in Iran, problems in Syria and Iraq, never mind troubles everywhere else abroad, what does your Department of State have time to focus on? This blog apparently.

    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.



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    Enemy of (the) State

    January 17, 2012 // Comments Off on Enemy of (the) State




    (This article originally appeared on the Daily Kos, written by Jesselyn Radack, an attorney at the Government Accountability Project who protects my First Amendment right to publish this blog)

    The Washington Post has an article this morning on DHS Monitoring of Social Media Concerns Civil Liberties Advocates, which discusses the Department of Homeland Security’s 3-year-old practice of monitoring social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter.

    Predictably, [a] senior DHS official said the department does not monitor dissent or gather reports tracking citizens’ views.

    Maybe DHS doesn’t, but the State Department does.

    I represent a State Department 23-year-veteran of the Foreign Service, Peter Van Buren, where the State Department admits that it does precisely that: monitor his personal Internet activity on his home computer during his private time.

    Peter Van Buren wrote a book, We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People (Metropolitan Books 2011), which is highly critical of our gross reconstruction fraud in Iraq. It went through pre-publication review and the State Department approved it by default by letting its own 30-day review period expire.

    A month before the publication of his book, Mr. Van Buren began to experience a series of adverse personnel actions, which are ongoing today.

    The State Department tried a variety of different tactics to censor Mr. Van Buren’s book and prevent him from promoting it. After vague references to ethics rules failed, it tried threats of criminal action. After those failed, it started coming down on his blogs (which had been posted since April 2011 without criticism) and live media appearances, [saying the contents of which] needed to be pre-cleared.

    There are many incarnations of the State Department’s increasingly-restrictive policies regarding linking–not leaking–to WikiLeaks documents, with which they tried to jack up Van Buren. But now he is getting his own personal “compliance letters” that say things like:

    You 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 (Emphasis added).

    Although hundreds of State Department employees write blogs (the State Department even links to the ones it likes), and thousands have Facebook accounts, Mr. Van Buren has been told (the government usually doesn’t admit this) that all his Internet activity on his personal computer in his private capacity is being monitored.

    This is outrageous. I recommend that the democracy-loving, Internet-freedom-promoting State Department read the First Amendment.



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    Dear State Department:

    September 27, 2011 // 2 Comments »



    The immaturity of the land of the free defies imagination.


    Thanks for your interest in my book. I’m sorry that some of it is not to your liking and that you have formally requested in a letter to the publisher redactions of embarrassing information freely available online (including info from a scene in Black Hawk Down, great movie), but I want to find a way to make it right. Here’s an idea– don’t say no yet, think it over.

    Let’s look at how the Department of Defense used some taxpayer moolah. The Defense Intelligence Agency tried to stop Americans from reading former Army Intelligence Officer Anthony Shaffer’s book, Operation Dark Heart: Spycraft and Special Ops on the Frontlines of Afghanistan — and the Path to Victory. The Defense Department spent nearly $50,000 of your taxpayer money (ka-ching!) to buy up and destroy the first printing of the book. A subsequent printing redacted all sorts of information, including the fact that the author’s pseudonym, Chris Stryker, was John Wayne’s character in the 1949 film, Sands of Iwo Jima (also a great flick).

    So here’s the offer. I know that State’s budget is not nearly as big as DOD’s. So, you agree to buy the first printing of my book, and I’ll do my best to negotiate with the publisher to get you a wholesale rate. You list up your redactions, and then we’ll reprint without the Black Hawk Down thingie. I personally promise to not put my unredacted copies on eBay. I already mailed one to my Mom (Hi Mom!), so that one is off the table, yeah? Deal????? I didn’t use a macho pseudonym like “Stryker,” so you have some savings right there.

    You’re welcome.

    Love,

    Peter



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    The State Department Does Not Want You to Read This

    // 11 Comments »




    Time for a little peak behind the curtain…

    Are words really that scary? Did I set fire to the flag using a cute puppy soaked in gasoline? Did I step on a tiger’s tail?

    The State Department has done a number of things to try and prevent me from publishing my book, and threatened, promised or suggested they will do more. The book is on sale now, today, so they have turned to seeking to punish me as an example to others; easier to stop books that are never written.

    We’ll focus on only one action at this time (if you want more, have a look at TomDispatch). We’ll take the Department’s word for it that the sudden review of my old travel vouchers from early 2009 (guess what, not in my favor so I had to repay $$$ to the government) is just a coincidence, that after years this week they just decided to take a look.

    Sure.

    Almost two years ago, on nearly my first day as a PRT Team Leader in Iraq, I chose not to sign off on a $25,000 project to provide free sheep to five Iraqi widows. This story makes up part of a chapter in my book, “Sheep for Widows.” I felt the project was poorly conceived and would waste taxpayer/your $25,000 without furthering the US’ efforts to rebuild Iraq. Upset because I had pissed on their fire, the contractors involved in the project got together and complained to the Embassy that I raised my voice at them, even supposedly making one battle-hardened veteran contractor cry. I claim it didn’t happen that way, the contractors said it did.

    As for the Sheep for Widows project itself, curiously, my boss, and later his own boss, did not overrule me as they could have, and the project was never funded.

    Now, almost two years later, the State Department is still pursuing this supposed “raising of one’s voice” as a “discipline case” against me, claiming of course that it has nothing to do with this book.

    Nope, nothing at all.

    Just like the travel voucher review.

    Despite the ultimate penalty for my misconduct being nothing but a “Letter of Reprimand” more worthy of Ferris Bueller, the State Department sent an investigator all the way from Washington to Baghdad to gather evidence. The investigator, since one of the contractors to whom a voice was allegedly raised was female, thought that I might have thus committed sexual harassment, and pursued the charge with zeal. She interviewed only the people who had made accusations. Despite requests by me that she also interview other witnesses, perhaps some who were not complainants, she did not.

    Ironically, the investigator works for the Office of Civil Rights, S/OCR, which reports directly to the Secretary of State herself, Hillary Rodham Clinton. This is a lot of juice being applied to a a pretty minor thing, even if true (it’s not).

    With the exception of my Iraq boss (who said in writing that the ambiguous he said/she said matter had been settled with a stern talking-to saying “get along”), everyone the investigator talked to was a contractor whose one-year-at-a-time $250,000+ contracts depended on the State Department’s regular renewals. One of the contractors, scheduled at first to be let go, instead had a contract renewed after the investigation commenced. Despite the “incident” taking maybe five minutes of real time in 2009, the investigator came up with 77 questions for me to answer under oath, this part of the several hundred page Report of Investigation (ROI). The Department has assigned a team of lawyers you’re paying for to depose me yet again on these identical questions because, well, they can.

    When I objected to the ROI in a formal grievance, the State Department assigned the same lawyer prosecuting me for the alleged raising of a voice to review the grievance that sought to throw out the interviews that formed the basis of all charges. This essentially means that the prosecutor was allowed to rule on a motion to throw out the evidence that forms her own case. When I objected to this as a bit biased and unfair, I was told to shut up, it was OK, by a Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary (PDAS), backed up by the Director General of the Foreign Service, the chief HR Officer for the whole Department of State.

    Sweet.

    To give you a sense of how much effort the State Department is spending on this case, have a look just at their filing just to try and prevent a short delay in the procedures (Dept Resp to Motion for Stay).

    But as we stand today, even the State Department couldn’t figure out a way to make an alleged raised voice in the midst of a shooting war grounds for sexual harassment, so I was found guilty of the catch-all of “misconduct.” When I tried to appeal that decision, I was told that I could not ask more than 30 questions of the entire world of people in my defense, and that the State Department would first have to approve those questions in advance. One of the key witnesses ignored by State, a soldier, has died in the interim and can no longer testify on my behalf. Yeah, we thought it too, Kafkaesque.

    The effect is chilling.

    The State Department only interviewed people who had accused me and who had a clear financial incentive to side with the Department. The State Department refused to interview anyone else. They then found me guilty, and will only allow me a scant few emasculated questions. This shuts out of the process most of the people who might help establish my side of the story.

    It essentially assures a guilty verdict every time by eliminating the defense.

    No court would allow that, but State treats the employees it does not like that way, just like back when Uncle Joe McCarthy turned his wrath on the Department itself with similar tactics. They learn slow in Foggy Bottom, but they do learn.

    The State Department does business this way, and everyone should know that.

    Also, please note that the State Department has expended over 1000 personnel hours and the cost of a round-trip to Iraq for the investigator in pursuing a case whose absolute worst possible outcome is a simple Letter of Reprimand. Oh yeah—that investigator, the one who refused to interview neutral witnesses, remember she works for the State Department’s Office of Civil Rights. Ironic.

    The book is out.

    Congress, as it makes its budget decisions, should be aware of how State chooses to use its limited resources. Really, bullying is kind of immature for a Cabinet agency.

    Is the juice worth the squeeze Hillary? They work for you. Is this the public image you want for your agency, because it is the image your staff is creating.




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    State Department Censors Web Sites China Allows

    May 15, 2011 // 30 Comments »

    chimps see no wikileaksIf you’ve come over from TomDispatch after reading my article there, I am fairly certain of at least one thing (besides your good taste in blogs): You don’t work for the State Department.

    The State Department continues to block web sites within our offices such as Tom’s because they may contain content from Wikileaks, which although available all over the web, is still considered classified by the State Department. If you try to access a forbidden site, you get a message like this (click on the graphic below and it will enlarge so that your computer at home will look like a real US Government computer. Pretend you’re a real diplomat!):

    State Dept Wallpaper

    The doesn’t-make-sense part is that the State firewall does not block mainstream web sites that have a lot more Wikileaks content than Tom’s. Examples include the Washington Post, The New York Times and the Guardian UK. All of these sites have and continue to include Wikileaks material that is otherwise still classified within Foggy Bottom.

    Just to make sure our quotient of irony stays at Defcon 99, the State Department plans to spend $19 million on breaking Internet censorship overseas. State says it will give $19 million dollars to efforts to evade Internet controls in China, Iran and other authoritarian states which block online access to “politically sensitive material.” Michael Posner, the Assistant Secretary of State in charge of human rights, said that the funding would support technology to identify what countries are trying to censor and “redirecting information back in that governments have initially blocked; this is a cat-and-mouse game. We’re trying to stay one step ahead of the cat through email or posting it on blogs or RSS feeds or websites that the government hasn’t figured out how to block.”

    I emailed a colleague in Beijing, and yes, Tom Dispatch is available there to him, at home. In his US Embassy office however, the site is still blocked.



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