• After a Year of Serious Roars and Growls, State Dept Officially Retires FSO-Non Grata

    October 13, 2012 // 20 Comments »

    The most important foreign service blog out there, Diplopundit, has a nice write up, sort of an obituary really, of this past year, my struggle with the State Department.

    Diplopundit focuses on the big picture. Forget about what you think of me or my book or my efforts and think about the institution, the venerable Department of State. Diplopundit posits that over the past year dozens or more staffers have been involved in my prosecution, memos written, maybe even awards and kudos handed out to workers who participated. And the sum of all that time, money and effort was?

    Pretty much squat.

    Despite the full resources of the Department of State, I did and still do continue to speak out. I retired maybe a bit earlier than I was originally planning, but I did retire free and normal. More importantly, what I wrote stands. The descriptions of waste and mismanagement in Iraq reconstruction I wrote have entered the zeitgeist and will pretty much always be there as a counterpoint to State’s own rapidly discredited happy talk version of events (By the way, how’s Iraq working out? That World’s Largest Embassy in Baghdad still seem like a good idea?)

    What does it say about an institution like State that not only did it expend all these resources against one employee, but that its expenditure accomplished nothing? What does it say about State when it reacts this violently against a critic, a whistleblower, one of its own long-serving employees who only told the story of his own experiences?

    Despite the thousands of pages of crap turned out by State in its witch hunt and the hundreds or more personhours expended, not once did they claim anything I wrote was false. Not one fact was ever challenged. Not one figure or example was ever offered in rebuttal. The only things that oozed out were sad personal attacks against me.

    Now, what does that say about your Department of State? Madame Secretary, a response in defense of your organization? Don’t worry if you’re too busy to respond now, we’ll be asking the same questions in 2016.

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    Posted in Embassy/State, Iraq


    July 25, 2012 // 7 Comments »

    I wrote yesterday that if one definition of mental illness is doing the same thing repeatedly hoping for different results, the Department of State is clearly and simply insane as an organization.

    Example No. 1 was then-ambassador to Afghanistan Ryan Crocker, who oversaw a good chunk of the State Department’s failed reconstruction follies in America’s longest war. Crocker had previously overseen a good chunk of the State Department’s failed reconstruction in Iraq as ambassador there. He was also recycled to be ambassador in Pakistan, where things are also going swimmingly in anticipation of someone else’s disclosure book-to-come. Why keep sending a guy who failed at leading reconstruction efforts repeatedly back to lead some more off a cliff?

    The Crocker example was paired with a piece on State’s failures in post-earthquake reconstruction in Haiti, lead there by now-departing US ambassador Kenneth Merten (Merten’s departure was marked by the freakish sideshow caricature above, posted on the embassy’s official Facebook page; Crocker’s embassy staff blessed his departure by naming a hut after him. My own departure from the State Department will no doubt by marked by them simply slamming the door shut behind me).

    Today we learn from Diplopundit that Merten was the recipient of the 2011 Ryan C. Crocker Award for Outstanding Leadership in Expeditionary Diplomacy, for, of course, “his extraordinary leadership of the unprecedented U.S. government response to the 2010 Haiti earthquake, which… embodies the highest virtues of public service and crisis management.”

    So to sum up things at the State Department: a guy who fails at reconstruction gets chosen to do it again, then gets an award for such work named after him, and that award is given to another guy who was largely unsuccessful at the task.

    Aw yes, the circle is complete. As one philosopher stated, self-love is the purest form of affection. Gotta go wash up now.

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    Posted in Embassy/State, Iraq

    The Ryan C. Crocker Expeditionary Blog

    July 7, 2012 // 7 Comments »

    This blog just loves Ryan Crocker, America’s ambassador to everything. The Crock is always firing off wacky statements from wherever he is ambassadoring from, be it Iraq or Afghanistan. It is what he does.

    The other thing Crock likes to do is have things named after him, like droppings at each post he leads. The State Department even offers an in-house award called the Ryan C. Crocker Award for Outstanding Leadership in Expeditionary Diplomacy.

    Crock’s latest North Korean-like leadership example is what appears to be a makeshift hut in Kabul that is now known as the The Ryan C. Crocker Expeditionary Production Studio, for making the teevee things that will win our war. Both Diplopundit and El Snarkistani have much more to say about all this.

    For me, however, this time I want to be on the team. Thus, I am officially renaming this blog “The Ryan C. Crocker Expeditionary Blog.”

    Actually, nothing will change. This is partially because changing the graphics for this blog is a hassle, and partially because in a few weeks no one will care what was named after Crocker as it was just some short-term suck up move on the part of his staff anyway.

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    Posted in Embassy/State, Iraq

    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.

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    Posted in Embassy/State, Iraq

    What it All Means: Is America Served Well by Silencing Dissent?

    May 15, 2012 // 4 Comments »

    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.

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    Posted in Embassy/State, Iraq

    Michael Moore.com Supports We Meant Well

    March 21, 2012 // 1 Comment »

    Thinking they can sell their version of events– punish the whistleblower (me) instead of investigating the allegations ($44 billion wasted on Iraq reconstruction)– the State Department continues its dripping treacle hypocrisy, proclaiming rights for internet advocates and free speech abroad while citing “regulations” they wrote themselves that prevent free speech within its own ranks.

    Good news is that not everyone is swallowing this. MichaelMoore.com today asks:

    Dear Hillary: Please Speak Out Against
    This Attack on Free Speech in a Far-Away Land – Clinton’s State Department moves to fire Peter Van Buren, foreign service officer, author and MichaelMoore.com blogger for writing unflattering things about his time in Iraq

    Powerful Words! Where Is This Lady Now?
    “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, three short months ago

    Awesome, Now We Need Russia to Protest for Us
    “The American media, always ready to stand behind Russian whistleblowers, shows remarkably little interest in whistleblowers operating closer to home.” –Voice of Russia, radio network run by Putin’s government

    DO SOMETHING: Call Hillary Clinton at 202-647-4000. Politely remind Secretary Clinton that her nice-sounding speeches about freedom of speech would come across better if they weren’t all a bunch of crap.

    Diplopundit today sadly catalogs the Foreign Service blogs (“free speech”) that have gone dark, wondering if this is “is the ‘Peter Van Buren’ effect on the FS blogosphere.”

    Some inside the State Department are secretly proud of the blogs closing down, knowing that by stiffling free speech they have made their internal bosses happy. State is a terminally inward looking bureaucracy, doomed to a slow ride into irrelevancy, largely because it is so inwardly focused. Drones will continue to write speeches for Hillary demanding free speech in China while two floors below them other drones crush dissent within Hillary’s own employee ranks.

    State doesn’t seem to care, or even realize, that the rest of the world sees through this hypocrisy. The result? Pretty soon no one will listen to Hillary anymore but her own loyal lickspittles, making a perfect circle inside the Department while the rest of the world turns the channel. No wonder Congress continues to cut back State’s budget and reduce its ranks year after year.

    With just a little more effort, the State Department will become the late-night cable public access show of the world, watched and listened to only by its own staff. They’ll be happy then.

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    Posted in Embassy/State, Iraq

    Flim Flam at the State Department

    February 17, 2012 // 1 Comment »

    One of my favorite episodes of the The Simpsons involves a take off of The Music Man, where a slick comes to town and convinces everyone that what they need more than anything is a monorail. Just like in the famous musical, where a brass band stood in for the monorail, all problems would be solved, bald men would grow hair, weak men would grow strong and average children would soon excel. All the good people of Springfield/River City/Foggy Bottom need do is hand over their money and believe in the dream (Trivia: The monorail episode was written by a young Conan).

    Home Pages, Like It’s 1999
    The State Department is not that different, especially with technology. Way back in the 1990’s, the flim flam of the day was “eDiplomacy,” web pages and chat rooms that would replace traditional work, give State a seat at the grown up table of foreign policy and all that other good stuff. Originally there was indeed a spark of innovation, as embassies abroad competed to use the technology and find ways to communicate. A lot of money was then wasted on consultants and studies and while the rest of the world recognized the web as an important tool, State devolved into cookie-cutter, nearly static bland “home pages” that made it feel safe. Go to “News and Events” for the Embassy in Damascus and it is all a rehash of what was said in Washington at the noon press briefing. Same thing for Baghdad, Bangkok and everywhere else. State gathered control of all of the Embassy pages and made them nearly identical, very pale. Yawn.

    Social Media, It’s Outta Sight
    But now there is “social media,” and if you did not know it (and how could you not?), January was groovy “21st Century Statecraft” month at the State Department! There were cookies and punch. It was the future ya’ all.

    Social media is… the rage… now at Foggy Bottom and will cure all ills, allow bald men to grow hair, weak men to grow strong and average children to soon excel. We know this because the Secretary of State hired Alec Ross from the Obama campaign to be her most Senior Advisor for Innovation. Go look at his Wikipedia bio– it freaking says “Alec Ross (innovator)” as the title. That makes it true.

    Alec now personally trains every US Ambassador in social media (imagine your parents: yes, yes, the email machine, that’s what I’m talking about, yes, you can see photos too, no, stop that, that’s Solitaire, not social media, dammit). Best of all Alec “gets” social media is different. He says things like this, as if Marshall McLuhan Malcolm Gladwell had taken meth and installed himself in your ear:

    What I tell our ambassadors is remember you only have one mouth, but two ears. So even if you aren’t using these tools to communicate out to people, at a bare minimum, you need to use them to listen to people, because this is how people are talking to you in the 21st century.

    Sunlight is the best disinfectant, and as our information networks become more universal and more powerful, there’s more of this sunlight to bring to light what’s happening all around the world.

    The difference in the United States versus other places is that we do this without sacrificing universal rights. So people have freedom of expression. They have the ability to exercise peaceful, political dissent. They have the ability to communicate however they see fit.

    [W]hat social media tends to do, is it redistributes power. It redistributes power from hierarchies to citizens, from large institutions and the nation-state to individuals and networks of individuals.

    The 21st century is a lousy time to be a control freak.

    We can try to control the space, but I’m very skeptical about the degree to which we can or should control the internet. I think that it’s a losing proposition. The far better thing to do is to understand that everybody’s going to have a voice, that good points of view and bad points of view are going to be conveyed there, and what we need to do is be aggressive in getting out there and pushing out the truth.

    Alec also “gets” that “young people” are “hip” already to social media. He even said so: “I’ve yet to meet a 22 year old, at least in the United States, who doesn’t understand social media.” Righty-right me gobsmacker Alec old bull, just because someone has had a Facebook page to update the ‘ole in and out relationship status does not make them a social media expert– US and China IN A RELATIONSHIP, IT’S COMPLICATED. Base familiarity with technology is good, but does not make everyone born after 1990 an expert.

    What is true is that those young people are digital natives, having never lived in a world without the web, the good web with YouTube videos of cats, not the dial-up web our Ambassadors are still struggling with (someone still has all those active AOL accounts). Young people and even some older ones live on social media, and send out gazillions of Tweets, updates and blog posts. They did it before starting work at State and they do it after they join State. Freedom of Speech, that kind of thing.

    The State Department is even this week– to coincide with Social Media Week– launching a super program to increase the number of friends/fans/followers for the social media of twenty embassies by 100 percent. Despite this being just what kids in junior high do, compete for numbers without caring who they are friended by, State is going to provide “targeted, relevant and engaging content” and offer “promotion and advertising gurus” to help out (they really do talk like that at State, I’m not making this up).

    Downton Abbey
    The dial-up State Department does not “get” social media. It is afraid of letting its people talk openly. It embarrasses faster than those crusty olds on Downton Abbey at dinner when someone drops a fork. The uber-State Department blog of record, Diplopundit, catalogs blogs that have been made to go away by the State Department.

    So Alec made this promise in answer to the question posed on Diplopundit “How can State take a leadership role on Internet freedom while we continue to harass and discourage bloggers within our own ranks?”

    If I’m given specific names of people doing the “discouraging” then I will take it up with those individuals (or their bosses or their boss’ boss) directly.

    So Let’s Throw Down
    The problem is that that is not true. It is all flim flam. I know, because I asked Alec to see if he could help me with my troubles with the State Department and this blog.

    I asked Alec on his Facebook page. No response, friend request not accepted.

    I asked Alec at a party to help. He awkwardly excused himself to chat with Amy Chua and never came back.

    I asked Alec on this blog. No response.

    And via his Twitter. #No_rspnse.

    A week ago I wrote Alec an email to his State Department account asking for some assistance. No response.

    Yeah, I Thought So
    Social media, like all other forms of communication, is a valuable tool. But it is not just about numbers, amassing fake friends and dummy followers. If you have a message people want to hear, they will find their way to you, talk back to you, ask you to follow up on your promises. But if your only message is more flim flam, then you’re just another in a long line of fakes saying one thing and doing another while little of substance changes around you, albeit in a new medium. State does not understand that it is not about the numbers, or the slick tools they use, but about outcomes and results. Like the transition from kindergarten to college, results matter now, not just effort. Tweet up the Arab Spring until your thumbs bleed, but continued US support for the autocratic Egyptian military speaks louder than any 140 characters.

    BTW, who else cracks down on bloggers in addition to the State Department?

    I’m not the only one who sees this. Whether in social media, French, Wild Goose Chinese or written on a piece of cardboard, real talks, bullsh*t walks.

    Agree? Disagree? Are you a guru? Have a video of your cat? I’m on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Flickr, email info(at)wemeantwell.com, comments section below and often hang out at local bars dancing for nickles, so socially interact with me. Please please please, I’m trying to grow my circles’ 100 percent so bald men will grow hair, weak men grow strong and average children soon excel.

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    Posted in Embassy/State, Iraq

    Diplopundit: Sealed with a Kiss

    February 9, 2012 // 3 Comments »

    Fans of the best Foreign Service blog out there, Diplopundit, probably already know that the site has changed its address, but if not, the place to check every morning for news is now Diplopundit.net. Same insights, new location.

    Speaking of which, Diplopundit had some thoughts on the Great Great Seal Controversy, by which the 223 year old Department of State, our first Cabinet agency, the institution once led by giants such as Jefferson, Adams, Marshall, Hull, even Martin Van Buren (and of course Condi) got its panties tangled over my use of their official Seal as part of a satiric blog post.

    Diplopundit wrote:

    Just so I get this straight — 1) The US taxpayers are paying FSO [Van Buren] to stay away from work while he is suspended for writing a book that makes people looks bad. The suspended FSO, without his security clearance is technically consigned to cleaning latrines, except that is one job you cannot actually perform by telecommuting no matter what the work requirement statement says. 2) The US taxpayers are paying another employee, a Deputy Director no less, and who knows how many more, for monitoring the suspended FSO’s website, research the infractions in the FAM and write emails such as the one complaining about the misuse of the department’s seal. 3) The US taxpayers are paying these employees for the enviable chore of writing a weekly report of the various online infractions committed and email it to the suspended FSO, just so he knows and everyone knows that this is a job everyone at State takes seriously. Nothing is too small or too unimportant to get into this weekly report. By end of the year, the weekly report would make a nice thick book.

    Now what I’m really wondering is this — how many employees at the State Department has blog monitoring and weekly written reports on private Foreign Service blogs included in their work requirements?

    One slight correction. Diplopundit notes above that I am “technically consigned to cleaning latrines except that is one job you cannot actually perform by telecommuting.” Mrs. We Meant Well, noticing me around the house more often than before, has in fact enforced the cleaning the latrines duty on me, on behalf of State.

    Read the entire piece now at the new Diplopundit site.

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    Posted in Embassy/State, Iraq

    Diplopundit on We Meant Well: “This Seemed Important”

    January 21, 2012 // Comments Off on Diplopundit on We Meant Well: “This Seemed Important”

    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.

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    Posted in Embassy/State, Iraq

    What do you do with a “problem” like Peter Van Buren? Take away his badge, escort him out, bar the door, throw away the key and ….

    October 28, 2011 // 2 Comments »

    (This article originally appeared on Diplopundit on October 28, 2011)

    Hey! That’s going to really shut him up.

    Yesterday, AFP reports that Mr. Van Buren was escorted out of the State Department on Monday and barred from returning while officials there decide what to do next with him. Our own source said that Mr. Van Buren has been placed on administrative leave for the next couple of weeks. Admin leave is like “we’ll pay you so we don’t have to see you.” I supposed that’s until they can find the citation in the FAM that would fit this “problem.” Mr. Van Buren’s current assignment reportedly had also been curtailed. If true, that means they just took away his desk and chair, too. So even if he is allowed to return after his admin leave, he won’t actually have a job to return to.

    As an aside, Mr. Van Buren’s book is the main selection in our house’s book of the month club. Our 5th grader is currently reading it at home and at school. I don’t think it’s going to damage the kid in any way.

    Mr. Van Buren’s book is highly critical of the State Department’s work in Iraq, the accompanying blog, just as critical. Not sure if the punishment is for the book, the blog, or for both. No one would speak on the record. The suspension letter did not cite the book, but did cite as one of the author’s faults, “an unwillingness to comply with Department rules and regulations regarding writing and speaking on matters of official concern.”

    This is the first time, as far as memory goes, that the State Department had actually yanked somebody’s clearance over “publishing articles and blog posts on such matters without submitting them to the Department for review.” Whereas, in the past, I was aware of the shock factor in threatening bloggers with this in-house version of the “nuclear” option, this is the first time where somebody actually pushed the red button. And in a very public way. I can’t help but think that this would send a big chill to the FS blogosphere. Don’t be shocked if folks go back to the 50’s and start hiding their journals under their pillows.

    Of course, now that State had unleashed the “nuclear” option and suspended Mr. Van Buren’s security clearance, what other threats can you cite to help with behavior modification inside the Big House? He’s really going to stop talking/writing/giving interviews now that he had his clearance suspended, or now that he is barred from Foggy Bottom.

    You think?

    You suspend his clearance hoping that will scare him enough he’d stop blogging; he did not. You take away his badge, hoping that will scare him enough he’d stop blogging; he did not. You bar him from entering any door of the State Department hoping that will scare him enough he’d stop blogging; he did not. You take away his desk and his chair hoping that will scare him out of his wits he’d stop blogging. Instead, on October 27, he was the guest of the National Press Club, his appearance covered by WaPo’s Joe Davidson. The hometown paper has finally caught up with the news.

    And look just now — the book even meets the approval of NYmag, which ranked the book significantly higher than the Mexican cyclops shark. See the unintended consequences here?

    So how do you solve a “problem” like Peter Van Buren? Well, certainly not the way the State Department is “solving” it right now.

    First, I think it must be said that the State Department handled the book clearance badly. Somebody should have owned up to the snafu instead of gunning after the author. The 30-day timeline for clearing the book lapsed. It was not the author’s fault regardless of whether or not the person responsible for clearance had a meltdown, a baby, was sick or was on vacation. But State like any old and cumbersome bureaucracy is loath to admit to its own mistakes. They cleared Condi’s book within the 30-day timeline, yet Mr. Van Buren’s book was not afforded the same courtesy. The State Department, in short, broke its own clearance procedure. And when Mr. Van Buren published the book as allowed under its own regulations in the Foreign Affairs Manual (FAM), a Deputy Assistant Secretary of State accused him of “unauthorized disclosures of classified information,” and asked his publisher for redactions six days before the book hit the stores. Can you imagine them doing that to Secretary Rice’s book? Nope. Big fry, small fry; are there different rules?

    But hey – like Joe Davidson says, “The best way for the federal government to publicize a book? Attempt to muzzle the author.”And it’s free!

    Second, given the potential fallout from a book about reconstruction in what has always been an unpopular, contentious war, and given how much money we’re spending on reconstruction projects over in Iraq, somebody higher than a Deputy Assistant Secretary should have read the book, cleared his/her calendar and spoke privately with the author. Instead of sending the tigers with sharp teeth. I have not meet Mr. Van Buren in person, and he may be far from cutesy and cuddly, but he has written a vivid, engaging account of our reconstruction debacle in Iraq seasoned with absurdities, great and small. To dismiss him as nothing but a disgruntled employee is just plain brainless. Public opinion is already against the Iraq war. Add to that the rest of the domestic headaches that the American taxpayers have been suffering in the last several years. And what do you get? A public relation disaster, with the State Department as the big, bad growling tiger in a starring role. It does not help that State appears to be acting like a big, bad growling tiger trying to eat an angry mouse. Grrrr….No diplomatic skills exercised whatsoever.

    Remember when Matthew Hoh resigned over Afghanistan? He had two tours of duty in Iraq and five months under his belt in Afghanistan when he quit. Hoh received offers of new gigs from both Ambassadors Eikenberry and Holbrooke. I understand, he even got some face time with the VPOTUS. I think both ambassadors understood that in our top foreign policy engagement, they cannot be perceived as tone-deaf to the concerns of their man on the ground.

    I’m not saying State should have offered Mr. Van Buren a fancy gig in Paris. But at the very least, somebody from the Seventh Floor should have attempted to speak with him. He, after all, spent 23 years with the State Department and cared enough to write the Iraq Experience down in a book. But no one bothered to speak with him. A DAS alleging his disclosure of classified info did eventually write to him, albeit belatedly, and not really to listen to what he had to say.

    It’s as if the State Department is proud of all its smart people except for those with the guts to speak up, or write a critical book. Or are they only proud of our smart diplomats when they dissent in private, in a channel that the American public never ever gets to hear, and that which the organization is free to ignore? The guy who talks too much not only gets a good hearing in my book, he or she should be afforded an opportunity to contribute in fixing the problems that he cites. No, we do not shoot the messengers in our book. Most especially if they are bearing bad news. But that’s us. Unfortunately, that is often the case in the bureaucracy, the State Department perhaps more so than most. A dead messenger is a good messenger, no news is good news. Ta-daa! And all is great in Iraq.

    Three, Mr. Van Buren is not without faults. He posted articles in his blog without obtaining clearance as required in the FAM. Mr. Van Buren, like his employer, also broke the clearance procedure in the FAM. He even admits to that. But I don’t know of any FSO who blog who had requested clearance for his/her every blog post. The regs make no distinction whether what you write is critical or not, a clearance is required on matters of official concern. And since State’s purview is the entire world, that covers just about everything. So to go after Mr. Van Buren in a singular fashion invites the suspicion that he is targeted for his critical views, not just for the blog but also for his book.

    Four, that convoluted business of the use of a disclaimer. You put up a disclaimer to ensure that what you write is not attributed to the State Department or the US Government.

    Here is Mr. Van Buren’s disclaimer in his blog:
    Copyright © 2011. All rights reserved under International and Pan-American Copyright Conventions. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity and do not in any way represent the views of the Department of State, the Department of Defense or any other entity of the US Government. The Department of State does not approve, endorse or authorize this blog or book.
    A spokesman went so far as confirmed Mr. Van Buren’s disclaimer, telling NPR that “the author’s views are his own, and not necessarily those of the State Department.” And really now, if you read his blog, it is hard to imagine anything similar coming out from Mr. Toner or Ms. Nuland from State’s Public Affairs shop.

    And then you have the following disclaimer from the personal blog of the Deputy Director of the State Department’s Office of Innovative Engagement:

    …… is an employee of the United States Department of State. She has been with the Department of State for fourteen years in both traditional Information Technology roles and also as the Deputy Director for the Department’s first social media office – The Office of Innovative Engagement. The viewpoints, opinions and ideas expressed here do not represent the official opinion or policy of the United States Government or the Department of State.

    She went on to blog about her Twitter cliff notes writing about her agency’s social media policy:
    Public engagement should only be conducted by trained professionals. You should not tweet about something you are not an expert in. An example would be if you are not a consular officer do not talk about the visa or passport process. Direct those people to the appropriate subject matter expert.

    Twitter is a live community of humans and reacts the same way as people do when engaging with them in real life. You should focus on developing a “human voice” or persona for your community. This means no generic tweets or “ever green” tweets! Mass messages across all Department accounts are also considered to be an inappropriate use of Twitter.

    Before using any new social media tools for official State Department purposes, it is important that you are familiar with State Department Policy on Social Media: 5 FAM 790. You should also review the Managing Your Social Media field guide. This guide is very important to helping you plan, create, and execute a successful social media campaign.

    Personal vs. Professional Self:

    You must have permission to tweet in your professional capacity. Permission is granted by the head American officer in the section or the Office Director for domestic offices.

    If you are tweeting in your professional capacity, you must disclose the account as being an official Department of State account.

    If you are tweeting on someone’s behalf, you must state who is on duty. Transparency is critical to building trust with your community.

    When tweeting in your personal capacity you should not talk specifically about your job. See 3 FAM 4170 for additional information.

    Whether or not this deputy director had clearance to post this policy item in her blog as a personal item is between her and Public Affairs. However, I do have to point out that both blogs used disclaimers claiming to be writing in their personal capacities. Mr. Van Buren blogs about Iraq and affairs of the state, all on matters of official concern. Ms. Deputy Director blogs about the Department’s social media policy, also a matter of official concern. One is under investigation, the other as far as I know is not.

    According to the regs, some of the factors to be considered in overcoming the presumption of private capacity with the use of a disclaimer include, but not necessarily limited to: 1) The current or former position, rank, and/or duties of the employee; 2) The relationship between the employee’s position, rank, and/or duties and the subject matter of the speaking/teaching/writing.

    It is perhaps worth noting that Mr. Van Buren, a midlevel FSO was a PRT guy in Iraq from 2009-2010, and if my source is correct, is now an employee without a job. The Deputy Director presumably is in the GS scale; could be GS-14/15 and the incumbent in her office.

    By the way, if you find 5 FAM 790, the State Department Policy on Social Media imperfect and hard to wrap your head around, you have the deputy director to thank for that. She reportedly is the co-author of this first social media use policy for the Department of State.

    Finally, there is that notion that they drummed into your head from A-100 on that as a Foreign Service Officer, you are on duty 24/7. They like saying that. And for the most part, folks in the Foreign Service understand that to be true. You like to think you have a personal life until you have to report to the Regional Security Officer who you slept with the previous night. Or until they tell you — hey, you are actually blogging on official time, since you are considered on duty 24/7.

    In any case, you are on duty 24/7 until the government decides that you are not. Remember the case of Douglas Kent, the U.S. consul general in Vladivostok who was involved in a car accident in October 1998 while driving home from his office? State concurred with DOJ that he was not on duty 24/7 when the accident occurred. Here is a trip down memory lane via U.S. Diplomacy:

    After Kent left the post on reassignment, a Russian citizen injured in the accident sued Kent in his individual capacity in a district court in California. According to an August 31, 2006, “AFSANET” message from the American Foreign Service Association (AFSA), “The Department of Justice with State Department concurrence refused to certify that Kent was acting within the scope of his employment when the accident occurred,” thus undermining his claim of immunity. Ultimately, with AFSA supporting FSO Kent’s legal defense, the case went to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit, which ruled in his favor by determining that he was acting within the scope of his employment when the accident took place. The Kent case clearly demonstrates that while Foreign Service personnel, especially those in senior positions, may consider themselves on duty 24 hours a day while stationed overseas and thus fully protected, particular circumstances may put those immunities at risk.

    In theory, the rules are there to protect you. In practice, the rules can mean many different things to many different people — human interpretation, unless it’s done by droids, see? The folks who write the rules can break it with no consequences. The folks who are covered by the rules are also allowed to break it but somebody’s gotta pay the price. If you come to think of it — the big fry, small fry rules only really sucks if you’re the small fry. But if offends our sense of fairness.

    In the end, organizations particularly one as traditional and hierarchical as the State Department cannot tolerate people falling out of a straight line; it’s contrary to its sense of order and proper functioning of the organization. And really — “open door,” “innovative engagement,” “smart power,” and whatnot can only go so far. An organization like State must do what it must do to protect its brand, like any commercial company, only with less money.

    I doubt if the State Department will fire Mr. Van Buren for “disclosure” of alleged classified information in his book, or for linking to a WikiLeaks cable, or for writing/speaking without clearance. That would make it look petty and seem vindictive and would drag this case long and possibly into court. But organizations are not without power; it always has an ace up its sleeve, so to speak. In this case, a catch-all slam dunk section in 3 FAM 4130 otherwise known as “Standards for Appointment and Continued Employment,” could be the ace up its sleeve. A much used up phrase of “poor judgement” is like a flyswatter that can be used for employees writing outside the chalk line, as well as employees who patronize prostitutes.

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    Posted in Embassy/State, Iraq

    Picture, Thousand Words

    October 15, 2011 // 1 Comment »


    So, 10 years of war, and five years since the inception of this specific PRT and our PRT folks have to conduct their inspection of schools and roads that are presumably USG funded because of the “unforgiving terrain” and “known insurgent activity in the area.”

    I’m really not sure if the inspection is to see how the projects are having an impact on Afghan residents from the air or is it simply to check which projects have not yet been blown up?

    Kabul Hipster:

    The issue should absolutely be the quality of school construction, because if it’s not, it’s likely that school won’t be around to be used as a school after more than a few months. Add to that the very real possibility that a poorly constructed structure could collapse and well, kill some Afghan kids, and you’re just making the situation worse.

    Now you’ve got a community blaming ISAF for the deaths of schoolchildren, because, and this will happen, they’ll tell anyone who will listen, “They never came to check on it to make sure it was being built right.”

    They’ll tell their district officials during construction that it wasn’t being done right, if it’s being done at all, but frankly, no one will likely listen to them. If the insurgent activity is that bad, then it’s possible that there isn’t an Afghan government presence in that area. Or, if there is, it’s cops and soldiers, not educational personnel.

    This is then a ready-made insurgent propaganda piece, and the worst part is, it was completely preventable.

    It won’t take long for the contractors to figure out that the PRT is never going to look too closely at the building anyway, so they’ll make sure the outside looks good, but then the inside will either be not quite finished, or they’ll just strip out whatever they can use and walk away with it.

    Now if the PRT or some other ISAF element ever does show up and sees that it’s like that, there will be a long list of reasons, all of them tied to security: they were robbed, insurgents threatened them and they had to stop, etc.

    Since the PRT isn’t that connected with that particular community (really tough to do from a helicopter), chances are pretty good they’ll buy this story, and give the contractor more money to finish the building. Now, since winter’s well on its way (snow in the Hindu Kush today) there’s not too much more time before the winter construction halt hits.

    So now it’s likely April (or earlier if it’s milder…even without snow cold temps make work nearly impossible) and you’re (maybe) back, via helicopter, and it looks like it’s about done. About that point the PRT is handing off to a new batch of personnel, and, since there are so many projects to look at (since the PRTs have too many projects to adequately monitor them), that school may not get a look from the new group until about mid-summer.

    The contractor will make excuses about security, etc., and will get more money. Now it’s nearly winter again, you make another helo flight, and it starts over again the next April.

    So in reality there will be more “tax dollars” spent on this project than if you had established it in a secure enough area that you could monitor regularly and ensure that the school’s being built right the first time.

    Finally, what always needs to be considered is that a school is not a building: it’s teachers and students, and, hopefully, supplies. I’ve seen several instances of “schools” that just stood empty because no one was able to support that building with teachers and students. Unfortunately, it’s chalked up as a “success” because, well, the building is done, so there’s a “school.”

    If you can’t get on the ground to look at it, I’m sorry, then you’re not conducting a counterinsurgency, and your application of tax dollars is about as effective as pushing money out of the helo as you fly over.

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    Posted in Embassy/State, Iraq

    Diplopundit Reviews We Meant Well

    September 22, 2011 // Comments Off on Diplopundit Reviews We Meant Well

    The inside-the-Beltway must-read blog Diplopundit posted a review of We Meant Well.

    The writer had some nice things to say:

    It’s easy to see why the folks in Foggy Bottom will be none to pleased with the stories in this book.

    Learning from one’s mistakes is one of life’s most important skills. And if we are really serious about learning the mistakes of nation building in Iraq, Peter Van Buren’s book should be required reading not just for decision makers but for everyone heading to those PRT gigs in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Sudan and where ever else it is we are conducting reconstruction and stabilization efforts these days.

    In addition to being an engaging storyteller, the author was smart enough not to fill his book with too much government jargon and acronyms that you need a dictionary just to read it. People back home, if they’d bother to pick up the book will find it a fast read. It is also a book that will be a helpful addition to our understanding of what is wrong in Iraq, provided that we care and want to know. For the plenty squeezed and suffering American taxpayers, this would be a hard book to read.

    Read the whole review here.

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    Posted in Embassy/State, Iraq


    April 15, 2011 // Comments Off on Diplopundit

    A nice take on this blog and my book today on Diplopundit. The site is one of the best Foreign Service niche blogs, and often has news about our work first.

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    Posted in Embassy/State, Iraq