• 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 Democracy, Embassy/State, Iraq

    She remained silent. We do not.

    April 10, 2012 // 30 Comments »

    “Countries that restrict free access to information or violate the basic rights of internet users risk walling themselves off from the progress of the next century,” said SecState Hillary Clinton.

    Clinton has made internet freedom and the rights of bloggers and journalists a cornerstone of her foreign policy, going as far as citing the free use of social media as a prime mover in the Arab Spring. At the Conference on Internet Freedom at the Hague, Clinton said:

    When ideas are blocked, information deleted, conversations stifled, and people constrained in their choices, the internet is diminished for all of us.

    In China, several dozen companies signed a pledge in October, committing to strengthen their – quote – “self-management, self-restraint, and strict self-discipline.” Now, if they were talking about fiscal responsibility, we might all agree. But they were talking about offering web-based services to the Chinese people, which is code for getting in line with the government’s tight control over the internet.

    The United States wants the internet to remain a space where economic, political, and social exchanges flourish. To do that, we need to protect people who exercise their rights online.

    Yet inside her own Department of State, Clinton presides over the censoring of the internet, blocking objectionable web sites that refer to Wikileaks, such as TomDispatch (above), while allowing sites that play to State’s own point of view, such as Fox.com, which also refer to Wikileaks. The use of specialized software and VPNs that State recommends to Iranians to circumvent the firewall block placed by the Tehran government are prohibited by the State Department to its own employees to get around State’s own firewall blocks.

    While Clinton mocks Chinese companies, claiming terms like “self-management, self-restraint, and strict self-discipline” equate to censorship, her own Department’s social media guidance reminds employees to “be mindful of the weight of your expressed views as a U.S. government official,” and to “Remember that you are a Foreign Service USG employee.” Official guidance reminds employees that “All Department organizations with a social media site must monitor user-generated content,” and cites 27 laws and regulations that must be followed to be acceptable to the government. Self-censorship is the byword at State, as it is in China. Government bureaucrats know that this sort of slow-drip intimidation keeps people in line. They are meant to see what’s happening and remain silent.

    One web site reported that when Matt Armstrong was hired as Executive Director for the now defunct Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy, a condition to his hiring was to stop blogging. The condition was set by the office of Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs.

    Whistleblower Ray McGovern was arrested merely for physically standing and turning his back on Clinton at a public rally where she was speaking about the importance of freedom of speech. Did Secretary of State Clinton say anything about the arrest?

    She remained silent.

    We do not.



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    Posted in Democracy, 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 Democracy, Embassy/State, Iraq

    The Hypocrisy of Free Speech

    February 26, 2012 // 2 Comments »

    At the White House ABC’s Jake Tapper called out spokesperson James Carney on how the Obama Administration could square lauding free speech and internet freedom abroad while engaging in a record-setting campaign to silence whistleblowers at home. Carney (what a name, you can’t make this stuff up) ignored the question of why exposing government wrongdoing is desired when the target is Syria, China or Iran, but despicable when the target is the United States.

    Free Speech Hypocrisy at the White House

    Carney said “I’m not making the assumption” that the Espionage Act prosecutions suppress whistleblowers, yet the Justice Department is using the prosecutions for exactly that purpose. In the now-failed case against National Security Agency (NSA) whistleblower Thomas Drake, prosecutor William Welch II demanded a harsh sentence for Drake specifically to “send a message” to other employees. Of the six Espionage Act prosecutions under the Obama Administration, all involve journalists working with consciencious government employees trying to bring illegal, wasteful or immoral acts into the daylight. The Obama administration, which arrived in Washington promoting “sunshine” in government, turns out to be committed to silence and the censoring of less-than-positive news about its own workings. This administration fears the noise of democracy, preferring the silence of compliance just like in China, Iran and elsewhere.

    Free Speech Hypocrisy at Other Agencies

    At the Food and Drug Administration, they spy on their own employees’ email to prevent them from exposing wrongdoings.

    At the Department of Defense, a soldier who speaks out about government lies in Afghanistan finds himself under investigation. Four employees of the Air Force Mortuary in Dover, Delaware, attempted to address shortcomings at the facility, which handles the remains of all American service members who die overseas. Retaliation against them included firings and suspensions. Bradley Manning is in his second year of confinement without trial for allegedly leaking Secret level documents that embarrassed the government, while a Top Secret leak that favors the Department of Defense position goes unpunished.

    Free Speech Hypocrisy at the State Department

    The same level of hypocrisy that applies to the White House also applies to the State Department. Secretary of State Clinton has made internet freedom and the rights of bloggers and journalists a cornerstone of her foreign policy, going as far as citing the free use of social media as a prime mover in the Arab Spring. At the Conference on Internet Freedom at the Hague, Clinton said:

    When ideas are blocked, information deleted, conversations stifled, and people constrained in their choices, the internet is diminished for all of us.

    In China, several dozen companies signed a pledge in October, committing to strengthen their – quote – “self-management, self-restraint, and strict self-discipline.” Now, if they were talking about fiscal responsibility, we might all agree. But they were talking about offering web-based services to the Chinese people, which is code for getting in line with the government’s tight control over the internet.

    The United States wants the internet to remain a space where economic, political, and social exchanges flourish. To do that, we need to protect people who exercise their rights online.

    Yet inside her own Department of State, Clinton presides over the censoring of the internet, blocking objectionable web sites that refer to Wikileaks, such as TomDispatch (above), while allowing sites that play to State’s own point of view, such as Fox.com, which also refer to Wikileaks. The use of specialized software and VPNs that State recommends to Iranians to circumvent the firewall block placed by the Tehran government are prohibited by the State Department to its own employees to get around State’s own firewall blocks.

    While Clinton mocks Chinese companies, claiming terms like “self-management, self-restraint, and strict self-discipline” equate to censorship, her own Department’s social media guidance reminds employees to “be mindful of the weight of your expressed views as a U.S. government official,” and to “Remember that you are a Foreign Service USG employee.” Official guidance reminds employees that “All Department organizations with a social media site must monitor user-generated content,” and cites 27 laws and regulations that must be followed to be acceptable to the government. Self-censorship is the byword at State, as it is in China. Government bureaucrats know that this sort of slow-drip intimidation keeps people in line. They are meant to see what’s happening and remain silent.

    One web site reported that when Matt Armstrong was hired as Executive Director for the now defunct Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy, a condition to his hiring was to stop blogging. The condition was set by the office of Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs.

    Whistleblower Ray McGovern was arrested merely for physically standing and turning his back on Clinton at a public rally where she was speaking about the importance of freedom of speech. Did Secretary of State Clinton say anything about the arrest? She remained silent.

    Another State Department official wrote in the Foreign Service Journal:

    Anyone who has been called on the carpet for blogging — especially those who have been summoned more than once — can tell you that the only consistent aspect of the State Department’s feedback is inconsistency. Blogging is encouraged by some elements within the department and is even discussed on the official careers page, complete with a substantial set of links to popular Foreign Service-related blogs. Yet even bloggers listed there are sometimes targeted for official harassment by other elements within the department for having a blog in the first place.



    Free Speech: All Politics is Local

    I am told that, in its 223 years of existence, I am the only Foreign Service Officer ever to have written a critical book about the State Department while still employed there. We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People exposed what State did not want people to know: that they had wasted enormous amounts of money in Iraq, mostly due to ignorance and a desire for short-term successes that could be trumpeted back home. For the crime of writing this book and maintaining a blog that occasionally embarrasses, State Department officials destroyed my career, even as they confirm my thesis, and their own failure, by reducing the Baghdad Embassy to half its size in the face of Iraq’s unraveling.

    “The State Department was aware of Mr. Van Buren’s book long prior to its release,” explained attorney Jesslyn Radack of the Government Accountability Project, who now represents me. “Yet instead of addressing the ample evidence of fraud, waste, and abuse in the book, State targeted the whistleblower. The State Department’s retaliatory actions are a transparent attempt to intimidate and silence an employee whose critique of fraudulent, wasteful, and mismanaged U.S. reconstruction efforts in Iraq embarrassed the agency.”

    The State Department took away my security clearance of 23 years over this posting and its Wikileaks link.

    The State Department banned me from their building because I did not get permission for this article.

    The State Department threw me out of my job because this posting offended the Secretary of State.

    The State Department even chastised me for using its official seal in a satirical piece, showing censorship can be comprehensive, and petty, and that they know no boundaries between the two.



    What is Not Petty

    It is easy to magic-wand the problem of hypocrisy away– didn’t those government whistleblowers “break” rules? Well, yes, US government rules, the same as Syrian journalists broke Syrian government rules. Aren’t those websites blocked by the State Department objectionable on national security grounds? Yes, of course, the same way Tehran or Beijing claims its own national security is harmed by the web sites they block. The State Department blocks Wikileaks with its firewall same as China does not block the same site. But aren’t this blog’s posts offensive and not always “mindful of the weight of your expressed views as a U.S. government official”? Perhaps, but the highest standards we pretend to uphold in the First Amendment make no exceptions for offense nor include special categories for US government officials.

    What is considered innocent, mindful and respectful today can be found to be offensive tomorrow by a government scared that its own employees will reveal its sad inner workings to the people it purports to serve. You cannot pick and choose among free speech; you get Richard Pryor, Kid Cudi and the KKK saying the N-word, Bill Maher and Glenn Beck, Your Candidate and that Other Idiot, the Pledge and flag burning. Inside of State, my blog and the so-called innocuous “Mommy Blogs” are no different, just occupying different points on the same continuum. My rights taken today, yours tomorrow.

    If the US government in general, and the Secretary of State in particular, wish to be taken seriously around the world as advocates of a free internet and for free speech, they need to practice the same inside their own organizations. They cannot advocate for such abroad while using bully boy tactics to silence those at home.

    As one Foreign Service blogger remarked about State’s free speech hypocrisy, “Your actions speak so loudly I can hardly hear what you’re saying.”

    Can you hear us Mr. President? Madame Secretary? We are standing just outside your door, shouting.




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    Posted in Democracy, Embassy/State, Iraq

    Hypocrisy at State: Freedom’s for the Other Guy

    June 17, 2011 // 7 Comments »

    Diplopundit has written a sad, excellent piece about the State Department’s hypocritical stance on online freedom of speech, how the Department spends millions abroad to ensure the rights of Mideast bloggers to criticize their governments, while spending tax dollars at home silencing its own employees who choose to blog objectively about State.

    There are three kinds of State Department blogs (a whole list is here). The most benign are the so-called travelogue types, where families chronicle their adventures abroad. These blogs do sometimes run afoul of Mother State when they create anything less than a fully happy family picture of a particular country but usually putter along with their small familiar audiences.

    The second category are the echo chambers, blogs written by State officials that simply reiterate the party line. They could be taken right from the day’s official talking points, and often are. State seems to leave these alone, allowing even one of its spokespeople in Iraq to have one.

    Finally, there are those who write objectively about State, pointing out that some things are alright, some just OK and some in need of change. In contrast to the military, which has always encouraged soldiers to speak their minds and allowed/tolerated soldier blogs (some excellent writing about Iraq came out of this genre), State can act more like the Mafia than a freedom advocate, demanding that “nobody talks about the family outside the family.”

    Diplopundit talks about this, and has served as a repository of State blogs that have gone dark under pressure. He refers to the people at Foggy Bottom whose apparent job it is to enforce the family rules as “tigers,” and notes that they try very hard to scare people into compliance because today, in a Wikileaked world, anything written down seems to splatter across the web. State has little interest in providing written blog fodder for those who might “talk about the family outside the family.”

    Diplopundit writes:

    The State Department has been known to muzzle its Foreign Service (FS) bloggers in various different ways. It had already driven an FS blogger to “sail into the sunset” (shaky current assignment, no forward assignment, etc, etc.). These FS bloggers write on their own free time, not on taxpayers’ dime. It has caused the shutdown of several blogs and continues to threaten its diplomats and their spouses who blog or tweet about stuff outside the chalked lines with all sorts of punishments. Always behind closed doors, of course, and in almost non-existent paper trail.

    If you hear very little about this, it’s because the shutdown also comes with a non-disclosure agreement; if the blogger squeaks, they can send you to a mission in the Arctic region, or they send the employee, then the offending spouse blogger dines with guilt every single day afterwards.


    Some will say that the “privilege” of speaking ends when you take a job at Foggy Bottom. Not true. The State Department has an official policy on its employees writing personal things and participating in social media. You can read it here and here.

    There is actually nothing in there that prohibits employees from writing and speaking per se. There is a pre-clearance process, which on paper at least focuses mainly on three things: that the writing contain nothing classified, that the writing not contain anything protected by the Privacy Act and that the writer not misrepresent his/her personal views as State Department policy. There are some other common-sense restrictions on talking about contracts and procurement deals, and giving away details on policy arguments.

    Nothing written down however that says “don’t write anything we won’t like or you’ll get whacked.”

    One of the unexpected things about operating a blog like this is the emails we receive. Some of course are selling Viagra and manly growth pills, some (mostly written ALL IN CAPS!1!) are threats and many are thoughtful responses from Foreign Service people. These people, like the critical bloggers, are not out on a witch hunt despite sometimes being the targets of witch hunts themselves. They bought into the idea learned somewhere along the way that open discussion is good, that airing problems can help solve problems, that responsible criticism can make an organization’s other statements more credible, that free speech is not an abstract, or a tool swung just against foreign regimes that we oppose, but in fact an obligation.




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    Posted in Democracy, Embassy/State, Iraq

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