• Interview with John Brown’s Notes and Essays

    October 21, 2012 // 5 Comments »

    I sat with John Brown, one of three State Department Foreign Service officers who resigned rather than support the invasion of Iraq in 2003, for an interview.

    We covered a lot of subjects, including a fair amount of inside-baseball State Department stuff about why I went to Iraq, and why I did not resign after Iraq.

    This may have been why what I saw in Iraq so shocked me. I was very unused to the, well, disingenuous chatter that seems to me now in retrospect to characterize much of what the non-Consular parts of State do on a daily basis. I had this, perhaps naive, very practical conception of our work. Consular at its best is about real problem solving: mentally ill American Citizen in the lobby, what are you gonna do? Faced with someone shouting incoherently and undressing in your waiting area, there is no room for a carefully conceived statement of concern, cleared by 18 offices over a three week period. You actually have to do something. In this sense, I was really, really the wrong guy to send into Iraq.

    Since all that happened with the book, people ask why I did not resign. My answer is that I had no reason to do so. I wrote a book documenting what I saw in Iraq. I am certain that had you followed me around for a year you would have seen and heard what I wrote down. I see what I did as documentary, not necessarily dissent per se. In that what I saw and wrote deviates from what State’s vision of Iraq is is I guess the issue. I note that no one, not a single person in the USG nor any reviewer, has contested anything in the book. No one has said, hey, that story about the chicken plant is wrong, or incomplete or made up. No one, nothing. All of the attacks, the criticism, has been ad hominem attacks against me as a person. State people say I should not air dirty laundry, or I should use the dissent channel, or I should have been more respectful in my language, less sarcastic in tone like a “diplomat” should be, I should have done this or that. But no one has challenged the content, and that is because they really can’t. It is all true.

    So why should I have quit? Why should I have resigned? I just wrote a book. It is more like I failed some ideological test.

    John and I also talked about broader foreign policy issues.

    The U.S. will face a continued stagnation on the world stage. When we, perhaps semi-consciously, made a decision to accept an Empire role after World War II, we never build the tools of Empire. No colonial service, no securing of critical resources, no carrot and sticks. We sort of settled on a military-only model of soft occupation. We made few friends or allies, accepting reluctant partners. As changes take place in the developing world, the most likely American people there encounter now wears a uniform and carries a weapon. By ideologicizing every challenge from Communism to the entire religion of Islam, we have assured ourselves of never really winning any struggle.


    Read the full interview online.



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    Posted in Democracy, Embassy/State, Iraq, Other Ideas

    About the Irrelevancy Thing at State…

    July 19, 2012 // 4 Comments »




    I recently wrote about the State Department’s increasing irrelevancy. About one out of every four positions are unfilled or under-staffed, while the military continues to assume a greater and greater role in America’s relations with other countries. You can read more here.

    The article brought forth the usual handful of angry emails from offended Foreign Service Officers unable to cope with the cognitive dissonance of their own irrelevancy in a job they worked so hard to obtain and which constantly tells them they are some sort of elite special forces kind of thing as they file stuff in triplicate.

    So let’s poke our head under the rock at Foggy Bottom and see what State did today to assert its crucial importance to anyone but itself.

    The State Department issued a Worldwide Caution, nearly identical in wording to the same Worldwide Caution they have been re-issuing about every six months since the 9/11 wake up call. The purpose of this document is clear: “U.S. citizens are reminded to maintain a high level of vigilance and to take appropriate steps to increase their security awareness.”

    Well now, that seems important. Let’s drill down a bit. I bet you did not know this:

    Current information suggests that al-Qaida, its affiliated organizations and other terrorist groups continue to plan terrorist attacks against U.S. and Western interests in Europe. European governments have taken action to guard against terrorist attacks, and some have spoken publicly about the heightened threat conditions. In the past several years, attacks have been planned or occurred in various European cities.

    Or maybe this will shock you into a higher level of vigilance:

    Credible information indicates terrorist groups also seek to continue attacks against U.S. interests in the Middle East and North Africa. For example, Iraq remains dangerous and unpredictable.


    Of course, not all the advice is so… generic. If you are planning a yacht trip off the coast of Somalia, the State Department quite correctly reminds you:

    The U.S. government maritime authorities advise mariners to avoid the port of Mogadishu and to remain at least 200 nautical miles off the coast of Somalia. In addition, when transiting around the Horn of Africa or in the Red Sea, it is strongly recommended that vessels travel in convoys and maintain good communications at all times.

    Now I bet a lot of mariners planning a casual transit around the Horn o’ Africa enroute to the spice trade would not have thought to maintain good communications. Noted!

    A Safe Trip Abroad

    The Worldwide Caution refers you to an online State Department pamphlet, A Safe Trip Abroad, that appears to have been written in 1955 by the Beaver’s mother. “To help avoid becoming a target, do not dress in a way that could mark you as an affluent tourist,” it scolds. “If you wear glasses, pack an extra pair.” “Bring travelers’ checks.” Do they even sell those anymore? Has anyone tried to cash a travelers’ check in this decade? “If possible, lock your luggage.” Oops, if you do that TSA will simply break the lock to inspect your underwear before you even board the plane. “Make two photocopies of your… airline tickets.” R i g h t… who out there is old enough to even remember paper aero-plane tickets?

    It is not that this information has not been updated since 1989, but look at this paragraph:

    Before you go, learn as much as you can about the local laws and customs of the places you plan to visit. Good resources are your library, your travel agent, and the embassies, consulates or tourist bureaus of the countries you will visit.

    That is precious. Is it because most State Department offices don’t have web access yet that they still use libraries, travel agents and tourist bureaus? Do State travelers hope to pick up paper maps at local petrol stations enroute to the steamship or dirigible port?

    Here ara a few things the State Department expects most Americans will take care of before that four day cruise to the Bahamas:

    Have your affairs in order at home. If you leave a current will, insurance documents, and power of attorney with your family or a friend, you can feel secure about traveling and will be prepared for any emergency that may arise while you are away. If you have minor children, consider making guardianship arrangements for them.

    OK honey, I have iPhone charged and loaded with the e-boarding passes. Did you construct a legal guardianship agreement for Wally and the Beaver or should I do that at the same time I incorporate us in the Caymens to avoid US taxes?

    But of course, since the State Department is clearly not irrelevant, they save some of the best advice for last. Indeed, this seems to be advice that they follow themselves:

    Try to seem purposeful when you move about. Even if you are lost, act as if you know where you are going.




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    State Department: America’s Increasingly Irrelevant Concierge

    July 18, 2012 // 10 Comments »




    A Government Accountability Office (GAO) report released July 16 shows that overall more than one fourth of all State Department Foreign Service positions are either unfilled or are filled with below-grade employees. What should be staggering news pointing out a crisis in government is in fact barely worth a media mention in that State’s lack of personnel is silently tracking its increasing irrelevance to the United States, sliding into the role of America’s Concierge abroad.

    Numbers are Much Worse Than at First Glance

    In fact, broken down, it is much worse. At the senior levels, the alleged leaders of America’s diplomacy, the number is 36 percent vacant or filled with “stretch” assignments, people of lower rank and experience pressed into service. At the crucial midranks, the number is 26 percent. Entry level jobs are at 28 percent, though it is unclear how some of those can be filled with stretch assignments since they are already at the bottom.

    In fact though, it is much worse. Within State’s Foreign Service ranks, there exists the Consular Bureau and everyone else. Consular stands quite separate from the other Foreign Service Officers in that Consular employees have very specific worker bee jobs processing passports and visas and are not involved in the “traditional” diplomatic tasks we know and love such as maintaining inter-government relations, writing reports, negotiating treaties, rebuilding Afghanistan and all that. Many of these jobs are filled because they have to be, cash cow that issuing visas is for increasingly foreign tourism dependent third world America. That means broken down by function, it is likely that there are even larger gaps in vacancies in traditional diplomatic roles than even the sad percentages suggest.

    These vacancies and stretches at State are largely unchanged from the last time the GAO checked in 2008. GAO says in its report that “Although the State Department is attempting to compensate by hiring retirees and placing current civil service employees in Foreign Service jobs, it ‘lacks a strategy to fill those gaps.’”

    (State has 10,490 Civil Service employees and was only able to convert four employees to the Foreign Service. That’s a 0.03813 percent conversion rate to help bridge the gap, so much for that idea. Want another perspective? Here’s why some Civil Servants might pass on the chance to become FSOs.).

    In response to GAO, State said it agreed that its workforce planning should be updated to include a strategy to address staffing gaps and a plan to evaluate the strategy.

    So What?

    State’s somnolent response to what should be a crisis call (anyone wish to speculate on what the response might be to a report that the military is understaffed by 36 percent at the senior levels?) tells the tale. It really doesn’t matter, and even State itself knows.

    What vibrant it-really-matters institution could persist with staffing gaps over time as gaping as State’s? Seriously friends, if your organization can continue to mumble along with over one out of four slots un/underfilled, that kinda shows that you don’t matter much.

    And such is now the case with the US Department of State.

    The Militarization of Foreign Policy
    The most obvious sign of State’s irrelevance is the militarization of foreign policy. There really are more military band members than State Department Foreign Service Officers. The whole of the Foreign Service is smaller than the complement aboard one aircraft carrier. Despite the role that foreign affairs has always played in America’s drunken intercourse abroad, the State Department remains a very small part of the pageant. The Transportation Security Administration has about 58,000 employees; the State Department has about 22,000. The Department of Defense (DOD) has nearly 450,000 employees stationed overseas, with 2.5 million more in the US.

    At the same time, Congress continues to hack away at State’s budget. The most recent round of bloodletting saw State lose some $8 billion while DOD gained another $5 billion. The found fiver at DOD will hardly be noticed in their overall budget of $671 billion. The $8 billion loss from State’s total of $47 billion will further cripple the organization. The pattern is familiar and has dogged State-DOD throughout the war of terror years. No more taxi vouchers and office supplies for you! What you do get for your money is the militarization of foreign policy.

    As Stephen Glain wrote in his book, State vs. Defense: The Battle to Define America’s Empire, the combatant commands are already the putative epicenters for security, diplomatic, humanitarian and commercial affairs in their regions. Local leaders receive them as powerful heads of state, with motorcades, honor guards and ceremonial feats. Their radiance obscures everything in its midst, including the authority of US ambassadors.

    Glain’s point is worth quoting at length:

    This yawning asymmetry is fueled by more than budgets and resources [though the Pentagon-State spending ration is 12:1], however. Unlike ambassadors, whose responsibility is confined to a single country or city-state, the writ of a combatant commander is hemispheric in scope. His authority covers some of the world’s most strategic resources and waterways and he has some of the most talented people in the federal government working for him.

    While his civilian counterpart is mired in such parochial concerns as bilateral trade disputes and visa matters, a combatant commander’s horizon is unlimited. “When we spoke, we had more clout,” according to Anthony Zinni. “There’s a mismatch in our stature. Ambassadors don’t have regional perspectives. You see the interdependence and interaction in the region when you have regional responsibility. If you’re in a given country, you don’t see beyond its borders because that is not your mission.”


    America’s Concierge Abroad

    The increasing role of the military in America’s foreign relations sidelines State. The most likely American for a foreigner to encounter in most parts of the world now, for better or worse, carries a weapon and drives a tank.

    Among the many disclosures made in the alleged 250,000 alleged State Department alleged documents dumped on to Wikileaks was the uber revelation that most of State’s vaunted reporting on foreign events is boring, trivial and of little practical value (though well-written and punctuated properly). Apart from a few gossipy disclosures about foreign leaders and sleazy US behind-the-scenes-deals with crappy MidEast dictators, there were few dramatic KABOOMs in those cables. Even now State is struggling in the Bradley Manning trial to demonstrate that actual harm was done to national security by the disclosures.

    Lop off a quarter or so of the Foreign Service for Consular work, which hums by more or less independent of the rest of the State Department.

    That leaves for the understaffed Department of State pretty much only the role of concierge. America’s VIPs and wanna be VIPs need their hands held, their security arranged, their motorcades organized and their Congressional visits’ hotels and receptions handled, all tasks that falls squarely on the Department of State and its embassies abroad. “Supporting” CODELS (Congressional Delegations’ visits to foreign lands) is a right of passage for State Department employees, and every Foreign Service Officer has his/her war stories to tell. For me, while stationed in the UK, I escorted so many Mrs. Important Somebody’s on semi-official shopping trips that I was snarkily labeled “Ambassador to Harrod’s” by my colleagues. Others will tell tales of pre-dawn baggage handling, VIP indiscretions that needed smoothing over, and demands for this and that by so-called important people that rivaled rock star concert riders— no green M&Ms!

    Best Cappuccino in ‪Tripoli

    Take another look at the photo above, of old man McCain visiting our embassy in Libya. The cut line read “US Amb. to ‪#Libya‬ Chris Stevens – one of America’s finest diplomats also makes one of the best cappuccinos in ‪#Tripoli‬.”

    McCain meant the comment as a compliment, and looking at the ambassador’s face, he is quite pleased with himself to be serving coffee to the Senator. Can anyone imagine a similar photo from Afghanistan or the Horn of Africa showing a Marine general in a similar stance?

    No, you can’t.

    Understaffed, with roughly a quarter of its jobs unfilled and no plan to do anything about it, fits the State Department just fine. It is, sadly, a perfect example of an evolutionary process of government right-sizing, fitting the resources well to the actual job. RIP State, you rest now, it’s almost over.



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    Posted in Democracy, Embassy/State, Iraq, Other Ideas

    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 Democracy, Embassy/State, Iraq, Other Ideas

    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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    Posted in Democracy, Embassy/State, Iraq, Other Ideas

    So You Want To Be A Diplomat

    December 18, 2011 // Comments Off on So You Want To Be A Diplomat

    Though I had nothing to do with making this video, it is hilarious. Future diplomats, Foreign Service Officers and those who love them, enjoy!

    Applying for the Old Foreign Service

    November 28, 2011 // 1 Comment »

    Here’s an entertaining piece by Olya Thompson about applying for the old Foreign Service. At that time the Department of State was actively discriminating against women, a matter that took many years of court proceedings to resolve.

    (In 1985, 80% of the Foreign Service “professional staff” was male, and 72.5% was white male. Twenty years later, in 2005, the male/female ratio was 66/34, and white males constituted 54% of the total.)

    Here’s an excerpt from that post:

    Now I am told that no matter how hard I could have tried back then or how well I could have presented myself, it wouldn’t have made any difference. The interview was biased. I was wasting my time. Those objective-looking numerical scores I got turn out to have been a product of a very discriminatory process.

    I cannot say I ever suspected a bias. The Foreign Service officers who interviewed me, all much older than I, seemed knowledgeable and professional. I was treated with coutesy and respect. There were no inappropriate questions or comments. The distribution of candidates seemed to imply that men and women were being treated equally. I did note there was only one woman among the interviewers, but I figured that ratio was changing as more women like me pursued professional goals.

    I am left wondeing about this government that tells me now what its polite and couteous officials who still control access to power and jobs must have known and deliberately decided 10 years ago: That they were not hiring women. That we were merely being put through the paces. I am left wondering why, in this bureaucratic game of hot potato, I am the one left holding this letter that lays bare the disturbing consequences of their actions.


    Read the entire piece online.



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    Should I Join the Foreign Service?

    // 5 Comments »

    Before having my beard shaved off and being shunned, my position was at the State Department’s Board of Examiners, where for over a year since returning from Iraq I administered the Foreign Service Oral Assessment (FSOA) and helped choose the next generation of Foreign Service Officers. I was more or less competent at the task, got a good performance review and, after a year on the job, it was only after my book came out that State decided I could not work there. Something vague about not suddenly having judgement anymore, like losing one’s mojo I guess.

    So, I spent a lot of time around people interested in a Foreign Service career. They did not ask for advice and at the Board we did not offer it. However, since my book came out, ironically more people now approach me with the same question about joining the Foreign Service. Too much irony these days.

    What I tell them is this: think very, very carefully about a Foreign Service career. The State Department is looking for a very specific kind of person and if you are that person, you will enjoy your career and be successful. I have come to understand that the Department wants smart people who will do what they are told, believing that intelligence can be divorced from innovation and creativity. Happy, content compliance is a necessary trait, kind of like being British but without the cool accent. The Department will not give you any real opportunity for input for a very long time, years, if ever. There is no agreed-upon definition of success or even progress at State, no profits, no battles won, no stock prices to measure. Success will be to simply continue to exist, or whatever your boss says it is, or both, or neither. You may never know what the point is other than that a visiting Congressional delegation go away with a “happy ending,” whatever that even is.

    At the same time, State has created a personnel system that will require you to serve in more and more dangerous places, and more and more unaccompanied places, as a routine. That sounds cool and adventurous at age 25, but try and imagine if you’d still be happy with it at age 45 with a spouse and two kids. What are your core obligations with a child who needs some extreme parenting as you leave your wife at home alone with him for a year so you can be a placeholder for State’s commitment to be as macho as the military?

    Understand that promotions and assignments are more and more opaque. Changes in Congress will further limit pay and benefits. Your spouse will be un/under employed most of his/her life. Your kids will change schools for better or worse every one, two or three years. Some schools will be good, some not so good, and you’ll have no choice unless you are willing to subvert your career choices to school choices, as in let’s go to Bogota because the schools are good even if the assignment otherwise stinks. You’ll serve more places where you won’t speak the language and get less training as requirements grow without personnel growth. As you get up there, remember your boss the politically-appointed Ambassador can arbitrarily be a real estate broker who donated big to the President’s campaign. Make sure all these conditions make sense to you now, and, if you can, as you imagine yourself 10, 15 and 20 years into the future.

    It is a very unique person who can say “Yes” truthfully and after real soul-searching. Make sure the juice is worth the squeeze before you accept that assignment.

    In the universe where you’ll work, the US will face a continued stagnation on the world stage. When we, perhaps semi-consciously, made a decision to accept an Empire role after World War II, we never built the tools of Empire. No colonial service, no securing of critical resources, no carrot and sticks. We sort of settled on a military-only model of soft occupation. We made few friends or allies, accepting reluctant partners. As changes take place in the developing world, the most likely American the people there encounter now wears a uniform and carries a weapon.

    America faced a choice and blew it. As an Empire, we either needed to take control of the world’s oil or create a more equitable and less martial global society to ensure our access to it. We did neither. We needed either to create a colonial system for adventures like Iraq or Afghanistan along the Victorian model, or not try to invade and rebuild those places. We did neither.

    Simply pouring more and more lives and money into the military is a one way street going in the wrong direction. We can keep spending, but when millions of dollars spent on weapons can be deflected by terror acts that cost nothing, we will lose. When any hearts and minds efforts are derailed by yet another excused collateral damage episode, we will lose.

    For most of the next century, America still has a big enough military that our “decline” will be slow, bloody and reluctant. But, inevitable none the less. By ideologicizing every challenge from Communism to the entire religion of Islam, we have assured ourselves of never really winning any struggle. You can be a part of that if you’d like to join the Foreign Service.



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    Immunity: Disastrous Decisions in 2007 Return to Haunt 2012

    November 7, 2011 // 1 Comment »




    It was the 2007 Nisor Square Blackwater Killings, Not Wikileaks, that Derailed Plans for US Troops to Stay on in Iraq.

    Despite some creative speech making as Obama tries to take credit for “agreeing” to withdraw the last of America’s occupying army from Iraq by the end of the year, Iraq’s own version tells the true story: US troops are leaving Iraq after more than eight years of war because Baghdad rejected American demands that the soldiers have immunity. Comments by Prime Minister Maliki make clear that it was Iraq who refused to let the military remain under American terms.

    Why Iraq Said No

    Why the Iraqis might not want to grant full immunity to every American soldier in Iraq come January 1, 2012 (they all do have immunity now, under the Bush-negotiated SOFA in place until midnight 12/31/2011) is not hard to guess, likely something to do with almost nine years of war and occupation, almost nine years of accidents and “collateral damage” and mistaken identities and all the sad rest. One incident singled out was detailed by the release of a diplomatic cable that alleged Iraqi civilians, including children, were killed in a 2006 raid by American troops rather than in an airstrike as the US military initially reported. There is clearly far too much blood on American hands for Iraq to simply forgive and forget, what State Department spokesman Mark Toner described after the troop withdrawal announcement as the start of “a new chapter in our relationship” with Iraq.

    But despite the long legacy of bloodshed which became frightenly common place for many Iraqis, the refusal of immunity is more likely tied to one horrible, bad day in Nisor Square, where in 2007 Blackwater mercenaries hired by the State Department gunned down 14 Iraqis (some say it was 17) and wounded 20 more. Such killings occurred almost daily in Iraq, but what made this one tragically memorable is that despite almost over-whelming evidence that the victims were innocent, technicalities in US law were used to prevent the shooters from being prosecuted. They walk free today. The system the US wanted for its troops in 2012 did not work when tested. The process America promises in 2012 will protect Iraqis them failed them completely in 2007.

    To begin, the American Embassy in Baghdad in 2007 produced a “spot report” claiming that Blackwater had come under fire from an “estimated 8-10 persons” who “fired from multiple nearby locations, with some aggressors dressed in civilian apparel and others in Iraqi Police uniforms. The team returned defensive fire.” The report was on State Department Diplomatic Security letterhead, but was actually written by a Blackwater employee.

    However, the US Army’s First Cavalry Division arrived at the Square moments after the shooting. They found no shell casings from AK-47s (the kind used by insurgents or the Iraqi police). The Cav concluded “It was obviously excessive. It was obviously wrong. The civilians that were fired upon, they didn’t have any weapons to fire back. And none of the Iraqi police or any of the local security forces fired back at them.” A later Iraqi government inquiry also concluded that Blackwater opened fire without provocation.

    The Iraqi government revoked Blackwater’s license to operate in Iraq the day after the massacre. Blackwater, however, kept operating in Iraq without a license, under State Department contract, until 2009, two years later. Through its many name changes and corporate reshuffling, remnants of Blackwater continue to carry weapons in Iraq today.

    Immediately following the shooting, State Department officials for reasons never explained offered limited immunity from US Federal prosecution to the Blackwater mercs involved to compel them to make statements. At the time, State disagreed with other law enforcement officials that such actions might jeopardize prosecutions. That proved to be the money shot: the US government obtained indictments against the contractors involved in the shooting. The case was then punted in court because it was not clear whether the indictments were based on immunized statements or other evidence. The DC Circuit court remanded the case, directing the government to show that it obtained sufficient evidence implicating the contractors prior to obtaining the immunized statements. Basically, since the State Department compelled the Blackwater guys to answer questions, the courts ultimately found they were denied their Fifth Amendment rights. Game over.


    Immunity and the American Empire

    Do soldiers garrisoning the American Empire in places like Germany, Korea and Japan have some form of immunity now? Yep, pretty much they do. Here’s how it works.

    Virtually without exception, American military forces assigned abroad (at least those in place overtly) are covered under a country-specific Status of Forces Agreement, a SOFA. Each SOFA is negotiated between the US and the “host” country, and covers things from as mundane as the need for driving licenses and who pays local taxes to immunity from national laws. An American soldier covered by a SOFA typically cannot be held accountable under local law, or, if accountable, only under specified conditions and circumstances that typically offer the soldier US-level rights protections. In many cases, s/he may be punished by the US military for a crime, but not necessarily by the local government. The SOFA rules vary considerably from place to place, and can be as complex as any legal code. Most SOFAs are public documents available on the web, though some have a classified addendum.

    A SOFA agreement is not unique to the US military, though our overseas presence makes us the biggest user. Most NATO forces, as well as folks like Australian military abroad, exist under some sort of SOFA agreement. Though it can be misused and is often seen as unfair by host country people who are victims of soldier crimes and accidents, SOFA in its most benign form is not much more than a written agreement for the conditions under which a foreign military exists in another, sovereign, nation.

    The theory behind all these rules is that the US does not want to grant the host country the ability to arrest and prosecute its soldiers, especially for anything remotely in the line of duty. Accidents do happen, but the SOFA is supposed to prevent politically-charged arrests when say the host country party in power needs to look tough around election season.

    Full immunity, what the US wanted in Iraq, is at the extreme end of the SOFA scale: anything an American soldier would do in Iraq has a get-out-of-jail free card attached to it, whether it is a truly accidental weapon discharge or a violent rape of a young girl. The latter, on Okinawa in 1995, when three US service members gang raped a 12 year old, remains an impediment to changes in the US-Japan SOFA even today, over fifteen years later, and even though the men were ultimately convicted in a local court and served sentences in a Japanese prison. A current alleged rape of a young woman by a soldier in Korea serves to highlight how contentious a SOFA agreement can be, even among friends. “I understand the US wants to protect its soldiers from kangaroo courts overseas, but Koreans also have a right to safeguard their own citizens,” said one Korean activist. “The perception among many here is that US soldiers commit crimes and then run back to the protection of their base.”


    Back in Iraq

    From the Iraqi point of view, the outcome of the Nisor Square Blackwater killings was pure evil. US mercs murdered Iraqi civilians, and then the State Department and US Courts together let them go unpunished. Nobody in Iraq, given the horrors perpetrated on them by the US, was ready to hear talk about “rights.” The State Department thought they saved their own butts with a short-term solution of not taking responsibility for what their own guards did, but in the end likely contributed in large part to the deal breaker that will midwife the full withdrawal of US troops from Iraq this New Year’s Eve.

    Meanwhile, the Army pull-out means that the State Department will need to hire 5000 mercenaries to protect itself in Iraq. Those mercs will be protected under existing international standards for diplomatic immunity, meaning they will be completely free from any prosecution under Iraqi law and unaffected by the existence or absence of any SOFA.

    There it is, full circle. This damn war has just too much irony in it.

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    Six Degrees of Condi Rice

    November 3, 2011 // 3 Comments »

    ONE:
    Condi wrote a book (mostly) about the Iraq War.

    I wrote a book (mostly) about the Iraq War.

    TWO:
    Condi is using the media to sell her book. She was on the Daily Show the other night.

    I am using the media to sell my book. I was on a small NPR station the other night.

    THREE:
    Condi says that she was right about the war, and that she is proud she pushed the State Department into the field for Iraq’s reconstruction.

    I say she was a lying scab about the war, and that she helped destroy the State Department by sinking too many of her limited staff into the sucking pit of the World’s Largest Embassy (c) in Baghdad and neglecting America’s foreign relations with the rest of the planet.

    FOUR:
    Condi is always welcome at the State Department.

    I am banned from entering the State Department building.

    FIVE:
    Condi helped start a war that has, so far, killed 4479 Americans, over 100,000 Iraqis and cost America trillions of dollars. She sits on the board of Chevron and has an appointment at Stanford.

    I have never started a war and never killed anyone. The State Department is trying to fire me.

    SIX:
    Let’s break the pattern here:

    Please don’t read Condi’s book.

    Please read my book.



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    Van Buren Gets Favorite Whistleblower Retaliation Career-Ender: Pulling Security Clearances

    October 21, 2011 // Comments Off on Van Buren Gets Favorite Whistleblower Retaliation Career-Ender: Pulling Security Clearances

    The Government Accountability Project has a new article up about my problems with my security clearance, suspended by the State Department in retaliation for a link on this blog to a document on a Wikileaks site.

    The author writes:

    Peter Van Buren is the latest casualty of this punitive trend. The government suspended his top-secret security clearance – which he has held for 23 years – over LINKING (not LEAKING) to a WikiLeaks document on his blog and . . . surprise, surprise . . . publishing a book critical of the government.

    As a whistleblower attorney, this has happened to numerous clients who have held security clearances for decades, are just a few years away from retirement, but dare to say something critical of the government. Not only do they lose their pension, but the loss of their security clearance renders them unemployed and unemployable in the intelligence community.

    Like with Thomas Drake, Bill Binney, Kirk Wiebe, Franz Gayl, and numerous GAP clients, these life-long public servants have had their security clearances suspended. Not necessarily revoked (because if its revoked, that can be challenged through federal court), but suspended, so that the action cannot be challenged.

    So these folks who have been in possession of security clearances for decades suddenly “raise serious security concerns” because they criticize the government.


    Read the whole article at the Government Accountability Project.



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    Conscience Do Cost

    October 18, 2011 // Comments Off on Conscience Do Cost

    A comment on my steaming pile posting below sums things up well enough to stand on its own:


    John Stewart Service fought back to clear his good name and was reinstated after being fired by Dean Acheson, and investigated by Joe McCarthy, in the 1950s. The case went all the way to the Supreme Court. Fight back, if you still have any stomach for this.

    As the blind bartender said in the TV show The Wire; “conscience do cost.”

    The wikileaks reference os a red herring, in my opinion, and your book is actually similar to many SIGIR and OIG reports from Iraq. Heck, I favorited one of the latter reporting the complete disappearance of 186 vehicles from the Embassy inventory (don’t you hate it when that happens?) and 7000 units of drugs like oxycontin gone, obviously sold, from the Embassy medical unit. (Maybe that explains their irrational optimism?)

    No, what really ticked them off was not your effort to tell the American people the truth, but that you mocked them, and very hilariously and successfully. That’s what makes your book such a classic, and what the State Department Tigers will never, ever forgive you for. The great mirth at their august expense is, sadly, the coup de grace for your hitherto blameless career.





    On another related thread, Diplopundit weighs in…



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    Got What it Takes to Join State Department Army?

    October 17, 2011 // Comments Off on Got What it Takes to Join State Department Army?

    With the State Department seeking to field its own army in Iraq, some 5100 mercenaries with their own armor and air wings, recruiting might be a problem. Yes, true, America has an abundance of armed nuts, but to join State in occupying Iraq after the US military pulls out, you have to be the best of the bestest.

    The plan calls for 3,650 mercenaries to guard the World’s Largest Embassy (c), with the remaining hired guns stationed throughout free Iraq: 600 in Irbil, 575 in Basra, 335 in Mosul, and 335 in Kirkuk.

    There is some irony here (actually this war is in irony-overload). The reason the US Army is hightailing/withdrawing/retreating out of Iraq by year’s end is that free Iraqi won’t give them immunity, meaning when a soldier kills, rapes or robs an Iraqi, s/he could be prosecuted in Iraqi courts. And after eight years of capacity building in the Iraqi justice system, we all know how fair the courts are– fair and balanced for certain.

    Now why won’t Iraq give American troops immunity?

    Many people believe the refusal dates back to State’s previous orc army, Blackwater. Past attempts by the State Department to control the mercenaries in its pay have proved to be disastrous. For example, a Blackwater USA convoy of State Department officials murdered 17 Iraqis in Baghdad’s Nisoor Square in an unprovoked massacre on September 16, 2007. The use of mercenaries by the State Department undermines stability in Iraq and creates a conflict of interest when those being protected oversee their guards. This cozy relationship led to State Department officials blocking any “serious investigation” of the massacre. That really torqued the Iraqis off.

    We always like to end with some good news, so here it is. Think YOU have what it takes to be a mercenary killer for the State Department? Well, Fresh Meat, let’ see what you got.

    Blackwater is now endorsing its own X-Box game, sold under the slogan of “Have You Got What It Takes?” You buy the game with your Mom’s money, test yourself and if you make the cut, sign up with the State Department.

    They are hiring! Send an email to DSRecruitment@state.gov and tell ’em “We Meant Well” sent you.



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    State Dept Inspector Finds $940k in Mismanagement on Afghan Contract

    October 13, 2011 // Comments Off on State Dept Inspector Finds $940k in Mismanagement on Afghan Contract

    The State Department Inspector General released a report last week finding problems on a $12 million contract in Afghanistan.

    The State Department’s Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs (INL) awarded a contract to DynCorp International to provide operations and maintenance support services at Camp Falcon in Kabul, Afghanistan. Under the contract, DynCorp provides almost everything needed to sustain the camp, including food, laundry and medical services, pest control, electric power generation, sewage and sanitation, and security.

    The report found that INL overpaid DynCorp as much as $940,000 for meals. Although DynCorp’s cost proposal to INL established a daily rate per person for meals, the subcontractor charged DynCorp per meal rather than per person. DynCorp, in turn, invoiced INL at the higher per meal rate. The overcharges were caused in part by INL’s two in-country contracting officers, who were “spread too thinly” to be able to adequately review and approve all purchases.

    Second, the report found that DynCorp could not verify that Camp Falcon receives the correct amount of diesel fuel for its electric generators or determine how much fuel is used at the camp. DynCorp does not maintain records for the amount of fuel pumped in and consumed. Not only does this increase the risk to the government of overpayment and waste, not knowing the amount of fuel on hand could put camp operations at risk if generators unexpectedly run out of fuel. The report notes that DynCorp does not plan to change the current fuel delivery process.

    Finally, while DynCorp’s static guard force has been generally effective in ensuring the safety of the camp’s approximately 1,000 residents, the report found that guards did not have the required English language proficiency and worked an excessive number of hours without a break. All of the guards are third-country nationals, yet DynCorp failed to verify their English proficiency. Although guards are supposed to work 6 days per week, the report found guards working 14 days in a row for as many as 24 consecutive pay periods. The report notes that static guard personnel continue to work this grueling schedule.



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    Protecting Sources, another Crisis and Wikileaks

    October 10, 2011 // 2 Comments »

    Another attempt at grandstanding and drama over the “harm” done by the release of Wikileaks material, this time in a piece timed shamelessly for the end of the Jewish New Year holy period. From McClatchy News:

    An Anglican priest in Iraq says he’s working with the U.S. Embassy to persuade the handful of Jews who still live in Baghdad to leave because their names have appeared in cables published last month by WikiLeaks. The Rev. Canon Andrew White said he first approached members of the Jewish community about what he felt was the danger they faced after a news story was published last month that made reference to the cables. “The U.S. Embassy is desperately trying to get them out,” White said.

    By the time U.S. forces invaded Iraq in March 2003, Baghdad’s Jewish community, which had numbered about 130,000 in the 1950s before most fled to Israel, was down to about 35 members.



    A crisis for certain, a tiny minority threatened because of the shamelessness of Wikileaks. Execute Bradley Manning and Julian Assange NOW! Assist the World’s Largest Embassy (c) in Baghdad to save these last, endangered innocent people!

    We now pause for some reality.

    — Any Jew now in Iraq is welcome in Israel, under the Law of Return. There is no need for the World’s Largest Embassy (c) in Baghdad to desperately save anyone. There is certainly no need for a Christian priest to get involved. Wikileaks or not, Israel has shown it can easily take care of its own. The cable in question blathers pointlessly about refugee processing.

    — If the Embassy cable is correct, there are only NINE Jews left in Iraq. Whether a Wikileaks document does or does not mention any of their names, it is not really tough to figure out who might have been quoted. Bad guys in Iraq would have no trouble whacking nine people, given the utter lack of security there, courtesy of… yes, ironically, the World’s Largest Embassy (c) in Baghdad via the US invasion.

    — I’ve read the Wikileaks document in question (go look it up yourself, I’m sick of assholes writing in to whine and security interrogations commencing every time I link; Google “WHY THE NINE JEWS OF BAGHDAD STAY IN BAGHDAD”). That the World’s Largest Embassy (c) in Baghdad felt the need to report on the state of the handful of Jews left in Iraq merely illustrates the descent into uselessness the Statement Department is embarked on. This kind of reporting has no US policy implications and serves merely to satisfy the frustrated writing ambitions of State’s “political reporters.” Indeed, the cable author is moved at one point to write “these nine individuals may author the last chapter to the story of an ancient people in an ancient land.” Wow, that’s the kind of stuff that gets raced up onto Hillary’s desk so she can make fine foreign policy decisions, for sure. Jeez, go write a book or something.

    — …And if you are going to write about some minor issue like this as an affair of State, why would you need to quote people by name? What is gained by writing “One of Baghdad’s last remaining Jews, XXXXXXXXXX (strictly protect), told us…” as opposed to “One of Baghdad’s last remaining Jews told us…” The cable then goes on to have its single source list the other eight Jews by name and supply mini-bio sketches. For what purpose? Some element of responsibility lies with the cable writer and his/her bosses.

    — The cable was written in 2009, and has been available online for over a year. Talking about it now does little but revive an issue that had had no following and sensationalize another non-crisis. None of the references Google uncovered are any older than a week or so ago. Yeah media!

    — The cable says there were 20 Jews in Iraq in 2003, now down to nine. Under the control of the US, conditions were so bad in Iraq that the population of Jews decreased more significantly than anything that could follow the Wikileaks disclosure.

    — The single largest massacre of Jews in Iraq took 600 lives. In 1941. Before Saddam, before Wikileaks. Relativity.

    Thank you for your attention. We now return you to the regular world of panic and over-reaction.



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    State Dept Gears Up in Iraq Even as Troops Draw Down

    September 30, 2011 // 1 Comment »

    Isn’t this war over yet? Apparently not.

    Even as the number of US troops in Iraq continues to (slowly) decline, the State Department is cranking up its headcount such that in many parts of Iraq the number of official Americans is actually increasing.

    The number of Americans in Basra will actually increase significantly in the months ahead as the State Department dramatically expands its consulate. Officials say the consulate will employ more than 1,200 people, making it larger than most embassies. The bulk of its employees will be security contractors and civilian officials from the State Department’s Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs.

    The US consulate in Erbil will be even bigger, with eventually at least 1,400 people, including more than 100 troops.

    The World’s Largest Embassy (c) in Baghdad easily retains its title, adding another couple of thousand USG employees to Team Iraq.

    WTF?

    The US Mission in China, country with a quarter of the world’s population and a double-digit percentage of American debt, muddles by with something like half an Iraqi consulate’s worth of staff. Same for other important Embassies in the UK, Japan, Moscow, never mind smaller places without Muslims we stopped caring about when the Cold War faded away.

    Given that most of the State employees in Iraq will be contractors, at $200,000+ a year in salary, or diplomats who cost close to $500,000 to maintain and support (although they make much less than contractors in actual pay) and you’re talking billions and billions of Ameros just to pay salaries.

    Which begs the question: what (or, WTF) will all those people do in Iraq? What are their jobs? What does the US need from them so badly that we’re in hock again to pay for it? What remains so special about Iraq that it needs resources so far in excess of China, Russia, or even Afghanistan?

    Sorry, a bit of a trick question, because I don’t know.

    I can’t conceive of what all those folks will do, except perhaps write memos to each other, provide support for memo writers and of course, security for memo writers. After eight years of war heading into a ninth, Iraq still remains so unsafe that an American cannot drive, never mind walk, the streets.

    Which brings it all home. Under such conditions, exactly what are all those State Department people going to do in Iraq? Is this in fact the long-sought Obama jobs program?



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    New York Times Op-Ed

    // 2 Comments »



    The New York Times today featured my Op-Ed in both its online and New York print editions.

    I wrote, in part:

    On Saturday, control of the United States mission in Iraq will formally pass from the military to the State Department. But after eight years of war, Iraq is still plagued by corruption, sectarianism and violence. And after a year spent in the desert outside Baghdad as the leader of two State Department Provincial Reconstruction Teams, I don’t have much faith that the department can turn things around. We closed down our operations last September as part of normalizing relations, and I am still haunted by the Iraqis we left behind. No matter the strategic value of the war, our legacy will be written in those human lives.


    You can read the whole piece without a subscription online.



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    For telling the truth about what I saw in Iraq…

    September 29, 2011 // 1 Comment »

    Here is the full text of my article from today’s Foreign Policy.

    I never intended to create this much trouble.

    Two years ago I served 12 months in Iraq as a Foreign Service Officer, leading a Provincial Reconstruction Team. I had been with the State Department for some 21 years at that point, serving mostly in Asia, but after what I saw in the desert — the waste, the lack of guidance, the failure to really do anything positive for the country we had invaded in 2003 — I started writing a book. One year ago I followed the required procedures with State for preclearance (no classified documents, that sort of thing), received clearance, and found a publisher. Six months ago the publisher asked me to start a blog to support the book.

    And then, toward the end of the summer, the wrath of Mesopotamia fell on me. The Huffington Post picked up one of my blog posts, which was seen by someone at State, who told someone else and before you know it I had morphed into public enemy number one — as if I had started an al Qaeda franchise in the Foggy Bottom cafeteria. My old travel vouchers were studied forensically, and a minor incident from my time in Iraq was blown up into an international affair. One blog post from late August that referenced a Wikileaks document already online elsewhere got me called in for interrogation by Diplomatic Security and accused of disclosing classified information. I was told by Human Resources I might lose my job and my security clearance, and I was ordered to pre-clear every article, blog post, Facebook update, and Tweet from that point out. A Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs wrote, without informing me, directly to my publisher, accusing me in writing of new security violations that had apparently escaped the sharp eyes at Diplomatic Security, and demanded redactions. The publisher refused, citing both the silliness of the actual redactions (everything was already online; one requested redaction came from the movie Black Hawk Down, and another from George Tenet’s memoirs) and the First Amendment.

    It seemed kind of sad, kind of desperate, and maybe a little bit unfair. I always took my obligation to protect information seriously, and all my material went through a careful vetting process with the publisher as well as with State to make sure nothing had slipped through.

    I wrote about all this on the blog TomDispatch, and before I knew it, the story went viral. I found myself returning calls to the New York Times, the ACLU, Reporters Without Borders, CBS, NPR, and about a million blogs and radio stations. I had hoped to promote the book I had written, which came out yesterday, but the story ended up being about me and the State Department instead.

    I never intended this to be a fight against my employer of 23 years, and I never intended to become a poster child for the First Amendment. However, I’m not one to back down when bullied, and I am afraid that in their anger and angst, the Department of State has acted like a bully. In addition to false accusations of security violations, State has used its own internal clearance requirements as a blunt weapon.

    The State Department, on paper, does not prohibit blogs, tweets or whatever is invented next. On paper, again, responsible use is called for — a reasonable demand. But this rule must cut both ways — responsible writing on my part, responsible control on State’s part.

    And responsible standards for clearance. The department’s “pre-clearance” requirements are totally out of date. Originally designed for a 19th-century publishing model, its leisurely 30-day examination period is incompatible with the requirements of online work, blogs, Facebook, and tweets. But the department has refused to update its rules for the 21st century, preferring instead to use the 30 days to kill anything of a timely nature. What blog post is of value a month after it is written, never mind a tweet?

    In addition, the pre-clearance rules are supposed to be specific in their goals: to prevent classified or privacy protected information from going out, stopping info on contracts and procurement, and blocking private writing that seeks to pass itself off as an official statement from the Department. In my case, however, any attempts to pre-clear blog posts ran into the Department of Silly Walks. My bland statements about the military in Iraq made using easily Googleable data were labeled “security risks.” When even those were clipped out, everything I wrote was labeled as possibly being confused with an official statement, even though my writing is peppered with profanity, sarcasm, humor, and funny photos. Say what you want about my writing, but I can’t imagine anyone is confusing it with official State Department public statements. As required, I always include a disclaimer, but the pre-clearance people simply tell me that is not enough, without explaining what might be enough other than just shutting up.

    So instead of using pre-clearance as it is on paper, a tool to guard only against improper disclosure with which I have no disagreement, it is used as a form of prior restraint against speech that offends State. Me, in this instance.

    We have been battered to death with public statements from the Secretary of State on down demanding the rights of bloggers and journalists in China, Burma and the Middle East be respected. While the State Department does not lock its naughty bloggers in basement prison cells, it does purposefully, willfully, and in an organized way seek to chill the responsible exercise of free speech by its employees. It does this selectively; blogs that promote an on-message theme are left alone (or even linked to by the Department) while blogs that say things that are troublesome or offensive to the Department are bullied out of existence. This is not consistent with the values the State Department seeks to promote abroad. It is not the best of us, and it undermines our message and our mission in every country where we work where people can still read this.

    I have a job now at State that has nothing to do with Iraq, something I enjoy and something I am competent at. To me, there is no conflict here. I’d like to keep my job if I can, and in the meantime, I’ll continue to write. I have no need to resign in protest, as I don’t think I’ve done anything wrong absent throwing a few pies at some clowns and bringing to daylight a story that needed to be told, albeit at the cost of some embarrassment to the Department of State. That seems to me compatible with my oath of office, as well as my obligations as a citizen. I hope State comes to agree with me. After all, State asks the same thing of governments abroad, right?



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    The Foreign Service Officer Who Rants Against the State Department

    // Comments Off on The Foreign Service Officer Who Rants Against the State Department

    Be sure to check out this excellent piece from the Atlantic on my troubles with the State Department. The author notes:

    While Van Buren may be ratcheting up his rhetoric against State over the last 24 hours, he’s been criticizing the department and the U.S. government pretty much ever since he launched his personal blog in April as a supplement to We Meant Well. In one of his first posts, entitled “Bureaucratic Chlamydia,” Van Buren described the “half-assed nature” in which the State Department prepared “people like me to live and work in a war zone.”

    A month later, Van Buren noted that while the State Department was spending millions to end web censorship overseas, it was censoring TomDispatch, the site he contributed to, in its own offices because TomDispatch ran content from WikiLeaks. Van Buren’s taken his criticism outside the blog as well. In a piece for TomDispatch in June, for example, he questioned State’s long-term plans for Iraq.


    Read the whole article at the Atlantic’s web site.



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    Radio and More

    September 28, 2011 // Comments Off on Radio and More

    I’ve been fortunate enough to do some interviews, so if any of these radio stations are in your area, please check their listings:

    NPR’s “Weekend Edition,” nationwide, taped, to air October 1.

    KPOJ-AM, Portland, Live at 10am EST on “Mornings with Carl Wolfson”

    KPFK-FM, Los Angeles, Live at 7:40pm EST on “4 o’clock on Wednesdays”

    KPFA-FM, Berkeley, taped interview for “Letters and Politics” with Mitch Jeserich

    PRI’s The Takeaway, syndicated, taped interview


    Also:

    Juan Cole Blog

    Asia Times

    AntiWar.com

    Wired.com Danger Room

    Naked Capitalism

    Gawker

    Diplopundit

    Lew Rockwell

    Alternet

    ReaderSupportedNews.org




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    Security in Iraq: We’re from the Government and We’re Here to Help

    September 14, 2011 // Comments Off on Security in Iraq: We’re from the Government and We’re Here to Help

    This won’t hurt a bit. After eight years of victories in Iraq, here’s what the State Department had to say in its September 13 travel warning for Iraq:

    The Department of State warns US citizens against all but essential travel to Iraq given the dangerous security situation. Civilian air and road travel within Iraq remains dangerous… violence and threats against U.S. citizens persist and no region should be considered safe from dangerous conditions. Attacks against military and civilian targets throughout Iraq continue, including in the International (or “Green”) Zone (IZ).

    The US Embassy is located in the International Zone (IZ) in Baghdad. The IZ is a restricted access area. As of June 30, 2009, Iraqi authorities assumed responsibility for control of the IZ. Travelers to the IZ should be aware that Iraqi authorities may require special identification to enter the IZ or may issue IZ-specific access badges. Some terrorist or extremist groups continue to target US citizens for kidnapping.

    State Department guidance to US businesses in Iraq advises the use of protective security details. Detailed security information is available at the US Embassy website



    Hmmm. So, after eight years and 4474 dead Americans, Iraq still unsafe. Check. Iraq controls Green Zone which Americans call the International Zone so you can’t even get to the Embassy for help as an American unless the Iraqis approve. Check. Detailed info on the Embassy website. Check.

    OK, motoring over to the Embassy website for some detailed info. Front page features Hillary and a “soft” power story on woodworking. No detailed security information. OK, how about clicking on Emergency Messages. Sounds important.

    Under Emergency Messages the last Iraq-specific message is dated July 15, some two months old and that just repeats the heads-up that Americans can be kidnapped in Iraq. Check. Another kidnapping message is there, this one from May, which starts with the line “As the United States has stated publicly, Iraq continues to make significant progress on security with the assistance of American Forces” and then goes on to say you’ll be kidnapped for money and refers back to the main State website for details, which refers you back to the Embassy web site, which refers you back to the main State website… You get it.

    Not much help, so let’s click on Local Resources, then Security Companies. Ah hah, here is the meaty goodness we have been looking for. The US Embassy helpfully lists twelve firms that can supply you with your own mercenaries to accompany you on a jaunt through Iraq. It is unclear which if any of these are front companies for Blackwater, but it is odd that for the US Embassy, all but two of the firms listed are outside the United States. Most are in Britain or Dubai. What up American Embassy? Aren’t American mercenaries good enough for your freaking website? Show a little Flag people, help create jobs in America. Our mercenaries are as good as any foreign merc, except for those accents, which are kind of sexy.

    Clicked on a few links to these security companies, but no one lists prices. What does a mercenary cost these days anyway? Nothing on Angie’s List either. A promising one is AKE, which provides secure lodging in Iraq for you, featuring free WiFi (!) and “a bar with good atmosphere.” Lots of email addresses; I sent a few off, asking what the going rate for killing an Iraqi on my command might be, but so far no response.

    And that’s about it for the detailed information promised to travelers by the State Department. Travelers, please note that the World’s Largest Embassy (c) in Baghdad is closed both US and Iraqi holidays (so as not to miss a day off, the Embassy helpfully advises that “In keeping with the spirit of the Monday Holiday Bill, the intention of which is to provide three-day holiday weekends, US holidays covered by the Monday Holiday Bill will be observed on Sundays”, so if you are kidnapped on Columbus Day, please wait until the next business day to call and plead for your life.



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    Sealed with a Kiss: State Blogging Rules Unconstitutional

    September 12, 2011 // Comments Off on Sealed with a Kiss: State Blogging Rules Unconstitutional

    Though you cannot yell “Fire!” in a crowded theater, actual restraints on free speech are rare (though law enforcement constantly seeks to criminalize political statements). Our courts have generally been loathe to support limits on speech, and particularly have demanded the government justify any instances where it believes it can regulate speech. Speaking freely, in all its forms, is the cornerstone of a government of, by and for the people. We need to be free to talk back, to be rude, to be foolish, to be offensive, to question. It is what America is when America is at its best.

    The State Department seems to know this. The Department famously asked Twitter to stay online while Iran was fussing around with an election, and State has spoken out for the rights of bloggers in China and elsewhere. Hillary herself said the Arab Spring owes much to social media and the free speech it engenders. State stated in reference to a Vietnamese blogger:

    No individual should be prosecuted for exercising the right to freedom of opinion and expression. Vietnam’s prosecution of individuals for expressing their views contradicts the government’s commitment to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.



    Closer to home, actually at home, State takes a different point of view. The Department has brainwashed its staff into believing they give up their First Amendment rights at the Foggy Bottom door, using internal regulations and the boogy man of “security” to exercise prior restraint inside its own hallways.

    The conundrum is seen clearly in the yes-no language concerning diplomats’ right to free speech in social media. Have a look at the regulations; State imposes a lot of restraints on speech quite casually, including a prohibition against its employees using the State Department Seal in any blog posting.

    State of course can’t stop real citizens from using the Seal, and a quick Google search shows it is employed by bloggers, news sites, commercial sites and pretty much anyone else.

    Now it seems the law has chipped away at State’s arbitrary restraints on speech, specifically the prohibition directed at its employees toward the damn Seal.

    In US District Court, restrictions on the use of a government seal were made clearly unconstitutional. In Rothamel v. Fluvanna County, the court very clearly stated that the government cannot restrict the use of a Seal. The court wrote:

    The loss of First Amendment freedoms, for even minimal periods of time, unquestionably constitutes irreparable injury. Elrod v. Burns, 427 U.S. 347, 373 (1976) (plurality opinion). The chilling of Rothamel’s expressive activity since the promulgation of the ordinance, causing Rothamel to forgo constitutionally protected activity out of a fear of arrest, thus constitutes irreparable injury.



    (Read more about this court case)



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    Why They Hate Us: We have the watch, but they have the time…

    September 3, 2011 // Comments Off on Why They Hate Us: We have the watch, but they have the time…

    Many good intentions floundered as military and State Department personnel departed Iraq. Most people stayed no longer than twelve months, and they usually believed history began when they first stepped onto Iraqi soil. Our memory barely extended back beyond a few months.

    The child rape-murder atrocity committed by American soldiers and chronicled in Jim Frederick’s book Black Hearts: One Platoon’s Descent into Madness in Iraq’s Triangle of Death took place in Peter’s area of responsibility just a little before his time, yet no one in all his preparatory briefings at State ever mentioned it. They might not have known about it themselves but I’m pretty sure the Iraqis he worked with remembered. The Iraqis were here for the last group and here for this one. We have the watch, but they have the time, says an old joke.

    Recent news pieces exposed another such atrocity that few in America ever even heard about, but which many Iraqis cannot forget. A letter said to be written by Philip Alston, Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial, Summary, or Arbitrary Executions to the US Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice states:

    I would like to draw the attention of your Government to information I have received regarding a raid conducted by the Multinational Forces (MNF) on 15 March 2006 in the house of Faiz Harrat Al-Majma’ee, a farmer living in the outskirts of Al-Iss Haqi District in Balad (Salah-El-Din Governorate).

    I have received various reports indicating that at least 10 persons, namely Mr. Faiz Hratt Khalaf, (aged 28), his wife Sumay’ya Abdul Razzaq Khuther (aged 24), their three children Hawra’a (aged 5) Aisha ( aged 3) and Husam (5 months old), Faiz’s mother Ms. Turkiya Majeed Ali (aged 74), Faiz’s sister (name unknown), Faiz’s nieces Asma’a Yousif Ma’arouf (aged 5 years old), and Usama Yousif Ma’arouf (aged 3 years), and a visiting relative Ms. Iqtisad Hameed Mehdi (aged 23) were killed during the raid.

    According to the information received, American troops approached Mr. Faiz’s home in the early hours of 15 March 2006. It would appear that when the MNF approached the house, shots were fired from it and a confrontation ensued for some 25 minutes. The MNF troops entered the house, handcuffed all residents and executed all of them. After the initial MNF intervention, a US air raid ensued that destroyed the house.

    Iraqi TV stations broadcast from the scene and showed bodies of the victims (i.e. five children and four women) in the morgue of Tikrit. Autopsies carries out at the Tikrit Hospital’s morgue revealed that all corpses were shot in the head and handcuffed.



    The Iraqi government has called for an investigation, albeit five years after the sad fact. Prime Minister Malaki, of course, knew of the incident, which was widely publicized on Iraqi TV. Like so much nastiness connected with the Occupation, he was able to ignore this because there was no international pressure on him. The now-public Letter, above, changes that, and puts pressure on Malaki to at least go through the motions of pretending to bite the American hand that feeds him.

    Meanwhile, here at home it’s Labor Day weekend, and the NFL season starts next week. We forget, they remember.




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    Wikileaks Prompts New Security Procedures at State Department

    September 2, 2011 // Comments Off on Wikileaks Prompts New Security Procedures at State Department




    An encrypted WikiLeaks file containing 251,000 unredacted US State Department cables is now widely available online, along with the passphrase to open it. The release of the documents in raw form, including the names of US informants around the globe, has raised concerns that dozens of people could now be in danger.

    The release has prompted new security procedures at State. The State Department has previously banned its staff from viewing the Wikileaks site, and has punished employees who view the leaked cables, or included links to them on blogs.

    The new security measures take things a step further.

    According to a Department Notice released today, all State Department employees are now required to take an oath of silence. Similar to monks, no one is allowed to actually speak within the building. To avoid further leaks, communication of an urgent nature will be done via gestures, mime and interpretive dance (PA only). The Department spokesperson, gesticulating wildly, fruitlessly engaged the media in an attempt to explain the new policy. She was saved from further frustration when one reporter produced a Pictionary game set.

    Written communication remains a vulnerable point. In response, all reports from the field will be written on white board using dry erase markers, couriered back to Foggy Bottom by eunuchs and licked clean by interns and Entry Level Officers currently being trained for the task.

    When a State Department employee now tries to access the Wikileaks site, s/he will find a “warning page” similar to those typically found on porno sites, with one button labeled ENTER and another labeled EXIT.

    The Bureau of Diplomatic Security, formerly engaged full-time in witch hunts against Foreign Service Officers who glanced at the Wikileaks site, planned a new role for itself as enforcer of silence. Security personnel wearing T-shirts emblazoned with the slogan “Shut the Barn Door After the Horse has Left” were deployed at strategic spots with roles of duct tape. “It’s for their own damn good,” mimed one uniformed officer.

    “We’ve been deaf and blind for a long time,” said a diplomat moments before the new rules took place, “so adding dumb to the list seems a small price to pay for security.”



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    Vindictive Prosecution

    August 31, 2011 // Comments Off on Vindictive Prosecution

    “It is impermissible,” the Judge told the courtroom, “for the U.S. Government to prosecute differently on the basis of the content of First Amendment speech.”

    A Department of Justice memorandum from its procedure manual for DOJ attorneys describes the standard in court “to establish a prima facie case of vindictive prosecution,” stating, “[A] defendant must make a ‘showing that charges of increased severity were filed because the accused exercised a statutory, procedural, or constitutional right in circumstances that give rise to an appearance of vindictiveness.'”

    Hmmm… could this apply to the way the State Department treats its bloggers? Stay tuned.



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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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    Diplopundit

    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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    Bureaucratic Chlamydia: What to Wear to a War?

    April 11, 2011 // Comments Off on Bureaucratic Chlamydia: What to Wear to a War?

    Vatican The first part of my book details the half-assed nature of preparing people like me to live and work in a war zone. State Department personnel are recruited for Iraq without much attention to their background, physical fitness or experience. This is not much of a problem for the majority who will serve at the World’s Largest Embassy in Baghdad, a $1 billion dollar complex constantly referred to as “bigger than the Vatican,” a really odd comparison until you remember the Vatican burned people at the stake for believing the earth was round.

    The Department, however, never told us headed to the field what to bring along. Foreign Service Officers were expected to pass this info around by word-of-mouth, a kind of bureaucratic chlamydia.

    (more…)

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    Book Review: Fiasco by Tom Ricks

    April 8, 2011 // Comments Off on Book Review: Fiasco by Tom Ricks

    Author Tom Ricks is a kind of patron saint of intelligent writing about the Iraq conflicts, first as a reporter for the Washington Post and now as a blogger and author for Foreign Policy. Ricks is known for his connections within the military, who, knowing he will handle information intelligently and better yet, understand its context, feed him inside baseball-like data on a regular basis. It is this understanding of how things work that informs Ricks’ two books on the war, making them as close to a contemporary history as you are going to get.

    Fiasco: The American Military Adventure in Iraq takes you from pre-war planning through the initial mistakes, the early CPA days and up through the full-out civil war in Iraq of 2005 onward. It is factual, unsympathetic and written from the perspective of the military on the ground. That Fiasco has little tolerance for sloppy decision making in Washington and poor leadership on the ground (a younger Odierno is treated particularly harshly by Ricks) is not surprising.

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    Dinner with Bradley Manning

    April 6, 2011 // Comments Off on Dinner with Bradley Manning

    The same photo of Bradley Manning you've seen before.I probably had dinner with Bradley Manning. Manning, the soldier who allegedly handed over massive amounts of classified material to Wikileaks, was stationed at Forward Operating Base (FOB) Hammer at the same time I was. The office where he worked was right down the hall from mine and though I never knowingly met him, it is hard to believe that we never walked past each other in the corridor, or ended up in the single cafeteria at the same time. The food wasn’t that good, and it could have been Manning one of those days when an anonymous soldier muttered that the salt was not enough to overpower the grease on pot roast Wednesdays.

    One of the most striking things Manning alledgedly leaked was gun camera video from an Apache attack. The aircraft gunned down two journalists and may have also killed civilians. A new film, Incident in New Baghdad, revisits the leaked video and includes interviews with one of the soldiers involved. Take a look at a clip from the film.

    You can see the original gun camera video as well, though YouTube requires you to sign in to prove you are mature enough to see what war is really about.

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