In September of last year, Peter Van Buren, a 24 year veteran at the State Department and author of the book We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People, wrote a piece for the online journal TomDispatch entitled, The Only Employee at State Who May Be Fired Because of WikiLeaks: Me. Last week, that piece took on prophetic qualities when the State Department initiated official proceedings to fire Van Buren. The move was leaked by Van Buren himself to the Washington Post only yesterday.
According to the Post, the charges against him are based on a 25-page investigation of Van Buren that the State Department concluded last December. He said he was not aware of the probe until the report was provided to him with his termination notice. From the Post:
Now the State Department is moving to fire [Van Buren] based on eight charges, ranging from linking on his blog to documents on the whistleblowing site WikiLeaks to disclosing classified information.
In 24 years as a diplomat, Van Buren was posted around the world and speaks four languages. He called the termination notice he received Friday the coup de grace in a series of blows he received since his book, “We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People” was published last fall.
With his book, based on a year he spent in the Iraqi desert in 2009-2010, and an unauthorized blog (wemeantwell.com) he started in 2011 that frequently skewers American foreign policy, Van Buren has tested the First Amendment almost daily.
He and his attorneys maintain that his right to free speech has been trampled, and they say he is a victim of retaliation for whistleblowing— not only because his account of the reconstruction effort alleges unqualified staff, corruption and billions of dollars in wasted programs.
A State Department spokesman said the diplomat’s claims of retaliation are “without merit.”
“It’s hard for me to objectively look at this as anything other than revenge and vindictiveness,” Van Buren told the Post.
Jesselyn Radack, the National Security & Human Rights Director for the Government Accountability Project, argued today that the "proposed removal of Van Buren is transparently retaliatory and intended to send a chilling message to foreign service officers." She continues:
Van Buren sent his book through the State Department's pre-clearance policy and the State Department cleared it by default. Now, the State Department seeks to fire Van Buren for telling the unflattering truth about what he saw in Iraq.
The proposed removal is based on a Report of Investigation dated December 2011, but the State Department did not propose removal until after Van Buren filed a retaliation complaint with the revamped Office of Special Counsel.
Van Buren's supervisors admittedly singled him out, and are monitoring all of his online activities taken on his personal time using his personal computer. They have insisted that he "preclear" all of his blog posts, tweets, and other social media activities as well as live radio and TV appearance - all First Amendment-protected activities Van Buren conducts on his personal time.
Among those 'personal' activities that possibly earned demerits in the eyes of the State Department was his blogging, especially regarding the trove of leaked diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks in 2010. Not only at his own blog, wemeantwell.com, but in numerous articles written for the Nation Institute's TomDispatch.com (many of which were re-posted at Common Dreams as well) Van Buren spoke openly about the State Department's short-comings when it came to internal security and the cables. In the piece that predicted his own firing from the foreign service, Van Buren wrote:
Security and the State Department go together like hamburgers and mud. Over the years, State has leaked like an old boot. One of its most hilarious security breaches took place when an unknown person walked into the Secretary of State’s outer office and grabbed a pile of classified documents. From the vast trove of missing classified laptops to bugging devices found in its secure conference rooms, from high ranking officials trading secrets in Vienna to top diplomats dallying with spies in Taiwan, even the publicly available list is long and ugly.
Of course, nothing compares to what history will no doubt record as the most significant outpouring of classified material ever, the dump of hundreds of thousands of cables that are now on display on WikiLeaks and its mushroom-like mirror sites. The Bureau of Diplomatic Security (an oxymoron if there ever was one) is supposed to protect our American diplomats by securing State’s secrets, and over time they just haven’t done very well at that.
The State Department and its Bureau of Diplomatic Security never took responsibility for their part in the loss of all those cables, never acknowledged their own mistakes or porous security measures. No one will ever be fired at State because of WikiLeaks -- except, at some point, possibly me. Instead, State joined in the Federal mugging of Army Private Bradley Manning, the person alleged to have copied the cables onto a Lady Gaga CD while sitting in the Iraqi desert.
In a separate post, In Washington, Fear the Silence, Not the Noise, Van Buren discussed the Obama administration's unprecedented assault on whistleblowers, its aggressive use of the Espionage Act, and more. The extreme use of the Espionage Act was troubling, he argued, but in reality was "only one part of the Obama administration’s attempt to sideline, if not always put away, those it wants to silence." He continued:
Increasingly, federal agencies or departments intent on punishing a whistleblower are also resorting to extra-legal means. They are, for instance, manipulating personnel rules that cannot be easily challenged and do not require the production of evidence. And sometimes, they are moving beyond traditional notions of "punishment" and simply seeking to destroy the lives of those who dissent.
Tom Engelhardt, editor of TomDispatch, wrote eloquently of the important role of whistleblowers and the specific motivations of Peter Van Buren. In his case, wrote Engelhardt:
... it was perhaps all those late nights on some desolate base thousands of miles from his family, thinking about the mad way your taxpayer money was being squandered -- millions of dollars, for instance, going into the building of an all-Iraqi chicken-plucking factory that would never be used to pluck chickens. It was the pure madness of the American occupation and “reconstruction” -- more like deconstruction -- of Iraq, seen up close and personal, that led him to start writing his own truth-telling book We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People (which just happens to be both unsettling and often bizarrely hilarious because, as a writer, he’s a natural).
He had the urge to offer you an insider's view of your government in action in a distant land. Think of it -- perhaps of any whistleblowing -- as an act of personal “reconstruction,” as a method of occupying yourself in a new way, even as it may also be deconstructing your career. Such acts are favors to the rest of us in what we still claim is a “democracy,” even if the money of the truly wealthy rules the day and your state, the national security one, has moved beyond all accountability into a post-legal era.