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State Dept. Proposes Firing Whistleblower Peter Van Buren for Exercising 1st Amendment Rights
Van Buren wrote a book (We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People) that exposed massive fraud, waste, and abuse associated with the State Department-led Iraq reconstruction program, including wasted money on the sheep for widows program, pastry classes for underprivileged Iraqi women to open French bakery shops on the bombed out streets of Baghdad, and the money wasted trying to make grass grow in the desert at the multi-million dollar Baghdad embassy.
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. How is anyone supposed to pre-clear a live radio interview?
The proposed removal alleges that Van Buren mishandled sensitive information by linking - NOT leaking - to a publicly-available Wikileaks document on his blog, which contains a disclaimer that Van Buren is writing in his personal capacity and that the State Department does not endorse his views.
The State Department's lame canned quote defending against the retaliation claims offers no explanation as to why the Agency has singled Van Buren out to monitor his social media activities and selectively enforce the policies against Van Buren.
“There are protections within the government for freedom of expression and for whistleblowers,” spokesman Mark C. Toner said. “The State Department has followed process and acted in accordance with the law.”
How does it protect freedom of expression to propose firing an employee for exercising his First Amendment right to speak on matters of public concern in his private capacity?
Adding to the trumped-up nature of the charges, the State Department accuses Van Buren of "bad judgment" because he mocked Michele Bachmann and criticized Hillary Clinton's laughing at Libyan leader Qaddafi's death. Does the State Department really need to be told that the First Amendment covers political speech?
According to a report by the State Department, the agency put him on a watch list for the Secret Service and identified him to Clinton’s security detail as a potential threat.
“I’m a chubby 52-year-old,” Van Buren said. “I’ve never threatened anybody in my life. It’s a cheap shot.”
An Agency that spends so much of its time touting free speech abroad ought to also protect speech at home, especially political speech criticizing government officials.
“It’s hard for me to objectively look at this as anything other than revenge and vindictiveness,” Van Buren said from his house in Falls Church.
Jesselyn Radack, national security and human rights director for the Government Accountability Project, which represents Van Buren, said: “It’s awfully curious timing, given the Office of Special Counsel complaint.”
The timing evidences the State Department's retaliatory motive:
September 2010 - Van Buren submits his book for pre-publication review
April 2011 - Van Buren begins his blog (www.wemeantwell.com)
Fall 2011 - AFTER Van Buren's book has been shipped to printers, the State Department alleges the book contains classified information and requests redaction.
Meanwhile, the State Department transfers Van Buren to a meaningless telework position,confiscates his diplomatic passport, suspends his security clearance, and - for a time - bars him from entering any State Department facility.
December 2011 - Date on the "Report of Investigation" used as the basis to propose firing Van Buren, though Van Buren only learned to the Report months later when it was given to him with the proposed firing.
January 2012 - Van Buren files a whistleblower reprisal complaint with the Office of Special Counsel.
Shortly after the OSC decides to investigate the case - but months after the Report of Investigation was completed - in March 2012, the State Department proposes firing Van Buren.
The proposed removal of Van Buren is transparently retaliatory and intended to send a chilling message to foreign service officers considering blowing the whistle on waste, fraud, and abuse at the State Department.