Category Archives: Dissent

Insider Quote: Integrity and Openness – Requirements for an Effective Foreign Service

Kenneth M. Quinn, the only three-time winner of an AFSA dissent award, spent 32 years in the Foreign Service and served as ambassador to Cambodia from 1996 to 1999. He has been president of the World Food Prize Foundation since 2000. In the September issue of the Foreign Service Journal, he writes about integrity and openness as requirements for an effective Foreign Service. Except below:

I can attest to the fact that challenging U.S. policy from within is never popular, no matter how good one’s reasons are for doing so. In some cases, dissent can cost you a job—or even end a career. And even when there are no repercussions, speaking out may not succeed in changing policy.

Yet as I reflect on my 32 years in the Foreign Service, I am more convinced than ever how critically important honest reporting and unvarnished recommendations are. And that being the case, ambassadors and senior policy officials should treasure those who offer different views and ensure that their input receives thoughtful consideration, no matter how much they might disagree with it.

Read in full here.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Filed under AFSA, Courage, Dissent, Foreign Policy, Foreign Service, FSOs, Lessons, Public Service, Quotes, Realities of the FS, State Department

Ten Years Ago Today: FSO John Brown Quit the Foreign Service Over Iraq

March 10, 2003

Dear Mr. Secretary:

I am joining my colleague John Brady Kiesling in submitting my resignation from the Foreign Service (effective immediately) because I cannot in good conscience support President Bush’s war plans against Iraq.

The president has failed:

–To explain clearly why our brave men and women in uniform should be ready to sacrifice their lives in a war on Iraq at this time;

–To lay out the full ramifications of this war, including the extent of innocent civilian casualties;

–To specify the economic costs of the war for ordinary Americans;

–To clarify how the war would help rid the world of terror;

–To take international public opinion against the war into serious consideration.

Throughout the globe the United States is becoming associated with the unjustified use of force. The president’s disregard for views in other nations, borne out by his neglect of public diplomacy, is giving birth to an anti-American century.

I joined the Foreign Service because I love our country. Respectfully, Mr. Secretary, I am now bringing this calling to a close, with a heavy heart but for the same reason that I embraced it.

Sincerely,

John H. Brown
Foreign Service Officer

Via  John Brown’s Public Diplomacy Press and Blog Review

Two other American diplomats quit over Iraq:   John Brady Kiesling,  the first of three U.S. foreign service officers to resign, on February 25, 2003, to protest the invasion of Iraq.  Mr. Kiesling’s letter is here.   Mary Ann Wright submitted her resignation letter to then U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell on March 19, 2003, the day before the onset of the 2003 Invasion of Iraq. Ms. Wright’s resignation letter is here.  
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Filed under Courage, Dissent, Foreign Service, FSOs, Realities of the FS, Resignations, State Department, Uncategorized

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

And so it has come to this.

Last year, the State Department was up in arms with the publication of Peter Van Buren’s book, We Meant Well, because well — as its Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State of the Bureau of Public Affairs  Dana Shell Smith (of the How to Have an Insanely Demanding Job and 2 Happy Children minor fame) told the book publisher, Macmillan, the Department has “recently concluded that two pages of the book manuscript we have seen contain unauthorized disclosures of classified information.”

I counted the words; there are some 30 words that were deemed classified information according to the letter sent to the publisher, including a place called, “Mogadishu.”  See “Classified” Information Contained in We Meant Well – It’s a Slam Dunk, Baby!

Five months after his book was published, the State Department moved to fire, Mr. Van Buren.  He was charged with eight violations including  linking in his blog to documents on WikiLeaks  (one confidential cable from 2009, and one unclas/sensitive/noforn cable also from 2009); failing to clear each blog posting with his bosses; displaying a “lack of candor” during interviews with diplomatic security officers;using “bad judgement’ by criticizing Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and one time presidential candidate Michelle Bachmann on his blog.

The eight charges did not include the allegation of leaking “classified” content from his book. Which is rather funny, in a twisted sort of way, yeah?   So, why …

Oh, dahrlings, let’s take the long cut on this, shall we?

There were lots of roars and growls, of course … employees at State even got to work on additional areas their supervisors deemed appropriate  — such as looking under dumb rocks to see if anything would come out, monitoring Mr. Van Buren’s media appearances and blog posts, etc. etc..  The guy was practically a cottage industry sprouting “taskers” all over Foggy Bottom (except maybe the cafeteria).  Those who got Meritorious Honor Awards for the Van Buren Affair, raise your left hand.  Oh dear, that’s a bunch!  Let us not be shocked, also if Mr. Van Buren was quite useful for the spring’s Employee Evaluation Reports (EER) for multiple folks.  Everybody gets credit for work well done, or otherwise.

And because life is about changes, the Director General of the Foreign Service Nancy Powell (top HR person in the Foreign Service) was promoted to do yet another stint as US Ambassador, this time to India; leaving the “Peter Headache” to her successor as DGHR, former Ambassador to Liberia, Linda Thomas-Greenfield.   The top boss of all management affairs at State, Patrick Kennedy, as far as we know did not have to swap chairs and is still top boss.  Mr. Van Buren himself did not go quietly into the night.  Instead he kept on popping up for interviews on radios and teevees, and here and there and his blog posts, angry or not, did not skip a single beat.

Meanwhile, the book which the NYT called “One diplomat’s darkly humorous and ultimately scathing assault on just about everything the military and State Department have done—or tried to do—since the invasion of Iraq”  went into second printing.

And so a year after We Meant Well was published, and after numerous investigations ending in a whimper, the State Department officially retired Mr. Van Buren on September 30, 2012. No, the agency did not fire him despite all sorts of allegations.  And yes, he gets his full retirement.

Congratulations everyone, all that work for nothing! So totally, totally :roll: exhausting!

If Mr. Van Buren were a project, you would have had your Gantt chart with the work break down structure. As well, the project manager would have the time allocation, cost and scope for every detail of this project. Unfortunately for the American public, we may never know how much time, money and effort went into the 12 month Project Hounding of Mr. Van Buren.

In the end, the State Department can claim success in getting Mr. Van Buren out the door (and helping him sell those books also).  No one needs to pretend anymore that he is paid to work as a “telecommuter” when in truth they just did not want his shadow in that building. He is now officially a retired Foreign Service Officer. Like all soon to retire officers, he even got into the Foreign Service Institute’s job search program.  But of course, they have yanked away his security clearance, so that’s really helpful in the job search, too.

Do you get the feeling that this isn’t really about this book anymore but about that next book?

Back in July, former FSO Dave Seminara who writes for Gadling and is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat did an interview with Mr. Van Buren .  In one part of the interview, Mr. Van Buren said that he gets anonymous hate mail and people telling him to “shut up and do your service like everyone else did; half a million people have gone through Iraq and they didn’t have to bitch about everything like you did.” I read that and I thought, oh, dear me!

Excerpts:

Q: But surely you can understand that if lots of FSOs decided to write critical books like yours while still on active duty it would create chaos?

A: I can understand that argument. But this is part of living in a free society. As Donald Rumsfeld said, “Democracy is messy.” The State Department promotes the rights of people to speak back to their governments. The Arab Spring — we want people in Syria to shout back at their government, but we won’t let our own employees do that.

Q: It seems as though the State Department objects to some FSO blogs, but not to others — is that right?

A: It’s vindictive prosecution. The State Department links to dozens of Foreign Service blogs and those people aren’t getting clearance on everything they post — they can’t. But those blogs are about how the food in Venezuela is great or we love the secretary.

The idea — we’re going to pick on you because we don’t like what you’re writing — that scrapes up against the First Amendment. If the State Department wants to police my blog, they have to police all of them.

Q: And how do you think your peers perceive you now?
A: A lot of State Department people are under the mistaken impression that I didn’t clear the book but they’ve dropped that. People thought I went rogue, which I did not. I am not a popular person right now. Someone in an organization that is designed to help FSOs told me, “Most people in this building hate you.”

Some people worried that they’d have privileges in Baghdad taken away from them. That someone in Congress might wonder why we have a tennis court in Baghdad. I got de-friended by colleagues on Facebook. Most of them didn’t read the book. One embassy book club refused to buy the book. Lots of anonymous hate mail. [People telling me] shut up and do your service like everyone else did; half a million people have gone through Iraq and they didn’t have to bitch about everything like you did. I’ve also been harassed by Diplomatic Security people.

Q: Do you feel like diplomats have a right to publish?
A: We do have a constitution which still has the First Amendment attached to it. The rules say: No classified or personal information can be released, you can’t talk about contracting and procurement stuff that would give anyone an advantage in bidding, and the last thing you can’t do is speak on behalf of the department. That’s it. They don’t have to agree with what I’ve written. I have disclaimers in my book and on the blog explaining that my views are my own and don’t represent those of the U.S. government.

Read in full, U.S. Foreign Service Officer Blacklisted for Scathing Exposé.

The more insidious question really is — how did we end up with so much waste in Iraq and Afghanistan? The answer that folks just did their jobs and did not bitch about anything is certainly part of what ails the effort. Not that other folks have not complained, or even blogged about the reconstruction problems in the warzones, the complaints were just not as loud.  People were aware of serious issues in these reconstruction projects, talked about it, complained about it among themselves, but for one reason or another did not feel right about calling public attention to the fire slowly burning the house down.  What I have a hard time understanding is — why are people so mad at the man who shouted fire and had the balls to write about it?

This should be a great case study for the State Department’s Leadership and Management School. Because what exactly does this teach the next generation of Foreign Service Officers in terms of leadership and management? About misguided institutional loyalty? About the utility of shooting the messenger of bad news, so no news is good news?  And about courage when it’s 2 o’clock in the morning and all your friends have bailed out and locked the door, to keep you out?

See something. Say something. Or not.  But if you do, be prepared to be hounded and ostracized by the institution you once called home, by people you once called friends.

In any case, the one headed dragon that roars gotta be slayed before its other heads wake up and roar louder. Another officer was writing the Afghanistan edition of We Meant Well when the State Department went mud fishing on Mr. Van Buren. Not sure if that book is ever coming out but just one more line item on success in the State Department. The less stories told unofficially, the more successful the effort officially.

Um, pardon me?  Oh, you mean the State Department’s Dissent Channel and AFSA’s Dissent Awards? Those things are utterly amazing good stuff.  On paper.

 

 

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Filed under Disasters, Dissent, Foreign Service, FS Blogs, FSOs, Leadership and Management, Persona Non Grata, Peter Van Buren, State Department

Foreign Service Dissent Award Snubs Most Vocal Foreign Service Dissenter of the Year

The American Foreign Service Association (AFSA), the professional association of the United States Foreign Service presents an annual set of awards for “intellectual courage and creative dissent.

It has four dissent awards:

  • F. Allen “Tex” Harris Award for a Foreign Service Specialist
  • W. Averell Harriman Award for a junior officer (FS 7-FS 4)
  • William R. Rivkin Award for a mid-level officer, (FS 3-FS 1)
  • Christian A. Herter Award for a member of the Senior Foreign Service (FE OC-FE CA)

Here is AFSA’s Criteria for its Dissent Awards:

The 2012 Dissent Awards via AFSA (excerpt):

This year’s AFSA awards for intellectual courage, initiative and integrity in the context of constructive dissent will be presented to the following Foreign Service employees, who challenged the system despite the possible consequences.  The winner will receive a small globe with their name and a framed certificate.

The winner of the 2012 William R. Rivkin Award for constructive dissent by a mid-level Foreign Service officer is Joshua Polacheck. Mr. Polacheck consistently and over some time made well-reasoned arguments against the U.S. security posture as it related to U.S. embassies, consulates and missions abroad. He submitted a highly cogent dissent channel cable, raising concerns that “consistently erring on the side of caution” when it comes to security choices sends “a message of distrust to the people of our host nations” and makes it difficult to roll back enhanced security measures should the need arise. Mr. Polacheck came to this conclusion after serving in Iraq, Pakistan and Lebanon. The judges were impressed with his willingness to raise a well-argued concern on an issue that often complicates U.S. policy and the carrying out of diplomatic and development work abroad.

The AFSA Awards and Plaques Committee did not select any winners this year for AFSA’s other dissent awards: The F. Allen “Tex” Harris Award for Foreign Service specialists, the W. Averell Harriman Award for constructive dissent by an entry-level Foreign Service officer, or the Christian A. Herter Award for Senior Foreign Service members.

So there — this year, there are no winners for three of AFSA’s four dissent awards.  The only one with a declared winner is the Rivkin Award for a mid-level officer (FS 3-FS 1). The award is named after William Rivkin, a US Army officer and former US Ambassador to Luxembourg and Senegal, who is also the father Charles H. Rivkin, the current US Ambassador to France.

We understand that two nominations were submitted for the Rivkin Award for FSO Peter Van Buren, but since he did not get the award, AFSA’s panel must think that he did not “go out on a limb” enough, or “stick his neck out in a way” that involves some risk.  Which is kind of sorta funny since the last we heard, Van Buren’s neck is definitely on the chopping block.  Revenge of the chickens for writing about chicken crap.  But seriously, he sure did challenge the system from within by not resigning, didn’t he?

The word backstage is that folks were reportedly “not happy” about the Van Buren nominations since the nominee did not follow proper channels, or dissent was not constructive, or something along those lines.  Our guesstimate is that “challenging the system from within” does not really mean that you are within the system when you’re doing the challenging, it simply means that that you’re challenging the system with proper punctuation marks observed without offending too many folks and not rattling too many cages.

Or wait — maybe if he quit … and wasn’t so loud, and did not give so many interviews, and did not call people names,  you think, they might have given him the award for demonstrating nicely and quietly, “the intellectual courage to challenge the system from within, to question the status quo and take a stand, no matter the sensitivity of the issue or the consequences of their actions.”  

The book was done nicely though, it wasn’t distasteful or anything, and it wasn’t in ALL CAPS, so he wasn’t really shouting.

Oh, let’s sleep on this. Maybe tomorrow we’ll wake up and find that Fulbright’s quote is really a joke gone bad.

Here we thought dissent is a dying tradition in the Foreign Service … ahnd, it might just be.

Why? Well, we didn’t hear too much non-official dissent around here, and if AFSA’s candidates’ pool  is running empty, it could only mean that not too many people are using the official Dissent Channel. Or whoever used it in the recent past were deemed not worthy of these awards.

But — before you jump into wrongheaded conclusions, be reminded that not too very long ago, Ambassador Alfred Atherton, then Director General of the Foreign Service, was quoted saying: “it is possible that the decline in the use of the dissent channel you’ve cited represents the success of the system …rather than a deliberate effort to squelch differing views.”

And we don’t think he was kidding then when he said what he said.

Just to be clear, AFSA is a dues-collecting non-government membership organization. It sure can set its own criteria for its awards, the dissent awards included. But perhaps, it should amplify its own rules for rewarding dissent — that it’s only good for the nice form not the long form, hair on fire kind. These awards are for the special kind of dissent, the “constructive kind only” — the ones that do not topple the chairs.  So contrary to Fulbright’s words, the test of dissent’s value is really in its taste?

“For over forty years AFSA has sponsored a program to recognize and encourage constructive dissent and risk-taking in the Foreign Service. This is unique within the U.S. Government. The Director General of the Foreign Service is a co-sponsor of the annual ceremony where the dissent awards are conferred. AFSA is proud to have upheld the tradition of constructive dissent for these many years, and we look forward to our ongoing role in recognizing those who have the courage to buck the system to stand up for their beliefs.”

Hey, stop laughing over there!

Oh, where were we? So this is just as well. Imagine if Van Buren got the dissent award? The Director General of the Foreign Service whose office is pursuing Mr. Van Buren’s dismissal would have been in a twilightzoney spot of handing an award to the State Department’s top ranking FSO-non grata. Of course, that pix would have been something to pin on Pinterest.

Anyway, this got us thinking — which can sometimes get problematic.

If dissent is one important index of political integrity within the Foreign Service, what does it mean, that 1) the tide pool is so shallow AFSA could only find one winner in this year’s awards and 2) that it has ignored the most vocal Foreign Service dissenter of the year?

We don’t know the answer but it is disturbing that bucking the system and standing for one’s beliefs have asterisks.

Domani Spero

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Filed under AFSA, Awards, Dissent, Foreign Service, FSOs, Peter Van Buren, Quotes

State Dept Restores Blog, But All’s Not Well – Whatareyougoingtodoaboutit?

When I left to run errands around noon yesterday, Jen’s blog, The Dinoia Family has been restored in the blog roll of careers.state.gov.

By the time I was back online briefly late afternoon, there’s this note from  Jeffrey Levine, the outgoing Director of Recruitment, Examination and Employment(HR/REE).  Mr. Levine is also President Obama’s nominee to be the next Ambassador to Estonia.

To our Bloggers:
As you can see, we have re-linked to Jen Dinoia’s blog and sincerely regret any offense we caused. We appreciate all your efforts to share your personal Foreign Service experiences (writ large) and are pleased to offer them a wider audience. We will certainly try to be more sensitive in future decisions regarding placements. Thanks again for your efforts and your service.
– Jeff Levine, Director of Recruitment, Examination and Employment

WaPo has already picked up this blog restoration story, and has updated its article with Mr. Levine’s note and a quote from the State Dept’s spokesman Mark Toner:

Earlier, in a statement to The Post, State Department spokesman Mark C. Toner said the blog “has been restored” on the State Department’s recruitment page. “It had been taken down as part of a periodic effort by a contractor to review and freshen the blog links on the site.”

But the statement was at odds with what Dinoia was told in an e-mail early this week by a recruiting and marketing consultant for the agency when she discovered her blog had been removed from the State Department blogroll.

So this tempest should be done already, yes? I think – folks of a certain pay grade over at Foggy Bottom are betting that if Nipplegate, to borrow the term from another blogger, can be the FS bloggers’ quick win, then it will go swiftly away by the next news cycle.  The less than 24-hour restore time is quite amazing, but then, that’s the idea of a rapid response; so folks stop blogging about nipples already and you over there can stop snickering, too.

Hold on … not so fast, I’m trying to catch my breath here.

First, an FSO who commented in this blog politely writes, “I don’t get how “censorship” was introduces into Ms. Dinoia’s case. No one is telling her to stop talking. She was taken off a blog roll.”

And I have to agree he has a point.  It is the State Department’s blog. And like the blog roll I have in Diplopundit’s side bar, I have my bloggy reasons for selecting the links I’ve put up there.   Jen herself writes:

“No, it’s not my list.  Yes, they can update the list anytime they want.  However, they came to me.  They asked me to participate and I felt a little notice or a reasonable explanation as to why I was removed was not out of the question.”

So while “nipple” may have been the offending word, no one from the State Department actually told Jen to stop blogging about nipples, no one actually censored or prevented her from exercising her right to free speech. I should make that clear.  Will you buy that? Okay, fine, let’s not call it censorship.  They just ditched her blog, a catalog of a Foreign Service life that is so personal it would not — what’s the word? resonate. Would not resonate. More than being removed from the blog roll, I think that’s the one that was most hurtful.

FS spouses who at one time or another have heard themselves referred to as “just a spouse” were struck by online lightning. And so, the reactions were immediate and not at all surprising.

But we also know that even if we don’t call this incident an act of censorship by the State Department, the State Department has selectively censored blogs for various reasons.  They refused to call it censorship, of course, because that is such a bad word.  Censorship is something that Iran, or China or North Korea does, but not the oldest cabinet agency of the United States.  Such BS. They clubbed this one twice. Twice. Others do not need more career-aches, so will not be dragged across this blog.

And because the State Department does not do censorship, it will not tell FSOs in writing to shut down their blogs (Van Buren excepted). Adverse actions are paperless, warnings are behind closed doors, and in its wake, some folks were nudged into retirement, some assignments broken, spouses scared out of their wits on what this would do the careers of their loved ones. And the “chilling effect” is just that, chiiillllll out! 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.

Here is another FSO who blogged specifically about the larger picture:

What State did with Jen’s blog – and especially the response sent to her email – may have been insensitive and ill-advised, but it wasn’t censorship. Jen’s blog will live on and delight its readers whether State links to it or not. However, that doesn’t mean censorship isn’t a problem in the FS blogging world. People DO get pressured to stop blogging by bosses or coworkers. Their jobs, their livelihoods get threatened because of their blogs. Not mine thank god, at least not yet, but it happens. Those blogs go dark, and that’s where the censorship charge starts to be more realistically applied. THAT’s where the risk is. THAT’s where the battle is. Let’s not make a mountain out of a molehill when the mountain’s already there.

And she is right, of course. In fact, that mountain is right there – it’s called Peter Van Buren. Until he wrote that critical book, he was a respectable member of the Foreign Service community.  He followed the book clearance procedure in the regs, and State broke its own rules. Instead of admitting this mistake, it went after him. Instead of addressing the content of his book, it went after him. Since he is retiring in September, what other reason is there for pursuing him in such dedicated fashion except to make him a memorable example? He is by no means, the only one, he’s just the most public one willing to put up a fight.

The ACLU says that it is easy to defend freedom of speech when the message is something that many people find reasonable. I think that’s right on target.  But also when the speaker is cuddly, likeable, not abrasive as emery board — that defense is easy.

But of course, we cannot defend freedom of speech then pick and choose which parts of speech we want to protect. But … but, he writes about the dirtiest laundry, and he seems always angry and he uses such colorful, offensive language and etc. etc… and that all may be true but isn’t the defense of freedom of speech most critical when the message is one most people find disagreeable?  In Mr. Van Buren’s case, a message that most members of the Foreign Service find disagreeable.  Still, Mr. Van Buren’s protected speech is every FSO’s protected speech.

But you say, you’re nothing like him. Or you will never be like Peter Van Buren, described in one blog as “the most recent State Department “white blood cell” looking to do to some institutional housecleaning at Foggy Bottom.” I’m sure Mr. Van Buren did not imagine himself like this 20 years ago.  How can you see what life is like 20 years down the road? It bears repeating that what the State Department is doing to Mr. Van Buren, it can easily do to anyone in the Foreign Service. As Madam le Consul used to say, repeat, rinse.

So here’s some food for thought — if we were offended that the word “nipple” caused Jen’s blog to be ditched from the official blog list, shouldn’t all of us be concerned that State requires clearances for every blog post, every tweet, every sneeze coming from Mr. Van Buren, and Mr. Van Buren alone?

To paraphrase Chomsky — 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?

Domani Spero

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Filed under Dissent, Foreign Service, FS Blogs, FSOs, Peter Van Buren, Realities of the FS

State Dept v. Peter Van Buren: ACLU Gets Into the Ring Over First Amendment Right

If you have been reading this blog for a while, you know that I’ve been following Peter Van Buren’s case for some time.  While I do not always agree with everything that Mr. Van Buren says and writes, I am offended by his selective treatment by the State Department that can only be described as retaliatory.

Mr. Van Buren, of course, is not the only recipient of such selective treatment in the State Department.  He’s just the loudest and the most vocal Exhibit A under the 21st Century Statecraft tab.  Other FSOs and family members have been similarly penalized for running afoul of  the department’s movable blogging and social media rules. One I know for sure, have been pushed into retirement, others suffer consequences in future assignments. Even non-blogging FSOs were threatened for the blogging activities of their spouses. For sure, very few threats come in written form but in a culture where corridor reputation is key to every assignment, no written memo is needed to screw up a future assignment in the Foreign Service.

On May 15, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) got into the ring in Mr. Van Buren’s public fight with the State Department.  ACLU, the 92 year old institution told the State Department, the first agency created under our Constitution that “public employees don’t give up their First Amendment rights in exchange for a job with the government.”

The ACLU writes in its blog:

[T]he State Department has proposed firing Mr. Van Buren under the guise of a procedural rule, creating the strong appearance of unlawful retaliation. Government employees have the First Amendment right to speak as private citizens on matters of public concern. There’s no question that the subject of Mr. Van Buren’s book, blog posts, and news articles — the reconstruction effort in Iraq — is such a matter. And, government employees are often in the best position to know what ails the agencies that they work for.
[...]
The State Department is attempting to justify the firing by claiming that Mr. Van Buren failed to comply with the agency’s prepublication review policy. The State Department’s policy requires all employees to submit everything they write for prepublication review, regardless of whether they are writing in their official or personal capacity. This policy, especially as applied to blog posts and articles, raises serious constitutional questions. By forcing employees to submit all their writings for prepublication review — even articles and blog posts written on their own time — the State Department is effectively shutting its employees out of any meaningful participation in critical public debates. There is no justification for such an expansive prior restraint.

Continue reading, The First Amendment Applies to Foreign Service Officers, Too.

But writing a blog post is not enough.  The ACLU also wrote a letter to Patrick F. Kennedy, the Under Secretary for Management with courtesy copies to Linda Thomas-Greenfield, the Director General of the Foreign Service and Director of Human Resources; Jesselyn Radack & Kathleen McClellan, Government Accountability Project (who represents Mr. Van Buren in his Office of Special Counsel case) and Raeka Safai of the American Foreign Service Association.

Below is an excerpt from ACLU’s letter to Mr. Kennedy:

This proposed termination for Mr. Van Buren’s speech raises substantial constitutional questions and creates the appearance of impermissible retaliation for Mr. Van Buren’s criticism of the State Department. The Supreme Court has long made clear that public employees are protected by the First Amendment when they engage in speech about matters of public concern. A public employee’s First Amendment rights can be overcome only if the employee’s interest in the speech is outweighed by the government’s interest, as employer, in the orderly operation of the public workplace and the efficient delivery of public services by public employees. Pickering v. Bd. of Educ., 391 U.S. 563, 568 (1968).

The government bears an even greater burden of justification when it prospectively restricts employees’ expression through a generally applicable statute or regulation. United States v. Nat’l Treasury Employees Union, 513 U.S. 454, 468 (1995) (“NTEU”). By those standards, the State Department’s actions here appear to be unconstitutional.
[...]
The Supreme Court has repeatedly held that public employees retain their First Amendment rights even when speaking about issues directly related to their employment, as long as they are speaking as private citizens. Garcetti v. Ceballos, 547 U.S. 410, 421 (2006). In his book, blog posts, and articles, it is clear that Mr. Van Buren is speaking in his own voice and not on behalf of the State Department. Writing blog posts and articles from home, on his own time and on his personal computer, is a paradigmatic example of speech that public employees may legitimately engage in as private citizens. Pickering, 391 U.S. 563 (unconstitutional to discipline teacher for writing letter to the editor); Garcetti, 547 U.S. at 423 (citing op-eds as private citizen speech).

On prospective restrictions for all present and future diplomats, the ACLU writes:

[T]he State Department’s pre-publication review policy, as applied to blog posts and articles, raises serious constitutional questions. Through its policy, the State Department is prospectively restricting the speech of Mr. Van Buren as well as all present and future State Department employees. Where, as here, the restriction limits speech before it occurs, the Supreme Court has made clear that the government’s burden is especially heightened. NTEU, 513 U.S. at 468. The State Department must show that the interests of potential audiences and a vast group of present and future employees are outweighed by that expression’s necessary impact on the actual operation of government. Id. Courts have also required careful tailoring of prospective restrictions to ensure they do not sweep too broadly and that they actually address the identified harm. Id. at 475. Given this heightened standard, it is highly unlikely that the State Department could sustain its burden of  demonstrating that its policy is constitutional.

There is no justification for such an expansive prior restraint on State Department  speech. The State Department’s policy affects all employees and is broadly written to include all “matters of official concern.” This encompasses a vast amount of speech – including Mr. Van Buren’s and that of numerous other State Department bloggers – that would in no way harm the “actual operation of the government.” The overbreadth of the State Department’s policy is abundantly clear when compared with the practice of the Department of Defense. Hundreds of active-duty soldiers, many with access to classified and sensitive information, post articles and maintain personal blogs without pre-clearance and without posing any harm to military operations.

Further, the State Department’s pre-publication requirement covers even more speech than necessary to serve the government’s stated interests –to protect classified information and to prevent views of employees from being improperly attributed to the government. 3 FAM 4172.1-1. As such, the policy is not carefully drawn to ensure that it does not unnecessary chill a vast amount of protected speech, nor is it tailored to address the identified harm. See Harman v. City of New York, 140 F.3d 111, 123 (2d Cir. 1998).

You can read the entire letter from the ACLU to Mr. Kennedy here.

The ACLU makes a very compelling argument and I think for the first time, the constitutionality of that broad umbrella of all “matters of official concern” take center stage. It’s a good thing to shine a light on that dark folder. Let’s see what happens.

On a related note, the American Foreign Service Association (AFSA) in February released its guidance for personal use of social media.   The union represented Mr. Van Buren in his grievance case within the State Department but has been largely silent in this very public fight.  Mr. Van Buren has now asked  AFSA if the union is willing to press State into a rational set of regulations on social media:

“We all know that many FSOs and their spouses/partners have been unofficially penalized for blogging, and pushed into going off line. At the same time, we also know there are many, many blogs out there by FSOs and others and that the number grows. Anyone think social media is going to be less a part of life in the next ten years?

I have taken an extreme position on these issues, and know that you have not always (or often?) agreed with what I wrote. That is in fact how it should be, because the issue at hand should not be about the content per se, but the right to write it.

I fully agree that State needs rules about social media; they currently really have none that are realistic and implementable and in fact are considered unconstitutional by America’s leading First Amendment group.

Would AFSA now be willing to make a public statement along these lines and use my case to press State into a rational set of regulations on social media?

So — I’m sitting here, after midnight, pondering — is AFSA up for this challenge? Guess, we’ll have to wait and see …

Domani Spero

 

 

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Filed under AFSA, Dissent, Foreign Service, FS Blogs, FSOs, Non-Gov, Peter Van Buren, Realities of the FS, Regulations, Social Media

State Dept Throws Sink + All Fixtures But One at FSO-Non Grata, Peter Van Buren

Some State Department folks are now one step closer to unwrapping themselves around the axle over Peter Van Buren.  Last week, WaPo reported that the State Department is moving to fire him based on eight charges, ranging from linking on his blog to documents on the whistleblowing site WikiLeaks to using “bad judgement’ for criticizing Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and former GOP presidential candidate Michelle Bachmann (see he labeled her, R-Pluto). Excerpt below:

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.”“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.”

Van Buren’s termination letter came within days of a decision by the Office of Special Counsel, an independent agency that investigates government wrongdoing and complaints of retaliation by those who report it, to look into his case.
[…[
He was charged with eight violations of State Department policy. They include linking in his blog to documents on WikiLeaks; failing to clear each blog posting with his bosses; displaying a “lack of candor” during interviews with diplomatic security officers; leaking allegedly sensitive and classified information in his book; and using “bad judgement’ by criticizing Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and then-presidential candidate Michelle Bachmann on his blog.

Read in full here.

Actually, we have confirmation that the eight violations include the charge of improper handling of classified information, citing links from his blog to WikiLeaks (one confidential cable from 2009, and one unclas/sensitive/noforn cable also from 2009) but does not/not include the allegation of leaking “classified” content from his book. Which is just terribly odd.

Readers of this blog might remember that last fall, Dana Shell Smith, the Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State (PDAS) of the Bureau of Public Affairs wrote to Mr. Van Buren’s publisher, Macmillan, requesting some 30 word redactions of “classified” information contained in the book purportedly “to avoid possible harm to U.S. national security.” (read “Classified” Information Contained in We Meant Well – It’s a Slam Dunk, Baby!)

So — what happened? Testing time folks, multiple choice below:

  1. The folks over at HR forgot to include the allegation from PDAS Smith; even smart people sometimes forget, you know.
  2. Somebody finally discovered that “Mogadishu” is not/not a “classified” item and the government lawyers did not want to be laughed at all the way to court.
  3. The letter to the publisher was a scaredy tactic that did not work, and on 2nd 3rd nth thought should not have been sent.
  4. All of the above.

Anyway, back to Peter Van Buren — he is reportedly facing eight charges, including profiting from the sale of his book, We Meant Well.  He will be given a chance to respond, of course, because this is America, but the ultimate intent is to separate him from the Foreign Service for cause.

We dug up 3 FAM 4360 on separation for cause which says that “if the agency recommends separation for cause, the employee must be placed in a leave-without-pay status or remain in an absence-without-leave (AWOL) status pending final resolution.” He has 15 days from the date of notification to respond to these charges. Response time if employee is assigned overseas is bumped up to 30 days.

A whole bunch of folks at State must be relieved; they can do their real jobs now instead of monitoring Mr. Van Buren’s blog posts, interviews, twitterspeak, etc. The boss must also be relieved on not having to write about Mr. Van Buren’s telecommuting performance for the later’s EER come April.


The Hunt for Leakers of Classified Materials, a Bad Reality Show

Perhaps it is comforting to some to hear that the State Department will finally get to penalize Mr. Van Buren for linking to two non-secret cables on WikiLeaks.  But we gotta ask — whatever happened to the 2010 Diplomatic Security investigation on the leak of two secret 2009 Eikenberry cables to the NYT in 2010?

Or for that matter, is anyone investigating the leak of Ambassador Crocker’s top-secret cable to Washington in January this year, warning that the persistence of enemy havens in Pakistan was placing the success of the U.S. strategy in Afghanistan in jeopardy.

Somebody really should check out the status of these investigations and see if anyone has been prosecuted yet. The public may get the wrong impression that linking to non-secret cables in a blog is more dangerous than the actual leaks of secret and top secret materials to the newspaper of record.


What folks are saying

POGO writes, “Given the fact that waste, fraud and abuse in Afghanistan and Iraq has been well-documented by the Commission on Wartime Contracting, it seems misguided that the State Department is emphasizing throwing its manpower into investigating a whistleblower—rather than his actual claims.”

The democraticunderground.com headline says State Dept. Seeks Firing of Peter Van Buren, Whistleblower who Exposed Wasteful Iraq Projects. Post includes video interview with Democracy Now.

Mother Jones says: “Talking back certainly isn’t a crime. One thing the Wikileaks cables show is that diplomats don’t always have to be diplomatic: They can be critical of world leaders, policies, and events, but evidently only if they have achieved sufficient rank and subtlety—and only if they do it behind State-approved firewalls.”

The Atlantic Wire is not too sympathetic, writing:

“It’s worth pointing out that Van Buren agreed to a certain code of conduct when he took his job at the government; what the government is saying now is that he broke that code. In addition to linking to the WikiLeaks document, they say that Van Buren is guilty, to borrow Reins’ phrasing, of “failing to clear each blog posting with his bosses; displaying a ‘lack of candor’ during interviews with diplomatic security officers; leaking allegedly sensitive and classified information in his book; and using ‘bad judgment’ by criticizing Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and then-presidential candidate Michelle Bachmann on his blog.” Indeed, some of these offenses sound serious. And Van Buren’s only been more outspoken about his disdain for the department since trouble started brewing last year. But is this a simple case of an employee breaking the rules at work or, as Van Buren would have us believe, a violation of an American citizen’s First Amendment rights?”

Out there on the Fed page of WaPo are multiple comments including the following:

wmbrent | 3/16/2012 5:00 AM PDT

“I wouldn’t bet that Van Buren is conservative. After all, the billions we threw away in Iraq were mostly programmed by the Neocons. There are plenty of very liberal Foreign Service officers like me who were disgusted by the diversion of resources from worthy development efforts elsewhere to hoist the development “flag” and civilian “step-up-to-the-plated-ness” in Iraq and Afghanistan.”

cbl55 | 3/14/2012 2:00 PM PDT

“[...] But part of the deal – as any of us know who have worked at State or the foreign affairs agencies – is that the deal is incredibly screwed up. As Daniel Ellsberg once wrote in the Pentagon Papers decades ago, the ‘establishment’s line was that ‘if you only knew what we knew, you wouldn’t be demonstrating in the streets.’ To which Ellsberg replied, ‘if we really knew what they knew, we wouldn’t have waited so long’ to save hundreds of thousands of lives in unnecessary, stupid wars. So let’s forgive Van Buren his juvenile descriptions of the Secretary’s naughty bits and focus on the content of his message. If I were GAO, I’d hire him on the spot.”

From overseas, the Voice of Russia, the Russian government’s international radio broadcasting service gleefully calls the case a “human rights thriller” and notes that “even the Soviet bureaucrats did not have to “clear” their letters with their superiors.” We have no way of verifying that of course, but clearly, you can see that VoR has developed some sense of humor!

And we have yet to hear anything from Xinhua, but the Chinese probably think Mr. Van Buren had it easy here. In China, dissenters and troublemakers are sent on forced psychiatric hospitalization with accompanying sedation.


So how should you get off the bus?

The comment that we often hear is that, he should have done the honorable thing and resigned from his job before writing this book or before skewering his employer in his blog.

And we understand that sentiment; for the bureaucracy to “function,” it must have order. For order to exist, employees must follow the line and not be going off every which way. If employees disagree with a policy, there is what they call the “Dissent Channel,” to register one’s disagreement with official policy.  As an aside, AFSA even gives out awards for what it calls “constructive dissent.”  We have it in good authority, by the way, that Mr. Van Buren has been nominated by more than one person for AFSA’s William R. Rivkin Award for midlevel officials. Let’s see if AFSA can find an excuse not to give out the award this year.

In any case, it is worth noting that the State Department is not obligated to share the dissent received with the American public, nor is it obligated to report what action it takes in response to such a dissent. If that fails, resignation from one’s job has been the accepted course of action, a norm drilled into the heads of our State Department folks.

John Brady Kiesling was the first of three U.S. foreign service officers to resign, on February 25, 2003, to protest the 2003 invasion of Iraq. In 2006, he authored the book, “Diplomacy Lessons: Realism for an Unloved Superpower” (Potomac Books 2006).

Kevin Maher, the former Director of the Japan Desk at the Department of State was removed from his post a day before the historic 9.0-magnitude earthquake after  stirring outrage in Japan for reportedly belittling Okinawans (he stayed on for another month to coordinate the US disaster response). He retired instead of accepting a post in Australia, then wrote the book, “The Japan That Can’t Decide,” on how Japan’s indecisiveness hindered the initial response to the March 2011 natural and nuclear disasters and impacted Tokyo’s security relationship with Washington. AFP reported that the book, written in Japanese sold more than 100,000 copies and for weeks topped the country’s best-seller list for non-fiction paperbacks. In the AFP piece, he criticized the two officials he said were behind his dismissal — then deputy secretary of state Jim Steinberg and Ambassador to Japan John Roos.

“They just wanted to get this out of the press and decided that the best thing was not to address whether these press reports were actually true or not but just to remove me from my position,” Maher said.

While we understand what appears to be a prevailing collective desire that the employee who disagrees with policy leave in polite terms, we are wondering if the time has come to rethink that.  Getting off the bus quietly is encouraged in that culture, and presumably from the perspective of the organization that’s the best course of action. It avoids controversy and the parties can pretend the separation is like a marriage that no longer works, etc — but is this necessarily good for the paying public?  Should the employees ought to just be thankful they have a job and keep quiet? And for those who can’t keep quiet for whatever reason, must they give up their livelihood for pointing out the stinky elephant in the room?

Tomdispatch calls it, “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.”

And that’s some food for thought…

In the long history of the State Department, Peter Van Buren is probably the only one who has written a book on matters of official concern, a critical one at that, who has refused to leave quietly.  The book came out shortly before we pulled out our military forces from Iraq. But US Embassy Iraq is still 16,000 people strong.  And the baghdafication of Afghanistan is still a work in progress.

Had Mr. Van Buren, a midlevel FS-01 quit after his return from Baghdad Iraq, then wrote his book, we probably would be talking about his book for like, 15 minutes, then forget about it.   But that’s not how it happens.  He got his 15 minutes of fame plus more.  Along the way, we learned a bit more not only about how we spent $44.6 billion in taxpayer funds on rebuilding Iraq but also on the the shallowness of our convictions– from our tolerance to dissenting views, to our much touted push for Internet Freedom and 21st Century Statecraft, as long as they’re not our guys, that is.

Instead of taking this case seriously as a good excuse to look inward and review the policy of reconstruction in war zones, and absent a change of direction, develop more effective metrics and accountability for these projects, the State Department took its fight to the messenger.  And wasted time and resources there. Meanwhile, our Afghanistan nation building project is going down in flames.  The civilian surge is now without fizz, and President Karzai had just called all Americans in Afghanistan, “demons.” Is it possible that we are once more repeating our mistakes in Iraq in our nation-building efforts in Afghanistan but our leaders are too wimpy to acknowledge it?  We seem to be saying, it’s possible, but we can’t say for sure, because we’re afraid to look.


The C. Street Billboard Now with a New Warning

The State Department spends much money and effort to recruit and train the “best and the brightest” to represent America overseas, then proceeds to hammer and shape them into, I’m sorry to say, drones, who follow directions, not create waves and most importantly, whose stingers are without barbs.

A recently retired FSO who blogs at Diplomad 2.0 writes:

“The State Department bureaucracy is very much a mental bee hive: independent thought is not encouraged. You must conform to the hive. The hive does not respond to the President or to the national interest; the hive takes care of itself.”

How can we cultivate leaders, risk takers, innovators and independent thinkers for the 21st century in an environment that penalizes such traits? Um, pardon me?  The answer is in the QDDR? Good luck looking it up.

No matter how Peter Van Buren’s case turns out, the signal had been sent loud and clear. A Director General of the Foreign Service once testified in the case of a  DS agent dismissed for “notoriously disgraceful conduct” and  said, “I think it’s important to send a message to the entire State Department that. . . you cannot do this.”

That’s the same message broadcasted now in Foggy Bottom’s billboard.

For FSOs serving in our other war in Afghanistan who may be thinking about writing a book, this is the large neon sign saying, “forgettaboutit” or “look out, this could happen to you!” And here I was hoping for We Meant Well in Afghanistan, Too.

I’m sure the State Department can argue that “enforcing” the rules, however selectively, is done to promote the proper functioning of the Service. But should the proper functioning of the Service trumps everything else?  Whether you agree with Mr. Van Buren’s message or not, his method of delivery or not, his case has created a precedent. Throwing the sink and all fixtures at him would help ensure that nothing like this ever happens again.  I suspect that would be good for the State Department. Order restored.  Life goes on.

But are we, the American public better served?

Domani Spero

 

 

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Filed under AFSA, Book Notes, Dissent, FS Blogs, FSOs, Leaks|Controversies, Org Culture, Peter Van Buren, Regulations, State Department

Col. Davis’ Dereliction of Duty Report Lands Online; Investigation Starts Just About Now

Lt. Colonel Daniel Davis reportedly submitted a classified report to members of Congress, arguing that the Department of Defense has intentionally and consistently misled the American people and Congress when it comes to measuring progress and conduct in Afghanistan. Lt. Col. Davis has also written an 80+ page unclassified version, which the DOD has not cleared for public release. Below is Lt. Col. Davis and Matthew Hoh with the Center for International Policy discuss.

If video doesn’t play, click Officer Blows Whistle on Afghan War, Part2

According to RollingStone’s Michaell Hastings, Colonel Davis submitted the unclassified report –titled “Dereliction of Duty II: Senior Military Leader’s Loss of Integrity Wounds Afghan War Effort” – for an internal Army review last month.  U.S. military officials familiar with the situation told the reporter that the Pentagon is refusing to do so. Rolling Stone has now obtained a full copy of the 84-page unclassified version. You can read it here (pdf). It is long but a must read. Here is an interesting excerpt:

A bunch of dudes in bed sheets and flip-flops.

But before anyone else underestimates these gentlemen, consider also the path they’ve travelled to get to this place. The Taliban initially formed in the chaotic aftermath of the post-Soviet period and by 1996 had captured Kabul, where they ruled until October 2001 when the United States unleashed its post-9/11 sword. Less than four months after the first US airstrike in Afghanistan the military and political organization of the Taliban had all but ceased to exist. They were as decisively crushed psychologically as they were physically. Yet from this virtual grave they slowly reconstituted themselves in the 2003-04 time-frame and in 2005 re-emerged on the Afghan scene.

On paper, the imbalance between the two forces couldn’t be greater and ought to have resulted in a rapid and crushing defeat for the insurgent force. But wars aren’t fought on paper. An unbiased analysis of the tactical situation on the ground in Afghanistan and even a cursory observation of key classified reports and metrics leads overwhelmingly to the conclusion that over the past two years, despite the surge of 30,000 American Soldiers, the insurgent force has gained strength, the number of attacks has increased considerably, and the number of American casualties has skyrocketed. The Afghan people demonstrate an alarming lack of faith in their government and security forces and according to multiple sources, despite ISAF claims to the contrary, Taliban morale is so strong that most are reported to be utterly convinced they have already won.

Despite overwhelming physical evidence of our failure to succeed on the military front, senior US and ISAF leaders inexplicably continue a steady stream of press releases and public statements that imply the exact opposite. Far from positively influencing the target audiences in the region, our words and actions unequivocally work to our disadvantage, as it causes both our friends and foes to question what we say. One Washington, DC-based foreign diplomat with whom I recently talked, explained that diplomats from other countries whom he knew shared his view: the problem isn’t so much they have lost confidence in the truthfulness of our public statements, but possibly something worse – they suppose we genuinely believe what we’re saying, but our ability to accurately assess difficult foreign problems is flawed.

Michael Hastings @mmhastings  tweets “I hear Pentagon officials pushing story Davis is being investigated for “possible security violations.”

Well, that’s not very smart, is it? Pentagon officials pushing the story that Davis is a subject of investigation?  The report hits online today, and he’s now the subject of investigation? Man, that “investigation” should have been “leaked” last week, dudes, not today, because now it sounds utterly suspicious.  Where do you think we are, in Jupiter?

ISAF Media, where are you when we need you?

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Filed under Afghanistan, Defense Department, Dissent, War

2012 Consular Leadership Day Theme: Follow Courageously, Just Not Peter Van Buren

The Bureau of Consular Affairs (CA) recently announced its new leadership theme for 2012 which is “Follow Courageously.” CA, of course, is the home bureau of some of our consular officers who offended the tigers with their blogs — MLC, Peter Van Buren, to name a couple. Others will remain unnamed in this blog, no sense dragging the blog carcasses out in the open.  The consular officers are natural targets; they are some with the most interesting stories in the Foreign Service.  But it’s a love/hate relationship, see? Anyway, one of our friends inside the Big House excitedly told us this year’s theme of following courageously.
 
I said, hey, what does “Follow Courageously” mean?  Here is what I’m told:

The CA Leadership Tenets describe it as the ability to “take ownership of our work and hold ourselves accountable for improving performance and making our organization stronger,” and to “dissent respectfully and help the boss become more effective in the interest of the team and the mission.” 

So if you use bad, undiplomatic words in following your conscience, that’s probably not following courageously? You should be able to swear without opening your mouth. You should also be able to rock the boat without getting anyone wet.  What else?

Following courageously does not mean following blindly.  In this day of limited resources, growing workload, and changing circumstances that drive our ability to respond to new challenges, we all need to follow courageously – and that can take many different approaches. 

Following courageously includes challenging the status quo in favor of exploring new, more efficient ways to work – whether enlisting new technologies, changing business processes, or even delegating certain tasks to others.

CA/P has led the way on social media, using tools such as Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube to engage stakeholders and customers in new and exciting ways.  Many have proposed, either in FSI classes, via cables, or in forums such as CA Leads, the Sounding Board, ACS  , and VOxPopuli, innovative solutions to improve processes.  For Consular Leadership Day 2012, employees are invited to think about the many ways the section, office, or agency has followed courageously and pushed the status quo envelope. 

Challenge the status quo, but not/not in your blog, silly.  No mention of Blogger, WordPress — either those are not exciting tools or they are dangerous engagement tools. So what do you do if you want to “follow courageously,” and “dissent respectfully” and waaaahhhhhh, excuse me, but no one, NO ONE is listening?

“Following courageously often means speaking truth to power, especially when the message is unwelcome.  Many of us have faced instances when we had to deliver bad news to our bosses, or push back against a decision that was contrary to consular law or policy.  It isn’t easy, and some bosses simply don’t want to hear dissenting views, no matter how respectfully presented.  Failure to report problems, however, means they just get worse.  Offices that do not allow, and even encourage, respectful dissent only undermine their own effectiveness.  Successful offices create an environment where employees know they can raise issues safely and be taken seriously – and that management will work with them to remedy problems.  As an organization, do you encourage people to speak up about problems and explore solutions?  How do you follow courageously with those above your work unit?  How can you encourage them to create an environment where respectful dissent is given appropriate attention?”

Nice words but really, in which State Department sector is this real?  And when you are not working in a “successful office” what then?  What happens when you report certain problems and the tigers bite your head off?  Is there anyone in CA who would be willing to loan the courageous follower a Scottish targe or shield for protection from incoming projectiles? My CA friend, unfortunately does not have the answers.

“Following courageously can mean recognizing and nurturing someone who is a leader without rank – that person who is the “power of one” within your section, office, or agency.  You know the type – someone who is a ten-star leader, the “go to” person who gets things done, and is always thinking about what should happen, not just what does happen.  It is not always easy for more senior managers to acknowledge and promote the leadership role of these employees, but the best managers will follow courageously themselves, and put the good of the organization first.”

“Following courageously can mean thinking holistically about how we work, creating a “one-team” approach, and achieving economies of scale that maximize the use of scarce resources.  Consular Team India’s example of assigning specific country-wide responsibilities to a consulate, or the functional cross-training that occurs in so many posts, are only a few ways that posts are making better use of their resources.  

I said, hey, where are these ten-star leaders? Are they in India; I mean, why the special mention? Either they are in India or the consular bureau favorites insiders are now in India.
 
Thus it was made clear to us that following courageously can take many forms. But I am certain that it does not include writing a book like you know who. 

I mean, did you know that they took away his desk, and his badge, and he’s not even allowed to play with paper clips? If he ever gets back to Foggy Bottom, there is a bar of Lifeboy soap with his name on it.  Anyway, I heard that he got away with a Skillcraft pen, so he’s still writing and doing things and giving folks migraine. But that’s a blessing in disguise, the migraine, that is; there is something that beautifully treats migraine — Botox! An Indian cosmetologist promised, “A few prick jabs are like god’s gift for the chronic migraine patients.”

Folks, the migraine line starts over there. Follow courageously and stay quiet.

Pardon me?  No, there is absolutely no truth to the rumor that Consular Leadership Day has been renamed Peter Van Buren Day. 

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Filed under Consular Work, Dissent, Foreign Service, Leadership and Management, Peter Van Buren, Tigers Are Real

Peter Van Buren: Oh, dude — WHO did you get "more than upset" at the State Department?

Peter Van Buren, an FSO and 20+ year veteran of the State Department with a book coming out in fall had an interview with Rose Lichter-Marck of Publishers Weekly.  It is a brief interview, but here for the first time, a Foreign Service Officer is on the record on what type of pressures and threats the Foggy Bottom “tigers” engage in when they are not/not fond of your writing.

And it’s only July, his book is not even out until September. I can’t imagine what this will be like when reviews start coming in.  This darn new media thing, you can’t sweep anything under the rug, anymore.  

Excerpt:

PW: Did you struggle with the decision to write about working for the State Department?

Van Buren: I did, and I continue to do so. The State Department, where I have worked for 23 years, is like a Mafia family: one doesn’t talk about family matters outside the family. I can’t name one objective book written by a State Department Foreign Service Officer—the few who do write things stay strictly within the exciting travel memoir genre or, if they are former Ambassadors, the “I was right all along” personal insights. When a colleague learns about my book, the first question is always “Are you in trouble?” I am afraid the answer is yes. State started an investigation against me—a hearing is scheduled coincidentally just about the time the book comes out. My current boss also told me she was asked to “deliver a message,” just like in a gangster movie, from a “senior Department person” that my writing had left people at Foggy Bottom “more than upset” and threatened additional discipline, including suspension, if I continue.

Continue reading, The Whistleblower: PW Talks with Peter Van Buren.

Peter is the author of We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People (American Empire Project). The book will be available on September 27. You may pre-order it here

By its title alone, one can surmise that this is not one of those happy talk books about blundering into Iraq and the subsequent national building, excuse me, reconstruction.  This is also something that would not merit a look in official dissent awards. That’s the one where you disagree over a policy, write a cable, and it travels slowly up the stairs to the 7th floor, or wherever it is these cables end up these days. The awards are for dissenting quietly, in house, in well ordered arguments that does not topple the chairs.  Books and blog posts are excluded, of course.

One example of a dissent awarded in recent years was persuading the State Department to issue commissioning certificates for FS specialists. One of this year’s awards was for dissenting on official policy not to send a U.S. government representative to the annual Peace Memorial Ceremony in Hiroshima. In August 2010, 65 years since a US bomb left Hiroshima in ruins, the US Ambassador to Japan attended the ceremony for the first time. 

The State Department prides itself with its dissent channel. Even AFSA says that this is “absolutely unique within the U.S. government in that the foreign affairs agencies encourage dissent through the dissent channel.” Supposedly, sending a dissent cable does not harm your career and a list of FS luminaries are cited as proof of that. 

But — but, if the relevant issues of our time are not showing up in this “absolutely unique” dissent channel, doesn’t that tell us something?

Anyway sorry, FSO Peter Van Buren, no award for you this year.  Next time you have something relevant to say about where our young men and women are dying, and where billions of taxpayer dollars are siphoned into a black hole everyday, please do not write a book or blog about it.  Bundle them into cable format and send off quietly and nicely upstairs, please. The American public won’t ever get to hear the gritty details but you just might get an award for it, instead of being subjected to an “investigation.”

Bonus points — you won’t get anyone “more than upset” over in the big house and you’ll still have assignments and promotions to worry about.

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Filed under Dissent, Foreign Service, FS Blogs, FSOs, Peter Van Buren, State Department, Tigers Are Real