Peter Van Buren: How the State Department Came After Me

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The State Dept probably need FSI to create a training module later on how to deal with FSO-Os with funny bones, sharp pens, acerbic tongues; particularly those who
also have the talent for
pillar and punch and bright red boxing gloves in the wordy world.

Peter Van Buren may be the first, but he won’t be the last. The Afghanistan-PRT Experience Project is a book just waiting to happen. And it’s not because the State Department has adopted DHS’ “If You See Something, Say Something™” campaign.  It will happen, it’s just a matter of time, because folks can only tolerate beings hamsters on wheels for so long.  The PRT model started in Afghanistan and was exported to Iraq. Now that the Iraq-PRT Experience has turned into a book, the Afghanistan book is bound to happen. It’s only a matter of time, and we’ve got time between now and 2014 and between 2014 and who knows when …

As I was getting ready to post this, I also received a
note from a Diplopundit reader and long-time State insider who pointed out that this is not
the first time that Peter Van Buren has put himself in the crosshairs. 
Remember the 2007 passport fiasco that
got everybody all up in arms?  Apparently, back in late 2006, Mr. Van
Buren sounded the alarm to his top boss in Consular Affairs that “she
was going to need a lot of extra bodies to handle the coming surge in
passport applications.”  According to my source, Mr. Van Buren’s “reward” was to be transferred from the Consular Bureau to Public Affairs. That is obviously fine and good if you’re a PD officer, but not so good if you are a Consular Officer. So, perhaps the April Foolly-press guidance is not too off the mark after all. I am republishing the piece below in full. It seems like an important thing to share with others. I am sympathetic with Mr. Van Buren’s plight but not sure the Big House will be as sympathetic; pies are hard to clean up.

How the State Department Came After Me
For telling the truth about what I saw in Iraq

by Peter Van Buren
[Reprinted with the author’s permission.  The original is here. Also cross-posted in Foreign Policy here]

never intended to create this much trouble. 

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.

then, toward the end of the summer, the wrath of Mesopotamia fell on me. The Huffington Post picked up one of my blog
, 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
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.

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.

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
, but the story ended up being about me and the State Department

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.

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.

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?

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.

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.

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.

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?