Image via WikipediaHey! That’s going to really shut him up.
Yesterday, AFP reports that Mr. Van Buren was escorted out of the State Department on Monday and barred from returning while officials there decide what to do next with him. Our own source said that Mr. Van Buren has been placed on administrative leave for the next couple of weeks. Admin leave is like “we’ll pay you so we don’t have to see you.” I supposed that’s until they can find the citation in the FAM that would fit this “problem.” Mr. Van Buren’s current assignment reportedly had also been curtailed. If true, that means they just took away his desk and chair, too. So even if he is allowed to return after his admin leave, he won’t actually have a job to return to.
As an aside, Mr. Van Buren’s book is the main selection in our house’s book of the
month club. Our 5th grader is currently reading it at home and at
school. I don’t think it’s going to damage the kid in any way.
Mr. Van Buren’s book is highly critical of the State Department’s work in Iraq, the accompanying blog, just as critical. Not sure if the punishment is for the book, the blog, or for both. No one would speak on the record. The suspension letter did not cite the book, but did cite as one of the author’s faults, “an unwillingness to comply with Department rules and regulations regarding writing and speaking on matters of official concern.”
This is the first time, as far as memory goes, that the State Department had actually yanked somebody’s clearance over “publishing articles and blog posts on such matters without submitting them to the Department for review.” Whereas, in the past, I was aware of the shock factor in threatening bloggers with this in-house version of the “nuclear” option, this is the first time where somebody actually pushed the red button. And in a very public way.
This is the part where I should also note that although Mr. Van Buren is the first ever blogger escorted out of the building, he was only the latest casualty in the tigers can bite you escapades inside the State Department. Some FS bloggers have been unable to get suitable ongoing assignments – or even normal responses to their bid lists. As one recently told me, “these officers have not asked for extraordinary favors: just regular, humdrum postings that fall comfortably within the bidding rules, that are not heavily bid or bid on by superstars, and for which they are completely competent. ….they have heard only silence.”
Assignment issues, blogger disappearances and PVB’s case undoubtedly will bring a big chill to the FS
blogosphere. Don’t be shocked if folks go back to the 50’s and start
hiding their journals under their pillows, as was quaintly suggested elsewhere.
But here is the big question. Now that State had unleashed the “nuclear” option and suspended Mr. Van Buren’s security clearance, what other threats can you cite to help with behavior modification inside the Big House? He’s really going to stop talking/writing/giving interviews now that he had his clearance suspended, or now that he is barred from Foggy Bottom.
You suspend his clearance hoping that will scare him enough he’d stop blogging; he did not. You take away his badge, hoping that will scare him enough he’d stop blogging; he did not. You bar him from entering any door of the State Department hoping that will scare him enough he’d stop blogging; he did not. You take away his desk and his chair hoping that will scare him out of his wits he’d stop blogging. Instead, on October 27, he was the guest of the National Press Club, his appearance covered by WaPo’s Joe Davidson. The hometown paper has finally caught up with the news.
And look just now — the book even meets the approval of NYmag, which ranked the book significantly higher than the Mexican cyclops shark. See the unintended consequences here?
So how do you solve a “problem” like Peter Van Buren? Well, certainly not the way the State Department is “solving” it right now.
First, I think it must be said that the State Department handled the book clearance badly. Somebody should have owned up to the snafu instead of gunning after the author. The 30-day timeline for clearing the book lapsed. It was not the author’s fault regardless of whether or not the person responsible for clearance had a meltdown, a baby, was sick or was on vacation. But State like any old and cumbersome bureaucracy is loath to admit to its own mistakes. They cleared Condi’s book within the 30-day timeline, yet Mr. Van Buren’s book was not afforded the same courtesy. The State Department, in short, broke its own clearance procedure. And when Mr. Van Buren published the book as allowed under its own regulations in the Foreign Affairs Manual (FAM), a Deputy Assistant Secretary of State accused him of “unauthorized disclosures of classified information,” and asked his publisher for redactions six days before the book hit the stores. Can you imagine them doing that to Secretary Rice’s book? Nope. Big fry, small fry; are there different rules?
But hey – like Joe Davidson says, “The best way for the federal government to publicize a book? Attempt to muzzle the author.”And it’s free!
Second, given the potential fallout from a book about reconstruction in what has always been an unpopular, contentious war, and given how much money we’re spending on reconstruction projects over in Iraq, somebody higher than a Deputy Assistant Secretary should have read the book, cleared his/her calendar and spoke privately with the author. Instead of sending the tigers with sharp teeth. I have not meet Mr. Van Buren in person, and he may be far from cutesy and cuddly, but he has written a vivid, engaging account of our reconstruction debacle in Iraq seasoned with absurdities, great and small. To dismiss him as nothing but a disgruntled employee is just plain brainless. Public opinion is already against the Iraq war. Add to that the rest of the domestic headaches that the American taxpayers have been suffering in the last several years. And what do you get? A public relation disaster, with the State Department as the big, bad growling tiger in a starring role. It does not help that State appears to be acting like a big, bad growling tiger trying to eat an angry mouse. Grrrr….diplomatic skills exercised? Zero.
Remember when Matthew Hoh resigned over Afghanistan? He had two tours of duty in Iraq and five months under his belt in Afghanistan when he quit. Hoh received offers of new gigs from both Ambassadors Eikenberry and Holbrooke. I understand, he even got some face time with the VPOTUS. I think both ambassadors understood that in our top foreign policy engagement, they cannot be perceived as tone-deaf to the concerns of their man on the ground.
I’m not saying State should have offered Mr. Van Buren a fancy gig in Paris. But at the very least, somebody from the Seventh Floor should have attempted to speak with him. He, after all, spent 23 years with the State Department and cared enough to write the Iraq Experience down in a book. With his name on it. Not even the folks interviewed by USIP were willing to put their names down in that Oral History Project. But no one bothered to speak with him. A DAS alleging his disclosure of classified info did eventually write to him, albeit belatedly, and not really to listen to what he had to say.
It’s as if the State Department is proud of all its smart people except for those with the guts to speak up, or write a critical book. Or are they only proud of our smart diplomats when they dissent in private, in a channel that the American public never ever gets to hear, and that which the organization is free to ignore? The guy who talks too much not only gets a good hearing in my book, he or she should be afforded an opportunity to contribute in fixing the problems that he cites. No, we do not shoot the messengers in our book. Most especially if they are bearing bad news. But that’s us. Unfortunately, that is often the case in the bureaucracy, the State Department perhaps more so than most. A dead messenger is a good messenger, no news is good news. Ta-daa! And all is great in Iraq. Amen.
Three, Mr. Van Buren is not without faults. He posted articles in his blog without obtaining clearance as required in the FAM. Mr. Van Buren, like his employer, also broke the clearance procedure in the FAM. He even admits to that. But I don’t know of any FSO who blog who had requested clearance for his/her every blog post. The regs make no distinction whether what you write is critical or not, a clearance is required on matters of official concern. And since State’s purview is the entire world, that covers just about everything. So to go after Mr. Van Buren in a singular fashion invites the suspicion that he is targeted for his critical views, not just for the blog but also for his book.
Four, that convoluted business of the use of a disclaimer. You put up a disclaimer to ensure that what you write is not attributed to the State Department or the US Government.
Here is Mr. Van Buren’s disclaimer in his blog:
Copyright © 2011. All rights reserved under International and Pan-American Copyright Conventions. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity and do not in any way represent the views of the Department of State, the Department of Defense or any other entity of the US Government. The Department of State does not approve, endorse or authorize this blog or book.
A spokesman went so far as confirmed Mr. Van Buren’s disclaimer, telling NPR that “the author’s
views are his own, and not necessarily those of the State Department.” And really now, if you read his blog, it is hard to imagine anything similar coming out from Mr. Toner or Ms. Nuland from State’s Public Affairs shop.
And then you have the following disclaimer from the personal blog of the Deputy Director of the State Department’s Office of Innovative Engagement:
…… is an employee of the United States Department of State. She has been with the Department of State for fourteen years in both traditional Information Technology roles and also as the Deputy Director for the Department’s first social media office – The Office of Innovative Engagement. The viewpoints, opinions and ideas expressed here do not represent the official opinion or policy of the United States Government or the Department of State.
She went on to blog about her Twitter cliff notes writing about her agency’s social media policy:
Public engagement should only be conducted by trained professionals. You should not tweet about something you are not an expert in. An example would be if you are not a consular officer do not talk about the visa or passport process. Direct those people to the appropriate subject matter expert.
Twitter is a live community of humans and reacts the same way as people do when engaging with them in real life. You should focus on developing a “human voice” or persona for your community. This means no generic tweets or “ever green” tweets! Mass messages across all Department accounts are also considered to be an inappropriate use of Twitter.
Before using any new social media tools for official State Department purposes, it is important that you are familiar with State Department Policy on Social Media: 5 FAM 790. You should also review the Managing Your Social Media field guide. This guide is very important to helping you plan, create, and execute a successful social media campaign.
Personal vs. Professional Self:
You must have permission to tweet in your professional capacity. Permission is granted by the head American officer in the section or the Office Director for domestic offices.
If you are tweeting in your professional capacity, you must disclose the account as being an official Department of State account.
If you are tweeting on someone’s behalf, you must state who is on duty. Transparency is critical to building trust with your community.
When tweeting in your personal capacity you should not talk specifically about your job. See 3 FAM 4170 for additional information.
Whether or not this deputy director had clearance to post this policy item in her blog as a personal item is between her and Public Affairs. However, I do have to point out that both blogs used disclaimers claiming to be writing in their personal capacities. Mr. Van Buren blogs about Iraq and affairs of the state, all on matters of official concern. Ms. Deputy Director blogs about the Department’s social media policy, also a matter of official concern. One is under investigation, the other as far as I know is not.
According to the regs, some of the factors to be considered in overcoming the presumption of private capacity with the use of a disclaimer include, but not necessarily limited to: 1) The current or former position, rank, and/or duties of the employee; 2) The relationship between the employee’s position, rank, and/or duties and the subject matter of the speaking/teaching/writing.
It is perhaps worth noting that Mr. Van Buren, a midlevel FSO was a PRT guy in Iraq from 2009-2010, and if my source is correct, is now an employee without a job. The Deputy Director presumably is in the GS scale; could be GS-14/15 and the incumbent in her office.
By the way, if you find 5 FAM 790, the State Department
Policy on Social Media significantly imperfect and hard to wrap your head around, you
have the deputy director to thank for that. She reportedly is the
co-author of this first social media use policy for the Department of
Finally, there is that notion that they drummed into your head from A-100 on, that as a Foreign Service Officer, you are on duty 24/7. They like saying that. And for the most part, folks in the Foreign Service understand that to be true. You like to think you have a personal life until you have to report to the Regional Security Officer who you slept with the previous night. Or until they tell you — hey, you are actually blogging on official time, since you are considered on duty 24/7. They have not told you that? Don’t worry, they’ll eventually come around to telling you that when they can’t figure out what to do with bloggers.
In any case, you are on duty 24/7 until the government decides that you are not. Remember the case of Douglas Kent, the U.S. consul general in Vladivostok who was involved in a
car accident in October 1998 while driving home from his office? State concurred with DOJ that he was not on duty 24/7 when the accident occurred. Here is a trip down memory lane via U.S. Diplomacy:
Kent left the post on reassignment, a Russian citizen injured in the
accident sued Kent in his individual capacity in a district court in
California. According to an August 31, 2006, “AFSANET” message from the
American Foreign Service Association (AFSA), “The Department of Justice
with State Department concurrence refused to certify that Kent was
acting within the scope of his employment when the accident occurred,”
thus undermining his claim of immunity. Ultimately, with AFSA
supporting FSO Kent’s legal defense, the case went to the U.S. Court of
Appeals for the 9th Circuit, which ruled in his favor by determining
that he was acting within the scope of his employment when the accident
The Kent case clearly demonstrates that while Foreign Service
personnel, especially those in senior positions, may consider themselves
on duty 24 hours a day while stationed overseas and thus fully
protected, particular circumstances may put those immunities at risk.
In theory, the rules are there to protect you. In practice, the rules can mean many different things to many different people — human interpretation, unless it’s done by droids, see? The folks who write the rules can break it with no consequences. The folks who are covered by the rules are also allowed to break it but somebody’s gotta pay the price. If you come to think of it — the big fry, small fry rules only really sucks if you’re the small fry. But if offends our sense of fairness.
In the end, organizations particularly one as traditional and hierarchical as the State Department cannot tolerate people falling out of a straight line; it’s contrary to its sense of order and proper functioning of the organization. And really — “open door,” “innovative engagement,” “smart power,” and whatnot can only go so far. An organization like State must do what it must do to protect its “brand,” (like any commercial company, only with less money); it is after all, one of the best places to work in the Feds world.
I doubt if the State Department will fire Mr. Van Buren for “disclosure” of alleged classified information in his book, or for linking to a WikiLeaks cable, or even for writing/speaking without clearance. That would make it look petty and seem vindictive and would drag this case long and possibly into court. But organizations are not without power; it always has an ace up its sleeve, so to speak. In this case, a catch-all slam dunk section in 3 FAM 4130 otherwise known as “Standards for Appointment and Continued Employment,” could be the ace up its sleeve. A much used up phrase of “poor judgement” is like a flyswatter that can be used for employees writing outside the chalked lines, as well as employees who patronize prostitutes.