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 ( 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 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



2 responses

  1. “Obama is the sixth administration that’s been in office since
    Peter Van Buren did a Book Salon at FDL when his book first came out. He’s a nice guy, but has some natural orientalist views that most Americans hold, these were probably even unknown to himself.
    A longtime commenter by the name of Mohammed Ibn Laith who is an Iraqi. He was a teenager who watched his father die and held his 6 y.o. brother as he died. He’s really bitter and holds no scorn back; He chewed into PVB hard, I mean brutally hard, probably in part because of title. We meant well, but turned his country into rubble, and left 3 million widows and orphans. I like to think that this helped stiffen PVB’s spine for the assault that he’s been under.

    “I’ve been doing Freedom of Information Act work. … It’s kind of shocking to me to say this, but of the six, this administration is the worst on FOIA issues. The worst. There’s just no question about it,” said Katherine Meyer, a Washington lawyer who’s been filing FOIA cases since 1978.”