Former FSO Peter Van Buren Returns With Hooper’s War

Posted: 11:24 pm PT
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Former Foreign Service officer Peter Van Buren wrote We Meant Well and Ghosts of Tom Joad. He is back with a third novel Hooper’s War.  The author writes that while the story in Hooper’s War is set in WWII Japan, the point of the bigger story here is aimed dead-center at the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“The men and women in Hooper confront the complex ethical decisions of war, torture, drone-like killings, and the aftermath of moral injury and PTSD. This is an antiwar novel for people who enjoy a good war story — think Catch-22. Sometimes funny, sometimes deadly serious.”

Ann Wright, U.S. Army Reserve Colonel and former U.S. diplomat has this to day say about the book:

“Hooper’s War is a classic war story of blood and guts spilled in Japan during WWII but with contemporary meanings. Told by both a young American lieutenant and a young Japanese soldier, Van Buren writes of the inevitable questioning of what wars do to those who fight. ‘This shit doesn’t end when the war does, it only ends when we do.’ ‘Garner is likely to just be insane for the rest of his life, mind torn apart and all that. His body’s in terrific shape, not a scratch. But the question isn’t so much why Private Garner is screaming. It’s why we aren’t, Lieutenant.’

‘Besides, Garner went insane because of what he saw in Kyoto. Curing him means I’d have to convince him seeing the burned children he’s shouting about was not a reason to be insane.’ These are commentaries echoed seventy-five years later by our young soldiers with PTSD from the Afghanistan and Iraq wars.”

Below is an excerpt courtesy of Amazon Preview:


State Dept Releases New 3 FAM 4170 aka: The “Stop The Next Peter Van Buren” Regulation

Posted: 3:41 am EDT
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Congratulations!  This is almost three years in the making!

We’ve previously covered the Peter Van Buren case quite extensively in this blog (see After a Year of Serious Roars and Growls, State Dept Officially Retires FSO-Non Grata Peter Van Buren). The State Department officially retired Mr. Van Buren on September 30, 2012. He left with full retirement. In December 2012, we were informed by inside the building sources that the Department was rewriting its 3 FAM 4170 rules on official clearance for speaking, writing, and teaching. (see State Dept to Rewrite Media Engagement Rules for Employees in Wake of Van Buren Affair).

On July 27, 2015, two months short of Year 3 since Mr. Van Buren retired, the State Department without much fanfare released its new 3 FAM 4170 rules in 19 pages. For the FAM is not a regulation; it’s recommendations” crowd, we hope you folks have great lawyers.

My! Look who’s covered!

The updated FAM, same as the old FAM, is divided into two meaty parts — official capacity public communication and personal capacity public appearances and communications.  The new version of 3 FAM 4170 is all encompassing, covering the following (not exhaustive list):

— all personnel in the United States and abroad who are currently employed (even if in Leave Without Pay status) by the Department of State and the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), including but not limited to Foreign Service (FS) employees, Civil Service (CS) employees (including schedule C appointees and annuitants returning to work on temporary appointments on an intermittent basis, commonly referred to as “While Actually Employed (WAE)” personnel), locally employed staff (LE Staff), personal service contractors (PSCs), employees assigned to fellowships or details elsewhere and detailees or fellows from other entities assigned to the Department, externs/interns, and special government employees (SGEs).

— Former Department of State employees (including former interns and externs) must seek guidance from A/GIS/IPS for applicable review process information. Former USAID employees (including former interns and externs) must consult the Bureau for Legislative and Public Affairs for applicable review process information.

— Employee testimony, whether in an official capacity or in a personal capacity on a matter of Departmental concern, may be subject to the review requirements of this subchapter. Employees should consult with the Department of State’s Office of the Legal Adviser or USAID’s Office of the General Counsel, as appropriate, to determine applicable procedures.

In practical terms, we think this means that if you get summoned to appear before the House Select Benghazi Committee and is testifying in your personal capacity as a former or retired employee of the State Department, these new regulations may still apply to you, and you may still need clearance before your testimony.

Convince us that we’re reading this wrong, otherwise, somebody poke Congress, please.

Also, does this mean that all retired FSOs who contribute to ADST’s Oral History project are similarly required to obtain clearance since by its definition, “online forums such as blogs” and “a person or entity engaged in disseminating information to the general public” are considered media organizations under these new rules?

Institutional interest vs. public interest

We are particularly interested in the personal capacity publication/communication rules because that’s the one that can get people in big trouble, as shown in the Van Buren case. Here’s the equivalent of our bold Sharpie.

3 FAM 4176.4 says:  “A principal goal of the review process for personal capacity public communications is to ensure that no classified or other protected information will be disclosed without authorization. In addition, the Final Review Office will evaluate whether the employee’s public communication is highly likely to result in serious adverse consequences to the efficiency or mission of the Department, such that preventing those consequences outweighs the employee’s presumptively high interest in communicating and the public’s interest in receiving the communication.”


Institutional interest trumps public interest? Where do you draw the line? You can still write a dissent cable as the “3 FAM 4172.1-3(D). No Review of Dissent Channel Communications” included in the 2009 version of the FAM survives as 3 FAM 4171 (e) in the current rules:

Views on matters of Departmental concern communicated through methods of internal communication (including, for example, the Department’s internal dissent channel) or disclosures made pursuant to 5 U.S.C. 2302(b)(8)(B) are not subject to the review requirements of this subchapter.

Which is fine and all, except — who the heck gets to read your dissent cable except the folks at Policy Planning? The State Department is not obligated to share with Congress or with the American public any dissenting opinions from its diplomats. One might argue that this is appropriate, after all, you can’t have diplomats second guessing in public every foreign policy decision of every administration. So, the American public typically only hears about it when a diplomat quits.  But given the two long wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, is the American public best served by this policy?  And by the way, candid opinion like the case of the six-page memo, entitled “The Perfect Storm,” in the lead up to the Iraq War, is still classified. Why is that?

The new regs also say this:

“To the extent time and resources allow, reviewers may assist the employee in identifying possible modifications or other adjustments to avoid the inclusion of non-classified but otherwise protected information, or the potential for adverse consequences to the Department’s mission or efficiency (including the employee’s ability to perform his or her duties effectively in the future).”

If we weigh the Van Buren book against these parameters, how much of the book’s 288 pages would survive such “modifications” or “adjustments.”

There goes the book, We Meant Well in Afghanistan, Also.

The Peter Van Buren Clause

We’ve come to call “3 FAM 4172.1-7 Use or Publication of Materials Prepared in an Employee’s Private Capacity That Have Been Submitted for Review as the Peter Van Buren clause. Below is the original language from the 2009 version of the FAM:

An employee may use, issue, or publish materials on matters of official concern that have been submitted for review, and for which the presumption of private capacity has not been overcome, upon expiration of the designated period of comment and review regardless of the final content of such materials so long as they do not contain information that is classified or otherwise exempt from disclosure as described in 3 FAM 4172.1-6(A).

That section of the FAM appears to survive under the current 3 FAM 4174.3 Final Review Offices, underlined for emphasis below.

c. To ensure that no classified information is improperly disclosed, an employee must not take any steps to proceed with a public communication (including making commitments to publishers or other parties) until he or she receives written notice to proceed from the Final Review Office, except as described below. If, upon expiration of the relevant timeframes below, the Final Review Office has not provided an employee with either a final response or an indication that a public communication involves equities of another U.S. Government entity (including a list of the entity or entities with equities), the employee may use, issue, or publish materials on matters of Departmental concern that have been submitted for review so long as such materials do not contain information described in 3 FAM 4176.2(a) and taking into account the principles in 4176.2(b). When an employee has been informed by the Final Review Office that his or her public communication involves equities of another U.S. Government entity or entities, the employee should not proceed without written notice to proceed from the Final Review Office. Upon the employee’s request, the Final Review Office will provide the employee with an update on the status of the review of his or her public communication, including, if applicable, the date(s) on which the Department submitted the employee’s communication to another entity or entities for review. Ultimately, employees remain responsible for their personal capacity public communications whether or not such communications are on topics of Departmental concern.

The Van Buren clause appears to survive, until you take a closer look; italicized below for emphasis:

3 FAM 4176.2 (a) Content of Personal Capacity Public Communications

a. When engaging in personal capacity public communications, employees must not:

(1) Claim to represent the Department or its policies, or those of the U.S. Government, or use Department or other U.S. Government seals or logos; or

(2) Disclose, or in any way allow the public to access, classified information, even if it is already publicly available due to a previous unauthorized disclosure.

3 FAM 4176.2 (b) Content of Personal Capacity Public Communications

b. As stated in 3 FAM 4174.2(c)(1), a purpose of this review process is to determine whether the communication would disclose classified or other protected information without authorization. Other protected information that is or may be subject to public disclosure restrictions includes, but is not limited to: 

(1) Material that meets one or more of the criteria for exemption from public disclosure under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), 5 U.S.C. 552(b), including internal pre-decisional deliberative material; 

(2) Information that reasonably could be expected to interfere with law enforcement proceedings or operations;

(3) Information pertaining to procurement in violation of 41 U.S.C. 2101-2107;

(4) Sensitive personally identifiable information as defined in 5 FAM 795.1(f); or

(5) Other nonpublic information, when used in a manner as prohibited by 5 CFR 2635.703.

Can one make the case that the conversations between the writer and his boss in the Van Buren book are “internal pre-decisional deliberative material?” Or that any conversation between two FSOs are deliberative? Of course. State can make a case about anything and everything.  Remember, it did try to make the case that the book contained classified information. (see “Classified” Information Contained in We Meant Well – It’s a Slam Dunk, Baby!). Also, we should note that documents marked SBU or sensitive but unclassified are typically considered nonpublic information.  Under these new rules, it’s not just classified information anymore, anything the agency considers deliberative material or any nonpublic material may be subject to disclosure restrictions.


3 FAM 4174.2 Overview (2015): Waving the ‘suitability for continued employment’ flag

c. Employees’ personal capacity public communications must be reviewed if they are on a topic “of Departmental concern” (see 3 FAM 4173). Personal capacity public communications that clearly do not address matters of Departmental concern need not be submitted for review.

(1) The personal capacity public communications review requirement is intended to serve three purposes: to determine whether the communication would disclose classified or other protected information without authorization; to allow the Department to prepare to handle any potential ramifications for its mission or employees that could result from the proposed public communication; or, in rare cases, to identify public communications that are highly likely to result in serious adverse consequences to the mission or efficiency of the Department, such that the Secretary or Deputy Secretary must be afforded the opportunity to decide whether it is necessary to prohibit the communication (see 3 FAM 4176.4).

(2) The purposes of the review are limited to those described in paragraph (1); the review is not meant to insulate employees from discipline or other administrative action related to their communications, or otherwise provide assurances to employees on matters such as suitability for continued employment (see, e.g., 3 FAM 4130 for foreign service personnel and 5 CFR 731 for civil service personnel). Ultimately, employees remain responsible for their personal capacity public communications whether or not such communications are on topics of Departmental concern.


More 3 FAM 4170 Fun: Not meant to insulate employees from discipline or other administrative action

3 FAM 4176.1(e) General

e. As stated in 3 FAM 4174.2(c)(1), the review process is limited to three purposes. (See also 3 FAM 4176.4.) Therefore, completion of the review process is not a Department “clearance” or “approval” of the planned communication, and is not meant to insulate employees from discipline or other administrative action related to their communications, including for conducting personal capacity public communications that interfere with the Department’s ability to effectively and efficiently carry out its mission and responsibilities, by, for example, disrupting operations, impairing working relationships, or impeding the employee from carrying out his or her duties. Ultimately, employees remain responsible for their personal communications whether or not the communications are on topics of Departmental concern.


3 FAM 4176.3 Employee must disclose his/her identity to Department reviewers

a. PA reviews all personal capacity public communications on matters of Departmental concern by senior officials at the Assistant Secretary level and above, including Chiefs of Mission. For all other employees wishing to communicate publicly in their personal capacity on matters of Departmental concern, there are two review processes available:

(1) Individuals may, as a first step, submit their requests for review to the Final Review Office (as described in 3 FAM 4174.3(a)). For employees submitting a request to PA, such requests should be submitted via The Final Review Office will then consult with the employee’s immediate supervisor(s) and any other offices concerned with the subject matter in accordance with 3 FAM 4176.4(c). The Final Review Office will then make the final determination; and

(2) Alternatively, employees may initially submit their requests for review to their immediate supervisor(s), the Public Affairs Office in their bureaus or posts, and any other Department offices concerned with the subject matter. The materials must then be submitted to the Final Review Office, noting all such reviewers and any comments received. The Final Review Office will then verify those reviews, assess whether other reviews are needed, and make the final determination.

b. Supervisors, Public Affairs Offices, or any other offices involved in the review process must flag for the Final Review Office any view that the proposed public communication may:

(1) Contain classified or other protected information;

(2) Result in serious adverse consequences to the efficiency or mission of the Department; or

(3) Be or become high impact or high profile, for example communication that is controversial, or otherwise involves a sensitive Department priority; and

(4) The Final Review Office will then apply the standard described in 3 FAM 4176.4(a).

c. In all cases, an employee must disclose his or her identity to the relevant Department reviewers.

d. If another U.S. Government entity seeks Department review of a personal capacity public communication by that entity’s employee, the Department office in receipt of such request must coordinate with PA.


3 FAM 4177 Noncompliance may result in disciplinary action, criminal prosecution and/or civil liability.

a. Failure to follow the provisions of this subchapter, including failure to seek advance reviews where required, may result in disciplinary or other administrative action up to and including separation. Violations by USAID employees may be referred to the Deputy Administrator for Human Resources or USAID’s Office of the Inspector General (see 3 FAM 4320). Disciplinary action will be pursued consistent with applicable law, including 5 U.S.C. 2302

b. Publication or dissemination of classified or other protected information may result in disciplinary action, criminal prosecution and/or civil liability.

This is the part where we must remind you that what the former State Department spokesperson said about the FAM being recommendations is a serious bunch of hooey!

Oh, hey, remember the 2-day clearance for tweets …’er scandal?

We wrote about it here and here, and the “ain’t gonna happen 2-day clearance” for social media posting is now part of the Foreign Affairs Manual.  Apologies if the 2-working day review timeframe below for social media postings is too shocking for 21st century statecraft innovation purists. These are the rules, unless you can get the current State Department spokesperson to say from the podium that these are merely recommendations that employees/retirees/interns/charforce are free to ignore. We must add that the 2009 version of these rules, required that materials of official concern submitted in the employee’s private capacity must “be submitted for a reasonable period of review, not to exceed thirty days.” The old rules made no distinction whether the submitted material is a book manuscript, an article, a blogpost or a tweet.
screen grab from 3 FAM 4172

screen grab from 3 FAM 4170

Yo! What’s Missing?

The new regs emphasized the need for official clearance for official and private communication “to ensure that no classified information is improperly disclosed.” It however, does not include any guidance on the use of a private server for emails and social media postings where classified information could be improperly disclosed.

A Much Better FAM Version, Hey?

From the organizational perspective, some folks would say that this is a “much better” version of the FAM.  We’d call this a much better plug. An insider could argue that this is a “very fine sieve.”

Okeedokee, but what do you think will be its consequences for the rank and file? No one will officially admit this as the intent, but after reading this new version of 3 FAM 4170, this is what we think it really says:

The updated regs also says that “In light of the rapid pace with which many social media platforms are used, all offices, sections, or employees who routinely post to such platforms in their official capacity are encouraged to seek advance blanket authorization to engage for their social media communications, in accordance with 3 FAM 4175.1(c).”

The blanket authorization as far as we can tell only applies to those who are engaged in social media platforms in their official capacities, it makes no similar provision for employees in social media platforms in their private capacities.

Fun With Fido or Grumpy Cat

The new regs helpfully notes that “Employees who, in their personal capacity, wish to communicate publicly on matters that are clearly not “of Departmental concern” (see 3 FAM 4173) need not seek Department review under the procedures outlined herein, and need not use the personal capacity disclaimer discussed below in paragraph (b).”

So, basically, if you blog, tweet or write a book about Kitty Kat or Fidodog, or about their travels and adventures in Baghdad, Kabul, Sanaa, and all the garden spots, you don’t need to seek Department review. That is, as long as Kitty Kat is not secretly arming the rodent insurgents and tweeting about it and Fidodog is not flushing government money down the toilet and blogging about it.


Related items:


Download it here (pdf).


Peter Van Buren Writes An Embassy Evacuation Explainer For DipNote No, Reuters

Posted: 01:04 EST

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On February 11, the State Department  suspended US Embassy operations in Yemen and relocated its remaining skeleton staff outside of the country until further notice.  News report says that more than 25 vehicles were taken by Houthi rebels after the American staff departed Sanaa’s airport.  According to WaPo, Abdulmalek al-Ajri, a member of the Houthis’ political bureau, said that the seized vehicles would be returned to local staff at the U.S. Embassy on Wednesday evening, with a U.N. official observing the handover.

Ajri said the U.S. Embassy was being guarded by Yemeni security forces, which have fallen under the Houthis’ control. The security forces have not entered the embassy compound, which is still being managed by the facility’s local Yemeni staff, he said.
Ajri said he did not know how many embassy vehicles the group had seized at the airport. He claimed that a fight broke out over the vehicles between local embassy staffers, forcing Houthi fighters to intervene and seize them.

We haven’t heard anything about the return of those vehicles to Embassy Sana’a. As to this purported fight between local embassy staffers over the embassy vehicles, that is simply ridiculous — what, like the local employees are fighting over who could take which armored vehicle home? That’s silly.

What is not silly is that we still have local employees at Embassy Sana’a. They, typically, are not evacuated when post suspends operations.  In 2003, Ghulam Sakhi Ahmadzai, the building maintenance supervisor at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul was  the Foreign Service National Employee of the Year. He was recognized for his exceptional efforts in Afghanistan during the 13-year absence of American employees and following the reopening of the U.S. Embassy in Kabul in December 2001. His loyalty to the U.S. government and to maintaining the integrity of the embassy during that absence, despite personal risk, could not be repaid by that one award. No doubt there are other Ghulams in Tripoli and Sana’a and in other posts where we have suspended operations in the past. Please keep them in your thoughts.

Reading the newsclips and the tweets in the lead up to this latest evacuation, one cannot help but note that most folks do not really know what happens in an evacuation. Former FSO Peter Van Buren wrote a helpful explainer about embassy evacuations for Reuters.  This is an explainer that should have been on DipNote.  For folks who might be upset with this evac explainer, go find those anonymous officials who talked about this evacuation while we still had people on the ground.

The mechanics of closing an embassy follow an established process; the only variable is the speed of the evacuation. Sometimes it happens with weeks of preparation, sometimes with just hours.

Every American embassy has standing evacuation procedures, or an Emergency Action Plan. In each embassy’s emergency plan are built-in, highly classified “trip wires,” or specific thresholds that trigger scripted responses. For example, if the rebels advance past the river, take steps “A through C.” Or if the host government’s military is deserting, implement steps “D through E,” and so forth, until the evacuation is complete.

Early steps include moving embassy dependents, such as spouses and children, out of the country on commercial flights. Next is the evacuation of non-essential personnel, like the trade attaché, who won’t be doing much business if a coup is underway. While these departures are underway, the State Department issues a public advisory notifying private American citizens of the threat. The public alert is required by the U.S.’s “No Double Standard” rule, which grew out of the 1988 Lockerbie bombing of a Pan Am flight. In that case, threat info was made available to embassy families, but kept from the general public.

These embassy drawdown steps are seen as low-cost moves, both because they use commercial transportation, and because they usually attract minimal public attention.

Continue reading, Who gets out when a U.S. embassy closes, and who gets left behind?

 * * *

Ghost of Tom Joad: Peter Van Buren’s Book Readings in the DC Area

— Domani Spero
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Retired FSO Peter Van Buren is back in the DC area this week with a couple of book readings from his new work, the Ghost of Tom Joad, A Story of the 99 Percent.



Washington DC

Visit Busboys and Poets for an evening of reading, signing, and possibly some drinking.

The event is May 20, from 6:30pm, at the Busboys and Poets store at 5th & K Streets. The full address is 1025 5th Street NW, Washington, DC 20001, Tel. 202-789-2227. Nearest Metro stations are Gallery Place/Chinatown and Mt. Vernon Square/7th Street-Convention Center. More event info

Arlington, Virginia

Visit One More Page Books  for reading, signing, and more drinking (they sell wine and chocolates).

The event is May 21, from 7:00 pm, at One More Page Books, 2200 N Westmoreland Street #101 Arlington, VA  22213, 703.300.9746. The nearest Metro is East Falls Church. More event info


* * *

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 🙄 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!


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.



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



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



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. 

The Peter Van Buren Chronicles — John Brown Interviews State’s FSO-Non Grata

John H. Brown, a Princeton PhD, joined the Foreign Service in 1981 and served in London, Prague, Krakow, Kiev, Belgrade and Moscow. He was a member of the Senior Foreign Service when he resigned from the FS in 2003 over Iraq. He blogs in John Brown’s Notes and Essays and John Brown’s Public Diplomacy Press and Blog Review, Version 2.0.  Excerpts below from his interview with FSO Peter Van Buren.

Would you advise young — and not so young — people to join the US Foreign Service?

Before getting dumped into admin leave limbo, my position was at the Board of Examiners, where for over a year since returning from Iraq I administered the Oral Exam and helped choose the next generation of Foreign Service officers. I was competent at the task, got a good performance review and, after a year on the job, it was only after my book came out that State decided I could not work there.

So, I spent a lot of time around people interested in a Foreign Service career. They did not ask for advice and at the Board we did not offer it. However, since my book came out and I have gotten some media attention, ironically more people now approach me with your same question about joining the Foreign Service. Too much irony these days.

What I tell them is this: think very, very carefully about a Foreign Service career. The State Department is looking for a very specific kind of person and if you are that person, you will enjoy your career and be successful. I have come to understand that the Department wants smart people who will do what they are told, believing that intelligence can be divorced from innovation and creativity. Happy, content compliance is a necessary trait. The Department will not give you any real opportunity for input for a very long time, years, if ever. Even Consular work, which used to offer some space, now has fallen victim to standardization as posts must conform web sites to a single model, for example. There is no agreed-upon definition of success or even progress at State, no profits, no battles won, no stock prices to measure. Success will be to simply continue to exist, or whatever your boss says it is, or both, or neither. You may never know what the point is other than a Congressional delegation go away “happy,” whatever that even is.

At the same time, State has created a personnel system that will require you to serve in more and more dangerous places, and more and more unaccompanied places, as a routine. That sounds cool and adventurous at age 25, but try and imagine if you’d still be happy with it at age 45 with a spouse and two kids. What are your core obligations with a child who needs some extreme parenting as you leave your wife at home alone with him for a year?

Understand that promotions and assignments are more and more opaque. Changes in Congress will further limit pay and benefits. Your spouse will be un/under employed most of his/her life. Your kids will change schools for better or worse every one, two or three years. Some schools will be good, some not so good, and you’ll have no choice unless you are willing to subvert your career choices to school choices, as in let’s go to Bogota because the schools are good even if the assignment otherwise stinks. You’ll serve more places where you won’t speak the language and get less training as requirements grow without personnel growth. As you get up there, remember your boss can arbitrarily be a used car salesman who donated big to the President’s campaign. Make sure all these conditions make sense to you now, and, if you can, as you imagine yourself 10, 15 and 20 years into the future. It is a very unique person who can say “Yes” truthfully and after real soul-searching.

The full interview with Mr. Van Buren is here.

John also reviewed Peter’s book for American Diplomacy here.  Plus here’s a couple of other book reviews from FS folks below.

from Well, That Was Different

“If you’re going to torpedo your career, you should have a good reason.  And this is a story that needed to be told. I wish Peter Van Buren all the best in what appears to be his second career as a writer. And I hope that some day, a person in a position to make a difference will have read and carefully considered his story before pulling the trigger on a similar crusade mission.”

from Dan Simpson of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Dan Simpson, a retired U.S. ambassador, is the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette associate editor.  He previously served as United States Ambassador to the Central African Republic (1990–92), Special Envoy to Somalia, and Ambassador to the Congo-Kinshasa (1995–98).

“Mr. Van Buren’s best question is, “So how did we end up accomplishing so little when we meant well?” He tries to answer it effectively from the corners of Iraq that he worked in, but I suspect that the real answer lies at a pay grade much higher than his in a maze of bad decisions, too-short tours of duty and massive American misunderstanding of Iraq and its people. The book is short, very readable and has humor as well as profound points in it. If the State Department is given the opportunity, Mr. Van Buren’s next assignment is likely to be Mogadishu or Garry Trudeau’s Berzerkistan.”

What do you do with a "problem" like Peter Van Buren? Take away his badge, escort him out, bar the door, throw away the key and ….

Collage of images taken by U.S. military in Ir...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 think?

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
took place. 
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.