For telling the truth about what I saw in Iraq.
- By Peter Van Buren<p> Peter Van Buren, a retired 24-year veteran of the U.S. State Department, writes about Iraq, the Middle East, and U.S. diplomacy at his blog: wemeantwell.com. He is the author of We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People and is currently working on a new book, The People on the Bus: A Story of the #99Percent. </p>
I never intended to create this much trouble.
Two years ago I served 12 months in Iraq as a Foreign Service Officer, leading a Provincial Reconstruction Team. I had been with the State Department for some 21 years at that point, serving mostly in Asia, but after what I saw in the desert — the waste, the lack of guidance, the failure to really do anything positive for the country we had invaded in 2003 — I started writing a book. One year ago I followed the required procedures with State for preclearance (no classified documents, that sort of thing), received clearance, and found a publisher. Six months ago the publisher asked me to start a blog to support the book.
And then, toward the end of the summer, the wrath of Mesopotamia fell on me. The Huffington Post picked up one of my blog posts, which was seen by someone at State, who told someone else and before you know it I had morphed into public enemy number one — as if I had started an al Qaeda franchise in the Foggy Bottom cafeteria. My old travel vouchers were studied forensically, and a minor incident from my time in Iraq was blown up into an international affair. One blog post from late August that referenced a WikiLeaks document already online elsewhere got me called in for interrogation by Diplomatic Security and accused of disclosing classified information. I was told by Human Resources I might lose my job and my security clearance, and I was ordered to pre-clear every article, blog post, Facebook update, and Tweet from that point out. A Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs wrote, without informing me, directly to my publisher, accusing me in writing of new security violations that had apparently escaped the sharp eyes at Diplomatic Security, and demanded redactions. The publisher refused, citing both the silliness of the actual redactions (everything was already online; one requested redaction came from the movie Black Hawk Down, and another from George Tenet’s memoirs) and the First Amendment.
It seemed kind of sad, kind of desperate, and maybe a little bit unfair. I always took my obligation to protect information seriously, and all my material went through a careful vetting process with the publisher as well as with State to make sure nothing had slipped through.
I wrote about all this on the blog TomDispatch, and before I knew it, the story went viral. I found myself returning calls to the New York Times, the ACLU, Reporters Without Borders, CBS, NPR, and about a million blogs and radio stations. I had hoped to promote the book I had written, which came out yesterday, but the story ended up being about me and the State Department instead.
I never intended this to be a fight against my employer of 23 years, and I never intended to become a poster child for the First Amendment. However, I’m not one to back down when bullied, and I am afraid that in their anger and angst, the Department of State has acted like a bully. In addition to false accusations of security violations, State has used its own internal clearance requirements as a blunt weapon.
The State Department, on paper, does not prohibit blogs, tweets or whatever is invented next. On paper, again, responsible use is called for — a reasonable demand. But this rule must cut both ways — responsible writing on my part, responsible control on State’s part.
And responsible standards for clearance. The department’s “pre-clearance” requirements are totally out of date. Originally designed for a 19th-century publishing model, its leisurely 30-day examination period is incompatible with the requirements of online work, blogs, Facebook, and tweets. But the department has refused to update its rules for the 21st century, preferring instead to use the 30 days to kill anything of a timely nature. What blog post is of value a month after it is written, never mind a tweet?
In addition, the pre-clearance rules are supposed to be specific in their goals: to prevent classified or privacy protected information from going out, stopping info on contracts and procurement, and blocking private writing that seeks to pass itself off as an official statement from the Department. In my case, however, any attempts to pre-clear blog posts ran into the Department of Silly Walks. My bland statements about the military in Iraq made using easily Googleable data were labeled “security risks.” When even those were clipped out, everything I wrote was labeled as possibly being confused with an official statement, even though my writing is peppered with profanity, sarcasm, humor, and funny photos. Say what you want about my writing, but I can’t imagine anyone is confusing it with official State Department public statements. As required, I always include a disclaimer, but the pre-clearance people simply tell me that is not enough, without explaining what might be enough other than just shutting up.
So instead of using pre-clearance as it is on paper, a tool to guard only against improper disclosure with which I have no disagreement, it is used as a form of prior restraint against speech that offends State. Me, in this instance.
We have been battered to death with public statements from the Secretary of State on down demanding the rights of bloggers and journalists in China, Burma and the Middle East be respected. While the State Department does not lock its naughty bloggers in basement prison cells, it does purposefully, willfully, and in an organized way seek to chill the responsible exercise of free speech by its employees. It does this selectively; blogs that promote an on-message theme are left alone (or even linked to by the Department) while blogs that say things that are troublesome or offensive to the Department are bullied out of existence. This is not consistent with the values the State Department seeks to promote abroad. It is not the best of us, and it undermines our message and our mission in every country where we work where people can still read this.
I have a job now at State that has nothing to do with Iraq, something I enjoy and something I am competent at. To me, there is no conflict here. I’d like to keep my job if I can, and in the meantime, I’ll continue to write. I have no need to resign in protest, as I don’t think I’ve done anything wrong absent throwing a few pies at some clowns and bringing to daylight a story that needed to be told, albeit at the cost of some embarrassment to the Department of State. That seems to me compatible with my oath of office, as well as my obligations as a citizen. I hope State comes to agree with me. After all, State asks the same thing of governments abroad, right?