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Peter Van Buren & the State Department’s Suppression of Free Speech

State Department employee Peter Van Buren (photo: Peter Van Buren)

The State Department has taken action against one of its employees, which the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) believes is in retaliation for criticism of the State Department’s reconstruction efforts in Iraq.

The ACLU sent a letter that highlights the adverse measures taken against State Department employee, Peter Van Buren, because he published a tell-all book, We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People. The letter objects to the State Department’s move to fire Van Buren, who has been an employee for twenty-four years.

I spoke with Van Buren, whose reaction to the ACLU’s decision to send a stern letter to the State Department was one of great appreciation. The ACLU had been helping him throughout the year to better understand his own rights as a government employee. He had been helping them understand his situation;  the group had been providing information and support. However, he did not expect them to use his case to make such a strong statement about the free speech rights of all government employees:

I was very pleased that the ACLU in their statement not only supported me strongly but in fact rolled my case into the broader picture. This is about federal employees being able to speak to the people we serve. Standard story is if we don’t tell you what’s going on inside of government there’s no way you’re going to know. Now, it looks like the ACLU thinks the Constitution protects us in doing that.

Indeed, the ACLU letter asserts that “given the enormous public interest in receiving speech” on the subject of the reconstruction in Iraq, there is likely no way the State Department could ever properly demonstrate that their interests outweigh Van Buren’s free speech rights. The group notes the Supreme Court has previously decided “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.” It is clear that Van Buren’s book, blog posts and articles are written by him and that he 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 speech that government employees like Van Buren may engage in as private citizens.

The State Department has claimed Van Buren did not have permission to publish his book. The issue over the publication gets to the core of the issue, which is that the State Department is seeking to restrain Van Buren’s speech and has been violating his civil liberties. As Van Buren explains, his book was approved under State Department guidelines:

…If the State Department doesn’t object after 30 days, you are free to publish (and in fact I gave them 45 days). And so my book was cleared and published in accordance with the rules. What the State Department is trying to do now is make up for what they think is a mistake and instead claim that every blog post, every interview (including this one), every Twitter post, every Facebook thing – has to go through a 30-day clearance process and if I don’t do that then I am violating their laws, acting insubordinate and all of these other things. You and I are actually committing an act of civil disobedience right now because I am not asking State Department’s permission to speak with you.

Now what’s happened in practice is that when I have asked them permission to speak with reporters or to write things, the permission is denied. In one instance I asked for permission to read from my book at a local bookstore—You know how authors do that—And they denied me permission to read from the book. Kind of silly. In protest, I showed up to the event and asked someone from the audience to read from the book aloud while I sat there with my mouth closed. [emphasis added]

Since the publication of the book, his personal blog posting has been increasingly monitored and scrutinized. He is now a teleworker. And every two weeks his boss calls him for what Van Buren calls the “hour of pain,” where he is shown a printout of the blog posts he has put up or whatever they have been able to find that has put up with statements from him that were made without the State Department’s approval.

If they see that I have done an interview, if they notice an article on Firedoglake that I’ve contributed to, it’s on the list. And they go through the list and ask me individually did I write this or did I do the interview and did I get permission. They then remind me that I have violated their rules and regulations. We go through it on a regular basis. It’s almost something that’s done perfunctorily. [emphasis added]

Every now and then, Van Buren adds, the State Department will find something they really want to go after him over.  One example involves a blog post he put up including a WikiLeaks link—not a document, not a leak but a link to a WikiLeaks cable that he included in a blog post.

Van Buren has an awareness of what government employees are allowed to do as employees of other agencies or departments in the US government. He does not find these other agencies or departments to be terribly restrictive when it comes to free speech.

The Defense Department has a policy that allows employees to blog “about anything that isn’t what they call operational,” which means they don’t want soldiers revealing the location of convoys or the fact that a unit is currently low on ammunition. Other government agencies like the CIA may be restrictive but, seeing as they deal in covert operations, there is probably much justification to policies aimed at keeping employees quiet. In contrast, the State Department says “every single thing I write is under their control. Whether I am blogging about the dissidents in Syria or the conflict in Syria or Iraq or Canada, they claim that I have no right to publish any of that and so in that sense the nation’s organ that speaks loudly about freedom and democracy to foreigners has one of the most restrictive policies.”

The hypocrisy of the State Department has been highlighted by Van Buren on his blog. It is something that has been deeply troubling to him.

I’m not a newbie. I understand how things work. I’m not a disgruntled employee. I had a good time and was successful throughout my career. When I see this level of hypocrisy ramping up, it makes me really sad. When I turn to one page on the Internet and there’s Secretary of State Clinton arguing for the rights of a blind dissident in China and then I click to another page on the Internet and there’s Sec. Clinton’s people telling me that I can’t blog because it would destroy government as we know it. That kind of black and white hypocrisy is more than I accept, even after 24 years in the government. And it’s more than I’ve seen previously. My career has spanned a pretty broad — Ronald Reagan was president when I started at the State Department and I’ve been through two Bushes, Clinton — been a lot of variation in government, bouncing between left and right. Now is the time when I’ve seen most oppressive and repressive statements by our own government against our own people including in this case me. [emphasis added]

The reality is something that Van Buren fully grasps. The Obama administration has been the “most aggressive administration in the history of the United States against whistleblowers and free speech.” The Espionage Act, a law passed in 1917 during World War I to go after German spies, has been used six times against government employees and whistleblowers. Prior to Obama, it had only been used against whistleblowers three times.

What is happening to Van Buren is, as he says, part of a “government-wide effort to silence dissent, to stomp down on free speech, to say that the government should be able to operate in whatever level of secrecy it cares to.” That is wrong. Government employees should be able to speak openly and, indeed, they should not feel that if they want to reveal information (that isn’t classified) they must speak to press anonymously.

Indeed, speaking to press anonymously would seem to encourage the culture of selective leaking in Washington, DC. If Van Buren and other government employees can openly speak, it is much easier to separate the whistleblowers and those dedicated to good government practices from those who are possibly insiders or people sharing information for purely political purposes that make internal bureaucratic battles worse.

It is not abnormal for the government to use pre-publication review against employees in the way that the State Department has used the process against Van Buren. The unspoken rule is even though there is that 30-day provision, an employee is better off waiting hundreds of days instead of risking a threat to his or her career or livelihood.

It is incredibly heavy-handed and utterly absurd to subject every employee of any agency or department in government to any guideline that requires prior approval for any communication an employee wishes to make that relates to the work they do in government. The fact that Van Buren and the ACLU must challenge the government so those working for government can enjoy free speech rights like all US citizens is unfortunate, as it shows how the cancer of secrecy has spread and continues to spread.

What Van Buren and the ACLU are doing is undoubtedly a public service, and should they succeed in their advocacy and, in Van Buren’s case, their “civil disobedience,” government employees will be better off.

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Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola is managing editor of Shadowproof. He also produces and co-hosts the weekly podcast, "Unauthorized Disclosure."