In Washington, whistleblowers are a dime a dozen, and the memoirs of retired diplomats, spies and other civil servants could fill the Washington Monument with room to spare. But Peter Van Buren, and his book “We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People,” represent a real departure from the publishing norm.
Van Buren didn’t wait to retire to publish his book and didn’t use a pen name. After the book came out, he was still technically employed by the State Department, but his security clearance was suspended and he had been barred from the premises. In March, the State Department moved to fire him, alleging improper handling of classified material, conducting unauthorized interviews, insubordination and poor judgment, among other charges.
Finally in early August, Van Buren went into the outplacement/retirement seminar with an eye to retire formally (and voluntarily) on Sept. 30, after almost 24 years of service, with his pension intact. His security clearance will remain “temporarily suspended” indefinitely, though he should receive the customary “retiree” access badge that allows limited access into State Department facilities.
Van Buren led two Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRT) in rural Iraq from 2009 to 2010. His book, which was named a best book of the year by Kirkus Reviews and other publications, is an exposé of the U.S. government’s reconstruction efforts in Iraq that includes numerous examples of wasteful spending, including French pastry classes for Iraqi widows, a play about mules, and an effort to create a Baghdad yellow pages and Baghdad Craigslist, among other follies.
Van Buren claims that he submitted his manuscript through the normal bureaucratic clearance procedures and when he didn’t hear back within the mandated 30-day clearance process, he construed the lapse as permission to publish the manuscript. The State Department claims that he released classified material in the book and also objects to the fact that he posted a link to an unclassified cable that was published by WikiLeaks on his blog, among other charges.
The biting commentary on that blog, wemeantwell.com, lambastes aspects of U.S. foreign policy and State Department bureaucracy. Not surprisingly, Van Buren doesn’t mince words when it comes to Iraq, writing that the “American Embassy in Baghdad remains a monument to American hubris, and American failure in the Middle East. In some far-future Planet of the Apes movie, it will be the remains of the embassy Charlton Heston’s character finds half-buried in the sand.”
Other postings mock Foggy Bottom’s attempts at Twitter and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s frequent declarations touting Internet freedom. “Clinton must have an alarm set on her smartphone to issue such a declaration every two weeks,” he wrote. “Even as the US summons the Hawk Men to find and render Julian Assange, Hillary can’t stop her own self-loving, claiming ‘The free flow of news and information is under threat in countries around the world.'”
Van Buren also invokes his own example to eviscerate State’s supposed embrace of Internet rights. “Imagine a world where your emails, web browsing, Facebook and Twitter are monitored, where you are threatened with prosecution at work, where government agents dig through your credit report and ask your neighbors and officemates for ‘dirt’ (some, scared, try to supply it), and where sudden ‘compelled’ interrogations shatter your life.
“Imagine being jerked out of your job of 24 years and placed on a Secret Service Watch List for publicly criticizing a government official, and then allowed back to work only in a capacity designed to humiliate you, and send a message to others to remain silent. Welcome to my world.”
Not exactly diplomatic.
But Van Buren’s case raises important diplomatic questions: Should public servants have the right to publish, either in print or on the web, while still on active duty? Here are the blunt-talking diplomat’s thoughts on spilling his employer’s beans.
Q: Did you volunteer to serve in Iraq or were you coerced?
A: I had spent the last 4.5 years in D.C. and my family had no interest in going overseas. My daughter was in an expensive private college, so we needed money and going to Iraq or Afghanistan seemed like a perfect solution. When I got to Iraq, my salary was roughly double what I was making in Washington.
Q: In the book, you document all kinds of wasteful spending on the part of the U.S. in Iraq. Did you get to the point where nothing surprised you?
A: We were spending money crazily. The only universal in working for the State Department was that there was never any money — we worried about how to pay for office supplies — and then we go to Iraq, and we’re literally handing out bags of cash to people. The contrast between the reality there and at home, where there was a recession, was very difficult to reconcile.
Q: Was our entire approach fundamentally flawed from the outset?
A: No one really cared about accomplishing anything. We were simply after the appearance that we were doing something. We wanted to say look, we just hired two more NGOs to say we’re empowering women, so that means we’re empowering women. We weren’t concerned about results. Everyone was looking the other way. Your boss says, “Empower women in your district and do it by Thursday” — what are you going to do? I’ll hire an NGO that really exists for no reason other than to collect government money, and tell them I need a report by Thursday explaining how we’ve empowered women.
No one ever comes back and says, “What happened with this or that project?” I told congressional aides when I got back, “Take a look at the projects I wrote about and ask people at the State Department about them.”
Q: Did you believe that you’d be able to get away with writing a book that is highly critical of U.S. efforts in Iraq while still remaining in the Foreign Service?
A: The publisher asked me, “Are we going to have any problem with State?” and I said, “No, I sent it to them and they sat on it for 30 days, which gives me permission to publish.”
State clearly screwed up. I sent my manuscript in for clearance, they had 30 days to comment, they misplaced it, forgot about it, whatever. Every once in a while the bureaucracy breaks your way. Every once in a while they screw up in your favor and this was one of those instances.
Q: But it’s highly unusual for current Foreign Service officers (FSOs) to publish books while still serving, is it not?
A: The State Department is very much like the mafia — you don’t talk about the family outside the family. In fact, there are more books written by ex-mafia hit men then there are Foreign Service officers. You really only see Foreign Service people publish two kinds of books: If you’re a famous ambassador, you write your memoirs about how you were right about everything, or if you were lower-level, you write a travelogue explaining how cool it was that you got to go to Venezuela or Jerusalem or wherever. I really believed that there was no inherent conflict between my job as a Foreign Service officer and writing this book.
Q: What job did you take after leaving Iraq?
A: I came back and was working in the Board of Examiners office. It would have been too much of a conflict to publish while I was still in Iraq.
But a lot of my colleagues in Iraq knew I was working on something. We’d joke about who was going to play me in the movie version of the book. When people were pissed off at me, they’d said Paul Giamatti was going to play me and when they were in a good mood, they’d say George Clooney was going to play me.
Q: Did you consider resigning after or during your experience in Iraq?
A: People ask me why haven’t you resigned or if I’m a whistleblower — a Bradley Manning with a better haircut — and I don’t buy any of that stuff. I have no interest in resigning. What I did was write down what happened to me. If you came to Iraq with me, that’s what you would have seen.
You don’t have to be Bradley Manning. I think it’s reasonable for people to believe that they can write about and talk about what goes on in government. The vast majority of people in government who make the vast majority of decisions which impact us aren’t elected. They’re just people like me, and so there is an obligation for people inside the government to tell people outside the government what goes on in there.
Q: Tell me about the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad?
A: The embassy in Baghdad is palatial. It’s a luxurious place. The State Department, using the guise of security, has kept that from the public’s eye. We spent close to a billion dollars building that thing without justification. We’ve created the world’s largest embassy in one of the world’s least important countries. We’ve destroyed the State Department personnel system in order to staff it, and they want to keep it a big secret that they have a bar, a swimming pool and a driving range and a tennis court over there.
Q: A lot of FSOs, including some I know, aren’t very happy about your book. Why do you think your book seemed to make some colleagues angry?
A: I was surprised by the vehemence. People saw me as a traitor. I broke the code — I talked publicly about the State Department. Everyone at State is always worried what everyone else thinks about it. The State Department doesn’t want people to know how we do business. They’re embarrassed by it.
There are all these clichés that diplomats just hang around at cocktail parties and you’re not allowed to say anything that shows there’s some truth to that. You just don’t talk about these things; it’s just not done.
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.
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: Have you been fired yet?
A: I’m still employed. I’m on tele-work status with an extremely limited job description. But I’ve filed a complaint with the Office of Special Counsel. They took away my building access pass and my security clearance is temporarily suspended. The final decision on whether to fire me from the State Department is now before the director general, the head of human resources for the department. We do not have a timeline for her decision.
Q: It seems as though the State Department objects to some FSO blogs, but not to others — is that right?
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 if you sought clearance for everything you wrote on a blog, how long would it take to get it?
A: You can’t possibly blog on a 45-day lead, which is how long it takes to get something cleared. It’s prior restraint because it would shut down your blog.
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: What do you plan to do now?
A: The plan is to retire in September. I won’t get security clearance back, so my goal is to stumble to the finish line one way or the other. I have no security clearance, no building pass, I have no job, and I’m just an additional person in human resources. But I still get paid.
Q: Is it your position that State’s position on your case is unconstitutional?
A: State’s actions add up to retribution for what I’ve written. There is no due process in suspending a security clearance. [Diplomatic Security] has no internal affairs division. Personally nothing good has come out of this for me. I’ve essentially lost my job, I’ve been harassed, I’ve had people be very unpleasant to me. My wife and daughter love me so my needs are covered, but it’s still very unpleasant.
I didn’t make any money off the book, so there’s been no financial gain for me. But it’s important to have this story out there. I got to tell the PRT story and that’s one of the things the State Department’s not happy about.
Q: Do you have regrets?
A: Not really, my career was essentially over. I’m leaving something else behind and I’m not done yet. I told the PRT story to the world. I left something so my family knows what I did in Iraq and I sent a message for my kids that some things in life are worth standing up and getting kicked in the ass for, and the State Department may yet have to change the way it looks at the writing of its employees — that part is still yet to be written.
One of the problems with the Foreign Service is we’ve never recovered from the McCarthy era. We gave up being an aggressive advocate in the foreign affairs arena during those years and we’ve never come back. It’s all about going along and play along and it rewards people who do.
A lot of things the military does have finite, measurable results. With State, the goals are amorphous — to secure friendly relations, to empower women, etc. — it’s stuff that isn’t measurable, and so it’s easy to just kind of float around.
The people who get promoted don’t have opinions; they’re the people who just do whatever they’re told. I don’t think that’s good for America.
Q: What do you plan to do after you retire?
A: I don’t know what I’m going to do in my retirement, but I do know that I’m not going to be that guy. I’m not going to make a career out of bitching about the State Department. I might be ringing you up at Whole Foods. I don’t want to be a professional pain in the ass who writes weird letters to the editor.
About the Author
Dave Seminara is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat and a former diplomat based in Northern Virginia.