USA: Peter Van Buren, Joining The Whistleblowers’ Club-TomDispatch
April 13, 2012
Peter Van Buren
TomDispatch: April 8, 2012
The world can be a luckless place, but every now and then serendipity just knocks you off a cliff. In what passed for my real life before TomDispatch intervened, I was (and remain, on a part-time basis) a book editor in mainstream publishing. The “slush pile” in a publishing house is normally the equivalent of an elephant’s graveyard, the place prospective books go to die. It’s made up of proposals or manuscripts arriving over the transom from potential authors who have no literary agents, no contacts, and normally — whether they know it or not — no hope.
The odds for getting published that way these days must fall into the miracle category (which is why successful books from the slush pile often make the news). Peter Van Buren’s journey to publication — and so to whistleblower status — was among the more improbable slush-pile odysseys of our times.
In 2009-2010, he was a State Department official on a godforsaken forward operating base south of Baghdad, his mind boggled by what he was seeing of the grim farce of American “reconstruction” in Iraq. He was then sending emails home to his wife in the States that would, sooner or later, become part of his Iraq manuscript, and at night wandering the Web trying to learn more about the country and situation he had been plunged into. In that process, he stumbled upon TomDispatch, began following it, and noticed that, from time to time, authors writing for the site produced books that TD then highlighted.
In 2010, back in the States with a rough manuscript in hand, knowing no one in publishing nor anything about it, not even realizing I was a book editor, he sent an improbable email to the TomDispatch mail box that began: “I am a Foreign Service Officer just returned from a year in the field in Iraq (PRT leader) and I have a completed book draft. Would you be willing to read it as a possible title to publish, for a prepublication comment, and/or for a later excerpt on your site?”
As it happens, I do read everything that comes in to the TomDispatch “slush pile” (though sometimes, sadly, I’m too busy to answer), because I consider it the university of my later life. Along with much appreciated encouragement, and reasonable dollops of criticism and complaint, people from around the world write me about what matters to them or tell me about lives I might otherwise never have imagined. Who could resist?
Because of my busy life, I’ve nonetheless made TomDispatch a no-submissions site and normally I would simply have nixed Van Buren’s requests, but something stopped me, maybe only the fact that he had only recently returned from service in Iraq. I wouldn’t say I replied positively — “chances are always slim” was my discouraging phrase — but I did ask him to write me a description of his book and himself, and because I had no time just then, passed it on to Steve Fraser, my partner at our co-publishing venture at Metropolitan Books, the American Empire Project. A few days later, the phone rang. It was Steve, telling me that I really did need to read Van Buren’s manuscript, that he was a natural, and it was the real McCoy.
In other words, the wildest sort of online slush-pile luck turned Steve into his editor and Van Buren into a published author and so dispatched him willy-nilly into the strange, embattled world of Obama-era governmental whistleblowers. As a group, they are, after all, just about the only people inside the National Security Complex who ever get in trouble for their acts. In our era, the illegal surveillers, the torturers, the kidnappers, those who launch and pursue undeclared and aggressive wars, and those who squander taxpayer dollars all run free. Later, if they were important enough, they write their memoirs for millions of dollars, peddle their speeches for hundreds of thousands more, and live the good life.
The only figures in the Complex regularly pursued as troublemakers and possible criminals turn out to be guilty of a single all-American crime: telling the citizenry what they should know about the operations of, and often enough the crimes of, the government they elected. Peter Van Buren did so with his book We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People. Now, he’s a slush-pile criminal and, thanks to the whims of serendipity, I was the one who aided and abetted his “crime.” (To catch Timothy MacBain’s latest Tomcast audio interview in which Van Buren discusses the present plight of the whistleblower, click here, or download it to your iPod here.) Tom
What We Lost in Iraq and Washington, 2009-2012
By Peter Van Buren
People ask the question in various ways, sometimes hesitantly, often via a long digression, but my answer is always the same: no regrets.
In some 24 years of government service, I experienced my share of dissonance when it came to what was said in public and what the government did behind the public’s back. In most cases, the gap was filled with scared little men and women, and what was left unsaid just hid the mistakes and flaws of those anonymous functionaries.
What I saw while serving the State Department at a forward operating base in Iraq was, however, different. There, the space between what we were doing (the eye-watering waste and mismanagement), and what we were saying (the endless claims of success and progress), was filled with numb soldiers and devastated Iraqis, not scaredy-cat bureaucrats.
That was too much for even a well-seasoned cubicle warrior like me to ignore and so I wrote a book about it, We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the War for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People. I was on the spot to see it all happen, leading two Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs) in rural Iraq while taking part up close and personal in what the U.S. government was doing to, not for, Iraqis. Originally, I imagined that my book’s subtitle would be “Lessons for Afghanistan,” since I was hoping the same mistakes would not be endlessly repeated there. Sometimes being right doesn’t solve a damn thing.
By the time I arrived in Iraq in 2009, I hardly expected to be welcomed as a liberator or greeted — as the officials who launched the invasion of that country expected back in 2003 — with a parade and flowers. But I never imagined Iraq for quite the American disaster it was either. Nor did I expect to be welcomed back by my employer, the State Department, as a hero in return for my book of loony stories and poignant moments that summed up how the United States wasted more than $44 billion in the reconstruction/deconstruction of Iraq. But I never imagined that State would retaliate against me.
In return for my book, a truthful account of my year in Iraq, my security clearance was taken away, I was sent home to sit on my hands for months, then temporarily allowed to return only as a disenfranchised teleworker and, as I write this, am drifting through the final steps toward termination.
What We Left Behind in Iraq
Sadly enough, in the almost two years since I left Iraq, little has happened that challenges my belief that we failed in the reconstruction and, through that failure, lost the war.
The Iraq of today is an extension of the Iraq I saw and described. The recent Arab League summit in Baghdad, hailed by some as a watershed event, was little more than a stage-managed wrinkle in that timeline, a lot like all those purple-fingered elections the U.S. sponsored in Iraq throughout the Occupation. If you deploy enough police and soldiers — for the summit, Baghdad was shut down for a week, the cell phone network turned off, and a “public holiday” proclaimed to keep the streets free of humanity — you can temporarily tame any place, at least within camera view. More than $500 million was spent, in part planting flowers along the route dignitaries took in and out of the heavily fortified International Zone at the heart of the capital (known in my day as the Green Zone). Somebody in Iraq must have googled “Potemkin Village.”
Beyond the temporary showmanship, the Iraq we created via our war is a mean place, unsafe and unstable. Of course, life goes on there (with the usual lack of electricity and potable water), but as the news shows, to an angry symphony of suicide bombers and targeted killings. While the American public may have changed the channel to more exciting shows in Libya, now Syria, or maybe just to American Idol, the Iraqi people are trapped in amber, replaying the scenes I saw in 2009-2010, living reminders of all the good we failed to do.
Ties between Iraq and Iran continue to strengthen, however, with Baghdad serving as a money-laundering stopover for a Tehran facing tightening U.S. and European sanctions, even as it sells electricity to Iraq. (That failed reconstruction program again!) Indeed, with Iran now able to meddle in Iraq in ways it couldn’t have when Saddam Hussein was in power, that country will be more capable of contesting U.S. hegemony in the region.
Given what we left behind in Iraq, it remains beyond anyone, even the nasty men who started the war in 2003, to claim victory or accomplishment or achievement there, and except for the odd pundit seeking to rile his audience, none do.
What We Left Behind at Home
The other story that played out over the months since I returned from Iraq is my own. Though the State Department officially cleared We Meant Well for publication in October 2010, it began an investigation of me a month before the book hit store shelves. That investigation was completed way back in December 2011, though State took no action at that time to terminate me.
I filed a complaint as a whistleblower with the Office of the Special Counsel (OSC) in January 2012. It was only after that complaint — alleging retaliation — was filed, and just days before the OSC was to deliver its document discovery request to State, that my long-time employer finally moved to fire me. Timing is everything in love, war, and bureaucracy.
The charges it leveled are ridiculous (including “lack of candor,” as if perhaps too much candor was not the root problem here). State was evidently using my case to show off its authority over its employees by creating a parody of justice, and then enforcing it to demonstrate that, well, when it comes to stomping on dissent, anything goes.
My case also illustrates the crude use of “national security” as a tool within government to silence dissent. State’s Diplomatic Security office, its internal Stasi, monitored my home email and web usage for months, used computer forensics to spelunk for something naughty in my online world, placed me on a Secret Service Threat Watch list, examined my finances, and used hacker tools to vacuum up my droppings around the web — all, by the way, at an unknown cost to the taxpayers. Diplomatic Security even sent an agent around to interview my neighbors, fishing for something to use against me in a full-spectrum deep dive into my life, using the new tools and power available to government not to stop terrorists, but to stop me.
As our government accumulates ever more of what it thinks the American people have no right to know about, there will only be increasing persecutions as prosecutions. Many of the illegal things President Richard Nixon did to the famous Pentagon Papers whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg are now both legal (under the Patriot Act) and far easier to accomplish with new technologies. There is no need, for instance, to break into my psychiatrist’s office looking for dirt, as happened to Ellsberg; after all, the National Security Agency can break into my doctor’s electronic records as easily as you can read this page.
With its aggressive and sadly careless use of the draconian Espionage Act to imprison whistleblowers, the Obama administration has, in many cases, moved beyond harassment and intimidation into actually wielding the beautiful tools of justice in a perverse way to silence dissent. More benign in practice, in theory this is little different than the Soviets executing dissidents as spies after show trials or the Chinese using their courts to legally confine thinkers they disapprove of in mental institutions. They are all just following regulations. Turn the volume up from six to ten and you’ve jumped from vengeance to totalitarianism. We’re becoming East Germany.
What I Left Behind
There has been a personal price to pay for my free speech. In my old office, after my book was published in September 2011, some snarky coworkers set up a pool to guess when I would be fired — before or after that November. I put $20 down on the long end. After all, if I couldn’t be optimistic about keeping my job, who could?
One day in October, security hustled me out of that office, and though I wasn’t fired by that November and so won the bet, I was never able to collect. Most of those in the betting pool now shun me, fearful for their own fragile careers at State.
I’ve ended up talking, usually at night, with a few of the soldiers I worked with in Iraq. Some are at the end of a long Skype connection in Afghanistan, others have left the military or are stationed stateside. Most of them share my anger and bitterness, generally feeling used and unwanted now that they need a job rather than rote praise and the promise of a parade.
We Meant Well is, I think, pretty funny in parts. I recall writing it as an almost out-of-body experience as I tried to approach the sadness and absurdity of what was happening in Iraq with a sense of irony and black humor. That’s long gone, and if I were to write the story today, the saddest thing is that it would undoubtedly come out angry and bitter, too.
A Member of a Club That Would Have Me
Having left behind friends I turned out not to have, a career that dissolved beneath me, and a sense of humor I’d like to rediscover, I find myself a member of a new club I don’t even remember applying for: The Whistleblowers. I’ve now met with several of the whistleblowers I’ve written about with admiration: Tom Drake, Mo Davis, John Kiriakou, and Robert MacLean, among others.
As ex- or soon-to-be-ex-government employees all, when we meet, we make small talk about retirement, annuities, and the like. No one speaks of revolution or anarchy, the image of us the government often surreptitiously pushes to the media. After all, until we blew those whistles, we were all in our own ways believers in the American system. That, in fact, is why we did what we did.
My new club-mates represent hundreds of years of service — a couple of them had had long military careers before joining the civilian side of government — and we cover a remarkably broad swath of the American political spectrum. What we really have in common is that, in the course of just doing our jobs, we stumbled into colossal government wrongdoing (systematized torture, warrantless wiretapping, fraud, and waste), stood up for what is right in the American spirit, and found ourselves paying surprising personal prices for acts that seemed obvious and necessary. We are guilty of naiveté, not treason.
Each of us initially thought that the agencies we worked for would be concerned about what we had stumbled upon or uncovered and would want to work with us to resolve it. If most of us are now disillusioned, we weren’t at the outset. Only by the force of events did we become transformed into opponents of an out-of-control government with no tolerance for those who would expose the truth necessary to create Thomas Jefferson’s informed citizenry. In meeting my club-mates, I learned that whistleblowers are not born, but created by a government with much to hide and an unquenchable need to hide it.
One of those whistleblowers, Jesselyn Radack, wrote a book about her experiences called Traitor: The Whistleblower and the American Taliban. At the dawn of the War on Terror, Radack, an attorney at the Department of Justice (DOJ), wrote a memo stating that John Walker Lindh, the “American Taliban” captured in Afghanistan, had rights and could not be interrogated without the benefit of counsel.
The FBI went ahead and questioned him anyway, and then DOJ tried to disappear Radack’s emails documenting this Constitutional violation. Ignoring her advice, the government tossed away the rights of one of its own citizens. Radack herself was subsequently forced out the DOJ, harassed, and had to fight simply to keep her law license.
As proof that God does indeed enjoy irony, Radack today helps represent most of the current crop of government whistleblowers (including me) in their struggles against the government she once served. Radack and I are now working with Academy Award-nominated filmmaker James Spione on a documentary about whistleblowers.
What Will Be Left Behind
So what’s left for me in my final days as a grounded State Department worker assigned to timeout in my own home? Given my situation, there is, of course, no desk to clean out; there are no knickknacks collected abroad over my 24 years to package up. All that’s left is one last test to see if the system, especially the First Amendment guaranteeing us the right to free speech, still has a heartbeat in 2012.
Though I could be terminated by State within a few weeks, I am otherwise only months away from a semi-voluntary retirement. Since I’m obviously out the door anyway, State’s decision to employ its internal security tools and expensive, taxpayer-paid legal maneuvers at this late date can’t really be about shortening my tenure by a meager four months. Instead, it’s clearly about mounting my head on a pike inside the lobby of State’s Foggy Bottom headquarters as a warning to its other employees not to dissent, or mention wrongdoing they might stumble across. Better, so the message goes, to sip the Kool Aid and keep one’s head down, while praising the courage of Chinese dissidents and Egyptian bloggers. The State Department is all about wanting its words, not its actions, to speak loudest.
Running parallel to the State Department termination process is an investigation by the Office of the Special Counsel into my claim of retaliation, which State is seeking to circumvent by tossing me out the door ahead of its conclusion. State wants to use my fate to send a message to its already cowed staff. However, if the Special Counsel concludes that the State Department did retaliate against me, then the message delivered will be quite a different one. It just might indicate that the First Amendment still does reach ever so slightly into the halls of government, and maybe the next responsible Foreign Service Officer will carry that forward a bit further, which would be good for our democracy.
One way or another, sometime soon the door will smack me in the backside on my way out. But whether the echo left behind inside the State Department will be one of justice or bureaucratic revenge remains undecided. My book is written and my career is over either way. However, what is left behind matters not just for me, but for all of us.
Peter Van Buren, a 24-year veteran Foreign Service Officer at the State Department, spent a year in Iraq as team leader for two State Department Provincial Reconstruction Teams. Now in Washington and a TomDispatch regular, he writes about Iraq and the Middle East at his blog, We Meant Well. His book, We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People (The American Empire Project, Metropolitan Books), has recently been published. To listen to Timothy MacBain’s latest Tomcast audio interview in which Van Buren discusses the present plight of the whistleblower, click here, or download it to your iPod here.
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