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Peter Van Buren: In Washington, Fear the Silence, Not the Noise

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I am told as well that State Department officials are increasingly moving to suspend security clearances for acts wholly outside the realm of security, like blogging they find offensive. One State Department Human Resources employee confided to me that this has, in fact, become the go-to strategy for winnowing out unwanted employees in the too-hard-to-fire category, a sad evolution, given the sorry history of the State Department in the McCarthy era.

Fighting Back

For a government employee being punished extra-legally by an agency ignoring its own rules, there is still one recourse: the Office of the Special Counsel. Created in 1979, it was to be an ombudsman meant to keep an eye on governmental nastiness and ensure the implementation of the Whistleblower Protection Act. Empowered, among other things, to investigate and "make right" instances of federal retaliation against legitimate whistleblowers, the office was sidelined through several administrations.

Under George W. Bush, it was embroiled in scandal when its head, Special Counsel Scott Bloch, instead purged its staff of lawyers who disagreed with him and announced that he would not follow up on cases of discrimination based on sexual orientation. Last summer, Bloch pleaded guilty to deleting evidence from his computer while under investigation for retaliating against his own staff.

At a moment when government extra-legal retaliation against whistleblowers and leakers is on the rise, call it ironic, but the Office of the Special Counsel has seen a rebirth under its current head, Obama appointee Carolyn Lerner. As the Washington Post recently described her, Lerner has "gone to the mat and tried to expand the boundaries of the law's protections for whistleblowers. She has lifted long-sagging morale at an agency that, instead of behaving as an independent watchdog, has treaded water for much of its existence."

Specifically, Lerner reassigned staff members to review a backlog of cases against whistleblowers facing reprisals, including "veterans' hospital staff members reporting poor lab procedures [and] air traffic controllers claiming flight-pattern dangers." She has enforced a 60-day limit on responses from federal agencies. The Office seems to have re-embraced its mission. "She's a pit bull," says Tom Devine, legal director of the Government Accountability Project, which defends whistleblowers.

There are other signs of resistance in Washington to the urge to cloak the government in silence. For example, Senator Charles Grassley (R-IA) launched an investigation into the Food and Drug Administration's secret email monitoring of scientists warning that unsafe medical devices were being approved over their objections. Whistleblowers, said Grassley, often are treated "like skunks at a picnic."

The Senator demanded that FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg disclose who authorized the monitoring, how many employees were targeted, and whether the agency obtained passwords to personal email accounts, allowing communications on private computers to be intercepted. He also wants to know whether the agency's two-year surveillance campaign is still ongoing.

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In another recent case, the Office of the Special Counsel formally asked the Air Force to take harsher disciplinary action against supervisors at the Dover mortuary who had tried to fire two whistleblowers who raised accusations about the mishandling of soldiers' remains.

The Government Accountability Project has filed a complaint on my behalf with the Office of the Special Counsel demanding that the State Department cease its retaliatory personnel practices against me. The Department is particularly vulnerable, given its drumbeat of support for the rights of bloggers and other dissidents in the Middle East and China. State has already been forced to readmit me to the building and return my access badge.  I remain an optimist, believing that my complaint will succeed and that, someday, I will return to work at a State Department where employees can talk openly about the bad as well as the good.

It Matters

Americans, who elect and pay for their government in Washington, deserve to know exactly what it does there -- and elsewhere around the world -- with their dollars. As in my case in Iraq, such information often is only available if some insider, shocked or disturbed by what he or she has seen, decides to speak out, either directly, in front of Congress, or through a journalist.

The Obama administration, which arrived in Washington promoting "sunshine" in government, turned out to be committed to silence and the censoring of less-than-positive news about its workings. While it has pursued no prosecutions against CIA torturers, senior leaders responsible for Abu Ghraib or other war crimes, or anyone connected with the illegal surveillance of American citizens, it has gone after whistleblowers and leakers with ever increasing fierceness, both in court and inside the halls of various government agencies.

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There is a barely visible but still significant war raging between a government obsessed with secrecy and whistleblowers seeking to expose waste, fraud, and wrongdoing. Right now, it is a largely one-sided struggle and the jobs of those of us who are experiencing retaliation are the least of what's at stake.

Think of those victims of retaliatory personnel practices and imprisoned whistleblowers as the canaries in the deep mineshaft of federal Washington, clear evidence of a government that serves its people poorly and has no interest in being held accountable for that fact. This administration fears the noise of democracy, preferring the silence of compliance.

Peter Van Buren, a 23-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 what it means to be a governmental whistleblower, click here, or download it to your iPod here.

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Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute's Tomdispatch.com ("a regular antidote to the mainstream media"), is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and, most recently, the author of Mission Unaccomplished: Tomdispatch Interviews (more...)
 

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