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Tomgram: Peter Van Buren, WikiLeaked at the State Department

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This story originally appeared at TomDispatch.com.

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It's hardly a secret at this late date that, while the Obama administration arrived in office promoting "a new standard of openness" in government, in practice it's cast not sunshine, but a penumbra of gloom over the workings of Washington.  Talk about a closed and punitive crew.  Its Justice Department has notoriously gone after government whistleblowers and leakers, launching significantly more (largely unsuccessful) prosecutions than any of Obama's predecessors.  His people lit out with particular ferocity after WikiLeaks, and specifically Bradley Manning, the young Army private accused of passing enormous caches of Army and State Department documents to that website.  In the process, it developed special forms of pre-punishment to torment him while he was confined, still uncharged, at a Marine brig in Quantico, Virginia.  (It also went to ludicrous lengths to bar government officials, workers, contractors, the military, and anyone else linked to them from reading the leaked documents to which everyone else on Earth already had access.)

When it came to books by witnesses within the government or the military offering some version of critical openness, darkness has again been the order of the day.  The Pentagon actually bought up and burned more or less the complete stock of Lt. Col. Anthony Shaffer's insider's account of Pentagon and Defense Information Agency mistakes in the invasion of Afghanistan, Operation Dark Heart (already thoroughly vetted by the Army Reserve), and forced his publisher to put out a highly redacted second edition. 

More recently, the CIA took out after The Black Banners: The Inside Story of 9/11 and the War Against Al Qaeda, a memoir by Ali H. Soufan, a former FBI agent long involved in the battle against al-Qaeda, demanding "extensive cuts."  "In fact," wrote New York Times reporter Scott Shane, "some of the information that the agency argues is classified, according to two people who have seen the correspondence between the F.B.I. and C.I.A., has previously been disclosed in open Congressional hearings, the report of the national commission on 9/11, and even the 2007 memoir of George J. Tenet, the former C.I.A. director."

In recent weeks, a third version of this particular "national security" mania hit my radar screen.  The State Department is now hassling one of its own employees whose book is being published by a venture I co-run, the American Empire Project, and who has become a regular at this site.  State has taken out after Foreign Service Officer Peter Van Buren, calling for redactions of information (all easily Googleable online) in his new book, published today and long ago vetted by the Department, about his year running a provincial reconstruction team in Iraq, We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People.  There can't be a more devastating (or, I must admit, enjoyable) account of the particular form of misery we brought to Iraq than his.  Van Buren describes his own distinctly absurd situation in today's post.  Kafka would have blushed and Orwell would have had a hearty laugh, but evidently at the State Department no one even blinks.

In increasingly post-legal America, Van Buren has, it seems, committed a new crime: the spreading of public knowledge.  Truly, if shame had any meaning, the State Department and the Obama administration should be filled with it. (To catch Timothy MacBain's latest Tomcast audio interview in which Van Buren discusses what it's like to be interrogated by the State Department click here, or download it to your iPod here.) Tom

Freedom Isn't Free at the State Department
The Only Employee at State Who May Be Fired Because of WikiLeaks

By Peter Van Buren

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On the same day that more than 250,000 unredacted State Department cables hemorrhaged out onto the Internet, I was interrogated for the first time in my 23-year State Department career by State's Bureau of Diplomatic Security (DS) and told I was under investigation for allegedly disclosing classified information. The evidence of my crime? A posting on my blog from the previous month that included a link to a WikiLeaks document already available elsewhere on the Web.

As we sat in a small, gray, windowless room, resplendent with a two-way mirror, multiple ceiling-mounted cameras, and iron rungs on the table to which handcuffs could be attached, the two DS agents stated that the inclusion of that link amounted to disclosing classified material. In other words, a link to a document posted by who-knows-who on a public website available at this moment to anyone in the world was the legal equivalent of me stealing a Top Secret report, hiding it under my coat, and passing it to a Chinese spy in a dark alley.

The agents demanded to know who might be helping me with my blog ("Name names!"), if I had donated any money from my upcoming book on my wacky year-long State Department assignment to a forward military base in Iraq, and if so to which charities, the details of my contract with my publisher, how much money (if any) I had been paid, and -- by the way -- whether I had otherwise "transferred" classified information.

Had I, they asked, looked at the WikiLeaks site at home on my own time on my own computer? Every blog post, every Facebook post, and every Tweet by every State Department employee, they told me, must be pre-cleared by the Department prior to "publication." Then they called me back for a second 90-minute interview, stating that my refusal to answer questions would lead to my being fired, never mind the Fifth (or the First) Amendments.

Why me? It's not like the Bureau of Diplomatic Security has the staff or the interest to monitor the hundreds of blogs, thousands of posts, and millions of tweets by Foreign Service personnel. The answer undoubtedly is my new book, We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People.  Its unvarnished portrait of State's efforts and the U.S. at work in Iraq has clearly angered someone, even though one part of State signed off on the book under internal clearance procedures some 13 months ago. I spent a year in Iraq leading a State Department Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) and sadly know exactly what I am talking about. DS monitoring my blog is like a small-town cop pulling over every African-American driver: vindictive, selective prosecution. "Ya'll be careful in these parts, 'hear, 'cause we're gonna set an example for your kind of people."

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Silly as it seems, such accusations carry a lot of weight if you work for the government. DS can unilaterally, and without any right of appeal or oversight, suspend your security clearance and for all intents and purposes end your career. The agents questioning me reminded me of just that, as well as of the potential for criminal prosecution -- and all because of a link to a website, nothing more.

It was implied as well that even writing about the interrogation I underwent, as I am doing now, might morph into charges of "interfering with a Government investigation." They labeled routine documents in use in my interrogation as "Law Enforcement Sensitive" to penalize me should I post them online. Who knew such small things actually threatened the security of the United States? Are these words so dangerous, or is our nation so fragile that legitimate criticism becomes a firing offense?

Let's think through this disclosure of classified info thing, even if State won't. Every website on the Internet includes links to other websites. It's how the web works. If you include a link to say, a CNN article about Libya, you are not "disclosing" that information -- it's already there. You're just saying: "Have a look at this."  It's like pointing out a newspaper article of interest to a guy next to you on the bus.  (Careful, though, if it's an article from the New York Times or the Washington Post.  It might quote stuff from Wikileaks and then you could be endangering national security.)

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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 (more...)
 

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