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The Campaign Against Whistleblowers in Washington

How telling the truth could leave you unemployed, bankrupt, and even jailed.

| Thu Feb. 9, 2012 4:07 PM EST

Silent State

I am told that, in its 223 years of existence, I am the only Foreign Service Officer ever to have written a critical book about the State Department while still employed there. We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People exposed what State did not want people to know: that they had wasted enormous amounts of money in Iraq, mostly due to ignorance and a desire for short-term successes that could be trumpeted back home. For the crime of writing this book and maintaining a blog that occasionally embarrasses, State Department officials destroyed my career, even as they confirm my thesis, and their own failure, by reducing the Baghdad Embassy to half its size in the face of Iraq's unraveling.

"The State Department was aware of Mr. Van Buren's book long prior to its release," explains attorney Jesslyn Radack, who now represents me. "Yet instead of addressing the ample evidence of fraud, waste, and abuse in the book, State targeted the whistleblower. The State Department's retaliatory actions are a transparent attempt to intimidate and silence an employee whose critique of fraudulent, wasteful, and mismanaged US reconstruction efforts in Iraq embarrassed the agency."

Without allowing any rebuttal or defense, State suspended my security clearance, claiming my blogging was an example of "poor judgment," transferred me from a substantive job into a meaningless telework position, threatened felony conviction over alleged disclosure of classified information, illegally banned me from entering the building where I supposedly work, and continues to try to harass and intimidate me.

My travel vouchers from as far back as the law allows have come under "routine" re-examination. My Internet activity is the subject of daily reports. My credit reports have been examined for who knows what. Department friends who email me on topical issues have been questioned by agents of Diplomatic Security, the State Department's internal police. My Freedom of Information Act request for documents to help defend myself and force State to explain its actions has been buried.

Without a security clearance, and with my Diplomatic Passport impounded, I will never serve overseas again, the lifeblood of being a Foreign Service Officer (FSO). A career that typically would extend another 10 years will be cut short in retaliation for my attempt to tell the truth about how taxpayer money was squandered in Iraq.

All of this has taken place in such a way that I cannot challenge it (except by writing and speaking about it in public—at additional risk). The State Department has standard disciplinary procedures that it could have invoked against me, but those leave room for public challenges and, in some cases, would allow me to force documents into the open that State would rather not share with you.

 

Hall Walkers: Ghosts in the Machine

Before "telework" existed as an option that allowed undesirable employees to be sent home and into a kind of benign house arrest, people like me at State were called "hall walkers." They were the ones whom the Department no longer wanted as employees, but who could not be fired due to lack of evidence. So they would have their security clearances suspended without recourse, be removed from their assignments, and yet told that, to get paid, they needed to be physically present in the main State building eight hours a day.

Since they were not assigned to an office, State was wholly unconcerned about how they occupied themselves during those long empty days. And though as a "teleworker" I am not one, the hall walkers are still with us.

The main State building is enormous, with literally miles and miles of corridors, and the hall walker might wander them, kill time at the library, have a long lunch, stop in to chat with former colleagues still willing to be seen in his or her company. Even in the first FSO training course called A-100, young diplomats are advised that the most ignominious end to a career is not failing at your job, but being thrown into the purgatory of hall walking—still on the payroll but no longer a member of the tribe. Disowned, shunned, exiled in the ancient Greek tradition.

Hall walking is a far cry from being dragged through a trial or spending two years in solitary, but it exists on the same continuum. No one at State will say how many employees still exist in the shadow world of hall walking, but at least dozens is a reasonable guess.

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."

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