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Confessions of an Iraq War Whistleblower

The State Department fired me for telling the truth about US failures in Iraq. Here's why I don't regret it.

| Mon Apr. 9, 2012 12:40 PM PDT
Peter Van Buren

This story first appeared on the TomDispatch website.

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 in rural Iraq while taking part up close and personal in what the US 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.

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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 US sponsored in Iraq throughout the occupation. If you deploy enough police and soldiers—for the summit, Baghdad was shut down for a week, the cellphone 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 2009-10, 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 US 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 US 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 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 longtime 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 6 to 10 and you've jumped from vengeance to totalitarianism. We're becoming East Germany.

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