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 clubmates 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 naivete, 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 clubmates, 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. Follow TomDispatch on Twitter @TomDispatch and join us on Facebook. To stay on top of important articles like these, sign up to receive the latest updates from TomDispatch.com here.
[Disclaimer: The views expressed here are solely those of the author in his private capacity and do not in any way represent the views of the Department of State or any other entity of the US Government. It should be quite obvious that the Department of State has not approved, endorsed, embraced, friended, liked, tweeted, or authorized this post.]