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Peter Van Buren

Peter Van Buren is a State Department Foreign Service Officer who served in Iraq and author of 'We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People''

September 27th, 2011 1:48 PM

Freedom Isn’t Free at the State Department

The Only Employee at State Who May Be Fired Because of WikiLeaks

Crossposted from TomDispatch

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."

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.)

Security at State: Hamburgers and Mud

Security and the State Department go together like hamburgers and mud. Over the years, State has leaked like an old boot. One of its most hilarious security breaches took place when an unknown person walked into the Secretary of State’s outer office and grabbed a pile of classified documents. From the vast trove of missing classified laptops to bugging devices found in its secure conference rooms, from high ranking officials trading secrets in Vienna to top diplomats dallying with spies in Taiwan, even the publicly available list is long and ugly.

Of course, nothing compares to what history will no doubt record as the most significant outpouring of classified material ever, the dump of hundreds of thousands of cables that are now on display on WikiLeaks and its mushroom-like mirror sites. The Bureau of Diplomatic Security (an oxymoron if there ever was one) is supposed to protect our American diplomats by securing State’s secrets, and over time they just haven’t done very well at that.

The State Department and its Bureau of Diplomatic Security never took responsibility for their part in the loss of all those cables, never acknowledged their own mistakes or porous security measures. No one will ever be fired at State because of WikiLeaks -- except, at some point, possibly me. Instead, State joined in the Federal mugging of Army Private Bradley Manning, the person alleged to have copied the cables onto a Lady Gaga CD while sitting in the Iraqi desert.

That all those cables were available electronically to everyone from the Secretary of State to a lowly Army private was the result of a clumsy post-9/11 decision at the highest levels of the State Department to quickly make up for information-sharing shortcomings. Trying to please an angry Bush White House, State went from sharing almost nothing to sharing almost everything overnight. They flung their whole library onto the government’s classified intranet, SIPRnet, making it available to hundreds of thousands of Federal employees worldwide. It is usually not a good idea to make classified information that broadly available when you cannot control who gets access to it outside your own organization. The intelligence agencies and the military certainly did no such thing on SIPRnet, before or after 9/11.

State did not restrict access. If you were in, you could see it all. There was no safeguard to ask why someone in the Army in Iraq in 2010 needed to see reporting from 1980s Iceland. Even inside their own organization, State requires its employees to “subscribe” to classified cables by topic, creating a record of what you see and limiting access by justifiable need. A guy who works on trade issues for Morocco might need to explain why he asked for political-military reports from Chile.

Most for-pay porn sites limit the amount of data that can be downloaded. Not State. Once those cables were available on SIPRnet, no alarms or restrictions were implemented so that low-level users couldn’t just download terabytes of classified data. If any activity logs were kept, it does not look like anyone checked them.

A few classified State Department cables will include sourcing, details on from whom or how information was collected. This source data allows an informed reader to judge the veracity of the information; was the source on a country’s nuclear plans a street vendor or a high military officer? Despite the sometimes life-or-death nature of protecting sources (though some argue this is overstated), State simply dumped its hundreds of thousands of cables online unredacted, leaving source names there, all pink and naked in the sun.

Then again, history shows that technical security is just not State’s game, which means the Wikileaks uproar is less of a surprise in context. For example,in 2006, news reports indicated that State’s computer systems were massively hacked by Chinese computer geeks.  In 2008, State data disclosures led to an identity theft scheme only uncovered through a fluke arrest by the Washington D.C. cops.  Before it was closed down in 2009, snooping on private passport records was a popular intramural activity at the State Department, widely known and casually accepted.  In 2011, contractors using fake identities appear to have downloaded 250,000 internal medical records of State Department employees, including mine.  

Wishing Isn’t a Strategy, Hope Isn’t a Plan

Despite their own shortcomings, State and its Bureau of Diplomatic Security take this position: if we shut our eyes tightly enough, there is no Wikileaks. (The morning news summary at State includes this message: “Due to the security classification of many documents, the Daily Addendum will not include news clips that are generated by leaked cables by the website WikiLeaks.”)

The corollary to such a position evidently goes something like this: since we won’t punish our own technical security people or the big shots who approved the whole flawed scheme in the first place, and the damned First Amendment doesn’t allow us to punish the New York Times, let’s just punish one of our own employees for looking at, creating links to, and discussing stuff on the web -- and while he was at it, writing an accurate, first-hand, and critical account of the disastrous, if often farcical, American project in Iraq.

That’s what frustrated bullies do -- they pick on the ones they think they can get away with beating up. The advantage of all this?  It gets rid of a “troublemaker,” and the Bureau of Diplomatic Security people can claim that they are “doing something” about the WikiLeaks drip that continues even while they fiddle.  Of course, it also chills free speech, sending a message to other employees about the price of speaking plainly.

Now does that make sense? Only inside the world of Diplomatic Security, and historically it always has.

For example, Diplomatic Security famously took into custody the color slides reproduced in the Foreign Service Journal showing an open copy of one of the Government's most sensitive intelligence documents, albeit only after the photos were published and distributed in the thousands. Similarly DS made it a crime to take photos of the giant U.S. Embassy compound in Baghdad, but only after the architecture firm building it posted sketches of the Embassy online; a Google search will still reveal many of those images; others who served in Iraq have posted them on their unsecured Facebook pages.

Imagine this: State's employees are still blocked by a firewall from looking at websites that carry or simply write about and refer to WikiLeaks documents, including TomDispatch.com, which is publishing this piece.  (That, in turn, means my colleagues at State won’t be able to read this -- except on the sly.)

In the Belly of the Beast

Back in that windowless room for a second time, I faced the two DS agents clumsily trying to play semi-bad and altogether-bad cop.  They once again reminded me of my obligation to protect classified information, and studiously ignored my response -- that I indeed do take that obligation seriously, enough in fact to distinguish between actual disclosure and a witch-hunt.

As they raised their voices and made uncomfortable eye contact just like it says to do in any Interrogation 101 manual, you could almost imagine the hundreds of thousands of unredacted cables physically spinning through the air around us, heading -- splat, splot, splat -- for the web. Despite the Hollywood-style theatrics and the grim surroundings, the interrogation-style was less police state or 1984-style nightmare than a Brazil-like dark comedy.

In the end, though, it’s no joke. I’ve been a blogger since April, but my meeting with the DS agents somehow took place only a week before the publication date of my book. Days after my second interrogation, the Principal Deputy Secretary of State wrote my publisher demanding small redactions in my book -- already shipped to the bookstores -- to avoid “harm to U.S. security.” One demand: to cut a vignette based on a scene from the movie version of Black Hawk Down.

The link to Wikileaks is still on my blog.  The Bureau of Diplomatic Security declined my written offer to remove it, certainly an indication that however much my punishment mattered to them, the actual link mattered little. I may lose my job in State’s attempt to turn us all into mini-Bradley Mannings and so make America safe.

These are not people steeped in, or particularly appreciative of, the finer points of irony.  Still, would anyone claim that there isn’t irony in the way the State Department regularly crusades for the rights of bloggers abroad in the face of all kinds of government oppression, crediting their voices for the Arab Spring, while going after one of its own bloggers at home for saying nothing that wasn’t truthful?

Here’s the best advice my friends in Diplomatic Security have to offer, as far as I can tell: slam the door after the cow has left the barn, then beat your wife as punishment. She didn’t do anything wrong, but she deserved it, and don’t you feel better now?

Peter Van Buren spent a year in Iraq as a State Department Foreign Service Officer serving as Team Leader for two Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs). Now in Washington, he writes about Iraq and the Middle East at his blog, We Meant Well. His new 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), is published today. To listen to 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.

[Note: 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, the Department of Defense, or any other entity of the U.S. Government. It should be quite obvious that the Department of State has not approved, endorsed, or authorized this post.]

Copyright 2011 Peter Van Buren

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