Peter Van Buren, a foreign service officer who wrote an unflattering book about his year leading two reconstruction teams in Iraq, was stripped of his security clearance, banned from State Department headquarters for a time and transferred to a telework job that consists of copying Internet addresses into a file.
Now the State Department is moving to fire him based on eight charges, ranging from linking on his blog to documents on the whistleblowing site WikiLeaks to disclosing classified information.
In 24 years as a diplomat, Van Buren was posted around the world and speaks four languages. He called the termination notice he received Friday the coup de grace in a series of blows he received since his book, “We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People” was published last fall.
With his book, based on a year he spent in the Iraqi desert in 2009-2010, and an unauthorized blog (wemeantwell.com) he started in 2011 that frequently skewers American foreign policy, Van Buren has tested the First Amendment almost daily.
He and his attorneys maintain that his right to free speech has been trampled, and they say he is a victim of retaliation for whistleblowing— not only because his account of the reconstruction effort alleges unqualified staff, corruption and billions of dollars in wasted programs.
A State Department spokesman said the diplomat’s claims of retaliation are “without merit.”
“There are protections within the government for freedom of expression and for whistleblowers,” spokesman Mark C. Toner said. “The State Department has followed process and acted in accordance with the law.”
Van Buren’s termination letter came within days of a decision by the Office of Special Counsel, an independent agency that investigates government wrongdoing and complaints of retaliation by those who report it, to look into his case.
“It’s hard for me to objectively look at this as anything other than revenge and vindictiveness,” Van Buren said from his house in Falls Church.
Jesselyn Radack, National Security and Human Rights director for the Government Accountability Project, which represents Van Buren, said: “It’s awfully curious timing, given the Office of Special Counsel complaint.”
He’s one of few federal employees —and maybe the only one at the State Department—who wrote a book about life on the job while still on the job.
Van Buren can appeal his termination to a five-member grievance board at the agency. “It’s the beginning of a process,” Toner said. “He’ll have ample opportunity to defend himself.”
He was charged with eight violations of State Department policy. They include linking in his blog to documents on WikiLeaks; failing to clear each blog posting with his bosses; displaying a “lack of candor” during interviews with diplomatic security officers; leaking allegedly sensitive and classified information in his book; and using “bad judgement’ by criticizing Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and then-presidential candidate Michelle Bachmann on his blog.
Van Buren disputes some of the charges, and says others were within his First Amendment rights.
Van Buren submitted his book manuscript to State Department officials for review in the fall of 2010. He heard nothing after 30 days, when the rules require reviews to be completed. When he heard nothing, he said, he assumed the book had been approved.
Shortly before it was due out last fall, the State Department wrote to the publisher and objected to three brief passages in the book officials claimed contained classified information. Van Buren says the information is widely known— such as the Central Intelligence Agency’s financial support for Iraqi intelligence agencies.
In an Oct. 21 blog post headlined “Hillary Clinton Disgraces America,” Van Buren called a “disgrace” a comment the Secretary of State made to a journalist after the death of Moammar Gaddafi. “We came, we saw, he died,” Clinton tells a CBS News reporter in a video clip he posted on his blog, showing her laughing.
Van Buren made references to Clinton’s private parts that he later removed from the posting. According to a report by the State Department, the agency put him on a watch list for the Secret Service and identified him to Clinton’s own security details as a potential threat.
“I’m a chubby 52-year-old,” Van Buren said. “I’ve never threatened anybody in my life. It’s a cheap shot.”
He said he “purposely wanted to make a point that said what she did [in reaction to Gaddafi’s death] was obscene,” Van Buren said. “The secretary of state making fun of a world leader’s death, is that less obscene than a naughty word you might say in a junior high school bathroom?”
He called Bachmann a “Republican crazy person” in a blog post three days after the Clinton posting for saying Iraqis should reimburse the American government for its costs to “liberate” them.
The charges against him are based on a 25-page investigation of Van Buren that the State Department concluded last December. He said he was not aware of the probe until the report was provided to him with his termination notice.
Last fall, he announced plans to retire next year. He said he plans to challenge his termination.