State’s actions against Peter Van Buren offer a few lessons on use of classified info, power

Joe Davidson
Columnist October 27, 2011

The best way for the federal government to publicize a book? Attempt to muzzle the author.

You probably wouldn’t be reading about Peter Van Buren right now had the State Department not stripped him of his security clearance and suspended him after publication of his book, “We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People.”

Joe Davidson writes the Federal Diary, a column about the federal workplace that celebrated its 80th birthday in November 2012. View Archive

Van Buren’s case provides lessons that go beyond the number of books the censors at State will help him sell. The lessons concern what the government chooses to classify, the way it handles situations involving books with classified information and how the government can use its power to suspend employees.

Ironically, Van Buren now has free time to promote his book, complete with the classified information, because he was suspended until Nov. 10, with pay, earlier this week. He can’t appeal the suspension, the purpose of which, according to a letter from the department, “is to continue review your situation.”

The situation is the publication of his book without State’s stamp of approval. State Department officials would not comment on Van Buren’s case.

In a Sept. 20 letter faxed to publisher Macmillan, State said the book’s “circulation and publicizing have been done without authorization from the Department. The Department has recently concluded that two pages of the book manuscript we have seen contain unauthorized disclosures of classified information.”

To its credit, the publisher did not fold. “Their specific requests concerned passages in the book that on their face clearly did not contain classified information,” Macmillan said a statement. “In any event, these belated requests were received after the initial shipments of the book had already been sent to booksellers.”

What State’s letter does not say is that it had plenty of time to review the book. Van Buren said that he submitted his book in September of last year but that State had no comment on it until the September fax of this year.

According to State’s Foreign Affairs Manual: “All public speaking, writing, or teaching materials on matters of official concern prepared in an employee’s private capacity must be submitted for a reasonable period of review, not to exceed thirty days.”

Since the 30-day period had long expired with no word from State, Van Buren understandably concluded that the department had no problem with his book.

“I followed the rules,” Van Buren said at a National Press Club briefing Thursday. “I submitted my book for clearance.”

But the book wasn’t the only problem. In an Oct. 12 memo to Van Buren, State said his top-secret security clearance was suspended, pending an ongoing investigation, because the Big Brother- sounding “Office of Personnel Security and Suitability . . . has determined that your continued access to classified information is not clearly consistent with the national security interests of the United States.”

The memo said that by publishing articles and blog posts “on matters of official concern . . . without submitting them to the Department for review . . . your judgement in the handling of protected information is questionable.”

State’s memo did not identify the objectionable blog item, but Van Buren said it was “a link, not a leak, a link from my blog to a WikiLeaks document that was already on the Internet.”

The fact that the document was available to everyone in the world did not matter.

“I did write blog postings and online articles without permission,” Van Buren admits. But he understandably questions whether his punishment is in line with the little or no harm done by linking to a document that was readily available anyway.

Stay tuned.

Flag bill modified

The House could vote as early as next week on a bill authorizing presentation of a flag to honor federal employees killed in the line of duty, following changes to the measure that satisfied a veterans group’s objections.

The bill had been scheduled for a House floor vote in September but was pulled back when main sponsor Rep. Richard L. Hanna (R-N.Y.) was delayed returning to Washington. At the same time, the American Legion objected to the bill as an attempt to equate civilian and military service and said it was unclear on issues including who would qualify, how the flag would be presented and to whom.

On the record

Here’s what Douglas W. Elmendorf, director of the Congressional Budget Office, said Tuesday in testimony to the Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction: “Lowering pay rates for federal civilian employees could hamper efforts to recruit and retain workers (particularly in some occupations), which could reduce the overall skill level of the federal workforce over time. Having fewer federal workers would probably lower the levels of service that federal agencies provide to the public, unless cuts in the agencies’ workforces were accompanied by actions to enhance productivity.”

Staff writer Eric Yoder contributed to this column.

Follow the Federal Diary on Twitter: @JoeDavidsonWP

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