Peter Van Buren, a foreign service officer who wrote an unflattering book about his year leading reconstruction teams in Iraq, has received the support of the American Civil Liberties Union in his effort to keep his job.
In a letter last week, the ACLU urged the State Department not to fire Van Buren and said the agency is violating his constitutional rights by trying to terminate him.
“There can be no dispute that the subject matter of Mr. Van Buren’s book, blog posts, and news articles — the reconstruction effort in Iraq — is a matter of intense public concern....the subject of a nationwide, highly contentious, and very public debate,” ACLU officials Ben Wizner and Kate Wood wrote on May 15 to Patrick F. Kennedy, State’s undersecretary for management.
Citing numerous personnel actions the agency has taken against Van Buren since his book, “We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People” was published last year, the ACLU said the termination notice Van Buren received at his home in Falls Church in March “raises substantial constitutional questions and creates the appearance of impermissible retaliation for Mr. Van Buren’s criticism of the State Department.”
State Department officials did not immediately respond for comment. But spokesman Mark C. Toner said in March that Van Buren’s claims of retaliation were “without merit.”
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, because his account of the reconstruction effort alleges unqualified staff, corruption and billions of dollars in wasted programs.
The ACLU said public employees like Van Buren retain their First Amendment rights even when speaking about issues directly related to their jobs, as long as they are speaking as private citizens.
Van Buren lost his security clearance, was banned from agency headquarters for a time and transferred to a telework job that requires him to do almost no work.
His termination notice cited eight charges ranging from linking on his blog to documents on the whistleblowing site Wikileaks to disclosing classified information. He denied that he disclosed anything classified and says linking to Wikileaks is not a fireable offense.
He is scheduled to present his defense to State Department officials on June 12.
Van Buren said Wednesday that the ACLU’s letter of support “Helps not only me, but also every other U.S. government employee out there who still believes his/her oath to the Constitution is not some silly loyalty pledge designed to air their agency’s dirty laundry.”