Foreign Service Officer Van Buren Disciplined Over WikiLeaks

by Kelley B. Vlahos, October 18, 2011

WASHINGTON — Peter Van Buren has been officially sanctioned today. Depending how one looks at it, he could be either the first State Department WikiLeaks casualty or the first who’s been punished for criticizing the agency’s performance in the war. Or both.

It doesn’t matter. Today, after 23 years as a Foreign Service officer, Van Buren was forced to turn over his top secret security credentials and diplomatic passport today at the Rosslyn offices of the State Department right outside Washington.

Peter Van Buren

“The biggest threat I pose is existing as an employee. As long as I work at State, other employees will feel free to expose waste, fraud, and mismanagement as I did,” Van Buren told Antiwar.com today.

“State wants to silence me as an example to others — it is easier for them to stop books that are never written. This is intimidation; this is manipulation under the guise of security to hide nothing cheaper than McCarthy-like tactics.”

Read more about Antiwar’s Van Buren coverage here.

According to the letter given to Van Buren this morning, he was being placed on suspension because of his unwillingness to comply with rules and regulations regarding “articles and blog postings,” which “raises serious security concerns” making his access to classified material inconsistent “with the national security interests of the United States.”

Basically, he did not get his published work and media appearances cleared with public affairs ahead of time.

Also, the letter read, Van Buren’s “judgment in handling protected information is questionable.” His clearance is now deemed “under suspension” until an investigation by the department is complete. Van Buren and an informal legal representative joining him Monday said this investigation could last months, even years, before adjudication.

Van Buren’s transgressions were not spelled out in the formal letter of suspension, but he is certain it was because of (1) in a personal blog posting dated Aug. 25, Van Buren had linked to a classified cable that had already been leaked and widely circulated by WikiLeaks; (2) he has so far refused to redact passages from his new book, We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People; and (3) he has refused to answer specific questions when brought in twice for “interrogation” by Department officials in the last several weeks. Those “questions,” he told Antiwar, included his associations. He also did not offer any of his articles on his blogs for vetting by public affairs before publishing.

All of this has convinced the department he is a threat, according to Van Buren. “The hammer they are trying to use against me is ‘security,’” he said.

The State Department did not return a call for comment. In a previous report, officials told Antiwar.com that it would not comment on ongoing investigations.

“[I’m] angry,” Van Buren said. “I did not, have not and will not disclose classified material. Should I have desired to do so, I have had 23 years of top secret access. The Department of State is hiding behind security rules to try and punish me for writing a book they do not like.”

Van Buren handed over his clearance and passport this morning and spoke to Antiwar.com shortly afterward. Those are, in effect, tools of his livelihood, and handing them over, he said, was akin to being laid off — indefinitely — as even though his job with the department does not require the security clearance and he is not traveling at this time, being “under investigation” with a suspended clearance will render him radioactive with bosses and potential bosses within the department. He will likely be relegated to a job with no duties, what’s called a “hall walker” — a ghost — until further notice. He is expected to retire next year at this time.

It was reported in December 2010 that the White House, through the Office of Management and Budget, had put out a directive to all federal employees warning them not to access the classified documents that had been published via WikiLeaks in a massive release of thousands of State Department cables that month.

“Classified information, whether or not already posted on public websites or disclosed to the media, remains classified and must be treated as such by federal employees and contractors, until it is declassified by an appropriate U.S. Government authority,” the memo said. When asked by reporters if employees’ access to the cables on their personal computers or handheld devices were also sanctioned, they were told, “Any breaches of protocols governing access to classified material are subject to applicable sanctions under long-standing and existing law.”

Van Buren believes that it was his book, not his blog and the offending WikiLeaks cables, that drew the department’s ire. In his unsparing account of one year on a Provincial Reconstruction Team in Iraq, Van Buren describes how the department, in concert with the U.S. military, threw billions of dollars of U.S. taxpayer money away through waste, fraud, and abuse and failed to help the Iraq people maintain the most basic necessities, like clean water, health care, and sewage, despite all the funding and promises to the contrary.

Describing his time in Iraq the way he did breaks all protocol of the typically silent — and compliant — Foreign Service officer. But Van Buren insists that he followed procedure and not only had his manuscript combed for classified material, but handed it over to officials a year ago to be reviewed. When he did not hear back from the department after the proscribed 30 days, he went through with the project, and We Meant Well was published by Metropolitan Books, a subsidiary of Macmillan Publishers, in September.

In a fax given to Antiwar.com, Mireille L. Zieseniss of the department’s Public Affairs Office wrote to Macmillan Publishers on Sept. 20 charging that the publicizing and circulation of We Meant Well “have been done without authorization from the Department” and that the department “has recently concluded that two pages of the book manuscript we have seen contain unauthorized disclosures of classified information. … I respectfully request that Macmillan remove the classified portions from the book before it is published in order to avoid harm to U.S. national security.”