ACLU Warns State Dept. Against Firing Worker Who Criticized Government

The American Civil Liberties Union has come to the defense of a former State Department employee who looks likely to be fired for blogging and writing critically about the reconstruction efforts in Iraq.

The ACLU says doing so would violate the constitutional rights of veteran State Department employee Peter Van Buren, according to a letter the group sent the government on Tuesday.

The letter further accuses the government of unlawful retaliation against Van Buren for publishing critical comments about U.S. foreign policy on his personal blog last year.

“The Supreme Court has repeatedly held that public employees retain their First Amendment rights even when speaking about issues directly related to their employment, as long as they are speaking as private citizens,” and as long as they’re writing about matters of public concern, the ACLU wrote in its letter (.pdf). “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 immense public concern.”

Van Buren, a 23-year Foreign Service officer, was a former leader with the reconstruction team in Iraq following the recent war there. But after he left that position to take up different work in the department, he became a public critic of the U.S. government’s reconstruction efforts in a book he published last year titled We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People.

Van Buren submitted his book to the State Department for pre-publication review in accordance with federal rules that require employees to obtain clearance before publishing information on “matters of official concern.”

Such matters are broadly defined as “policy, program, or operation of the employee’s agency or to current U.S. foreign policies, or [that] reasonably may be expected to affect the foreign relations of the United States.”

The rule states that material “must be submitted for a reasonable period of review, not to exceed thirty days.” But after 30 days had passed and Van Buren had no response from the State Department, he proceeded with publication of his book.

Last August, to coincide with the release of the book, Van Buren wrote a blog post criticizing the government for hypocritical actions against Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi and linked to a leaked U.S. State Department cable that had been published by the secret-spilling site WikiLeaks. The link went to a 2009 cable about the sale of U.S. military spare parts to Gaddafi through a Portuguese middleman.

State Department investigators subsequently interrogated Van Buren twice, demanding to know who had helped him write the blog post and asking about the publishing contract for his book.

The investigators warned him that he would be fired if he refused to answer questions and that he could be charged with interfering with a government investigation if he wrote publicly about the inquiry against him, which he did anyway.

The Principal Deputy Secretary of State then wrote Van Buren’s publisher demanding three small redactions from a chapter of his book, which had already shipped to bookstores.

Van Buren’s “top secret” security clearance was suspended, and the State Department also confiscated his diplomatic passport and placed him on administrative leave. He was banned from the State Department building, lost access to his work computer, and was re-assigned from his position on the department’s Board of Examiners to a “makeshift telework position,” all for failing to submit his writing before publication.

The State Department has lately been putting Van Buren’s two decades’ worth of foreign service skills to use by having him do Google searches on all coroners working in the U.S. and copying their addresses into a document while it decides his fate.

The Department has recommended Van Buren be fired, a proposal that is currently being reviewed by the department’s human resources division. Van Buren was scheduled to respond to the proposal Tuesday, and the ACLU’s letter was sent in support of his response objecting to his firing.

The ACLU said in its letter that the State Department’s publication review policy, as it applied to the pre-publication of blog posts and articles, raised serious constitutional questions, since it amounted essentially to restricting the speech of Van Buren and other State Department employees and doesn’t comply with other federal policies that allow soldiers, for example, to blog from battlefields without having their writing reviewed.

“Their official reason, that the blogs didn’t comply with pre-clearance, makes sense for books,” said Ben Wizner, director of the ACLU’s Speech, Privacy & Technology Project. “A 30-day delay in publishing a book doesn’t make any difference. For blogs and articles, it’s impractical.”

The State Department’s actions have clearly been meant to punish him for what he wrote, Van Buren told Wired last year. He said the suspension of his security clearance was particularly vindictive.

“I’m fairly close to retirement [from government work] and this is a way of not allowing me to retire with a security clearance,” he said. “It’s like having a big scarlet ‘loser’ painted on my forehead.”

The ACLU’s Wizner agrees that the State Department’s actions are meant as punishment for what Van Buren wrote.

“There’s nothing he has done that would trigger his firing had he not been a vocal critic of the State Department’s policies,” Wizner told Wired. “He’s coming to the end of his career. It calls into question why they’re going to the trouble of firing this guy except to send the message to other government employees that they should stay in their lane.”