Friday, July 22, 2011

Peter Van Buren: Oh, dude -- WHO did you get "more than upset" at the State Department?

Peter Van Buren, an FSO and 20+ year veteran of the State Department with a book coming out in fall had an interview with Rose Lichter-Marck of Publishers Weekly.  It is a brief interview, but here for the first time, a Foreign Service Officer is on the record on what type of pressures and threats the Foggy Bottom "tigers" engage in when they are not/not fond of your writing.

And it's only July, his book is not even out until September. I can't imagine what this will be like when reviews start coming in.  This darn new media thing, you can't sweep anything under the rug, anymore.  


PW: Did you struggle with the decision to write about working for the State Department?

Van Buren: I did, and I continue to do so. The State Department, where I have worked for 23 years, is like a Mafia family: one doesn't talk about family matters outside the family. I can't name one objective book written by a State Department Foreign Service Officer—the few who do write things stay strictly within the exciting travel memoir genre or, if they are former Ambassadors, the "I was right all along" personal insights. When a colleague learns about my book, the first question is always "Are you in trouble?" I am afraid the answer is yes. State started an investigation against me—a hearing is scheduled coincidentally just about the time the book comes out. My current boss also told me she was asked to "deliver a message," just like in a gangster movie, from a "senior Department person" that my writing had left people at Foggy Bottom "more than upset" and threatened additional discipline, including suspension, if I continue.
Continue reading, The Whistleblower: PW Talks with Peter Van Buren.

Peter is the author of We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People (American Empire Project). The book will be available on September 27. You may pre-order it here

By its title alone, one can surmise that this is not one of those happy talk books about blundering into Iraq and the subsequent national building, excuse me, reconstruction.  This is also something that would not merit a look in official dissent awards. That's the one where you disagree over a policy, write a cable, and it travels slowly up the stairs to the 7th floor, or wherever it is these cables end up these days. The awards are for dissenting quietly, in house, in well ordered arguments that does not topple the chairs.  Books and blog posts are excluded, of course.

One example of a dissent awarded in recent years was persuading the State Department to issue commissioning certificates for FS specialists. One of this year's awards was for dissenting on official policy not to send a U.S. government representative to the annual Peace Memorial Ceremony in Hiroshima. In August 2010, 65 years since a US bomb left Hiroshima in ruins, the US Ambassador to Japan attended the ceremony for the first time. 

The State Department prides itself with its dissent channel. Even AFSA says that this is "absolutely unique within the U.S. government in that the foreign affairs agencies encourage dissent through the dissent channel." Supposedly, sending a dissent cable does not harm your career and a list of FS luminaries are cited as proof of that. 

But -- but, if the relevant issues of our time are not showing up in this "absolutely unique" dissent channel, doesn't that tell us something?

Anyway sorry, FSO Peter Van Buren, no award for you this year.  Next time you have something relevant to say about where our young men and women are dying, and where billions of taxpayer dollars are siphoned into a black hole everyday, please do not write a book or blog about it.  Bundle them into cable format and send off quietly and nicely upstairs, please. The American public won't ever get to hear the gritty details but you just might get an award for it, instead of being subjected to an "investigation."

Bonus points -- you won't get anyone "more than upset" over in the big house and you'll still have assignments and promotions to worry about.

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