On Monday, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) sent a powerful letter supporting my client, whistleblower Peter Van Buren. Van Buren authored a book (We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People), which exposed the massive reconstruction fraud he observed while serving as the leader of two Provincial Reconstruction Teams teams in Iraq.
Beginning around the time his book was to be published, the State Department engaged in a series of retaliatory actions including suspending Van Buren's security clearance, barring him from accessing the State Department building, monitoring all of his online activities taken on personal time using his personal computer, placing him on administrative leave, transferring him to a makeshift telework position, and finally, proposing firing Van Buren. The ACLU said it best in Monday's letter to the State Department's Under Secretary for Management, Patrick Kennedy:
We believe that the State Department's actions constitute a violation of Mr. Van Buren's constitutional rights . . . This proposed termination for Mr. Van Buren's speech raises substantial constitutional questions and creates the appearance of impermissible retaliation for Mr. Van Buren's criticism of the State Department. The Supreme Court has long made clear that employees are protected by the First Amendment when they engage in speech about matters of public concern.
The ACLU's Ben Wizner elaborated on the State Department's likely motivation for targeting Van Buren in Wired:
“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.”
Van Buren reacted to the ACLU's statements of support in Firedoglake:
I spoke with Van Buren, whose reaction to the ACLU’s decision to send a stern letter to the State Department was one of great appreciation.
I was very pleased that the ACLU in their statement not only supported me strongly but in fact rolled my case into the broader picture. This is about federal employees being able to speak to the people we serve. Standard story is if we don’t tell you what’s going on inside of government there’s no way you’re going to know. Now, it looks like the ACLU thinks the Constitution protects us in doing that.
The ACLU also expressed concerns about the State Department's demands that Van Buren "pre-clear" all of his articles, blogs, tweets, Facebook posts, and all other social media.
Further, the State Department's pre-publication review policy, as applied to blog posts and articles, raises serious constitutional questions. Through its policy, the State Department is prospectively restricting the speech of Mr. Van Buren as well as all present and future State Department employees. . . . There is no justification for such an expansive prior restraint on State Department employees' speech.
The State Department's suppression of dissent is particularly out of line considering how vehemently Secretary Clinton preaches "internet freedom" abroad. Van Buren eloquently pointed this out on NPR in February:
Internet is a force for good and freedom, and at the same time, the same Secretary of State's organization is seeking to oust me, to destroy me, to push me out of it, I realize that that level of hypocrisy needs to be answered . . . Secretary of State, Madam, why is your institution not allowing me the same rights that you're bleating about for bloggers around the world? Why not here at home?
In a blog post describing the letter, the ACLU's Kate Wood explained both the constitutional rights of government employees, and the value their contributions offer to the public debate:
Government employees have the First Amendment right to speak as private citizens on matters of public concern. There's no question that the subject of Mr. Van Buren's book, blog posts, and news articles — the reconstruction effort in Iraq — is such a matter. And, government employees are often in the best position to know what ails the agencies that they work for.
The retaliation against Van Buren not only threatens to deprive him of a storied decades-long career as a foreign service officer, but it threatens to send a chilling message to all other State Department employees who might witness waste, fraud, abuse, mismanagement, illegality or dangers to health and public safety that exposing such wrongdoing is just as dangerous to a career – if not more so – than committing it.
GAP has filed a whistleblower retaliation complaint on Van Buren's behalf with the Office of Special Counsel.
Jesselyn Radack is National Security & Human Rights Director for the Government Accountability Projec, the nation's leading whistleblower protection and advocacy organization.