Don't Criticize the Government If You Work for the Government

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If his bosses get their way, 24-year State Department veteran Peter Van Buren will need to look for a new job, thanks to a list of offenses related to some critical commentary on the United States and, among other things, linking to Wikileaks from his blog. Most of Van Buren's controversial statements can be found in We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People, a book he published last fall that the government apparently didn't appreciate. After stripping him of his security clearance and forcing him into what sounds like a glorified data entry role, the State Department sent Van Buren a termination notice last Friday; he waited until Wednesday afternoon to call up The Washington Post. "It's hard for me to objectively look at this as anything other than revenge and vindictiveness," he told The Post's Lisa Rein. A State department spokesperson said that claim was "meritless" and that Van Buren would have an "ample opportunity to defend himself" to a committee of peers before he actually gets the sack. 

It's worth pointing out that Van Buren agreed to a certain code of conduct when he took his job at the government; what the government is saying now is that he broke that code. In addition to linking to the WikiLeaks document, they say that Van Buren is guilty, to borrow Reins' phrasing, of "failing to clear each blog posting with his bosses; displaying a 'lack of candor' during interviews with diplomatic security officers; leaking allegedly sensitive and classified information in his book; and using 'bad judgment’ by criticizing Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and then-presidential candidate Michelle Bachmann on his blog." Indeed, some of these offenses sound serious. And Van Buren's only been more outspoken about his disdain for the department since trouble started brewing last year. But is this a simple case of an employee breaking the rules at work or, as Van Buren would have us believe, a violation of an American citizen's First Amendment rights?

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Also important is how this ordeal impacts the tone in the Obama administration's mission to embrace whistleblowers. Anything Wikileaks-related has been a magnet for criticism as Obama continues his quest for greater transparency. Handing over archives of confidential documents like Bradley Manning did -- though it's seen as an act of heroism by many -- is one thing. But firing a veteran foreign service officer for linking to publicly available documents on a blog? That's bound to rile up the Assange sympathizers and free speech firebrands. We'll see how Van Buren fares in the appeals process, but based on the (very partial) interview he gave to RT a few months ago, it certainly doesn't seem like he wanted to keep his job. Maybe he could just give up and get a gig as an MSNBC contributor.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.