Freedom Isn’t Free at the State Department
Posted on Oct 3, 2011
By Peter Van Buren
Wishing Isn’t a Strategy, Hope Isn’t a Plan
Despite their own shortcomings, State and its Bureau of Diplomatic Security take this position: if we shut our eyes tightly enough, there is no WikiLeaks. (The morning news summary at State includes this message: “Due to the security classification of many documents, the Daily Addendum will not include news clips that are generated by leaked cables by the website WikiLeaks.”)
The corollary to such a position evidently goes something like this: since we won’t punish our own technical security people or the big shots who approved the whole flawed scheme in the first place, and the damned First Amendment doesn’t allow us to punish The New York Times, let’s just punish one of our own employees for looking at, creating links to, and discussing stuff on the Web—and while he was at it, writing an accurate, firsthand, and critical account of the disastrous, if often farcical, American project in Iraq.
That’s what frustrated bullies do—they pick on the ones they think they can get away with beating up. The advantage of all this? It gets rid of a “troublemaker,” and the Bureau of Diplomatic Security people can claim that they are “doing something” about the WikiLeaks drip that continues even while they fiddle. Of course, it also chills free speech, sending a message to other employees about the price of speaking plainly.
Square, Site wide
For example, Diplomatic Security famously took into custody the color slides reproduced in the Foreign Service Journal showing an open copy of one of the government’s most sensitive intelligence documents, albeit only after the photos were published and distributed in the thousands. Similarly DS made it a crime to take photos of the giant U.S. Embassy compound in Baghdad, but only after the architecture firm building it posted sketches of the embassy online; a Google search will still reveal many of those images; others who served in Iraq have posted them on their unsecured Facebook pages.
Imagine this: State’s employees are still blocked by a firewall from looking at websites that carry or simply write about and refer to WikiLeaks documents, including TomDispatch.com, which is publishing this piece. (That, in turn, means my colleagues at State won’t be able to read this—except on the sly.)
In the Belly of the Beast
Back in that windowless room for a second time, I faced the two DS agents clumsily trying to play semi-bad and altogether-bad cop. They once again reminded me of my obligation to protect classified information, and studiously ignored my response—that I indeed do take that obligation seriously, enough in fact to distinguish between actual disclosure and a witch-hunt.
As they raised their voices and made uncomfortable eye contact just like it says to do in any Interrogation 101 manual, you could almost imagine the hundreds of thousands of unredacted cables physically spinning through the air around us, heading—splat, splot, splat—for the Web. Despite the Hollywood-style theatrics and the grim surroundings, the interrogation-style was less police state or 1984-style nightmare than a Brazil-like dark comedy.
In the end, though, it’s no joke. I’ve been a blogger since April, but my meeting with the DS agents somehow took place only a week before the publication date of my book. Days after my second interrogation, the principal deputy secretary of state wrote my publisher demanding small redactions in my book—already shipped to the bookstores—to avoid “harm to U.S. security.” One demand: to cut a vignette based on a scene from the movie version of “Black Hawk Down.”
The link to WikiLeaks is still on my blog. The Bureau of Diplomatic Security declined my written offer to remove it, certainly an indication that however much my punishment mattered to them, the actual link mattered little. I may lose my job in State’s attempt to turn us all into mini-Bradley Mannings and so make America safe.
These are not people steeped in, or particularly appreciative of, the finer points of irony. Still, would anyone claim that there isn’t irony in the way the State Department regularly crusades for the rights of bloggers abroad in the face of all kinds of government oppression, crediting their voices for the Arab Spring, while going after one of its own bloggers at home for saying nothing that wasn’t truthful?
Here’s the best advice my friends in Diplomatic Security have to offer, as far as I can tell: Slam the door after the cow has left the barn, then beat your wife as punishment. She didn’t do anything wrong, but she deserved it, and don’t you feel better now?
Copyright 2011 Peter Van Buren
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