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Commentary: State Dept. promotes freedom abroad but supresses whistleblower here

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton forcefully intervened recently on behalf of Chen Guancheng, the blind Chinese dissident, who has been hounded by his government for criticizing official policy. It's too bad she won't afford the same consideration to the employees of her own department.

Mr. Chen invoked the wrath of his government because he used the Internet and social media to draw attention to actions and policies that were fundamentally flawed. The response to such efforts was to use legal pretexts and criminal charges in an attempt to silence him.

His treatment was so bad that he escaped from house arrest and sought political asylum in the American embassy. After some very skillful diplomacy, and a desire on both sides to avoid his case doing major damage to relations between the two countries, Mr. Chen was allowed to leave the embassy and accept a scholarship in the United States. He is now in New York with his wife and two children and will be studying law at New York University.

Secretary Clinton has made defending the kind of freedom of expression that Chen tried to practice one of the hallmarks of her time in office. In a speech at the Newseum in Washington in early 2010, she insisted citizens must have the right to criticize their governments not just in the public square, but also in blogs, emails, social networks, text messages and other new forums for exchanging ideas. Governments should not attempt to censor or limit such activity she asserted, noting proudly that the State Department was working in more than 40 countries to help individuals silenced by oppressive governments.

Why, then, is the State Department trying to silence one of its employees for remarks it does not like and attempting to criminalize his exercise of freedom of speech? Peter Van Buren served as a Foreign Service Officer with the State Department for 23 years and led two Provincial Reconstruction Teams in rural Iraq in 2009-2010. Upon his return, he wrote a book about his experience entitled “We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People,” which the Department reviewed and cleared for publication.

The book is as lighthearted as it is scathing in its description of the waste, fraud and mismanagement of the attempted reconstruction of Iraq. It provides a superb understanding of what anyone who can spell nation-building knows, namely, that it is a goal that is impossible to accomplish when the local political elite care more building their own power than building their nation. A recent New York Times article on the utter failure of attempts to train the Iraqi police is but one example.

The book and a blog by Van Buren were apparently more freedom-of-expression than the State Department could tolerate however. His security clearance and building pass were taken away and, after a lengthy investigation by the Bureau of Diplomatic Security, he was told he was being fired for among other things, putting a link in his blog to a cable on the WikiLeaks website. This despite the fact that the Justice Department rejected the notion that the link constituted the mishandling of classified material. The Department also insisted Van Buren should have cleared his blog entries prior to being posted and that he should not have used it to criticize Clinton or to call Michelle Bachmann crazy.

The American Civil Liberties Union has taken up Van Buren’s case and pointed out there is no justification for the restraints put by the Department on its employees’ free speech. The ACLU also concluded that the Department’s actions “create the strong appearance of impermissible retaliation” against Van Buren and urged that he be reinstated.

The chilling effect on State Department employees of such a blatant attempt to silence unwelcome opinions is apparently not limited to Van Buren’s case. The American Foreign Service Association, the professional association of the Foreign Service, gives four annual awards each to recognize employees who have “exhibited extraordinary accomplishment involving initiative, integrity, intellectual courage and constructive dissent.” In three of the last four years, there has been no winner of the award for either junior officers or senior officers.


Dennis Jett, a former U.S. ambassador to Mozambique and Peru, is a professor of international affairs at Penn State's School of International Affairs.

McClatchy Newspapers did not subsidize the writing of this column; the opinions are those of the writer and do not necessarily represent the views of McClatchy Newspapers or its editors.