What We Lost In Iraq And Washington, 2009-2012
By Peter Van Buren, cross-posted from Tom Dispatch
In some 24 years of government service, I experienced my share of
dissonance when it came to what was said in public and what the
government did behind the public’s back. In most cases, the gap was
filled with scared little men and women, and what was left unsaid just
hid the mistakes and flaws of those anonymous functionaries.
What I saw while serving the State Department at a forward operating
base in Iraq was, however, different. There, the space between what we
were doing (the eye-watering waste and mismanagement), and what we were
saying (the endless claims of success and progress), was filled with numb soldiers and devastated Iraqis, not scaredy-cat bureaucrats.
That was too much for even a well-seasoned cubicle warrior like me to ignore and so I wrote a book about it, We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the War for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People.
I was on the spot to see it all happen, leading two Provincial
Reconstruction Teams (PRTs) in rural Iraq while taking part up close and
personal in what the U.S. government was doing to, not for, Iraqis.
Originally, I imagined that my book’s subtitle would be “Lessons for
Afghanistan,” since I was hoping the same mistakes would not be
endlessly repeated there. Sometimes being right doesn’t solve a damn
By the time I arrived in Iraq in 2009, I hardly expected to be
welcomed as a liberator or greeted -- as the officials who launched the
invasion of that country expected back in 2003 -- with a parade and
flowers. But I never imagined Iraq for quite the American disaster it
was either. Nor did I expect to be welcomed back by my employer, the
State Department, as a hero in return for my book of loony stories and
poignant moments that summed up how the United States wasted more than
$44 billion in the reconstruction/deconstruction of Iraq. But I never
imagined that State would retaliate against me.
In return for my book, a truthful account of my year in Iraq, my
security clearance was taken away, I was sent home to sit on my hands
for months, then temporarily allowed to return only as a disenfranchised
teleworker and, as I write this, am drifting through the final steps
What We Left Behind in Iraq
Sadly enough, in the almost two years since I left Iraq, little has
happened that challenges my belief that we failed in the reconstruction
and, through that failure, lost the war.
The Iraq of today is an extension of the Iraq I saw and described. The recent Arab League summit
in Baghdad, hailed by some as a watershed event, was little more than a
stage-managed wrinkle in that timeline, a lot like all those purple-fingered
elections the U.S. sponsored in Iraq throughout the Occupation. If you
deploy enough police and soldiers -- for the summit, Baghdad was shut
down for a week, the cell phone network turned off, and a “public
holiday” proclaimed to keep the streets free of humanity -- you can temporarily tame any place, at least within camera view. More than $500 million
was spent, in part planting flowers along the route dignitaries took in
and out of the heavily fortified International Zone at the heart of the
capital (known in my day as the Green Zone). Somebody in Iraq must have
googled “Potemkin Village.”
Beyond the temporary showmanship, the Iraq we created via our war is a
mean place, unsafe and unstable. Of course, life goes on there (with
the usual lack of electricity and potable water),
but as the news shows, to an angry symphony of suicide bombers and
targeted killings. While the American public may have changed the
channel to more exciting shows in Libya, now Syria, or maybe just to American Idol,
the Iraqi people are trapped in amber, replaying the scenes I saw in
2009-2010, living reminders of all the good we failed to do.
Ties between Iraq and Iran continue to strengthen, however, with Baghdad serving as a money-laundering stopover for a Tehran facing tightening U.S. and European sanctions, even as it sells electricity
to Iraq. (That failed reconstruction program again!) Indeed, with Iran
now able to meddle in Iraq in ways it couldn’t have when Saddam Hussein
was in power, that country will be more capable of contesting U.S.
hegemony in the region.
Given what we left behind in Iraq, it remains beyond anyone, even the
nasty men who started the war in 2003, to claim victory or
accomplishment or achievement there, and except for the odd pundit seeking to rile his audience, none do.
What We Left Behind at Home
The other story that played out over the months since I returned from
Iraq is my own. Though the State Department officially cleared We Meant Well
for publication in October 2010, it began an investigation of me a
month before the book hit store shelves. That investigation was
completed way back in December 2011, though State took no action at that
time to terminate me.
I filed a complaint as a whistleblower with the Office of the Special Counsel
(OSC) in January 2012. It was only after that complaint -- alleging
retaliation -- was filed, and just days before the OSC was to deliver
its document discovery request to State, that my long-time employer
finally moved to fire me. Timing is everything in love, war, and
The charges it leveled are ridiculous (including “lack of candor,” as
if perhaps too much candor was not the root problem here). State was
evidently using my case to show off its authority over its employees by
creating a parody of justice, and then enforcing it to demonstrate that,
well, when it comes to stomping on dissent, anything goes.
My case also illustrates the crude use of “national security” as a
tool within government to silence dissent. State’s Diplomatic Security
office, its internal Stasi, monitored my home email and web usage for
months, used computer forensics to spelunk for something naughty in my
online world, placed me on a Secret Service Threat Watch list, examined
my finances, and used hacker tools to vacuum up my droppings around the
web -- all, by the way, at an unknown cost to the taxpayers. Diplomatic
Security even sent an agent around to interview my neighbors, fishing
for something to use against me in a full-spectrum deep dive into my
life, using the new tools and power available to government not to stop
terrorists, but to stop me.
As our government accumulates ever more of what it thinks the
American people have no right to know about, there will only be
increasing persecutions as prosecutions. Many of the illegal things
President Richard Nixon did to the famous Pentagon Papers whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg are now both legal (under the Patriot Act)
and far easier to accomplish with new technologies. There is no need,
for instance, to break into my psychiatrist’s office looking for dirt,
as happened to Ellsberg; after all, the National Security Agency can
break into my doctor’s electronic records as easily as you can read this
With its aggressive and sadly careless use
of the draconian Espionage Act to imprison whistleblowers, the Obama
administration has, in many cases, moved beyond harassment and
intimidation into actually wielding the beautiful tools of justice in a
perverse way to silence dissent. More benign in practice, in theory this
is little different than the Soviets executing dissidents as spies
after show trials or the Chinese using their courts to legally confine
thinkers they disapprove of in mental institutions. They are all just
following regulations. Turn the volume up from six to ten and you’ve
jumped from vengeance to totalitarianism. We’re becoming East Germany.
What I Left Behind
There has been a personal price to pay for my free speech. In my old
office, after my book was published in September 2011, some snarky
coworkers set up a pool to guess when I would be fired -- before or
after that November. I put $20 down on the long end. After all, if I
couldn’t be optimistic about keeping my job, who could?
One day in October, security hustled me out of that office, and
though I wasn’t fired by that November and so won the bet, I was never
able to collect. Most of those in the betting pool now shun me, fearful
for their own fragile careers at State.
I’ve ended up talking, usually at night, with a few of the soldiers I
worked with in Iraq. Some are at the end of a long Skype connection in
Afghanistan, others have left the military or are stationed stateside.
Most of them share my anger and bitterness, generally feeling used and
unwanted now that they need a job rather than rote praise and the
promise of a parade.
We Meant Well is, I think, pretty funny in parts. I recall
writing it as an almost out-of-body experience as I tried to approach
the sadness and absurdity of what was happening in Iraq with a sense of
irony and black humor. That’s long gone, and if I were to write the
story today, the saddest thing is that it would undoubtedly come out
angry and bitter, too.
A Member of a Club That Would Have Me
Having left behind friends I turned out not to have, a career that
dissolved beneath me, and a sense of humor I’d like to rediscover, I
find myself a member of a new club I don’t even remember applying for:
The Whistleblowers. I’ve now met with several of the whistleblowers I’ve written about with admiration: Tom Drake, Mo Davis, John Kiriakou, and Robert MacLean, among others.
As ex- or soon-to-be-ex-government employees all, when we meet, we
make small talk about retirement, annuities, and the like. No one speaks
of revolution or anarchy, the image of us the government often
surreptitiously pushes to the media. After all, until we blew those
whistles, we were all in our own ways believers in the American system.
That, in fact, is why we did what we did.
My new club-mates represent hundreds of years of service -- a couple
of them had had long military careers before joining the civilian side
of government -- and we cover a remarkably broad swath of the American
political spectrum. What we really have in common is that, in the course
of just doing our jobs, we stumbled into colossal government wrongdoing
(systematized torture, warrantless wiretapping, fraud, and waste),
stood up for what is right in the American spirit, and found ourselves
paying surprising personal prices for acts that seemed obvious and
necessary. We are guilty of naiveté, not treason.
Each of us initially thought that the agencies we worked for would be
concerned about what we had stumbled upon or uncovered and would want
to work with us to resolve it. If most of us are now disillusioned, we
weren’t at the outset. Only by the force of events did we become
transformed into opponents of an out-of-control government with no
tolerance for those who would expose the truth necessary to create
Thomas Jefferson’s informed citizenry. In meeting my club-mates, I
learned that whistleblowers are not born, but created by a government
with much to hide and an unquenchable need to hide it.
One of those whistleblowers, Jesselyn Radack, wrote a book about her experiences called Traitor: The Whistleblower and the American Taliban. At the dawn of the War on Terror, Radack, an attorney at the Department of Justice (DOJ), wrote a memo stating that John Walker Lindh, the “American Taliban” captured in Afghanistan, had rights and could not be interrogated without the benefit of counsel.
The FBI went ahead and questioned him anyway, and then DOJ tried to
disappear Radack’s emails documenting this Constitutional violation.
Ignoring her advice, the government tossed away the rights of one of its
own citizens. Radack herself was subsequently forced out the DOJ,
harassed, and had to fight simply to keep her law license.
As proof that God does indeed enjoy irony, Radack today helps represent
most of the current crop of government whistleblowers (including me) in
their struggles against the government she once served. Radack and I
are now working with Academy Award-nominated filmmaker James Spione on a documentary about whistleblowers.
What Will Be Left Behind
So what’s left for me in my final days as a grounded State Department
worker assigned to timeout in my own home? Given my situation, there
is, of course, no desk to clean out; there are no knickknacks collected
abroad over my 24 years to package up. All that’s left is one last test
to see if the system, especially the First Amendment guaranteeing us the
right to free speech, still has a heartbeat in 2012.
Though I could be terminated by State within a few weeks, I am
otherwise only months away from a semi-voluntary retirement. Since I’m
obviously out the door anyway, State’s decision to employ its internal
security tools and expensive, taxpayer-paid legal maneuvers at this late
date can’t really be about shortening my tenure by a meager four
months. Instead, it’s clearly about mounting my head on a pike inside
the lobby of State’s Foggy Bottom headquarters as a warning to its other
employees not to dissent, or mention wrongdoing they might stumble
across. Better, so the message goes, to sip the Kool Aid and keep one’s head down, while praising the courage of Chinese dissidents and Egyptian bloggers. The State Department is all about wanting its words, not its actions, to speak loudest.
Running parallel to the State Department termination process is an
investigation by the Office of the Special Counsel into my claim of
retaliation, which State is seeking to circumvent by tossing me out the
door ahead of its conclusion. State wants to use my fate to send a
message to its already cowed staff. However, if the Special Counsel
concludes that the State Department did retaliate against me, then the
message delivered will be quite a different one. It just might indicate
that the First Amendment still does reach ever so slightly into the
halls of government, and maybe the next responsible Foreign Service
Officer will carry that forward a bit further, which would be good for
One way or another, sometime soon the door will smack me in the
backside on my way out. But whether the echo left behind inside the
State Department will be one of justice or bureaucratic revenge remains
undecided. My book is written and my career is over either way. However,
what is left behind matters not just for me, but for all of us.
Peter Van Buren, a 24-year veteran Foreign Service Officer at the
State Department, spent a year in Iraq as team leader for two State
Department Provincial Reconstruction Teams. Now in Washington and a TomDispatch regular, he writes about Iraq and the Middle East at his blog, We Meant Well. His book, We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People (The American Empire Project, Metropolitan Books), has recently been published.