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'Hallwalkers': The Ghosts Of The State Department

Originally published on Mon February 27, 2012 6:46 am

The halls of the State Department are haunted, not by actual ghosts, but by people who might as well be ghosts: whistleblowers, people who angered someone powerful and people who for one reason or another, can't be fired.

"People like me, that the State Department no longer wants, but for some reason can't or won't fire, are assigned to what we call 'hallwalking,'" says author Peter Van Buren.

Hallwalkers are stripped of their security clearances, their desks and their duties — left to wander aimlessly up and down the halls of that massive building. Sometimes they're required to show up in the morning to get paid; sometimes they're allowed to telecommute from home.

After 23 years in the Foreign Service, Van Buren joined the ranks of the hallwalkers last fall, when he published a scathing account of his year working on what he believed were wasteful reconstruction projects in Iraq.

The book is called We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People. Van Buren says all books published by State employees are subject to an approval process, and his book was no exception.

"I suspect that the State Department forgot about me and approved the book," Van Buren says.

But as the publication date neared, State officials began to take notice. Van Buren had started a blog in support of his book; and one entry contained a link to a Wikileaks document.

Van Buren says the department considered that a breach of security. "I lost my security clearance," he says, which meant he was no longer eligible for most of the jobs available.

Not only that, Van Buren says, after he wrote a blog post critical of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, his building access badge was confiscated.

"I was told in writing that I was banned from any State Department facility, I could not access the computer network [and] I had no job tasks in front of me," he says. "They couldn't figure out a way to stop paying me, and so I sat home for eight weeks at full salary, doing nothing."

Van Buren now spends his days teleworking from home, cutting and pasting addresses into a State Department computer database.

He says the department won't fire him outright. "There [are] procedures in the State Department to fire someone," he says. "There are rules that the State Department claims I've broken. But rather than pursue those avenues, which would have allowed me to defend myself, the State Department instead followed a different path, where they used bureaucratic tools, unofficial ways of doing business that pushed me out of the village [and] sent me into the wilderness."

Without his security clearance, Van Buren will likely be forced into retirement by the end of the year. But he says the trouble he's been through was worth it.

"The story that people were hearing back home was not the story of what we were doing there on the ground," he says.

Van Buren says he realized that this was a story that needed to be told, particularly as he watched the program in Iraq being folded up, packed up and shipped off to Afghanistan, where in fact the same process is going on right now.

"When I go home and turn on the news and listen to the Secretary of State claiming that the rights of bloggers in China need to be respected, that journalists in Syria have a right to speak back to their government ... 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," he says, "I realize that that level of hypocrisy needs to be answered."

Van Buren's case has been taken up by the Office of Special Counsel, an independent federal agency set up to help whistleblowers.

While the State Department declined to comment on his specific situation, spokesman Mark Toner gave us this statement:

"The State Department values the opinions of its employees and encourages expression of differing viewpoints and is committed to fairness in the workplace. There are many examples of employees publishing articles and books in their private capacity that do not reflect Department views.

"At the same time, the Department of State has an obligation to ensure that official information is released in an authorized and appropriate manner, that classified and other protected material is not improperly disclosed, and that the views an employee expresses in his or her private capacity are not attributed to the U.S. government.

"Foreign Service Officers and other employees are well aware that they are expected to meet these obligations."

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

GUY RAZ, HOST:

The halls of the State Department are haunted, not by actual ghosts, but by people who might as well be ghosts. They're called hallwalkers, people who blew the whistle, people who angered someone powerful, people who for one reason or another can't be fired.

But they can be stripped of their security clearances, their desks and their duties and left to walk aimlessly up and down the halls of that massive building. Sometimes they're required to show up at the building to get paid. Sometimes they're allowed to telecommute from home.

And after 23 years in the Foreign Service, Peter Van Buren joined their ranks last fall, when he published a scathing account of his year working on what he believed were wasteful reconstruction projects in Iraq, like a multimillion dollar chicken processing plant that never really got off the ground.

PETER VAN BUREN: The problem came when General Odierno's blogger friend decided she wanted to see the chicken plant. I don't know how she heard about it. Maybe she saw it on a list. And we were stuck with having chickens in the plant the day she arrived. The word got around very quickly that the Americans were buying chickens for cash, and the price went up probably 100 percent that afternoon. We got 50 or 60 chickens. We ran them through the plant when she was there.

RAZ: Wait. You did this as - you almost staged this for Odierno's - somebody who was writing a blog for General Odierno?

BUREN: We came to call it the Potemkin chicken plant. Remembering back to the early days in Russia where the money was squandered and so they built a stage set to impress the empress. With future visitors, we evolved a sliding scale of chickens, depending on the relative importance.

If you were a big-shot reporter from a television network, you'd see 50 or 60 chickens slaughtered for your pleasure. If you were a print journalist from a known newspaper, 10 or 20. With respect from NPR, maybe four or five chickens.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

RAZ: Peter, with all due respect, I mean, sorry, just to get serious a moment, that's fraud. Why were you doing this? That wasn't part of your mandate. You were the head of a provincial reconstruction team. Why didn't you just be honest and say - when people came, say, listen, this is a project that just doesn't seem to be working?

BUREN: Honesty was one of the few things we had in short supply in Iraq. From Washington through the embassy, including the Army, there was an incessant demand for success. We were under extraordinary pressure to show that the State Department was succeeding in reconstruction in Iraq where other organizations had failed previously.

RAZ: Why did you decide to write about it later on?

BUREN: By the time I was finished, the overwhelming sense that I had participated in this caught me and made me realize that the story that people were hearing back home was not the story of what we were doing there on the ground. And I realized that this was a story that probably needed to be told, particularly as I watched the program in Iraq be folded up, packed up and shipped off to Afghanistan where, in fact, the same process is going on right now. We needed to learn from that lesson, and so I wrote this book.

RAZ: Did you have authorization to write the book?

BUREN: Absolutely. The State Department requires all of us to submit our writing in advance, 30 days suspension period, while they review it.

RAZ: Since then, since its publication last fall, you say the State Department has retaliated against you. They have taken away, for example, your security clearance. What else has happened since?

BUREN: The State Department, when I came back from Iraq, gave me a position that was consummate with my experience. I was assigned to the Board of Examiners to help choose the next generation foreign service officers. Unfortunately, through a trumped-up charge that a link on my blog was considered a security violation, I lost my security clearance.

That caused the State Department to then proclaim that my judgment in my job selecting new foreign service officers was in question, and I was kicked out of that job. When a particularly offensive blog post caught their attention in late October, Hillary Clinton chortling over the death of Moammar Gadhafi, I was told that I was no longer wanted and I was sent home.

I was told in writing that I was banned from any State Department facility. I could not access the computer network. I had no job tasks in front of me. They couldn't figure out a way to stop paying me. And so I sat home for eight weeks at full salary doing nothing.

RAZ: Well, here's a question. I mean, if you, let's say, violated the State Department's policies or you did something that they didn't like or they felt that you had exercised poor judgment, as they claim, why couldn't they fire you?

BUREN: There are procedures in the State Department to fire someone or to discipline someone. There are rules that the State Department claims are broken. But rather than pursue those avenues, which would have allowed me to defend myself, the State Department instead followed a different path where they used bureaucratic tools, unofficial ways of doing business that pushed me out of the village, sent me into the wilderness.

RAZ: Wait. So let me just get this straight, Peter. You are an active member of – you are an active employee of the State Department...

BUREN: That's correct. I...

RAZ: ...right now. But you don't go there every day.

BUREN: I am not allowed to go there every day. I fought a eight-week battle with the State Department to get my entry badge back. I'm currently assigned as a teleworker, largely without portfolio.

RAZ: And you are paid the salary of somebody who's been there...

BUREN: The same salary that I've earned for my years of experience, that's correct.

RAZ: Was it worth it? Was it worth, you know, all you've been through and now you're about to end your career?

BUREN: It's a very difficult question to answer and one that, to be honest, I've thought about quite a bit. However, when I go home and turn on the news and listen to the Secretary of State claiming that the rights of bloggers in China need to be respected, that journalists in Syria have a right to speak back to their government, that people in Vietnam who use Twitter and freedom fighters around the world who want to organize through Facebook all have rights to these things, that the 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.

And I find that, yes, it is worth it, it was worth it, and it will be worth it to answer that level of hypocrisy and demand from that 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?

RAZ: Peter Van Buren, thank you.

BUREN: Thank you very much.

RAZ: Peter Van Buren is the author of "We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People." His case has been taken up by the Office of Special Counsel, an independent federal agency set up to help whistleblowers.

While the State Department declined to comment on his specific situation, spokesman Mark Toner gave us this statement, "The State Department values the opinions of its employees and encourages expression of differing viewpoints and is committed to fairness in the workplace." You can find the entire statement at our website, npr.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.