“Lawyer up as fast as you can,” Peter Van Buren said at Idea Festival September 20, 2012, when I finally caught him alone to ask him what advice he would give people caught in the snare of a government investigation for suspicion of domestic terrorism. Van Buren, reminiscent of a cross between the funny round faced guy on MAD TV and the actor who played Tony Soprano, was a Foreign Services Officer for 24 years whose life went upside down after he posted a Wikileaks link on the website his publisher told him to build to promote his book.
Curiously, “We Meant Well”, Van Buren’s account of the US’ inability to “find a match to burn money fast enough” that went into the war effort in Iraq, is not what got the Government’s attention. It was the link to the leak. And the subject of his talk for #IF12: “The way the US Government tried to take my speech while trying to grant it to the rest of the world.”
Van Buren said following the post, he found himself sitting in a windowless room being interrogated for allegedly violating his security oath. Officers asked him the charities to which he donated and the amount of money he earned from sales of his book. To put pressure on him without actually firing him, the Officers removed his security clearance and took his ID badge. They sent him home where he would be monitored and his neighbors questioned. They put him on the secret service watch list and the no fly list. At one point they brought in Human Resources and security and threatened to fire him if he didn’t cooperate. They threw him out of the building. His nightmare unfolded.
While it’s unclear when the American Civil Liberties Union interceded, Van Buren said he learned the hard way the basic tenet that appears on the organization’s “what to do if you’re arrested” cards: “Refuse to answer until you have legal advice.” An object lesson for us all, Van Buren said he found as authorities already know, “You often do the most damage to yourself in the early stages” without counsel. “I owe my life to the ACLU,” he said.
Also unclear is exactly who or what helped him find the loophole when the State Department told his publisher he risked arrest if he read aloud from what it deemed three passages of classified information in “We Meant Well”. In a brilliant move, Van Buren sat closed mouth in compliance with the State Department directive while a reader read the allegedly illicit passages.
The most successful censorship is the book that has yet to be written, Van Buren said. He added that he’s worried about new tools the Federal Government has in its arsenal to stifle speech, including “using contempt powers to criminalize speech in a way the Government hasn’t tried before,” he said. “The Government is still finding its way around some of the laws intended to gag speech that it considers leaks.”
To be sure though, according to Van Buren, “Assange hanging at the end of a rope won’t eliminate the documents on the Internet.” That horse is already out of the barn.
Van Buren and the State Department came to “something we’re not allowed to call a settlement,” he said. In the interim, he continues to plug his book and his website www.wemeantwell.com is up and running. He also cited the Government Accountability Project and The Whistleblower Protection Act as saving his hide and securing his speech. “Never try to do it alone,” he said. Seek legal advice and emotional support from “people who can predict your future for you.”
Coincidentally, this week marks the 30th anniversary of Banned Books Week across the country. Carmichael’s bookstore hosts events locally. Like Van Buren said, “We’re in America. People are allowed to do this free speech thing.”