Who’s Afraid of Peter Van Buren’s Book?

by , October 04, 2011

Foreign Service officer Peter Van Buren had an interesting week. Aside from getting a book published, he became a news-cycle celebrity of sorts in Washington — not for his book, per se, but for the fact that he might get fired for it.

Reporters and bloggers quickly picked up on a column he wrote last week charging that his bosses had interrogated him twice for linking to WikiLeaks cables in a post about Libya he wrote for his personal blog, WeMeantWell.com, which is published in part to promote his new book, We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People. The book was released on Sept. 27.

Peter Van Buren

Van Buren says he is being accused of “disclosing classified material,” though the cables he linked to were “unclassified,” “confidential,” and “unclassified/for official use only,” respectively*. The State Department told Antiwar.com that it would not comment on “whether or not there is an investigation underway.”

Van Buren, who worked for a year on an embedded Provincial Reconstruction Team (ePRT) in Iraq from 2009-2010, is nonetheless convinced that the book is what set off the alarms at Foggy Bottom. He may well be right. Van Buren’s publisher, Macmillan Publishers, has confirmed that the department is now seeking redactions, even though We Meant Well just hit the shelves and was officially vetted for classified material a year ago.

According to Van Buren, the State Department never raised a flag about the book until now.

It isn’t the first time Uncle Sam has responded in such a way to personnel roaming off the reservation. Former Lt. Col. Anthony Shaffer, an Army reservist who worked 25 years in intelligence before and after 9/11, lost his security clearances and was maligned for such petty things as mismatched travel expenses after he published Operation Dark Heart in 2010. The Pentagon also demanded redactions (even though the book had been vetted), and when it couldn’t get what it wanted, bought up the remaining 9,500 copies for $50,000 and destroyed them.

Meanwhile, the Pentagon got its the redactions in the second edition, eviscerating Shaffer’s explosive account of the military intelligence project Able Danger, which allegedly identified 9/11 hijacker Mohamed Atta and others well before the attacks. He also wrote in detail about why the military was failing in Afghanistan. I wrote about Shaffer’s travails here.

More recently, former FBI agent and author Ali Soufan argued that the CIA had demanded similar redactions in his newly published memoir, The Black Banners: The Inside Story of 9/11 and the War Against al-Qaeda, which charges the CIA blew its chance to derail the 9/11 attacks by not disclosing to the FBI that it knew two of the hijackers when they were living in San Francisco. He also provides firsthand accounts of the CIA’s brutality in counterterror interrogations.

Shaffer told me he believed the government was trying to control domestic perception of the war, and his book got in the way. That is the basis for Van Buren’s dilemma today: His Iraq chronicles are no less than an indictment of the failed U.S. reconstruction efforts there. They are explicit and frank enough to shatter any still-lingering notion that at the very least, beyond the weapons of mass destruction that were never found, beyond the fact that the U.S. helped to install an Iran-friendly government, America was putting the country back together again.

So, as with Shaffer and Soufan, the government is using the excuse of “national security” to silence and punish the messenger. Not only is the department demanding redactions from his book, but Van Buren has been told that his blog post could cost him his security clearance and job. Meanwhile, he’s been called out for not notifying public affairs each time he speaks or writes publicly and his travel records have been scrutinized. They even dug up a female employee in Iraq who said he once yelled during an exchange, scaring her. He’s been getting hate mail from people at the department, and old acquaintances avoid him in the hallways. The experience has been surreal, if not disconcerting.

“I knew from the beginning it [the State Department] was a conservative organization — it’s reluctant to change, and I know it is intolerant of criticism,” he told Antiwar.com in a recent interview. “But I didn’t know — in all my 23 years here — that it was vindictive, all this nastiness, the bullying.”

Much has been noted about Van Buren and his WikiLeaks links, so much that it has virtually eclipsed the book itself. But what’s in this 254-page book is the key to the State Department’s personality and behavior. What’s in it is so important because while there are hundreds of books on the shelves today that give relatively colorful accounts of military life inside and outside the wire, there aren’t any by State employees who take on the reconstruction part of the war so vividly.

The public knows we’ve foundered on that score. The first sign is the radio silence: We no longer hear the bragging about new hospitals or sewage plants, about economic partnerships or graduating classes, despite the fact we have an embassy the size of the Vatican with thousands of employees over there. If the achievements were apparent, the U.S. government would be desperate to overplay them. Van Buren, who was part of a civ-mil team charged with jump-starting projects for local Iraqis, shows us how that failed so radically.

“I never wanted the story to be all about me. The things that were happening all around me and what I was seeing [in Iraq] were just smaller versions of a larger picture,” he said. “The corruption, we could see that on our level. Our ignorance, our stupidity. … It was so obvious to me that on a local level, when you view it all the way up to a national level, why it didn’t work.

“The proof really is in Iraq — it’s really not a functioning democracy today, nor a driver of the economy as a great oil producer,” he said. “The proof is still there.”

There is so much that Van Buren — whose wry invocations of the sheer absurdity of this war have already evoked comparisons to Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 — has accumulated to build his argument. And he does this craftily, by stripping each chapter of his experience down to uncomfortable nakedness: his lack of training, life on the forward operating base with the military and private contractors, and his relationship with ordinary Iraqis, which appear most times as awkward, stunted, and mostly counterproductive because of the screwy bureaucratic circumstances.

Most of all, and what I think will be of critical interest to this audience and anyone else who sees the United States drowning in debt, unable to pay its bills or employ its people, is the magnitude of expense, the bales of cash (literally) that flew over there, into the wrong hands, abused, hustled down a rabbit hole. In Van Buren’s words:

In my twenty-three years working for the State Department, we never had enough money. We were always being told to “do more with less,” as if slogans were cash. Now there was literally more money than we could spend. It was weird. We’d be watching the news from home about foreclosures, and I’d be reading e-mails from my sister about school cutbacks, while signing off on tens of thousands of dollars for stuff in Iraq. At one point we were tasked to give out micro-grants, $5,000 in actual cash handed to an Iraqi to “open a business,” no strings attached. If he took the money and in front of us spent it on dope and pinball, it was no matter. We wondered among ourselves whether we shouldn’t be running a PRT in Detroit or New Orleans instead of Baghdad.

In addition to the $63 billion Congress had handed us for Iraq’s reconstruction, we also had some $91 billion of captured Iraqi funds (that were mostly misplaced by the Coalition Provisional Authority), plus another $18 billion donated by countries such as Japan and South Korea. In 2009, we had another $387 million for aid to internal refugees that paid for many reconstruction-like projects. If that was not enough, over a billion additional U.S. dollars were spent on operating costs for the Provincial Reconstruction Teams. …

The local U.S. Army commander could himself approve projects up to $200,000, with almost no technical or policy oversight. Accounting was fast and loose; a 2009 audit, for example, found the Army could not account for $8.7 billion in funds. It might have been stolen or just lost; no one will ever know.

Van Buren’s stories about the preposterous ideas they just threw money at hoping it would stick are at turns funny and obscene and sad and shameful. And the entire process was so awesomely soulless — the first step to monumental failure. Nothing good can possibly come out of a process in which the American facilitators are more concerned about spending the money and “checking the box” for their minders back home than about the long-term survival of the dying communities right in front of them.

Instead of encouraging growth and capacity of civic function, our massive hemorrhaging of cash discouraged them. When we grew weary of paying or were diverted by some other shiny object, there was no one to pick up the problem. and the trash piled up.

Forcing the military to be humanitarian service providers, or driving a “civilian surge” by promising stateside personnel large salaries, promotions, and paid vacations, would never guarantee the winning of hearts and minds part, much less bring water and sewage and health to those who needed it. So the projects were just like us — big and windy and expensive and all on our terms, which meant, according to Van Buren’s many vignettes, that the Iraqis merely smiled, took the money, and ran.

Women learning how to preserve food (USDA.gov)

The ePRTs had morphed into a mechanized mode in spinning up new projects. There was not a lot of thought expended, as our instructions were the more projects the better. The Frankensteinian NGOs [non-governmental agencies] we had given life to so they could absorb our money had started coming to us directly with projects rather than waiting for us to call them. Our ePRT came up with an innovative idea: Instead of these so-called NGOs approaching us and our staff doing all sorts of paperwork, why not have them simply ask for the money directly from the embassy, removing us from the loop and cutting our workload to almost zero?

Soldier hands Iraqi woman a water filter (Credit: Sgt. Joshua Risner)

When Van Buren decided to make a surprise visit to see how one project — a three-month class teaching 25 new NGOs how to formally request money from the embassy to the tune of $19,700, including $3,600 rent for the conference room — was turning out, he got an eyeful.

The trip brought us to another world, in this case an abandoned Saddam-era sports facility. The sports complex was a short walk between garbage mounds away and could have easily been used as the set for the next Terminator movie. Here was the “conference hall” we had rented for $3,600. The floors were covered with sewage, and almost every window was busted out.

Though it was after 10:00 a.m., there was no 9:00 a.m. class in session. We were told people were “late,” and then, as if by magic, a dude in tight jeans showed up with a brand-new HP laptop and announced today’s lesson would be about using the Internet. The frantically frantic people piled into the room and became the class. His Internet lesson seemed a bit contrived, as it consisted of his demonstrating how he logs on to Yahoo! Messenger, beginning with his writing the word “connect” in English for us on the $300 whiteboard.

From Van Buren’s accounts, there were myriad ways corrupt local leaders could take advantage of this gravy train, and they did. Because, as Van Buren alleges, the American facilitators were so heedless about whom they gave our tax dollars to and how, the Iraqis did not seem particularly concerned with making their schemes and ruses very sophisticated. They would get the money either way, always at the expense of their fellow Iraqis who truly needed it.

The huge failures include a nonworking $104 million sewage system in Fallujah, a $171 million hospital that never saw a patient, and a $40 million prison that never opened. But the smaller ePRT projects that Van Buren describes say it all: $10,000 spent on a French pastry chef to teach Iraqi women how to open their own cafes “on bombed-out streets without water and electricity”; $22,000 spent on putting on a play; $24,000 to recycle bikes for children who couldn’t possibly ride them through the garbage-strewn, dystopian streets; $22,000 for a local artist to paint a mural on the side of a gym; $200,000 to build a factory for gas cylinders that would never make it across the security checkpoints to market. The litany goes on.

We wanted to leave Iraq stable and independent, with the strength to resist insurgency. But how did we advance that goal when we spent our time and money on obviously pointless things, while most people lacked access to clean water or regular electricity or schools and hospitals?

By 2010, the Iraqi government only took 300 of the 1,500 reconstruction projects the U.S. tried to hand over — the rest were just “put on a shelf” and likely forgotten, he added.

At rare times, programs found success, but the agency managed to sabotage them anyway. The most heartbreaking was an $84,000 women’s support center established on the outskirts of Baghdad. It provided medical care and counseling to hundreds of mostly low-income women and adolescents who had until that point been hiding behind walls, uninformed and untreated for things like urinary tract infections and emaciation.

Amazingly, Van Buren said, it worked — for six months. “The initial funding had run out,” Van Buren wrote, “and U.S. priorities had moved on to flashier economic targets. Women’s centers, the embassy announced, were not a ‘prudent investment.’”

Van Buren described his trek to the airfield as he left Iraq in 2010:

The area we transited outside the FOB was still a mess, a place where we dumped our garbage and sewage amid displaced Iraqis who lived off the picked-through refuse. Their homes were made of our discarded junk. The sewage puddles stood out as the only moisture, orange if chemical, gray-green if sewage, all eye-watering in the heat.

It seemed to encapsulate everything he was feeling, from shame to anger to exhaustion and disillusionment. But he was going home, and the Iraqis he had once tried to help were stuck there in the mess.

Van Buren is not surprised the State Department is trying to redact his story, but it’s not going to work. “They are trying to close the door after the animals have left the barn,” he said to Antiwar.

Credit: Associated Press

“I could spontaneously combust right now, or the State Department [could] just fire me, and it wouldn’t matter. What happened in Iraq happened whether I tell the story now or someone else tells it later. This is the dying gasp of a dying empire. If it’s not sad, it’s just pathetic.”

*UPDATE: “Confidential” is classified. It is the lowest grade of classification, and there are penalties for revealing it. The government classification system is Confidential-Secret-Top Secret, in order of magnitude.

Read more by Kelley B. Vlahos