State Department Official Describes U.S. Debacle in Iraq

Peter Van BurenA U.S. State Department employee who presided over vast waste of taxpayer dollars in Iraq raises a powerful question: Why can’t some of that money spent on worthwhile purposes in the United States?

The answer, says author Peter Van Buren, is that our political system freely provides spending with scant accountability for military-oriented and "democracy-building" foreign affairs projects but not for parallel domestic purposes. Van Buren is a 23-year-veteran of the State Department who spent a year implementing aid programs in Iraq from 2009 to 2010 before publishing last fall a memoir, We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People.  He shared his recollections Jan. 25 in a lecture at the National Press Club, and will amplify Feb. 2 on my weekly public affairs radio show “Washington Update” at noon (ET) on the MTL network live nationwide.

Among the situations he describes are building expensive chicken and milk processing plants of virtually no value to the local communities, and then scrambling to pretend that the projects were successful. In one instance, he recalls,

U.S. government workers bought chickens from a nearly 20 mile radius just so that a visiting blogger friendly with a general would be able to write a favorable blog under the impression the chicken plant actually functioned. He spoke also of government mandates to foster small businesses in Iraq by handing out money with scant controls. Sometimes, he said, U.S. workers would simply go out on a street in Iraq and hand out to random pedestrians $5,000 apiece in cash with encouragement to start a business.

Baffled at the waste, he says the reaction he encountered from superiors and colleagues was often, "So what? It's a pittance in the grand scheme of things" or "Do you think you are the first person to figure this out? You've got a job to do. Shut up and do this." He recalls further, "We'd see on TV places like New Orleans or Detroit, and think, 'Shouldn't we be doing this there?'  But the Army guys would say that if we don't spend it in Iraq there's no way Congress is going to approve it for places in the U.S."

Peter VanBurenVan Buren said the State Department unsuccessfully sought to halt publication of his book, has stripped him of his security clearance, required him to work from home, and is trying to force his retirement over coming months, and holds the threat of spy charges over him following a three-hour interrogation last fall on the eve of book publication. He said the main interest from Congress in his disclosures of wastes was a lunch invitation from U.S. Rep. Ron Paul (R-TX), a GOP presidential candidate and critic of U.S. waste in Mideast wars.

The book, portrayed at right, averages 4 and a 1/2 stars out of a possible 5 in in 35 reader reviews on Amazon.com, where it is available for $13.89.

Van Buren's Press Club talk Jan. 25 was before the McClendon Group, a speaker society that for a quarter century has featured voices that have difficulty being heard in the mainstream media. Chairman John J. Hurley, a director of the Justice Integrity Project, introduced Van Buren as writing a “sarcastic, funny, sad, angry book about his work for the Department of State as the leader of two Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRT) in rural Iraq, 2009-2010.” Hurley continued, “His blog at www.wemeantwell.com continues the story, with daily humor and commentary about Iraq, the Middle East, national security and his ongoing struggles to preserve his First Amendment rights while remaining a Federal government employee.”

Join Van Buren, Scott Draughon and me at noon (ET) Feb. 2 (reschedled from Jan. 26) on the Washington Update edition of the My Technology Lawyer radio network Scott founded a decade ago. The show may be heard live nationwide by clicking here and later by archive. Listener questions: Call (866) 685-7469 or email radio@mytechnologylawyer.com. Mac users need “Parallels.”

Van Buren has served with the Foreign Service for over 23 years. He received a Meritorious Honor Award for assistance to Americans following the Hanshin earthquake in Kobe, a Superior Honor Award for helping an American rape victim in Japan, and another award for work in the tsunami relief efforts in Thailand. Previous assignments include Taiwan, Japan, Korea, the UK and Hong Kong. He volunteered for Iraq service and was assigned to PRT duty 2009-10. His tour extended past the withdrawal of the last combat troops.

"One fairly positive thing I can say," Van Buren asserted during his Press Club lecture, "is we are pretty much withdrawn from Iraq. The State Department has 16,000 there, about 5,000 are armed security." But he described that as a vast improvement over the  grandiose original planning by the  United States in the 2003 era to create a headquarters for the United States in the Middle East centered in the world's largest embassy, with such frills as baseball diamonds and a university that were never used. He said he uses the conventional estimate that the war has cost about 100,000 Iraqis their lives, but allowed that the true figure could be higher. He said U.S. deaths are accurately kept.

During Q&A, I asked him what he says to U.S. defenders of the war? He responded that anyone can see that despite the war's huge costs Iraq is "not an ally," "not a democracy" and not even providing oil in any substantial way. Further, he said he asks anyone undecided about the value of the invasion to create a list of accomplishments and "projects that worked." He said, "What's your list? Don't believe me."

Van Buren said he duly submitted his work for State Department approval, but the department apparently lost it and then scrambled in various ways to restrict publication just before the book went on sale in September. He said his security clearance was suspended "temporarily," thus preventing him from contesting the determination, and that he was falsely accused of mentioning classified information in the book. He said he was frightened during a three hour-interrogation last August when a threat was posed that he might one day be accused under the 1917 Espionage Act for his book. But he says he is confident that he did nothing wrong. He said he feels blessed that the Government Accountability Project and his publisher, among others, have stood by him as he has sought to inform the public about billions of dollars of waste in Iraq.

He said his book focuses more on incidents he knew first-hand rather than much larger examples unearthed by others. "I think people can understand what it means to waste $5,000 buying one sheep, but it takes someone like a Mitt Romney to understand whether buying a factory is a good deal." Nonetheless, one of his examples is an expensive U.S.-built milk processing factory that he says quickly became useful only as home to six squatter families -- and yet was protected by a U.S. paid security guard because no one took the trouble to learn "milk processing" operations were occurring in a community that relied on traditional methods of cattle-raising.

Earlier in his career, Van Buren worked extensively with the military while overseeing evacuation planning in Japan and Korea. This experience included multiple field exercises, plus civil-military work in Seoul, Tokyo, Hawaii, and Sydney with allies from the UK, Australia, and elsewhere. The Marine Corps selected Van Buren to travel to Camp Lejeune in 2006 to participate in a field exercise that included simulated Iraqi conditions. Van Buren spent a year on the Hill in the Department of State’s Congressional Liaison Office. Van Buren speaks Japanese, Chinese Mandarin, and some Korean. Born in New York City, he lives in Virginia with his spouse, two daughters, and a docile Rottweiler.

Though this is his first book, Peter’s commentary has been featured on TomDispatch, Salon, Huffington Post, The Nation, American Conservative Magazine, Mother Jones, Michael Moore.com, Le Monde, Daily Kos, Middle East Online, Guernica and
the Project on Government Oversight (POGO).


Contact the author Andrew Kreig

Relevant Recent News and Opinion Commentary
Updated:
Washington Post, State Dept. moves to fire Peter Van Buren, author of book critical of Iraq reconstruction effort, Lisa Rein, March 14, 2012. Peter Van Buren, a foreign service officer who wrote an unflattering book about his year leading two reconstruction teams in Iraq, was stripped of his security clearance, banned from State Department headquarters for a time and transferred to a telework job that consists of copying Internet addresses into a file. Now the State Department is moving to fire him based on eight charges, ranging from linking on his blog to documents on the whistleblowing site WikiLeaks to disclosing classified information.   In 24 years as a diplomat, Van Buren was posted around the world and speaks four languages. He called the termination notice he received Friday the coup de grace in a series of blows he received since his book, We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People, was published last fall.

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Project on Government Oversight (POGO), Interview: Foreign Service Officer Peter Van Buren on Reconstruction Failures in Iraq, Dana Liebelson, Jan. 21, 2012. The U.S. wasted billions upon billions of dollars in Iraq on poor contracting practices, but very few insiders are willing to talk about it. Foreign Service Officer Peter Van Buren is an exception. In September 2011, he released a book about his experiences. POGO interviewed Van Buren about the contracting waste he witnessed in Iraq, the mistakes the U.S. is still making in Afghanistan, and of course, whistleblower protections.

POGO: The Commission on Wartime Contracting found that the U.S. has wasted $31 to $60 billion in Iraq and Afghanistan on contracting. Do you think we’ve learned any lessons here?

Van Buren: The mistakes certainly aren’t over—we continue to make the same ones in Afghanistan.

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