A 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."
Van 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.”
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).
Relevant Recent News and Opinion Commentary
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.
CNN, Audit: U.S. Defense Department can't account for billions for Iraq, Josh Levs, Jan. 29, 2012. The U.S. Defense Department cannot account for about $2 billion it was given to cover Iraq-related expenses and is not providing Iraq with a complete list of U.S.-funded reconstruction projects, according to two new government audits. The reports come from the office of the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction. The Iraqi government in 2004 gave the Department of Defense access to about $3 billion to pay bills for certain contracts, and the department can only show what happened to about a third of that, the inspector general says in an audit published Friday. Although the Department of Defense (DoD) had "internal processes and controls" to track payments, the "bulk of the records are missing," the report says, adding that the department is searching for them.New York Times, U.S. Drones Patrolling Its Skies Provoke Outrage in Iraq, Eric Schmitt and Michael S. Schmidt, Jan. 29, 2012.
A month after the last American troops left Iraq, the State Department is operating a small fleet of surveillance drones here to help protect the United States Embassy and consulates, as well as American personnel. Some senior Iraqi officials expressed outrage at the program, saying the unarmed aircraft are an affront to Iraqi sovereignty. The program was described by the department’s diplomatic security branch in a little-noticed section of its most recent annual report and outlined in broad terms in a two-page online prospectus for companies that might bid on a contract to manage the program. It foreshadows a possible expansion of unmanned drone operations into the diplomatic arm of the American government; until now they have been mainly the province of the Pentagon and the Central Intelligence Agency.
Dissenter / FireDogLake, President Obama Says US Must Be ‘Judicious’ in Drone Use, Kevin Gosztola, Jan. 30, 2012. Billed as the “first-ever completely virtual interview from the White House,” YouTube and Google+ hosted an event this evening called “Your Interview with the President.” President Barack Obama took questions. A young male asked about drones and how they have caused many civilian casualties. The setup was connected to an article that ran in the New York Times today on a fleet of surveillance drones the State Department is employing in Iraq for protection. Obama answered by criticizing the NYT article and said that he thought it was “overwritten” because the US is not engaged in a bunch of drone attacks in Iraq. This is a terribly indifferent answer when considering the reality of the impact of drone strikes carried out by America. In fact, it might give one the impression that there have been no civilian casualties and only members of al Qaeda or members from affiliated groups have been targeted and killed. The reality is, according to work done by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism (TBIJ), 168 children have been killed during the seven years that the CIA has been launching drone strikes in Pakistan. These dead children account for 44% of the 385 civilians reportedly killed in drone attacks.
Salon, Lessons from Iraqi outrage over US drones, Glenn Greenwald, Jan. 30, 2012. The U.S. is continuing to fly surveillance drone aircraft over Iraq, prompting what The New York Times this morning describes as “outrage” among senior Iraqi officials and the Iraqi public. There are several revealing points from this account, beginning with this description of the ongoing American presence in that country now that “the war is over”: “The drones are the latest example of the State Department’s efforts to take over functions in Iraq that the military used to perform. Some 5,000 private security contractors now protect the embassy’s 11,000-person staff, for example, and typically drive around in heavily armored military vehicles. When embassy personnel move throughout the country, small helicopters buzz over the convoys to provide support in case of an attack. Often, two contractors armed with machine guns are tethered to the outside of the helicopters.” So militarized is U.S. foreign policy — and so reviled is the U.S. in Iraq — that even when it “withdraws” from that country, it maintains a presence that is so large and menacing as to be unimaginable in most other countries around the world: basically the equivalent of a small army.
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.
National Press Club, Attorney details backlash against photojournalists, John M. Donnelly, Jan. 26, 2012. A “perfect storm” of repression has raged against photojournalists in the United States in recent years, according to an accomplished news photographer who has become an attorney representing his former colleagues. Mickey H. Osterreicher, a counsel with with Hiscock & Barclay, LLP, and general counsel with the National Press Photographers Association, told a National Press Club audience on Jan. 25 that homeland security concerns after the Sept. 11 attacks have led police in many cases to treat people taking pictures in certain public spaces — whether journalists or not -- as potential threats. “The war on terrorism has somehow morphed into the war on photography,” he said at the event, which was cosponsored by two Club panels, the Photography and Press Freedom committees. Osterreicher, who has 40 years experience as an award winning photojournalist, said that police in many cases do not understand that the press and the citizenry alike have a right to take pictures in public, as long as their image-gathering is not doing something harmful, such as impeding police making an arrest or paramedics helping an accident victim. The proliferation of smart phones capable of taking pictures and video (and potentially making them “go viral” instantly) have made videographers of practically every citizen, he said. Police are aware of how their images may show up on YouTube, and they don’t always like it, he said. The Club photo by Noel St. John shows Osterreicher (c), with Darlene Shields (l), chair ofthe Club's Photography Committee and Donnelly, chair of the Club's Freedom of the Press Committee.
Salon, Rules of American justice: A tale of three cases, Glenn Greenwald, Jan. 24, 2012. Developments in three legal cases, just from the last 24 hours, potently illuminate the Rules of American Justice. First, the Justice Department yesterday charged a former CIA agent, John Kiriakou, with four felony counts for having allegedly disclosed classified information to reporters about the CIA’s interrogation program....The Rules of American Justice are quite clear: (1) If you are a high-ranking government official who commits war crimes, you will receive full-scale immunity, both civil and criminal, and will have the American President demand that all citizens Look Forward, Not Backward. (2) If you are a low-ranking member of the military, you will receive relatively trivial punishments in order to protect higher-ranking officials and cast the appearance of accountability. (3) If you are a victim of American war crimes, you are a non-person with no legal rights or even any entitlement to see the inside of a courtroom. (4) If you talk publicly about any of these war crimes, you have committed the Gravest Crime — you are guilty of espionage – and will have the full weight of the American criminal justice system come crashing down upon you.
Democracy Now! Iraqis Voice Outrage as Haditha Massacre Trial Ends in No Jail Time for Accused U.S. Marines, Amy goodman, Jan. 26, 2012. The last of the U.S. marines charged in the 2005 Haditha massacre of 24 Iraqi civilians, Staff Sergeant Frank Wuterich, received no jail time after he pleaded guilty to dereliction of duty and avoiding charges of involuntary manslaughter. Under his sentencing, Wuterich now faces a maximum penalty of a demotion to the rank of private. The victims, including women and children, were killed when the marines burst into their homes and shot them dead in their nightclothes. Wuterich allegedly led the Haditha massacre and was the last defendant to face charges. Six other marines have had their charges dropped or dismissed, while another soldier was acquitted. "[Iraqi] outrage is perfectly understandable," says Tim McGirk, the Time magazine reporter who broke the story on the Haditha massacre. "Here is a case where so many Iraqis were killed, women and children, old men, and yet, what’s happened? Most of the charges have been dismissed, and Wuterich was basically given a slap on the wrist."
Washington Post, Former CIA officer charged in leaks case, Greg Miller, Jan. 23, 2012. The Justice Department on Monday charged a former CIA officer with repeatedly leaking classified information, including the identities of agency operatives involved in the capture and interrogation of alleged terrorists. The case against John Kiriakou, who also served as a senior Senate aide, extends the Obama administration’s crackdown on disclosures of national security secrets. Kiriakou, 47, is the sixth target of a leaks-related prosecution since President Obama took office, exceeding the total number of comparable prosecutions under all previous administrations combined, legal experts said. Kiriakou, who was among the first to go public with details about the CIA’s use of waterboarding and other harsh interrogation measures, was charged with disclosing classified information to reporters and lying to the agency about the origin of other sensitive material he published in a book. He faces up to 30 years in prison if convicted. Criminal Complaint and Affidavit.
Harper's No Comment, The Operators: Six Questions for Michael Hastings, Scott Horton, Jan. 20, 2012. Michael Hastings’s Polk Award–winning Rolling Stone article, “The Runaway General,” brought the career of General Stanley McChrystal, America’s commander in Afghanistan, to an abrupt end. Now Hastings has developed the material from that article, and the storm that broke in its wake, into an equally explosive book, The Operators, which includes a merciless examination of relations between major media and the American military establishment. I put six questions to Hastings, right, about his book and his experiences as a war correspondent in Iraq and Afghanistan: Your book presents a Barack Obama who behaves uncomfortably and perhaps too deferentially around his generals, but who is also the first president since Harry S. Truman to have sacked a theater commander during wartime—and moreover, who did it twice. How do you reconcile these observations?
PBS, David Stockman on Crony Capitalism, Jan. 20, 2012. Moyers & Company explores the tight connection between Wall Street and the White House with David Stockman, former budget director for President Reagan. Now a businessman who says he was “taken to the woodshed” for telling the truth about the administration’s tax policies, Stockman speaks candidly with Bill Moyers about how money dominates politics, distorting free markets and endangering democracy. “As a result,” Stockman says, “we have neither capitalism nor democracy. We have crony capitalism.” Stockman shares details on how the courtship of politics and high finance have turned our economy into a private club that rewards the super-rich and corporations, leaving average Americans wondering how it could happen and who’s really in charge.
Wayne Madsen Report, Obama administration assaults press freedom like no predecessor, Wayne Madsen, Jan. 26, 2012. (Subscription required). WMR has learned and has personally experienced the unprecedented assault by the Obama administration, aided and abetted by its intelligence and internal security infrastructure, on the First Amendment right of freedom of the press.