By PETER VAN BUREN published FEB. 18, 2017 in NYT Sunday Review
“The spotlight has finally been put on the lowlife leakers! They will be caught!” So tweeted President Trump on Thursday morning after a week when his administration had been shaken by reports based on information from anonymous sources inside the government and intelligence agencies. On Monday, such revelations had led to the resignation of Michael T. Flynn, the national security adviser.
Further reports about repeated contacts between members of the Trump campaign team and Russian officials also caused the president to reverse his pre-election stance — “I love WikiLeaks!” — and issue tirades against “illegal” leaks and the “criminal action” of leakers. It’s no surprise that Mr. Trump, in office, wants to stem this flow with threatened retaliation, but if you’re a government employee who knows something, what are you thinking?
To leak or not to leak? Will you blow the whistle and expose wrongdoing?
I know something about the decision you’re weighing. With 21 years of service at the State Department as a foreign service officer, I was assigned to wartime Iraq from 2009 to 2010 to manage two provincial reconstruction teams. Their purpose was to help rebuild the country, in hopes that the young men then joining the insurgency would cease fighting and discover that they had a stake in a Pax Americana.
It was a difficult task, perhaps naïvely optimistic from the start. I quickly learned that despite the good intentions, the extraordinary amount of money spent and the importance of the project, it was not well thought out.
My orders from Washington were to nurture entrepreneurs among rural women whose husbands would not allow them to leave home. So we handed out money for people to open bakeries on streets that lacked running water and electricity. There was the chicken-processing plant we helped establish that threatened to disrupt a food chain that had served the region for hundreds of years. A short-term giveaway of animal vaccines ended by driving up their prices beyond the means of local farmers after my team had moved on.
This sounds almost comical now: My boss directed me to fund a theatrical production intended to persuade warring Sunnis and Shiites to stop killing one another. An Off Off Broadway show was not going to fix the sectarianism running amok in Iraq.
In short, I saw a hemorrhaging of American taxpayers’ money on propaganda when the Iraqis lacked basic health care, clean water and other essentials that we could have provided but did not. I felt the way I imagine civil servants today do: The country I loved serving wasn’t living up to its ideals.
It’s hard to pin down the exact moment, but at some point, the program’s flaws exceeded what in good conscience I could participate in. But the system did not want to hear constructive criticism.
I spoke with my boss in Iraq. He told me to do what I was told; his boss said the same. When I took my concerns to the inspector general, I was advised that what I was witnessing was not fraud or waste, but policy. Back in Washington, no one at the State Department would meet with me. I went outside the department, but when I attended a semi-clandestine meeting with Senate staff members, I could see they had trouble believing me. My reporting was 180 degrees from what they had heard officially from both the Bush and Obama administrations.
I didn’t know any journalists, but I did know from years in Washington that a leaker usually trades anonymity for credibility. You keep some safety, perhaps, and your job, but since you can’t stand up in your own defense, you are attacked by officials as ego-driven, your information as false. Or “fake news,” as we hear today.
I also realized my story needed more explaining than would fit in a newspaper article anyway. So I decided to go public, via a book. I chose to become a whistle-blower.
It’s risky. It’s saying, “Here I am, come after me.” But your motivations, too, are on display; you are more easily seen as a patriot than a partisan. And your presence encourages and empowers others.
I followed protocol and submitted the manuscript of my book. The State Department cleared it for publication without question. I can account for this only by noting that it went through a system then in place to rubber-stamp memoirs by retired diplomats.
Then, one day, an advance copy landed in someone’s hands at State, and my professional life ended. My security clearance was suspended. I was interviewed repeatedly by security personnel who were clearly fishing for any excuse to fire me. My personal finances and years of travel vouchers were scrutinized in a quest to find evidence of fraud or illicit income. I was a government employee inside a bureaucracy with powers of investigation and punishment I previously had no clue even existed.
The State Department flirted with prosecuting me for disclosing classified data that no one ever seemed to be able to pinpoint in my book, and tried to dismiss me in part for a “lack of candor” when I refused to incriminate myself. In the end, the harassment pushed me into an unwanted early retirement.
Near the end, I asked one of the security officers why they were bothering. In a rare moment of candor, the officer said most of this wasn’t aimed at me. It was about the next person; it was about sending a message.
So why did I do it? For the same reasons you’re thinking you should.
Because we saw something wrong. Because our conscience told us we must. Because we believe the people have a right to know about their government, and sometimes only someone on the inside can tell them. Because we can contribute to a larger story or supply a missing puzzle piece. Above all, because our oath of service is to the Constitution, not to any leader or party, neither the one in, nor out, of power.
People of conscience, leakers and whistle-blowers alike, we’re made. If government acted as the founders believed it should, we would not be here. Mushrooms don’t pop up on a dry lawn.
I made a choice to be a whistle-blower. I’d do it again. You?
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.”
A version of this op-ed appears in print on February 19, 2017, on Page SR4 of the New York edition with the headline: When It’s Time to Blow the Whistle.