By Patricia H. Kushlis
Sometimes “no comment” really is the best response to a tough question from the media regarding a seemingly difficult and sensitive situation. Sometimes, however, it is not. Especially when a more than two-syllable response is 1) actually not all that difficult to formulate and 2) when something appropriate can be uttered in response.
I was struck over the Memorial Day Weekend by the State Department’s refusal to comment on two entirely separate cases both regarding employees – the first was a refusal to respond to media queries regarding the strange and unsettling apparent suicide of US Embassy Barbados Regional Security Officer George Gaines whose body was found at White Sands Beach early May 12.
The second was to a question from Lisa Rein of The Washington Post about a letter to the Department from the American Civil Liberties Union that stated that the Department was violating Peter Van Buren’s constitutional rights by trying to fire him. Van Buren is the author of the controversial and critical book “We Meant Well” on US post conflict operations in Iraq, stories based on his own experiences. With the ACLU now in the legal picture, this case could be headed for the Supreme Court. The ACLU, I’m told, selects its cases carefully.
I realize the Van Buren case is exceedingly complex and must be devilishly jarring to State’s administrative staff especially those who work in the Offices of Human Resources and Legal Affairs. Just think of all those human resource specialists and lawyers who must be focusing on ways to “get” the controversial Van Buren rather than assign people to jobs or read over the texts of treaties with other countries before agreement. What is more important after all? Making someone’s life insufferable or actually doing something that would defend the interests of the US?
The ACLU suit in support of Van Buren
Since a high profile law suit is in the works as a result of the ACLU’s decision to take State on and Van Buren still draws his salary even though he has been barred from the building and told to work from home, I suppose a “no comment” from a State Department Press Spokesperson to the Washington Post reporter is the better part of valor. No use muddying the legal waters unnecessarily.
Had, of course, State not screwed up this case so badly from the get-go there would be no law suit, Van Buren’s book would have come out next year (after his retirement in September) to short lived acclaim and State would have had a hard time harassing Van Buren and attempting to fire him based on – would you believe – the fact that he linked to Wikileaks from his blog because the cables on Wikileaks are, according to the Department, still classified and its employees forbidden to access them either from their office or home computers.
Now everyone else in the world with an Internet connection has access to those cables – except the people who actually wrote them. This, however, does not seem to bother State’s Diplomatic Security Office – or maybe it’s Public Affairs - one wit. This approach, however, is fighting a losing battle – and certainly not one to use as the rationale for firing an employee who apparently included nothing classified in his book and is nearing the Department’s exit anyway. All the kerfuffle has done is to turn him into a kind of counter-culture cult hero for those who have had reservations about the US presence in Iraq anyway. I’m waiting for the movie or maybe a television series. Wonder who Hollywood will cast as Van Buren?
In contrast, the Department’s response to the Barbados case is just plain bizarre. As Domani Spero at Diplopundit points out that when an officer was murdered on Cyprus in 2007, the US Embassy – almost immediately - issued a thoughtful and sensitive tribute to his family which the public affairs section, posted – among other places - on the Embassy website.
True the officer then and there was a military attaché and the Pentagon – despite its mammoth size – normally moves far more quickly than its pigmy-sized elder sister across the river. Still there’s no reason the Embassy in Barbados couldn’t have done something similar. Except it didn’t. Not only was Gaines’ corpse surreptitiously spirited out of the country but the Embassy and the Department would only issue a “no comment” to the media reporting on the case. Seems to me the least that could have been done was for the Chargé to issue a statement lamenting the officer’s death and offering condolences to the man’s family.
So what went wrong at that US Embassy in the Caribbean? Here are a few conjectures. Lack of experience on the part of the public affairs officer? A Chargé scared of his or her own shadow? Feet dragging in the Latin American or/and Public Affairs Bureaus where someone should have been available to approve – or even draft – the requisite press guidance especially if the Embassy Press Attache was not capable of doing so? The right people off on an extended Memorial Day holiday?
Yet, I wonder how difficult can it be to write a condolence statement.
I see no good reason for a “no comment” in this case regardless of the suspect circumstances surrounding the untoward death. Think about it: All “no comment” in response does is to make the US Embassy and State Department’s public affairs look sluggish, out of touch and insensitive to the victim and his family. No wonder the Pentagon is beset with mission creep and State is scrounging for money.
Sorry, but this is a comment on State’s “no comments.”