Big Brother is Watching
A letter printed in the Alibi leads to the investigation of a local VA nurse for "sedition"
George W. Bush's America just keeps getting curiouser and curiouser, doesn't it? Consider the case of Laura Berg—a local Veterans Affairs (VA) nurse currently represented by American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) attorneys George Bach and Larry Kronen in a peculiar matter that seems to involve official retribution against Berg for her criticisms of the Bush administration.
On Sept. 15, 2005, the Alibi published a letter to the editor from Berg, which we've reprinted here in full (see "Wake Up, Get Real"). Whether you agree with Berg's sentiments or not, the letter would seem to consist of boilerplate griping about the Bush administration, the same kind of opinion piece that can be found every day in publications all over the country.
Here's where this story takes a turn for the weird. Although Berg has chosen not to comment at this time, Bach and Kronen say that a few days after the letter was published, VA Information Security employees seized Berg's computer at the local VA hospital where she works. At the time, she was told this action occurred because of suspicions that she'd composed the letter to the Alibi on government time, on government premises, using government equipment.
According to Bach and Kronen, on Sept. 19, 2005, Berg's American Federation of Government Employees Union representative, Thomas Driber, informed Berg that her letter to the Alibi had been sent through "VA channels" to the FBI in Washington, D.C. The attorneys say this information was confirmed by one of the union's Washington lawyers during a conference call between Driber, Berg and the union lawyer. (Multiple phone messages left at Driber's office by the Alibi were not answered.)
As if that weren't creepy enough, the attorneys say Berg made further inquiries and eventually received a response from the VA's Chief of Human Resources, Mel R. Hooker, who, in a memorandum dated Nov. 9, 2005, allegedly admitted that the VA had no evidence the letter was written on Berg's office computer. Despite this, Hooker claimed the investigation was justified because the "Agency is bound by law to investigate and pursue any act which potentially represents sedition."
"Sedition" certainly sounds like a serious charge, and it is, according to Norman Cairns, a spokesperson for the U.S. Attorney's office here in Albuquerque. "Sedition is only mentioned in one section of the United States Code," Cairns says, "and the sedition that's listed there is basically a plot to violently overthrow the United States government by force. Based on the plain statutory language, sedition always seems to imply the use of force or a conspiracy to use force. The penalty is a $250,000 fine and up to 20 years in prison."
Bach and Kronen say they can't imagine how Berg's seemingly innocuous letter could amount to anything remotely resembling sedition under U.S. law. They both believe the letter is protected speech under the First Amendment. Last week, they filed a Freedom of Information Act request with the VA for all documents pertaining to this bizarre investigation. For now, they won't speculate as to why or how this investigation was initiated. They only note that multiple people must have been involved for it to have progressed as far as it did.
When the Alibi tried to contact Hooker, Sonja Brown, the head of the VA's Public Affairs Operations, forwarded the following statement via e-mail: "While VA does not prohibit employees from exercising their freedom of speech, we do ask that such activity occurs outside government premises and not during their official tour of duty. When we have reason to believe that this policy is not being adhered to, we have the obligation to review an individual's computer activity."
This, of course, doesn't begin to answer the main concerns of Berg's attorneys. As previously noted, in the Nov. 9 memorandum, Hooker allegedly admitted they found no evidence that the letter in question was composed on a government computer, so the above statement seems to be moot. More crucially, the statement doesn't address the sedition issue. When the Alibi called Brown back to press for clarification, she refused to offer any additional insight into why the VA believed Berg's letter might potentially be seditious.
Thankfully, Berg hasn't lost her job, and her computer was returned to her the very next day. Yet Bach and Kronen believe the damage from this whole ordeal is still substantial. Berg has opted not to speak directly to the press at this time, and her attorneys haven't yet released Hooker's Nov. 9 memorandum to the public. Understandably, Berg is afraid of retribution. "From all appearances," writes Peter Simonson, executive director of ACLU New Mexico, in a press statement released last week, "the seizure of her work computer was an act of retaliation and a hardball attempt to scare Laura into silence."
Bach says that this strange episode shouldn't surprise anyone. "This administration," he says, "has developed a culture of fear around federal employees." Kronen agrees: "It all leads people to sit back and say, 'Maybe I shouldn't do or say anything.'" For these reasons, the attorneys are demanding, at a minimum, a public apology from the VA for what they believe are tactics aimed at intimidating their employees. Meanwhile, they eagerly await the documents they've requested from the VA, in the hope that they might shed some additional light on this peculiar case.