Editor's note: This contribution by the late journalist I.F. Stone first appeared in our January 1975 magazine.
Laura Berg is a clinical nurse specialist at the VA Medical Center in Albuquerque, where she has worked for 15 years.
Shortly after Katrina, she wrote a letter to the editor of the weekly paper the Alibi criticizing the Bush Administration.
After the paper published the letter in its September 15-21 issue, VA administrators seized her computer, alleged that she had written the letter on that computer, and accused her of “sedition.”
Here’s what her letter said.
“I am furious with the tragically misplaced priorities and criminal negligence of this government,” it began. “The Katrina tragedy in the U.S. shows that the emperor has no clothes!” She mentioned that she was “a VA nurse” working with returning vets. “The public has no sense of the additional devastating human and financial costs of post-traumatic stress disorder,” she wrote, and she worried about the hundreds of thousands of additional cases that might result from Katrina and the Iraq War.
“Bush, Cheney, Chertoff, Brown, and Rice should be tried for criminal negligence,” she wrote. “This country needs to get out of Iraq now and return to our original vision and priorities of caring for land and people and resources rather than killing for oil. . . . We need to wake up and get real here, and act forcefully to remove a government administration playing games of smoke and mirrors and vicious deceit.
Otherwise, many more of us will be facing living hell in these times.”
After her computer was seized, Berg wrote a memo to her bosses seeking information and an explanation.
Mel Hooker, chief of the human resources management service at the Albuquerque VA, wrote Berg back on November 9 and acknowledged that “your personal computer files did not contain the editorial letter written to the editor of the weekly Alibi.”
But rather than apologize, he leveled the sedition charge: “The Agency is bound by law to investigate and pursue any act which potentially represents sedition,” he said. “In your letter . . . you declared yourself ‘as a VA nurse’ and publicly declared the Government which employs you to have ‘tragically misplaced priorities and criminal negligence’ and advocated, ‘act forcefully to remove a government administration playing games of smoke and mirrors and vicious deceit.’ ”
Berg, who is not talking to the press, is “scared for her job” and “pretty emotionally distressed,” says Peter Simonson, executive director of the ACLU of New Mexico.
“We were shocked to see the word ‘sedition’ used,” Simonson tells The Progressive. “Sedition? That’s like something out of the history books.”
In a press release, Simonson also said: “Is this government so jealous of its power, so fearful of dissent, that it needs to threaten people who openly oppose its policies with charges of ‘sedition’?”
The ACLU of New Mexico is working in Berg’s behalf. It has filed a Freedom of Information Act request for documents relating to this incident. And it is asking “at the very least” that Berg “receive a public apology from Mr. Hooker to remedy the unconstitutional chilling effect on the speech of VA employees that has resulted from these intimidating tactics,” according to a letter from the New Mexico ACLU to the VA’s Office of Regional Counsel.
Hooker refused to return a phone call, and the VA’s Office of Regional Counsel refused to comment but referred questions to public affairs.
"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,” says Bill Armstrong, a public affairs specialist for New Mexico’s VA Health Care System. “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."
The VA in Washington also refused to comment on the sedition charge.
“We don’t discuss internal personnel issues,” says Phil Budahn, a VA spokesman in Washington, D.C.
Berg has an additional concern: that the VA may have got the FBI on her case.
A union employee “shared with me that Mel Hooker conveyed to him that my letter had been reported ‘up through VA channels’ to the FBI in Washington, and that this had been discussed and confirmed” with union officials at the national office, Berg wrote in her November 2 complaint. (The union she belongs to is the American Federation of Government Employees.)
Hooker denied that the VA had contacted the FBI. “The Agency has no knowledge of any report alleged to have been made to the FBI regarding you or your letter,” he said in his November 9 memo.
Meanwhile, Senator Jeff Bingaman, Democrat of New Mexico, has taken up the Berg case.
“I am writing to express my deep concern regarding news reports that Ms. Laura Berg . . . was investigated for sedition after writing a letter that was critical of the current Administration,” Senator Bingaman wrote to R. James Nicholson, Secretary of Veterans Affairs, on February 7. “In a democracy, expressing disagreement with the government’s actions does not amount to sedition or insurrection—it is, and must remain, protected speech.”