Treason of the Clerks

Accused of sedition, a VA nurse beats the rap


Laura Berg had never worried about speaking her mind. The 52-year old psychiatric nurse at Albuquerque's Veterans Affairs Medical Center was no fan of the Bush administration, and neither, for the most part, were her colleagues at the VA.

"We'd sometimes talk politics over lunch," Berg says. "We have a pretty liberal-leaning section. I can't say it's been a repressive environment."

Last September, Berg was off work and reading coverage of Hurricane Katrina that inflamed her feelings about the White House. Feeling irate and "full of passion," she pounded out a letter to her U.S. senators and several Albuquerque newspapers, scorching the administration for bungling the recovery.

"Bush, Cheney, Chertoff, Brown, and Rice should be tried for criminal negligence," she wrote. "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."

Alibi, an alternative newspaper in Albuquerque, printed the letter. When Berg came into work the next day, she was greeted by co-workers who loved what she wrote but had heard that "some people were upset." They told Berg to contact the union. When she did, she was informed that Human Resources Director Mel Hooker, had reported her insubordinate letter "up the ladder" to the FBI. Soon thereafter, Berg's work computer was seized and searched on the suspicion she'd used it to write the letter.

After her hard drive was copied and searched, Berg sent a memo to the higher-ups, asking exactly what was going on. In mid-November she got a response from Mel Hooker, acquitting her of misusing the computer while ominously warning of more scrutiny to come. "You have insulted the very government that employs you," Hooker's letter read, "and the agency has a responsibility to investigate you for possible sedition."

That message shifted the momentum in Berg's favor. The ACLU of New Mexico offered to help her case, and their information requests and PR efforts threatened to embarrass the VA. Two months ago the state's Democratic Sen. Jeff Bingaman wrote a letter of concern to Veterans Affairs Sec. R. James Nicholson. A month later, Nicholson responded and made it clear that her letter to the editor "did not amount to sedition."

Today Berg is off the hook and the VA is waving off the whole affair. ("We have apologized," says department spokesman Bill Armstrong. "Our director has apologized to Laura Berg personally. And now we are moving on.") But that "sedition" charge, raised by a government employer against an employee, remains strange and ominous.

One problem is that sedition doesn't really mean anything in the United States. It technically covers conduct or language "inciting rebellion against the authority of a state," of course. But American courts, before and after they answered to the U.S. Constitution, have only rarely taken "sedition" charges seriously. Twice Congress tried to write sedition into the law, and both times the effort ended in tears. The 1798 Sedition Act ended when President John Adams' term expired two years later. The far more heinous 1918 Sedition Act, written by legislators desperate to crack down on Communists and anti-Great War rabble, was repealed by normalcy-enforcing President Warren G. Harding in 1921.

Actual sedition trials have been scarce ever since. The New Mexico ACLU's executive director Peter Simonson, who worked on Berg's case, claims "in my lifetime, I've never heard of anyone being accused of sedition or being tried for it." It's probable that Berg's superiors brought out the creaky accusation because of the wording of her letter—specifically, her call for readers to "act forcefully to remove [the] government administration." But it was a serious overreading of a letter that was, after all, sent to two U.S. senators.

"How else are you going to act if you get involved in making any kind of change?" Berg asks. "Act wimpily? Act lazily?"

The Berg letter turned into such a sticking point not because it was sedition, but because this is the sort of political climate that, in the past, has produced sedition laws. The country's committed to a foreign war that most of the populace want to wish into the cornfield. A sizable chunk of the pro-war pundit/blogger/media population believes that weakness and dissent at home embolden the enemy abroad. This attitude is a feature of every war, but it's more pronounced when there's substantial public doubt about the war effort, as with the World War I-era belief that Greenwich Village reds were hurting our doughboys by handing out fliers.

This isn't a fringe belief—it's getting injected into the war debate with eerie frequency. Last week, when a series of retired generals hit the cable TV circuit to pillory Def. Sec. Donald Rumsfeld, Washington Times editorial page editor Tony Blankley speculated whether the generals had conspired to retire around the same time in order to bring down the Pentagon's head man. If so, Blankley wrote, they were engaging in "mutinous sedition." Just this weekend, the popular anti-Muslim blogger Charles Johnson wrote—in complete seriousness—that "in a very real way, mainstream media's culture of 'If It Bleeds It Leads' is becoming a major liability in the clash of civilizations."

An even better example of this started two weeks ago at UC Santa Cruz, where a group called Students Against War protested and successfully expelled military recruiters from a job fair. The anti-war students had done this before and won a place in a Pentagon surveillance file, but they remained confident enough to make themselves available for interviews after they booted the recruiters. Journalist and blogger Michelle Malkin grabbed their press release and posted the students' phone numbers and emails on her own site, directing hordes of death threat-tossing readers their way. (For the record, Malkin's UCSC post was titled "Seditious Santa Cruz vs. America.")

All these charges of sedition—and treason, if you've followed the CIA leak controversy—represent a view of free speech during wartime that has less to do with our Constitution and more to do with Singapore's. But so far, it's just a view. And Laura Berg still has a job, along with a little notoriety that could protect her if she decided to speak out again.

"Would I do it again?" says Berg. "Yes, I would. I'm hoping to write a little bit more."