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Modern-Day Antiwar Nurse Investigated for Old-School “Sedition”

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Laura Berg has spent the last 15 years working as a clinical nurse specialist at the Veterans Administration Medical Center in Albuquerque, NM. Outraged over the federal government’s slow response after Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast, she exercised her First Amendment right and wrote a letter to her local weekly newspaper criticizing Dubya Bush. After the letter’s publication last September, her bosses — administrators from the federal VA — seized her work computer and investigated her for “sedition.”

Excuse me, but aren’t sedition laws a thing of the past? Wasn’t John Adams denied a second presidential term in the election of 1800 in large part because of his efforts to undermine civil liberties?

John Adams In 1798, on the verge of possible war with France, a possibility that did not sit well with the Republican Party (not to be confused with today’s GOP), Adams (of the war-hungry Federalists) signed into law the Alien and Sedition Acts. Among other things, these repressive laws sent people to prison for criticizing government officials and policies. Many see Thomas Jefferson’s electoral victory as a direct result of Republican efforts to smear Adams for violating civil liberties – and as much as I admire Adams, my favorite Revolutionary Era figure despite his right-wing leanings and support for a “natural aristocracy,” he got what he deserved. Years later, to his credit, he admitted that the Acts had been a colossal mistake.

Thankfully, the Alien and Sedition Acts expired on the final day of Adams’ term in 1801. This makes Laura Berg’s story all the more curious.

The Progressive summarizes Berg’s missive to the Alibi:

“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.”

When her employer grabbed her computer, Berg asked for an explanation. A response came from Mel Hooker, chief of the Albuquerque VA’s human resources management service: “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.'”

Another explanation came from Bill Armstrong, a public-affairs specialist for New Mexico’s VA Health Care System: “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.”

Happily, the investigators determined quickly that Berg did not write or send the letter to the editor from her VA computer or on government time. But there is another concern.

From the Alibi:

According to [Berg’s lawyers], 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.

Hooker responded to Berg in a Nov. 9 memo: “The Agency has no knowledge of any report alleged to have been made to the FBI regarding you or your letter.”

Putting aside that comment (while noting that its veracity is unproven), the truth remains that an accusation of “sedition” is chilling and terrifyingly old-school. But, yes, present-day law allows a person to be charged with the not-so-retro crime.

“Sedition is only mentioned in one section of the United States Code,” Norman Cairns, a spokesperson for the U.S. Attorney’s office in Albuquerque told the Alibi. “…[T]he 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.”

Given that Berg’s letter clearly does not advocate violent revolution, one would think the nurse had no reason for further concern. That isn’t the case. The fascist feds apparently have succeeded in frightening the poor woman into silence, even though she does have the right to free speech. Berg reportedly is afraid to talk with media about her experience. According to Peter Simonson, executive director of New Mexico’s ACLU, Berg is “scared for her job” and “pretty emotionally distressed.”

So the matter is not over. The ACLU, according to The Progressive, “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.

Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-NM) defended Berg in a Feb. 7 letter to Secretary of Veterans Affairs R. James Nicholson. “In a democracy,” he wrote, “expressing disagreement with the government’s actions does not amount to sedition or insurrection — it is, and must remain, protected speech.”

Indeed true. But who knows? This is Dubya Bush’s Amerikkka, which follows in the footsteps of a regrettably right-wing John Adams. So-called leaders can grant themselves new powers at any time. Justice and liberty are under siege courtesy of a Patriot Act that resembles the Alien and Sedition Acts John Adams regretted enacting. Federal employees work under a cloud of repression and fear. And you, dear dissenter, are, in right-wing eyes, either with the Bushites or with the terrorists.

Just another day in paradise…

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About NR Davis

  • RedTard

    So they checked her computer, big deal. My wife’s employer just checked their computers to see if anyone had been downloading porn at work, the world must be coming to an end.

    If this is all the evidence you have of the tyranny of our government then they must be doing a pretty good job.

  • Dave Nalle

    Sedition? That’s a bizarre thing to accuse her of. Is it possible that there’s something about it in the VA employment manual or contract? That’s the only basis I can think of to try to make such a charge stick, since it’s certainly meaningless under federal law.

    Oh, and for the record, John Adams was a moderate by any definition of the term. He did not author or originate or encourage the passage of the Alien and Sedition acts, he merely acceded to the will of Congress and his party and signed them.

    Dave

  • http://gratefuldread.net Natalie Davis

    Baloney. Tossing around the possibility of being charged with “sedition” for the purpose of striking fear into the heart of a dissenter — which can be the ONLY purpose behind all this — flies in the face of reputed American values. And when, under the reign of King George, the monarchists can change the rules and the scope of their powers at any time (see NSA warrantless wiretapping, bin Cheney’s assertion that he has the power to declassify information at will to avoid trouble in the Plame investigation, Bush signing Congress’ anti-torture bill while adding his own condition that he can use torture whenever he deems it necessary – aka anytime he damn well pleases), the subjects are in danger. That you can’t or won’t see that doesn’t surprise me, Mr. RedTard, but your fellow subjects to the crown are terrified and your king and his minions are ruling with terror. Of course, you’ll ridicule those who are afraid, won’t you?

    John Adams — in actuality more of an Independent than a true Federalist, though he did align with that party — acknowledged that his anti-sedition law was a mistake. Can’t right-wingers understand that wartime or no, silencing other POVs is antithetical in a country that claims to be a land of justice and freedom?

  • RedTard

    From your own article.

    sedition: a plot to violently overthrow the United States government by force

    perpetrator:(we need to )act forcefully to remove a government administration

    Her words are almost word-for-word the definition of sedition given.

    The bottom line is nothing happened to her. She got investigated for improper use of a work computer which happens all the time.

    This story is being blown out of proportion so all the left wing nutjobs can get their daily dose of hate.

  • http://gratefuldread.net Natalie Davis

    Who is to say the administration won’t change the definition covertly? Who is to say that some obscure provision of the damnable Patriot Act won’t attach to criticism of the Bushies some “probable cause” status allowing investigations or worse? We don’t know, and that is where the fear lies.

    As for hate, speak for yourself, Mr. RedTard. I may hate his policies, but, whatever your accusations, I don’t hate Bush. And millions of people on these shores fear much of what he does and what he believes — with exceedingly good reason.

  • lumpy

    I ‘d have to look into this story more, but it sure sounds like someone along the line was confused when they attched the word sedition to it, considering sedition isn’t a crime. sounds like another case of someone on the left or in the media trying to blow things out of proportion as has become the new standard of the left’s attack machine. it has certainlý played right to the author’s characteristic paranoia with her laughable allusions to supposed autocratic behavior from the administration.

  • http://gratefuldread.net Natalie Davis

    Mr. Lumpy, ’twas the VA that talked about “sedition.” Check the section where VA official Mel Hooker is quoted:

    “A response came from Mel Hooker, chief of the Albuquerque VA’s human resources management service: ‘The Agency is bound by law to investigate and pursue any act which potentially represents sedition,’ he said.”

    And re-read the section where Mr. Cairns of the New Mexico State’s Attorney notes that sedition is a crime under US law.

    Oh wait – one can’t re-read what one obviously has not read in the first place. I suspect you’re nouthing off in judgment of me just for grins and giggles. What a rascal.

    But, I’ll take your charge of paranoia, Mr. Lumpy; you may be right about that. But riddle me this: Can you give me one reason to trust the Bushites? No. You cannot. I would sooner trust you.

  • troll

    seditious conspiracy…it’s on the books:

    ‘If two or more persons in any state or territory, or in any place subject to the jurisdiction of the United States, conspire to overthrow, put down or to destroy by force the government of the United States, or to levy war against them, or to oppose by force the authority thereof, or by force to prevent, hinder or delay the execution of any law of the United States or by force to seize, take or possess any property of the United States contrary to the authority thereof, they shall each be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than 20 years, or both.’

    troll

  • SonnyD

    If you have ever dealt with the government at any level, federal, state, county, city, whatever, you must have, at some point, run into one of those life-time entrenched bureaucrats who take delite in the feeling of power their job gives them.

    Laura Berg was unlucky enough to be spotted by one of those little dictators. Then the system that is in place takes over and that person’s report, no matter how silly it is, has to be investigated.

    If Ms. Berg is feeling intimidated, it is because of the actions of people at the local, not the national, level.

    It is amazing and sometimes amusing that anyone can take a story like this and use it as a springboard to attack the present administration. Goodness knows, this administration has done enough things that they can honestly be critisized for. Do we have to use things they had nothing to do with as an excuse to vent?

  • http://gratefuldread.net Natalie Davis

    The VA *is* part of the present administration, Mr. D.

    Mr. Nalle, I am well aware that John Adams was a Federalist largely in name only (that, in part, is why he was mistrusted by many people on all sides; the bit about him favoring what he called a “natural aristocracy” didn’t help). The A&S Acts indeed were the work of others, but the buck stops with the president, a responsibility Adams accepted. The Acts didn’t become law until *he* opted to sign them into law. And he admitted that they worked for him; he copped to being thin-skinned, and press attacks against him in Republican papers really riled him, so the fact that Republican editorialists found themselves jailed for slamming him in print of course caused a political backlash against him. The irony of it all was that Adams didn’t want war and worked for peace with the French behind the scenes – it was through his appointment of an ambassador to France during the Revolution of 1789 and during the years following it (which angered his fellow Federalists, particularly George Washington and Alexander Hamilton) that led to a peace agreement with France and, obviously, an avoidance of war at that time. The sad thing, in some ways, is that word of the peace didn’t reach these shores until after the election of 1800. Had word arrived sooner, and if Hamilton had not engineered a huge smear against Adams, the election result may have been different.

  • troll

    the law in question is of civil war vintage…courtesy of Mr Lincoln’s administration (read dictatorial regime)

    troll

  • http://gratefuldread.net Natalie Davis

    Indeed it is. It is pure coincidence that I am no fan of Mr. Lincoln.

  • troll

    if an individual US citizen advocates violence against the US government from whatever soapbox to a crowd does the act constitute a conspiracy – ?

    troll

  • Nancy

    Hmmm…it would seem, according to the statute quoted in #8 by Troll, that BushCo are the ones guilty of sedition.

    …So, how come THEY aren’t on trial?

  • Another VA nurse

    Dear Laura.
    Thanks for your article. I am another VA nurse who has been “intimidated” by the VA administrators because I spoke at a congressman’s public meeting. I wonder how many other brave nurses are out there. Please give the New Mexico nurse my private email. and please do not use my real name nor email address as I remain “under scrutiny” by my VA. Also please ask the nurse if the ANA Union did not protect her? Why did she have to hire attorneys? Thanks again.

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