12/09/2010 03:58 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Columbia Alumnus Rebukes School for 'Shocking' Anti-WikiLeaks Advice

WASHINGTON -- After Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA) caused a stir by advising students not to discuss WikiLeaks using social media -- a SIPA alumnus admonished his alma mater for putting career before country.

SIPA's Office of Career Services warned students in an email last week that tweeting or posting about WikiLeaks on Facebook could endanger their job prospects with the federal government, according to an alumnus working at the U.S. State Department.

That announcement alarmed SIPA graduate Paul Grenier, '87, who fired off a disapproving letter to SIPA Dean John Coatsworth late Tuesday night. (The letter, subsequently leaked to the Huffington Post, is included below.)

In an interview with The Huffington Post on Wednesday night, Grenier, a 54 year-old father of two, said he believed the school's warning to students encourages them to comply with a culture within the federal government which subverts civil liberties in the name of national security.

"We already know that the government practices extraordinary rendition, that it does things that are outrageous," said Grenier, sitting straight-backed on the brown leather couch in his rural Maryland home.

Grenier told HuffPost that Coatsworth responded to his letter "within minutes," pointing him to a statement issued by the school on Monday, which reversed the WikiLeaks advice and reaffirmed the school's commitment to freedom of speech.

Officials at Columbia have argued they are merely passing on relevant information, while the State Department has denied any federal involvement in the school's guidance.

Grenier, for his part, feels leading academic institutions should play a more sophisticated role in the national conversation, questioning the culture around national security rather than quietly passing on "information" to help students get ahead in the careerist sense.

"On the one hand it seems ordinary, mundane, quotidian," said Grenier over gold wire-rimmed glasses. "On the other hand, looked at from that larger perspective, it's absolutely shocking."

Asked if he has any career advice for students at SIPA, he replied: "Think smaller."

"While good governance is extremely important and extremely needed, it seems that America no longer knows how to do good governance at the federal level," said Grenier, who works in city planning in Takoma Park, Maryland. "I would encourage people to get involved in government at the the city level or the county level -- the more local, the better."

At a quarter past 11 o'clock, HuffPost accepted a ride to the metro, arriving just in time to catch the last train home.

Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano's voice floated over the loudspeakers of the Wheaton Metro Station.

"If you see something suspicious", said the voice, "report it to authorities at 202-962-2121. Thank you for keeping our metro system safe."

Grenier's letter, as leaked to The Huffington Post on Wednesday night, is reprinted below.

From: Paul Grenier []
Sent: Tuesday, December 07, 2010 11:03 PM
Subject: Re: On SIPA policy and the Wiki controversy (CORRECTED)

[NB: please ignore version sent earlier.]

Dear Dean Coatsworth:

I am a SIPA alumnus ('87). I recently learned that SIPA students were warned to avoid WikiLeaks, or rather, to avoid writing on social sites about WikiLeaks, because this may adversely affect their career prospects.

At first blush this does not seem a very big deal. The warning was factual. Having recently gone through the top secret clearance process myself, I can confirm that questions about one's ability to guard confidentiality of government documents do indeed come up. It could be a problem during either the polygraph or the background investigation. From a prudential point of view, the recommendation was sound.

So why am I writing?

I am writing because I nonetheless find the School's apparently quite ordinary advice unjustified.

If the US government's actions, not just during the Bush administration, but also during the current administration, had been other than they were -- i.e. as regards torture, as regards extraordinary renditions, as regards 'intelligence' made up to fit the policy (also with the help of torture), followed by complete impunity for all such abuses -- I would be happy to listen with sympathy about the need for order, stability, and the ability of the government to negotiate without fear of leaks. But that is not the world, or the country, in which we live.

In the real world, what we face, in fact, is Hannah Arendt's worst nightmare about how the U.S. system might develop, once it began to decisively ignore the ruling authority of law and the constitution. Arendt's nightmare scenario was an executive branch which, in the name of raison d'etat, in the name of national security, becomes a tyrannical authority 'engaged in all sorts of criminal acts' committed in secret. Despite all the dazzling PR fed to us on the nightly news (by the citizen stenographers formerly known as journalists), this is what we now have. The executive branch acts today almost completely unquestioned by the press and almost completely unchecked by the U.S. Congress.

In this context, a great university should be urging its students to put not career, but the good of their country first. The US government's actions over the past ten years are such as to decisively undermine its own legitimacy. It is in this context that the WikiLeaks controversy must be seen. WikiLeaks campaign of radical openness is absolutely warranted, because what is being hidden from view is absolutely intolerable if we wish to live in a country that actually is civilized and democratic in reality (and not just in its fond PR copy). WikiLeaks is providing American 'glasnost' in a most needful way, despite all the howls of protest and all the ad hominem nonsense.

To see that this is so, it should suffice to recall the early video leaked by WikiLeaks, the one which shows US helicopter gunners murdering Iraqi civilians who are trying to help other Iraqi civilians and children who have just been killed and wounded by these same soldiers. Or the WikiLeaks revelations that US soldiers in Iraq were ordered to ignore the torture and abuse of the many hundreds of civilians they were handing over to Iraqi troops. Such revelations add further documentation to the long list of barbarous acts we know were committed by the U.S. government and its agents in recent years.

And yet, no matter the revelations, the U.S. public has been either too ignorant, or too powerless, to act. America's defining institutions, including its great universities, have been mostly silent, if not indeed complicit.

The question that SIPA must ask, in the final analysis, is this: should the School of International and Public Affairs be first of all a professional training program? If so, then it should indeed ignore the larger context charted above, and encourage students to do what is necessary to further their careers.

But if the mission of the School, and of the University of which it is part, is to prepare men and women to be leaders in the classical sense, which implies a due concern for justice and truth and the common good, then a quite different course is called for. The university, in that case, might well invite Mr. Assange to teach at the journalism school. At any rate, students would not be urged to sell their souls.

For the record, I ultimately failed the top secret clearance process alluded to at the beginning of this letter, and it is interesting to note why: I could not prove to the tester -- or to myself -- that I felt at ease with a government that had tortured with impunity. My interrogator, I might mention, openly supported torture, and, remarkably enough, shared with me his view that there were no innocents, neither women nor children, in the 'war on terror.' Why did I go for the interview at all, one might reasonably ask. In truth, until I got there, I didn't even know what agency was recruiting me (such is the weird web of privatized contracting in the government these days!). And I did need the work. We all do. These choices, alas, are never easy ones.


Paul R. Grenier
SIPA '87

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