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A Nurse's Courage

In her first broadcast interview, a VA nurse explains how she was investigated for 'sedition' after writing a letter that was critical of the Bush Administration.
 
 
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Laura Berg, a Veterans Affairs nurse in Albuquerque, New Mexico, was investigated for sedition after she wrote a letter to a local newspaper criticizing the Bush administration's handling of Hurricane Katrina and the Iraq war. In her first broadcast interview, Democracy Now! host Amy Goodman spoke with Laura Berg, as well as Larry Kronen, an attorney with the New Mexico chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union.

Here in Albuquerque, a local Veterans Affairs nurse has felt the crack down on civil liberties firsthand. In September, shortly after Hurricane Katrina struck, Laura Berg wrote a letter to the Alibi, a local newspaper, criticizing the Bush administration's handling of Hurricane Katrina and the Iraq war. Berg wrote, "as a VA nurse working with returning... vets, I know the public has no sense of the additional devastating human and financial costs of post-traumatic stress disorder." She urged readers to, "act forcefully to remove a government administration playing games of smoke and mirrors and vicious deceit."

The response to Berg's letter was harsh. Her office computer was seized. And the government announced it was investigating her for sedition -- that's right, sedition. V.A. human resources chief Mel Hooker wrote in a letter to Berg, "The Agency is bound by law to investigate and pursue any act which potentially represents sedition."

To date the VA has yet to issue a public apology to Berg. But pressure is building. In Washington, New Mexico Sen. Jeff Bingaman has asked Veterans Affairs Secretary James Nicholson to thoroughly investigate the VA's actions. Bingaman wrote "In a democracy, expressing disagreement with the government's actions does not amount to sedition or insurrection. It is, and must remain, protected speech."

Amy Goodman: Today, Laura Berg joins us here in Albuquerque in her first broadcast interview. We are also joined by Larry Kronen, an attorney with the New Mexico chapter of the America Civil Liberties Union. We welcome you both to Democracy Now!
Laura Berg: Thank you.
Goodman: Laura, talk about the letter that you wrote to your local paper, The Alibi. When did you write it?
Berg: I wrote the letter within a week after Katrina hit the coast. And I had been just devastated by the scenes that I saw there. I was watching. Actually, it was my first experience to really be thoroughly exploring alternative media, actually reports right from the people on the streets as far as their experiences of abandonment, the scenes that were so much like a third world country. I think we have been really privileged in this country and not had to see close-up experiences like that. And it's just absolutely devastating. I have been a V.A. nurse for 15 years.
Goodman: Where do you work?
Berg: I work in behavioral health at the local V.A. in out-patient area.
Goodman: And what's your specialty?
Berg: My specialty right now is working on-call for emergencies, mental health emergencies. In the past, I have worked as doing mental health assessment for new patients. And, of course, that would be many returning vets from the Persian Gulf or from the current conflict.
Goodman: And so, you wrote this letter.
Berg: Pardon?
Goodman: So you wrote a letter.
Berg: I wrote this letter. I think, you know, I have -- all of us at the V.A., there's very many compassionate people working there, very many dedicated people. And we've worked with, you know, veterans from Vietnam, veterans from Korea, veterans from World War II. We were seeing more and more World War II veterans, you know, triggered for the first time by Iraq and actually, you know, having memories and nightmares coming out.
Goodman: You are saying now that they are triggered?
Berg: Oh, absolutely. Absolutely.
Goodman: So, World War II vets are coming in.
Berg: Oh, absolutely. Absolutely, so we are seeing --
Goodman: What are the complaints?
Berg: Just nightmares, not able to sleep. More tension, anxiety, irritability, aggressiveness. Some detachment, you know, from reality at the present time. Those kind of things. I'm just saying that these things together, to me, you know, really really came together when I saw Katrina. I was aware that, you know, money to protect the levees, to protect the Gulf Coast, had been diverted to the war. Also -- excuse me. I'm dry. The National Guardsmen, you know, had been diverted to the war. And then, there was no response, you know. And we say that we are fighting to, you know, for the land of the free and the home of the brave. We have Homeland Security, and I was really just overwhelmed, and I wrote a letter.
Goodman: Is this the first time you have written a letter?
Berg: That's the first time I have written a letter of that nature.
Goodman: And so, you wrote it a week or two after Katrina hit?
Berg: Mm-hmm. Yes.
Goodman: And it got published?
Berg: It got published, within a week or two, yes.
Goodman: What was the response?
Berg: It was published, and then it was a couple days interim, and I went into work on a Monday. I immediately had co-workers come to me and say, "We really support your letter but you may be in trouble, and you need to go to the union immediately." I went to the union, and I was told by the union that I had been reported up -- my letter and me had been reported up through V.A. channels to the F.B.I
Goodman: To the F.B.I.?
Berg: To the F.B.I. And, you know, as a direct response to my publication of this letter. And --
Goodman: Were you surprised?
Berg: Oh, I was shocked. I was absolutely shocked. I was -- I was unbelieving. I was frightened, very, very frightened. And I felt this was, you know, intimidation. You know. And it was -- I was told that it wasn't really -- it was just through channels, you know, it wasn't anything really against me personally, just that my letter came in in a search engine, and it was sent up. It wasn't really local. However, it was, oh, a week later that approximately a week later I was sitting at may desk and there was a knock on the door. And my -- the information security representatives came to impound my computer. They served me with a memo saying there was a belief I had written this on my work computer, and that would be a misuse of government equipment. So I guess I could say I was -- at that point it was local, you know. It was about me. It was about my letter. And it was local repercussions, so this was a memo written by our human resources director, Mr. Hooker.
Goodman: So you had your computer seized?
Berg: Yes, it was taken -- I was in the middle of writing, you know, my notes for the patients I had seen. The computer was taken. And, of course, I asked, "Is there some other computer for me do my work?" And no one had thought about that. And it was returned, you know, within a day. But I understand the hard drive -- and I do know now that the hard drive was removed and examined. And I have to say, you know, this was an incredibly frightening experience. To be told that you are reported to the F.B.I., that can mean, under the current PATRIOT Act's sneak and peek, I mean, my home can be - you know, people can go in. I could be followed. My phone could be tapped. It was just a chilling experience. And also for my co-workers, too, I have to say.
Goodman: Why? What has happened to them?
Berg: Well, people, you know -- I mean, we believe we have, you know, First Amendment right to free speech. But we have been -- you know, to have harassment or intimidation -
Goodman: Are they afraid?
Berg: Yes, they are. Yes, they are. And I have had - I've actually had calls and emails from federal employees across the nation, you know, in support and thanking for me being brave, you know, to actually, number one, write the letter, and number two, you know, to actually say this is not right.
Goodman: Let me bring Larry Kronen into this.
Berg: Sure, please.
Goodman: Of the American Civil Liberties Union. The significance of what has happened to Laura Berg, V.A. nurse, writes -- where did you write the letter?
Berg: I wrote it at home.
Goodman: Writes a letter -- and does that even matter, but writes the letter at home to her local paper concerned about government policy?
Larry Kronen: I don't think it really matters where she wrote it. Of course, the V.A. has a right to check their own computers. They own it. But the pretense of coming in and saying that they had a belief that she wrote it on their computer, and when Laura wrote them asking what's the basis of your belief, they wrote back saying, "We believe, because we believe you did it." There was no reasonable belief that she did it. So there's a level of intimidation. And I think it's a wave of intimidation that's going on throughout the country, in chilling people's free speech., going from the protests that happened after we invaded Iraq and the violence from the law enforcement against those protests to Cindy Sheehan being arrested at the State of the Union address.
Goodman: Wearing a t-shirt.
Kronen: Wearing a t-shirt. Not protesting. Not making any vocal protest. And there's other incidents throughout the country of these intimidation factors going on. And even though there was no adverse employment action against Laura, there's a chilling effect of free speech.
Goodman: Laura, when did you start hearing the word "sedition" being thrown around?
Berg: Well, so I had been reported to the F.B.I., as is the report I had, again. I -- my computer was taken. And I decided I really did need to write a memo to the director and to Mr. Hooker and ask on what basis had these actions been taken. And I received a memo back from Mr. Hooker.
Goodman: And now, Mr. Hooker is Mel Hooker, chief of human resources?
Berg: Who is still in his position, by the way.
Goodman: In Veterans' Affairs. And Mary Dowling, the director?
Berg: Mm-hmm. But they also said, let's see -- Kronen: That's the first we heard the term "sedition" being used.
Berg: Right. Exactly.
Kronen: In the memo that they wrote in response to Laura's memo on November 9, they wrote the excerpt, which you quoted, that they have, bound by law, to investigate and pursue any act which potentially represents sedition. And at that point it was just over the top.
Berg: Exactly.
Goodman: What does "sedition" mean?
Kronen: It's basically taking -- advocating the forceful, violent overthrow of the government.
Goodman: And what penalty do you face?
Kronen: Years in jail.
Goodman: So, where does this go from here? Your senator has taken this up. Senator Bingaman?
Berg: Yes, and I do want to say when I wrote this letter, I sent it to Senator Bingaman, and I sent it to Senator Domenici, as well as to The Alibi . And so, he has written to the secretary of the Veteran Affairs, again, saying that he would like -- he would like an investigation, you know, and he would like some retraining of V.A. employees. I think have you that in front of you. You can actually -- we are asking for a public apology. We -- you know, we really want the V.A. to be able to say this is wrong, what we did. And we would like the rest of the federal employees to hear that across the country.
Goodman: Let me read again from the memo of November 9 from the Chief of Human Resources Management Service. "In your letter to the editor of the weekly Alibi," the memo says, "you declared yourself a V.A. 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.' The agency is bound by law to investigate and pursue any act, which potentially represents sedition. You are reminded that government equipment is just that, and the government may apprehend, investigate use or permit the use of such at its discretion and direction. Signed, Mel Hooker, Chief of Human Resources Management Service. " Your response to this letter, saying -- to investigate you for sedition?
Berg: Amy, I did not sign away my First Amendment rights as a citizen, you know, by choosing to serve in the federal government and choosing to serve veterans and care for people that have been wounded like this, you know. And this letter sounds like something from a totalitarian regime, you know, that we are supposedly going in and share our democracy. This is way out of line. This was way out line. I have a right to speak my opinion. I have a right to say I'm a V.A. nurse. I do not speak for the V.A. I speak as a public citizen. And I -- you know, we have to -- I thank Larry, I thank the attorneys and the support across the country, because we really need to speak out about this. This is really, really frightening.
Goodman: Is there a next step you will be taking?
Kronen: Right now, we are waiting. We put in a Freedom of Information request to the F.B.I. We are waiting for a response from that.
Goodman: And that request is to find out what?
Kronen: What information they have about Laura, about her computer, about this incident. We did receive the quickest response from the V.A. to our Freedom of Information Act, and they didn't have any extra information that we didn't already have that we got in their response. So right now, we are waiting to see what response we have from the F.B.I. Of course, we still stand. We are asking for a public apology. And we join Senator Bingaman in asking for a policy directive, letting the V.A. and the V.A. officials in the administration across the country, but especially here in Albuquerque, that the First Amendment still exists here in the country and to cease these intimidation.
Goodman: Are you concerned about speaking out today and this first time in this national broadcast, Laura Berg?
Berg: Yes, I am, Amy. And, you know, as I say, subsequent to these memos, I have had a personal discussion with Mary Dowling, and she has said --
Goodman: And again, her position with the V.A.?
Kronen: She is my director at the Albuquerque V.A. And she said, you know, you may express your opinion, but we prefer that you do not say you are a V.A. nurse. And so, I am saying I am a V.A. nurse. And some of my fire in writing this letter about Katrina in Iraq is from my experience as a V.A. nurse. I'm stepping -- I'm stepping, you know, off the edge here, and I do feel that there is some jeopardy to me and my position. But at this point it's more important for me to say this. You know, and if I have to risk my job, the V.A. is going to lose an excellent commission, you know, that does not bring politics into the workplace, you know, and is a very caring person. And this country, you know, will lose many, many dedicated, caring people, you know, if this continues. And, I mean, we are going to lose a lot more than that. We are going to lose a whole lot.

Amy Goodman is the host of the nationally syndicated radio news program, Democracy Now!