VA nurse's letter to newspaper prompts sedition probe

By The Associated Press

Sen. Jeff Bingaman asked Veterans Affairs Secretary James Nicholson for a thorough inquiry into his agency's investigation of whether a VA nurse's letter criticizing the Bush administration amounted to "sedition."

The agency's human resources office ultimately cleared her of any wrongdoing, but Bingaman, D-N.M., said yesterday he was concerned that the VA investigated Laura Berg of Albuquerque in the first place.

Merely opposing government policies and expressing a desire to change course "does not provide reason to believe that a person is involved in illegal subversive activity," he said.

Such investigations raise "a very real possibility of chilling legitimate political speech," Bingaman said.

"In a democracy, expressing disagreement with the government's actions does not amount to sedition or insurrection," he wrote. "It is, and must remain, protected speech. Although it may be permissible to implement restrictions regarding a government employee's political activities during work hours or on government premises, such employees do not surrender their right to freedom of speech when they enlist in government service."

Bingaman said he wanted the matter investigated so VA officials would have guidance about handling similar situations in the future.

Berg, a clinical nurse specialist, wrote a letter in September to a weekly Albuquerque newspaper criticizing how the administration handled Hurricane Katrina and the Iraq War. She urged people to "act forcefully" to remove an administration she said played games of "vicious deceit."

She signed the letter as a private citizen, and the VA had no reason to suspect she used government resources to write it, according to the American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico, which last week asked the government to apologize to Berg for seizing her computer and investigating her.

VA human resources chief Mel Hooker had said in a Nov. 9 letter that his agency was obligated to investigate "any act which potentially represents sedition," the ACLU said.