More assaults on privacy in electronic communications

Not just terrorists, but bankers, too, are in the sights of Bush operatives seeking to circumvent privacy rules. Paul Wolfowitz's World Bank tenure is hardly underway when privacy concerns were raised

The Financial Times reports that former Bush advisor Paul Wolfowitz, who led the Iraq War planning and was appointed last year to head the World Bank, may be giving political operatives the tools to conduct witch hunts by intercepting World Bank staff emails.

The story follows a disturbingly familiar pattern. Like the Bush Administration justifies subpoenaes of search results by tying it to pornography, this campaign is called an anti-corruption effort even as employees of the World Bank complain of abuses of power. The surveillance follows the installation of a political operative in a position that had formerly been independent of the bank's president.

Here are the salient passages of the article:

The dispute has come to a head with the appointment last week of Suzanne Rich Folsom, a counsellor to Mr Wolfowitz with close ties to the Republican party, as the new director of the Department of Institutional Integrity, the internal bank watchdog that investigates suspected fraud and staff misconduct.

Her appointment has raised objections that a person close to Mr Wolfowitz, and with a political background, has been put into a senior position at a unit that was seen as independent of the president’s office since it was set up in 2001.

First, we see the politization of the position, then the first tool the Republican pol turns to is intercepting email:

Robert Hindle, previously the senior manager of the unit and a long-time World Bank employee, resigned in November largely as a result of what four current and former bank sources said was concern at the targeting of employees who had worked on projects that developed corruption problems, and pressure on two occasions from Ms Rich Folsom to bypass internal rules on investigating the e-mail records of a number of employees.

Ms Rich Folsom, who was brought into the bank by James Wolfensohn, Mr Wolfowitz’s predecessor, denies strongly any breach of internal rules. She insisted that in every case she followed proper procedures that require the bank’s general counsel and another senior manager to approve any investigation of staff e-mails. “I have never asked Robert Hindle to circumvent any procedures,” she told the Financial Times.

Here, the concerns about privacy and propriety are deflected by the familiar dismissal of critics as either coddlers of corruption (or terrorism or pornographers) or potentially guilty of something:

Mr Wolfowitz said those alleging violations of e-mail procedure “are trying to get me not to be tough on these issues. I just would like to say I don’t intend to be intimidated”.

“We are in a transition, but I think it’s extremely important that we be moving from talking about corruption to dealing with corruption,” he said in an interview.

The World Bank Staff Association has raised concerns over the process that led to Ms Rich Folsom’s appointment and has heard complaints about e-mail checks from a number of parties. Alison Cave, chair of the association, said: “To clear up any questions, it would be a good idea to have an independent investigation or audit of the department.”

A number of senior bank staff and executive directors representing member countries, who asked not to be quoted, complain of a lack of consultation by Mr Wolfowitz’s advisers, and an atmosphere of suspicion... .

Once again, we're seeing the communications networks used by people who previously had the expectation of privacy or, at least, the assurance that their Net usage would be confidential unless certain procedures were followed in gaining access to data, turned inside out by a particular group of people who surround the president.

That the transgressors are Republicans or Democrats isn't the point. People should be concerned because this has become the standard operating procedure for those in power. It's bad for our government, bad for companies and institutions who take their lead from prominent examples of privacy rules, and devastating to the free expression of ideas that may be controversial or perceived as dissent by those in power.

It's an unnerving time for privacy and dissent in electronic venues.