Wolfowitz Launches Probe Into Leak of Board Meeting Minutes

9 February 2007

World Bank President Paul Wolfowitz has launched an internal investigation into who provided Fox News with the "raw" minutes of a World Bank board meeting in January, a document that transparency advocates say should routinely be made public.

The internal probe comes in the wake of an article critical of Wolfowitz and the bank, done by Fox News on Jan. 31. Fox also exposed the leak investigation yesterday (Feb. 8).

"Disclosure of such documents is a violation of Bank rules themselves," Wolfowitz said Feb. 1 in a joint announcement with senior bank official Eckhard Deutscher. Their statement was posted on a new internal Bank online chat line established after the Fox article appeared. On it, staffers, mostly anonymously, have been discussing the Jan. 31 Fox report. (Fox also put the transcript of the online discussion on its Web site, as it did with the minutes.)

Details of how the leak probe will be conducted have not been announced, but the Institutional Integrity Department has not been asked to conduct it. Bank sources note that the institution has various procedural protections for employee e-mail, and that directors, not employees, have what amounts to diplomatic immunity.

The story that started it all describes "trench warfare" and an "explosive level of animosity" between Wolfowitz and the Bank’s board over his anti-corruption strategy, although the leaked board minutes were from a Jan. 8 board committee meeting on a related but wider topic: "Shifts and Trade-Offs to Fund Plans and Priorities." (The Fox report came out on the day that the board was meeting to discuss the anti-corruption strategy.) Besides citing the internal documents, Fox report Richard Behar relied on other sources, including comments from "one longtime bank staffer." The Fox report not only includes criticisms of Wolfowitz but also other Bank officials and Bank operations generally, calling it "a circus setting."

Wolfowitz rejected the report as "misleading" in comments made during an internal video interview Feb. 1.

Focus on the Minutes

Whatever the merits of the story, the flap has once again exposed issues surrounding access to the board minutes-particularly limitations on the content of the publicly-disclosed version and the delay in posting them.

As the Fox report reveals, the officially-posted minutes do not identify speakers by name, unlike the so-called "raw" minutes which are circulated only to the offices of the 24 executive directors and to very top management officers, probably abut 70 persons by several estimates.

The leak of both the raw and final versions of the minutes allows for some close comparison and analysis. The final posted versions of the minutes, also known as the "green sheets," are further edited. Also, the names of the speakers are dropped.

As Fox put it, "By the time those criticisms had been transferred to the sanitized version of the document, some of them had been muted into softer tones of diplomatic civility." It continued, "The board directors were no longer ‘puzzled’ by the listing of management’s priorities, they were simply ‘not satisfied.’" The episode provides a rare window on this transformation.

In addition, the incident highlights the time delay in posting the minutes. The official minutes from the Jan. 8 meeting cited in the Fox report are not yet posted–the latest minutes on the Bank Web site being from early December.

Minutes have been published on the Bank’s Web site since April 2005 as a result of modifications to its disclosure policy.

More Transparency Urged

More transparency by the Bank was urged in several of the anonymous postings by Bank staffers, and by several others quoted in the follow-up Fox story on the leak investigation.

Perhaps most interesting are the internal anonymous postings.

One states: "As for publishing the ‘raw’ minutes of the Board meeting with ’embarrassing’ criticism of the President’s proposed budget — well, in government, interactions between Executive and Legislators are routinely published and sessions are open to the public. Lots of such sessions are critical. That’s just government in action — no one expects a hearing on a serious issue to be praise and flowers. Why does the World Bank persist in thinking that its governance should be shielded from scrutiny, and that the world will come to an end if someone knows what is said in the Board room? It would do all of us — President, Board, staff and shareholders — so much good if we were as transparent as we keep telling our client countries to be — and as our OECD shareholders already are."

Another posting says: "Don’t see the problem in the leakage. I believe that we should encourage Board discussions to be as open as possible to the public. If we are serious about transparency, this is where we should start."

Fox quotes Robert Holland, a former U.S. executive director at the Bank as saying:

"’Some critics accuse the Bank of having a culture of secrecy,’ he told FOX after he left the board in 2006. ‘I wouldn’t disagree. In fact, the Bank tends to be its own worst enemy when it comes to making the development community aware of its activities. Unfortunately, the board is the leading culprit.’ Holland says that board rules prevent him-even as a former director-from disclosing details of meetings."

The Fox report also states:

"’The World Bank has an important opportunity to walk the talk,’ points out the Bank Information Center, a Washington watchdog that monitors the Bank. ‘As a public institution, it has not only an interest but an obligation to make its operations transparent and accountable to the people on whose behalf it ostensibly operates…. In the absence of reforms to the governance structure of the Bank itself, its efforts to champion governance elsewhere will be hampered.’"

By Toby McIntosh

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Filed under: IFTI Watch


In this column, Washington, D.C.-based journalist Toby J. McIntosh reports on the latest developments in information disclosure in International Financial and Trade Institutions (IFTI).
Contact: freeinfo@gwu.edu or
1-(703) 276-7748