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2007-04-06

Watching the Watchdogs: Wal-Mart Critic Monitored by Retail Giant

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We look at Wal-Mart’s newly exposed surveillance operation with a Wal-Mart critic who ended up on its watch list. Nu Wexler is a spokesperson for the group Wal-Mart Watch. According to the Wall Street Journal expose, Wal-Mart used pictures found on the Internet to track Nu’s plans to attend Wal-Mart’s annual meeting. [includes rush transcript]

Transcript

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: As we continue to look at Wal-Mart’s newly exposed surveillance operation, my next guest is a Wal-Mart critic who ended up on Wal-Mart’s watch list. Nu Wexler is a spokesperson for the group Wal-Mart Watch. According to the Wall Street Journal exposé, Wal-Mart used pictures found on the internet to track Nu’s plans to attend Wal-Mart’s annual meeting. Nu Wexler joins us now from Washington, D.C. Welcome, Nu.

NU WEXLER: Hi. Thanks for having me on today, Amy.

AMY GOODMAN: So tell us what you learned about, well, yourself, through Wal-Mart’s eyes.

NU WEXLER: Well, I mean, it was — I, as Gary mentioned earlier on the show, I had attended a Wal-Mart media conference in Arkansas. It was last spring. And it was a public event that Wal-Mart held at the Embassy Suites Hotel, not too far from their corporate headquarters in Bentonville. It was — some events were closed. Some events were closed to the public, open to media only, and we had no intentions of going into those events, certainly didn’t intend to disrupt anything. We were just there because a lot of reporters that we work with every day were attending the event, and it was an opportunity to meet with them firsthand. All of the meetings we did were actually in the hotel lobby in plain view of the company, their many PR reps that were at the event. And, honestly, it was pretty harmless. There wasn’t anything threatening, and I don’t think it placed Wal-Mart in any danger at all.

AMY GOODMAN: And so, what did you learn about their monitoring of you?

NU WEXLER: Well, it was pretty spooky. I wasn’t aware that they were monitoring anything, until I had heard from Gary McWilliams from the Wall Street Journal, who, you know, calls one day and is looking for a reaction to Wal-Mart’s — to a file that Wal-Mart had been collecting and the fact that Wal-Mart had my personal vacation photos from a couple years ago that I had buried, you know, just deep on a website. They were harmless, nothing — I think I actually — you may have a couple of them, yourself. But these pictures, there was nothing incriminating about them, but it is a little eerie to know that Wal-Mart had a copy of them.

AMY GOODMAN: Now, these were on a website online, your photographs of your holiday?

NU WEXLER: They were. I mean, they were buried deep on a website. It was actually a place I had — I had actually — I came back from a trip two years ago to Vietnam and the Philippines, and I came back and had a fairly large photo file. It was a slideshow. And actually, the reason they were on this website was because my family wanted to view them, and they were too big to email, so I just had been doing some — where I had maintained the site for my employer and created just a folder — we had plenty of space — created a folder that was not publicly accessible — there were no public links to it — but just created a folder and sent a link around to some friends and family, saying, "Here are my vacation photos. Check them out when you can." So they had been there. They were up there for a little while. Again, there was nothing incriminating about them, so I’m not terribly — I wasn’t terribly worried that they were there. But it’s pretty spooky to know that Wal-Mart is interested in them and collecting them.

AMY GOODMAN: Nu Wexler, can you talk about what Wal-Mart Watch does?

NU WEXLER: Sure. We’re a nonprofit organization based in Washington, D.C. We’re a coalition of labor, religious and environmental organizations that are working to try to challenge Wal-Mart to change some of its business practices. You know, ironically, one of the things that we’re pushing for is increased transparency for the company. And events like this make it — you know, sort of underscore the need for more transparency.

You know, we’re pushing Wal-Mart to, among other things, provide better healthcare for their employees, making their — their employee plan just simply isn’t affordable, and many of their employees are forced to go on state Medicaid plans to get coverage for themselves and their family. And Wal-Mart’s response has always been, you know, "We’re operating on small margins. We’re retail. We can’t afford to do that." But at the same time, you know, they’re spending millions of dollars each year on these sophisticated threat research surveillance operations and are spending at least $10 million a year on a PR firm in D.C. to handle damage control for events like this. So it’s inconsistent on their part, and we would challenge them. We hope that they would spend the money more on their employee healthcare system, rather than spying and damage control.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to read an editorial that was posted by Barbara Ehrenreich on the AlterNet website: "Wal-Mart and Target Spy on Their Employees."

It says, "It reads like a cold war thriller: The spy follows the suspects through several countries, ending up in Guatemala City, where he takes a room across the hall from his quarry. Finally, after four days of surveillance, including some patient ear-to-the-keyhole work, he is able to report back to headquarters that he has the goods on them. They’re guilty!

“But this isn’t a John Le Carré novel, and the powerful institution pulling the strings wasn’t the USSR or the CIA. It was Wal-Mart, and the two suspects weren’t carrying plans for a shoulder-launched H-bomb. Their crime was 'fraternization.' One of them, James W. Lynn, a Wal-Mart factory inspection manager, was traveling with a female subordinate, with whom he allegedly enjoyed some intimate moments behind closed doors. At least the company spy reported hearing 'moans and sighs' within the woman’s room.

"Now you may wonder why a company so famously cheap that it requires its same-sex teams to share hotel rooms while on the road would invest in international espionage to ferret out mixed-sex fraternizers. Unless, as Lynn argues, they were really after him for what is a far worse crime in Wal-Mart’s books: Openly criticizing the conditions he found in Central American factories supplying Wal-Mart stores."

What do you know about this, Nu Wexler of Wal-Mart Watch?

NU WEXLER: Well, the Jim Lynn example is particularly scary. I mean, this was a Wal-Mart factory inspector that at the time was writing up a lot of Wal-Mart factories for unsafe working conditions and violations, and at the same time he was doing that or soon after he started doing that, you know, Wal-Mart sent this team down there to monitor him and promptly fired him after he started writing up some of these factories.

There are other examples. There was another employee, Jared Bowen, who worked for an executive that was fired for, among other things, embezzling corporate funds. Wal-Mart wanted to clean house and get rid of all of these folks. They fired Jared Bowen, one of their employees, who then sued them, and Wal-Mart said, "Oh, we didn’t fire you for having anything to do with that scandal. We fired you for lying about your college transcripts," and promptly posted his college transcripts on their website.

You know, there are other instances of Wal-Mart monitoring personal emails between employees that aren’t on their corporate system. And then this story in the Wall Street Journal sort of blows the lid off of the entire threat research operation, this idea that — Wal-Mart’s program to spy on reporters, shareholders, you know, company critics. They’re taking it a little far. I mean, it goes above and beyond reasonable expectations of corporate security.

AMY GOODMAN: And Barbra Ehrenreich goes on to show that link with the New York Times, because it says, "In fact, the cold war thriller analogy is not entirely fanciful. New York Times reporter Michael Barbaro, who related the story of Wal-Mart’s stalking of Lynn and his colleague, also reports that the company’s security department is staffed by former top officials of the CIA and the FBI. Along the same lines, Jeffrey Goldberg provides a chilling account […] in the […] New Yorker. Although instructed not to write down anything he saw, he found a 'dark, threadbare room,'" when he provides this chilling account of his visit to Wal-Mart’s Bentonville "war room." He says, "he found a 'dark, threadbare room... its walls painted battleship gray,' where only two out of five of the occupants will even meet his eyes. In general, he found the Bentonville fortress 'not unlike the headquarters of the National Security Agency.'"

Nu Wexler, who are the FBI and CIA officials who work for Wal-Mart?

NU WEXLER: Well, I mean, the head of Wal-Mart’s corporate security operation is a man by the name of Ken Senser, who ran internal investigations at the CIA for over ten years. There are other former FBI and CIA agents that they’ve hired up. You know, I mean, it’s sort of — at the time the first New York Times eavesdropping scandal broke a couple of months ago, Wal-Mart said, "Oh, this is one rogue employee, operating on his own, using his own personal equipment," and I think that smelled funny to a lot of reporters and certainly to us, as well.

You know, the equipment that was required to do this was very expensive. Some estimates peg the cost at about a half a million dollars, and some security experts said that it just wasn’t possible for somebody to be doing this just on their own. Hobbyists don’t do that. They don’t go out and pull text messages and phone conversations off of cell phones out of the air just for fun. And what the Journal story reveals is that it was part of a much larger operation, that now a US attorney in Arkansas is actually looking into to try to figure out what exactly they were doing and whether it was legal for Wal-Mart to eavesdrop on private citizens.

AMY GOODMAN: Now, Nu Wexler, we weren’t able to reach the group Up Against the Wal, another Wal-Mart critic organization. But this issue of infiltrating the group, what do you know about that? Do you have any evidence of that in your group? And what are you demanding right now?

NU WEXLER: Well, I mean, we don’t have any specific evidence of Wal-Mart infiltrating Wal-Mart Watch. We certainly look, you know, when we’re interviewing potential job applicants or talking to whistleblowers, I mean, are aware of that and certainly trying to be careful, you know, in that respect.

But, you know, one of the things —- we sent Wal-Mart CEO Lee Scott a letter yesterday, asking him whether they had eavesdropped on our organization, whether if we went to Bentonville in subsequent visits, you know, to Arkansas, whether we would be monitored. We’ll probably have a presence at the shareholders meeting in June. We are shareholders. We do have proxy slips for admission. Certainly not with the intent -—

AMY GOODMAN: Where is that meeting?

NU WEXLER: Wal-Mart holds it every year not too far from their corporate headquarters in Bentonville. They hold it in the basketball arena at the University of Arkansas, down the road, in Fayetteville, Arkansas.

AMY GOODMAN: Are you going to sue?

NU WEXLER: We haven’t decided just yet. We’ve sent a letter to Wal-Mart CEO Lee Scott, asking them what other information they’ve collected, and we hope they answer. We hope they let us know.

AMY GOODMAN: Nu Wexler, I want to thank you for joining us, communications director for Wal-Mart Watch, that’s based in Washington, D.C.

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