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The Guardian/UK

Lessons In Disingenuousness

Wolfowitz's Approach To Governance At The World Bank, It Seems, Wasn't Very Different During His Tenure As Defence Secretary. Is Blair The Same?

Philippe Sands

Whatever anyone may think about the gravity of the conflict issue that made the headlines, the real cause of Paul Wolfowitz's downfall seems to have been his approach to governance.

The World Bank's executive directors created an ad hoc group, assigned to "acquire information" on possible violations of staff rules in favor of a staff member associated with the president. Last Monday the ad hoc group published its second report.

The report makes fascinating reading. Apparently, Mr Wolfowitz took the position that "no rules applied to the situation, and therefore no rules could have been broken in resolving the matter as he did" (Para 74). He also took a decision "not to consult the World Bank General Counsel, or any other staff of the World Bank Legal Vice Presidency" (para 75) and "directed the Vice President for Human Resources, who was dealing with the issue, not to consult the General Counsel or any other members of the World Bank legal office" (para 98).

The ad hoc group did not pull its punches: "The Group finds that these actions effectively deprived the institution of any acceptable legal safeguard. It resulted in the established governance structure of the Bank ... being subverted. The fact that this was done without being disclosed to the Executive Directors, or to any appropriate Bank officials outside the small circle dealing with this sensitive matter, further compounded the problem." (Para 98.)

These passages, and those that follow, shed light on the Mr Wolfowitz's modus operandi: avoid legal advice that is contrary to the position you want to adopt. That can be achieved by cutting the institution's established lawyers out of the process and then bringing in your own lawyers to provide advice that supports your policy position. The ad hoc group found that Mr Wolfowitz's decision "to resort to outside legal advice was "flawed in several respects" (para 101).


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Reading the report, I couldn't help but wonder whether the same approach was taken by Mr Wolfowitz when he was Donald Rumsfeld's Deputy Secretary of Defense. In that role he participated in the decision to approve new techniques for the interrogation of detainees at Guantánamo. Those techniques were plainly inconsistent with the Geneva convention. Yet the lawyers consulted by Mr Wolfowitz gave a green light. The senior military lawyers - who later objected - were cut out of the process that led to the initial decision.

That is perhaps not altogether different from the approach taken by Mr Blair to the war in Iraq. The prime minister ignored the advice of the Foreign Office lawyers that war would be illegal. The cabinet did not see the attorney general's legal advice of March 7, 2003. All they got was the truncated - and rather different - "view" that he expressed 10 days later. The Butler report expressed concern about the "informality and circumscribed character" of policy making on the decision to go to war in Iraq. This risked reducing "the scope for informed collective political judgment".

The similarities, and the implications, are there for those who wish to see them.

Phillipe Sands QC is a practicing barrister in the Matrix Chambers and a professor of international law at University College London.

© 2007 The Guardian

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