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Kill the messenger

Insider reveals Wal-Mart’s cold war with the press.


WAL-MART: Listening.
  • WAL-MART: Listening.

Though the public usually doesn’t get a glimpse inside the world of multi-national corporate information control, Wal-Mart’s spin machinery has gotten a thorough airing out in recent weeks, thanks to a former insider going public.

As detailed in a series of stories in the Wall Street Journal, 19-year Wal-Mart employee Bruce Gabbard — once part of the company’s low-key “Threat Research and Analysis Group” — talked about the company’s internal surveillance unit after he was fired in March. Since the article appeared, the result for Gabbard has been an avalanche of legal action, including a lawsuit against him for divulging company’s trade secrets, and — as of Monday — a restraining order handed down by a Bentonville judge that keeps him from revealing any more “Wal-Mart information” to the press.

Gabbard’s ongoing saga began in March, when the U.S. attorney for the Western District called Wal-Mart headquarters, telling the Bentonville giant that the Justice Department was looking into allegations that Wal-Mart employees may have violated wiretapping laws. Soon after, Gabbard and his immediate supervisor, Jason Hamilton, were fired for taping incoming and outgoing calls between New York Times reporters and Wal-Mart public relations personnel, and for intercepting text messages sent to and from Wal-Mart employees.

Gabbard soon went public, revealing that Wal-Mart’s keyhole peeping was significantly bigger than two bad, low-level apples and the overzealous use of a tape recorder.

While none of the tactics Gabbard described to the Wall Street Journal is quite illegal, the picture he paints of deep Wal-Mart culture is sordid and rather dark, especially for a company whose public face is all sweetness.

Started by ex-CIA and FBI wonks, Wal-Mart’s Threat Research and Analysis Group sounds like something out of a Tom Clancy novel, including a glass-walled headquarters-within-a-headquarters that insiders nicknamed “The Bat Cave.” Gabbard said surveillance efforts by the Threat Research and Analysis Group ramped up dramatically after a November 2005 story in the New York Times, detailing a secret memo in which Executive Vice President for Benefits Susan Chambers suggested that, in order to cut health care costs, the sick or unhealthy should be discouraged from applying for employment.

“Our job was to plug any information hole,” Gabbard told the WSJ. “That was the primary reason for our team to be there.”

Gabbard said that included spying on critics, journalists, and Wal-Mart employees, planting a mole at an anti-Wal-Mart gathering, sweeping executive offices for recording devices, and intercepting employee and vendor e-mails. Gabbard told the WSJ that Wal-Mart went so far as to develop software that allowed them to read employee e-mails sent from second party hosting sites like Yahoo and Hotmail.

While Gabbard told the Wall Street Journal that he taped reporter phone calls on his own in an off-the-clock attempt to catch employees acting as sources in news stories, he insists that the bulk of his activities were done with the full knowledge and support of his supervisors.

For now, however, anything else he might have to say about the issue has been legally muffled. On Monday, Gabbard was hit with a gag order. Handed down by a Bentonville judge, the ruling orders Gabbard to provide Wal-Mart attorneys with the names of anyone he has discussed “Wal-Mart information” with since Jan. 15, 2007, and to hand over any documents or electronic data about the company that might still be in his possession. The lawsuit claims that Gabbard violated trade secret law.

Stay tuned, lovers of truth. While Corporate America has never been very cozy with the journalistic watchdogs tasked with keeping them semi-honest, the Gabbard story shows just high-tech the corporate war on the press has become. Before long, a colleague told to us recently, the only way a reporter will be able to talk to a confidential source is by carrier pigeon.

Do yourself a favor: invest now in birdshot and nets.

I’ve got a secret…


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