Friday, March 21, 2008

The story behind the story

The flap over Obama's passport file may well have been a case of a few employees whose curiosity led them to flout the rules--although WAPO reports that the breaches of security took place on January 9th, February 21st and March 14th, and Josh Marshal notes that those were the day after the New Hampshire primary, the day of the major debate in Texas and the day the story about Obama's former pastor made the front pages. So maybe there is a political connection, and a parallel to when the first Bush administration got caught looking at Bill Clinton's passport file in 1992.

Even if this does turn out to be merely a case of misplaced curiosity, it illustrates one of the dangers of privatization to which far too little attention has been paid. The individuals involved (at least so far) were employees of two private companies hired to work on computer systems and to process passport applications. They are thus at least one step further removed from the public they serve than government workers would be. Complaints about insensitive bureaucracy are legion; add in a layer of separation between those who are doing the work and the elected officials who are ultimately responsible to the public, and things get much, much worse.

I suggest that one of the reasons for privatization is to provide exactly this distance between the public and those who serve their needs. Private contractors will be responsive to those who wield the big stick--those with money and power. Not coincidentally, they are also the ones who push privatization (Halliburton comes to mind); it works for them on multiple levels, not least that they get the contracts. As it happens, their "conservative" (read "greed-based") political creed treats ordinary people like disposable commodities.

The front page of today's NYT has a horrifying story about an immigration agent who has been arrested and charged with extorting sex from an immigrant seeking a green card. We might hope that this incident will induce the Citizen and Immigration Service to institute reforms that will prevent this sort of abuse in the future. Imagine how much harder it would be to stave off future offenses if that agent's job were out-sourced? (If you don't think so, remember that the Blackwater USA employees who killed a large number of Iraqis in an un-provoked incident have not been prosecuted.)

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