By NELSON D. SCHWARTZ
Published: January 2, 2011
By the time the conference call ended, it was nearly midnight at Bank of America’s headquarters in Charlotte, N.C., but the bank’s counterespionage work was only just beginning.
Kirsty Wigglesworth/Associated Press Julian Assange has never said explicitly that the data he possesses comes from Bank of America, though he did say that the disclosure would take place sometime early this year.
A day earlier, on Nov. 29, the director of WikiLeaks, Julian Assange, said in an interview that he intended to “take down” a major American bank and reveal an “ecosystem of corruption” with a cache of data from an executive’s hard drive. With Bank of America’s share price falling on the widely held suspicion that the hard drive was theirs, the executives on the call concluded it was time to take action.
Since then, a team of 15 to 20 top Bank of America officials, led by the chief risk officer, Bruce R. Thompson, has been overseeing a broad internal investigation — scouring thousands of documents in the event that they become public, reviewing every case where a computer has gone missing and hunting for any sign that its systems might have been compromised.
In addition to the internal team drawn from departments like finance, technology, legal and communications, the bank has brought in Booz Allen Hamilton, the consulting firm, to help manage the review. It has also sought advice from several top law firms about legal problems that could arise from a disclosure, including the bank’s potential liability if private information was disclosed about clients.
The company’s chief executive, Brian T. Moynihan, receives regular updates on the team’s progress, according to one Bank of America executive familiar with the team’s work, who, like other bank officials, was granted anonymity to discuss the confidential inquiry.
Whether Mr. Assange is bluffing, or indeed has Bank of America in its sights at all, the bank’s defense strategy represents the latest twist in the controversy over WikiLeaks and Mr. Assange.
The United States government has been examining whether Mr. Assange, an Australian, could be charged criminally for the release by WikiLeaks of hundreds of thousands of classified Pentagon and State Department diplomatic cables that became the subject of articles in The New York Times and other publications last month.
The Swedish government is also seeking to question Mr. Assange about rape accusations against him. As he fights extradition from Britain in that case, he remains under house arrest in an English mansion. Mr. Assange has said the timing of the rape accusations was not coincidental, and that he was the victim of a smear campaign led by the United States government.
Despite his legal troubles, Mr. Assange’s threats have grown more credible with every release of secret documents, including those concerning the dumping of toxic waste in Africa, the treatment of prisoners held by the United States at Guantánamo Bay, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and, most recently, the trove of diplomatic cables.
That Mr. Assange might shift his attention to a private company — especially one as politically unpopular as Bank of America or any of its rivals, which have been stained by taxpayer-financed bailouts and the revelation of improper foreclosure practices — raises a new kind of corporate threat, combining elements of law, technology, public policy, politics and public relations.
“This is a significant moment, and Bank of America has to get out in front of it,” said Richard S. Levick, a veteran crisis communications expert. “Corporate America needs to look at what happens here, and how Bank of America handles it.”
Last month, the bank bought up Web addresses that could prove embarrassing to the company or its top executives in the event of a large-scale public assault, but a spokesman for the bank said the move was unrelated to any possible leak.
Then, on Dec. 18, Bank of America may have antagonized Mr. Assange further when it said it would join other companies like MasterCard and PayPal in halting the processing of payments intended for WikiLeaks, citing the possibility the organization’s activities might be illegal.
Mr. Assange has never said explicitly that the data he possesses comes from Bank of America, which is the nation’s largest bank, though he did say that the disclosure would take place sometime early this year.