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BofA Taking Wikileaks Threat Seriously

Bank of America has not been specifically named as a target of Wikileaks, at least not directly; everything out there is more on the order of speculation. And yet they either know something particular about that speculation or they’re just proceeding with an abundance of caution. They’ve begun a document review led by a “chief risk officer” (I didn’t know BofA actually managed their risk; must be a new hire).

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.

Booz Allen Hamilton is a pretty heavy hitter, so this is a serious review.

I’m not sure what BofA can do to minimize any damage in the event that material gets released; they’d probably do better to join the chorus of those marginalizing Wikileaks and destroy the messenger. I’m sure they’re readying alternate explanations for whatever their most horrific documents say. In addition, the bank has bought up a bunch of negative-sounding domain names. But that’s not going to really stand up as effective crisis management in the face of the evidence. There’s a large cottage industry that would relish the opportunity to pore through BofA documents and take the bank down. This could prove far more damaging than the State Department cables, which have actually been substantive, but which have been drowned out by the focus on Wikileaks and Julian Assange.

Interestingly, BofA speculates that Assange has documents related to the Merrill Lynch or Countrywide mergers:

With the data trail cold, one working theory both inside and outside the bank is that internal documents in Mr. Assange’s possession, if any, probably came from the mountains of material turned over to the Securities and Exchange Commission, Congressional investigators and the New York attorney general’s office during separate investigations in 2009 and 2010 into the bank’s acquisition of Merrill Lynch.

As it happens, Mr. Assange’s first mention of the Bank of America hard drive, in October 2009, coincided with hearings by the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform into the Merrill merger, and with wide-ranging requests for information by the committee […]

In addition to the Merrill documents, the team is reviewing material on Bank of America’s disastrous acquisition in 2008 of Countrywide Financial, the subprime mortgage specialist, the officials said. The criticism of Bank of America’s foreclosure procedures centers mostly on loans it acquired in the Countrywide deal, and one possibility is that the documents could show unscrupulous or fraudulent lending practices by Countrywide.

Now that would not necessarily be anything new, but it could lead to more lawsuits over repurchases of mortgage-backed securities affiliated with Countrywide. There’s probably enough in the public domain already to facilitate that if a favorable court ruling ensues, however.

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David Dayen

David Dayen