Paul Nitze: Bank of America a bad actor
There are so many attractions in the media circus that is Wikileaks, so many angles to pursue, that the mini-scandal known as “Chamberleaks” has barely registered. With recent articles in most of the big daily papers, that may change, but to my mind the Chamberleaks story has resonance no matter where it goes from here.For months now Julian Assange has boasted that he’s sitting on a cache of internal e-mails and other private documents from a major American bank, e-mails that are sure to trigger loads of embarrassment and recrimination. Reuters and other news outlets have recently reported that this trove is in fact a Bank of America executive’s hard drive, with documents dating to 2006. Oh, and according to Assange, these documents may be “a bore.”So much for dropping a bombshell. Not that we needed further proof that Assange’s messiah complex is fed not by disclosure, but by drumming up maximum media attention. And on that metric, he’s succeeded with the Bank of America e-mail tease. Turns out that whatever’s on that hard drive, Bank of America and its proxies have already sprung into action.Wikileaks has been aided in recent months by a sympathetic group of hackers called “Anonymous.” Anonymous leapt into the fray with denial of service attacks on the firms that cut commercial ties with Wikileaks last year under government pressure. And more recently it has been engaged in all out cyber war with a corporate security firm called HB Gary.And here is where the Chamberleaks story originates. Once Anonymous found out that HB Gary was behind an effort to expose its members, the group hacked into HB Gary’s e-mail and Twitter accounts and fed that material to the media.HB Gary and a couple of other small Internet security firms had put together a pitch to Hunton & Williams, a law firm hired by Bank of America to play defense against Wikileaks. In short, HB Gary proposed playing counterespionage hardball against Wikileaks by mounting a secret, illegal smear campaign against major Wikileaks donors and mainstream journalists considered supportive of the group. They also pitched the U.S. Chamber of Commerce on a similar smear campaign against liberal groups critical of the Chamber, which is how the scandal got its name.If you want the details, read Glenn Greenwald’s breathless coverage at Salon.com. Greenwald, along with my old Harvard Crimson colleague Jennifer 8 Lee, was among the journalists targeted in the HB Gary pitch as Wikileaks fellow travelers. I’ll forgive you if, once you’ve plowed through the details of Chamberleaks, you’ll ask what all the fuss is about. On one level, this is a bit of media navel-gazing pitting a rogue, contract-hungry security firm against a motley crew of hackers, leakers and liberal journalists.I can’t help but view the story through a larger lens, and from that broader perspective, the story has me depressed. Reading the Chamberleaks coverage, I’ve found it impossible to see Bank of America as anything but a bad actor. Forget the old days of banking, when firms’ reputations stood on fiduciary loyalty to their clients, and banks’ managers went down with the ship. Those days are long gone and I’ll settle for far less. How about a bank that competes in a mostly open marketplace and is subject to meaningful government oversight, if only so it doesn’t take us with it if it fails?The Bank of America that emerges in this coverage is a really abhorrent corporate animal. It comes across as an institution that doesn’t compete by offering better services for lower prices, but rather by stifling oversight, striking back against its critics, and using its political patrons to squeeze all manner of rents from the government. Huge size guarantees that it will be protected when its balance sheet goes red. The failure of meaningful financial reform has allowed Bank of America to carry on business as usual, and you can rest assured that it isn’t chastened one bit. If American history provides any guidance, the one ray of hope is the media. When government fails, won’t journalists ferret out the rot? Not if there aren’t any journalists left.The Chamberleaks scandal is what happens when the media is mostly sitting on the sidelines of investigative reporting. Self-interested actors like Julian Assange leak illegally obtained material on their timeline and on their terms. Other self-interested parties like HB Gary and Anonymous kick up dirt on each other. And the few journalists who haven’t been downsized or furloughed out of the industry are now apparently the targets of corporate security firms. Would-be Woodwards and Bernsteins aren’t likely to go into a profession in which, should they miraculously manage to keep current on their mortgage, they’ll face a personal smear campaign if they cross a big corporation.I’m not under any illusions about the current state of the American banking industry or the capacity of either party to reform it. But I had nourished the hope that the media would provide a critical check. What Chamberleaks shows us is that when it comes to exposing corporate malfeasance, the fourth estate is under-manned, out-gunned, and beholden to the likes of Wikileaks for its raw material.
Paul Nitze has been a part-time Aspenite his entire life. He currently lives in Washington, D.C.
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