Saturday, December 18, 2010

Early WikiLeaks censors had ties to CitiGroup

I began looking into the attacks on WikiLeaks back in April.   Since then I have found it interesting to examine the situation not only by focusing on particularly hostile institutions (CNN, the Pentagon, Amazon, etc.), but also with reference to influential individuals.  Today I want to focus on the decision makers at two organizations which led initial attacks on WikiLeaks after the first cables were made available. 

Arguably the two most powerful initiatives aimed against WikiLeaks were 1) the decision by MasterCard to block payments to WikiLeaks that was soon followed by Visa and Amex, depriving the organization of funding; and 2) the decision by the White House Office of Management and the Budget (OMB) to censor viewing of WikiLeaks documents by employees of the federal government.   This fear campaign targets three million Americans and extends as far as Antarctica.

I. MasterCard
MasterCard was the first major credit card to block WikiLeaks.    At the time I blogged:
In April 2010, Ajay Banga became MasterCard's new CEO.  The previous year, when Americans were losing jobs in vast numbers and houses were being shuttered, Banga had brought home $13.5 million working for CitiGroup.   This payment included "a large sign-on bonus" and a stock award to make up for compensation he was "giving up" by leaving Citigroup.    
As I discussed in a previous post, MasterCard's pioneering decision was justified on the basis of a totally unsubstantiated assertion (that WikiLeaks had done something illegal).   

II.  Office of Management and the Budget (OMB)
In the United States the most overt act of censorship against WikiLeaks was a threat issued by the Office of Management and the Budget (OMB) against federal civil servants.  The threat letter, signed by the OMB director, warned federal employees not to access WikiLeaks cables (despite these being available to the public).   It was one of the first executive decisions by director Jacob Lew, who had only been confirmed to head the OMB on Nov. 18.  According to the Washignton Times:
President Obama's choice to be the government's chief budget officer received a bonus of more than $900,000 from Citigroup Inc. last year -- after the Wall Street firm for which he worked received a massive taxpayer bailout.
When asked at yesterday's House Judiciary Committee meeting about the wisdom of censoring federal employee access to the already-public leaks, Ralph Nader called OMB's actions "chilling."  He pointed out that treating federal empoyees this way is not the way to "induce a conscientious kind of employee."  

Speaking of conscientious behavior, as the new CitiGroup-enriched director of the OMB was telling federal employees what they couldn't read, the previous director of the OMB, Peter Orszag announced that he would be moving to CitiGroup.  James Fallows believes the move is inappropriate:
Over the past two-plus years, Obama (and GW Bush) policies played a crucial role in saving Citi -- and in not holding its executives (or other senior financial-world figures) accountable for polices that brought on the world financial crisis or reining in top-end pay as profitability has returned. Now a senior member of the Obama team -- Orszag was budget director -- was going straight to one of those top-end jobs, even as his former colleagues in the administration have their hands full fighting the social, economic, and political effects of the crisis on "ordinary" Americans who can't find jobs or are losing their homes.
If not from the Washington press corps (ABC News, etc), Fallows has certainly garnered strong support for his critique of Peter Orszag's behavior from the country's military veterans.

So what?
I think it's interesting that two people at the receiving end of the largest federal bank bailout in history stand at the leading edge of coordinated efforts to silence WikiLeaks.   My examples illustrate how difficult it is to determine where corporate America ends and the federal government begins.   They prove nothing beyond that.   Still...

During an interview with Forbes Magazine, Julian Assange announced that early in 2011 WikiLeaks will release a damaging leak concerning a large US bank.  Conventional wisdom says it's Bank of America.    But if we have learned anything these past few years, it's that conventional wisdom is often wrong.   I'm with Mahi Joe on this one.

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