Wielding the Bank Account Weapon to Block Wikileaks and Others

Ideas and Issues


Little Rock   In the current showdown between the National Security Agency and leaker Edward Snowden, numerous accounts are resuscitating interest and attention on Wikileaks and its huge intel drop of 2010.  Part of this is simply a case of Snowden being unavailable to talk, thereby opening up a huge media hole that demands to be filled and finding Julian Assange and Wikileaks happy to oblige.

            Part of the commentary invariably touches on the fact that a US-initiated shutdown of banking facilities allowing for money transfers to Wikileaks is still crippling the organization.  I keep thinking that Wikileaks has solved this problem, but if they have, the patchwork seems not to be holding, and that problem fascinates me.

            Most people do not realize that when they open an account at a bank, that the bank retains the right to terminate that account for any reason or for no reason at all without offering rhyme or reason or any process of appeal or redress.  Sure they have to provide the customer with notice, usually 30 days, and they have to give the customer their money back in a certified check, but that does not mean that it will be easy to open another account.  Banks by definition used to be seen as conservative institutions caring inordinately for their reputations and ability to command public and customer trust.  I realize that large scale banking has become something more akin to a criminal enterprise, but the cultural history still allows banks to cling to these myths from the past.   All of which boils down to the fact that as much as banks are about making the money, they do not want to be involved in any controversy whatsoever making something like Wikileaks or other politically controversial organizations more endangered by this hidden banking threat than they may realize.

            I’m not sure how many nonprofit CFO’s or controllers have intact contingency plans that would allow them access to alternate accounts or banking arrangements if their work was suddenly in the cross-hairs of controversy and conflict or as realistically the craziness of Congress and the polarization of our times.  I suspect most of them have not looked at the Wikileaks problem or similar problems faced by other groups around the world on the simplest of matters in handling their money, but these are real issues that need to be addressed.   I have seen these problems firsthand, and watched organizations scramble, sometimes on their knees, to try and convince banks to handle their business or others to stand in their stead.  It’s not pretty, and it can be fatal.

            Today’s papers may be full of Wikileaks speculation but seeing that a nonprofit election monitoring organization in Russia was suspended by the government there on specious grounds, after having blown the whistle on election irregularities a couple of years ago, note carefully that one of the key punishments was shutting down their bank accounts for the next six months, effectively strangling the organization to death.

             There are a number of watchwords that come to mind in these cases of bank account closures for whatever reasons including “be prepared,” which would be good, “caveat emptor” or “let the buyer beware,” which is what the banks will remind you when you complain, or the common organizing maxim:  “when you strike the bear, make sure you bring it down,” or…be ready for the attack, which would be something good to remember.