by Malcolm Curtis
Swisster.ch | December 7, 2010 | 11:42
The website of PostFinance becomes hard to access as a campaign to overload it is launched by supporters of WikiLeaks after the financial arm of Swiss Post closes an account opened by the Internet organization’s controversial chief, Julian Assange. A PostFinance spokesman tells Swisster it took the action without any external pressure because Assange, who visited Geneva recently, lied about having a residence there.
The authorities of several countries – including Switzerland – have trained their sights on Julian Assange, the editor-in-chief of the controversial WikiLeaks website. Assange became the most talked about man on the planet after his organization began releasing some of the more than 250,000 secret American diplomatic cables it received, reportedly from a low-level US military intelligence officer.
With confidential information laying bare Washington’s sometimes unflattering views about the world, the US Attorney General Eric Holder announced this week that an “ongoing investigation that is criminal in nature” is under way into WikiLeaks. Assange, currently living in England, faces meetings with British police regarding an extradition request over criminal charges related to sexual encounters in Sweden (which he denies).
So speculation ran high when news emerged on Monday that the 39-year-old Australian opened a bank account with PostFinance in Switzerland. Was he setting up residence in the mountain country, where privacy is highly prized and well guarded?
It seemed certainly possible after Assange gave a Geneva address as his place of residence, while opening an account that WikiLeaks said contained 31,000 euros. The account included a “defence fund” and personal assets.
PostFinance, the financial arm of Swiss Post, confirmed the opening of the account but shortly afterward announced that it was being closed because Assange did not, in fact, have a Swiss residence. The organization issued a statement late Monday stating that it was “ending its business relationship” with Assange because “ he provided false information regarding his place of residence during the account opening process’”.
“Assange cannot provide proof of residence in Switzerland and thus does not meet the criteria for a customer relationship with PostFinance,” the bank said. “For this reason, PostFinance is entitled to close his account.”
Computer hackers who support WikiLeaks responded on Tuesday by attacking the bank’s website in a bid to disable it. “The site is sometime inaccessible, sometimes very slow,” Marc Andrey, PostFinance spokesman told Swisster.
Andrey said a team of specialists was at work to minimize further disruptions. “It’s annoying for customers who are seeking information or trying to make online payments,” he said.
But “there is no danger” of personal account information being compromised by the attacks, Andrey said. Activists launched an appeal on Facebook and Twitter to target PostFinance by encouraging large numbers of people to access the bank’s website simultaneously.
Andrey denied any suggestion that PostFinance was under external pressure to close Assange’s account, saying that the organization took the action independently. “The only reason is that he lied to us.”
PostFinance requires account holders to either live in Switzerland or in neighbouring regions of bordering countries, such as France, Germany and Italy, Andrey said. Assange visited Geneva on November 4, when he made a speech to the Swiss Press Club defending his organization.
So far, WikiLeaks has released just over 1,000 of the cables it has received, partly through its website but largely by passing them on to four European publications, including Britain’s The Guardian newspaper, Der Spiegel in Germany, El Pais in Spain and Le Monde in France. The Guardian has shared the information with The New York Times and both newspapers have feasted on the information, which has provided grist for dozens of articles.
The cables are deeply embarrassing for the US, revealing among other things the fact that American diplomats at the United Nations were asked to spy on foreign dignitaries, gathering such information as credit card and frequent-flier numbers, work schedules and other personal details. But much of the information reflects what the public already knows about American policy, and some of it relates to views held by members of the Bush administration, who are no longer in office.
Still, only a small percentage of the cables have so far been released. Assange is warning that he is prepared to release more of them if legal action is taken against him or WikiLeaks.
He said more than 100,000 people have been given the entire cache of cables in encrypted form. “If something happens to us, the key parts will be released automatically,” Assange informed The Guardian’s website.
WikiLeaks has come under pressure in the US, where Amazon withdrew hosting of its site, and it was also forced to change its web address. Supporters of WikiLeaks have countered efforts to shut down the organization’s website by setting up hundreds of “mirror” websites, some of them based in Switzerland, that are capable of releasing and archiving more documents.