NEW YORK ( TheStreet) -- In its latest perception battle, Bank of America ( BAC - Get Report) is up against an international man of mystery who appears to have a loaded publicity gun.

In just a matter of hours, he robbed shareholders of as much as $4 billion.

The man, of course, is Julian Assange, founder of WikiLeaks known for blockbuster data dumps that have humiliated top diplomats and put lives in danger.

On Tuesday, after investors realized that Assange probably has a mark on Bank of America as his next target, shares of the Charlotte, N.C.-based banking behemoth plunged as much as 3.5%, hitting a new 52-week low of $10.91.

>>>BofA May Be WikiLeaks Target

Just last weekend, Assange's organization achieved its latest coup by releasing 250,000 communiqués between the U.S. and its foreign allies. The move embarrassed officials and strained diplomatic relationships. It also led to condemnation from the Obama administration, which has also tried - unsuccessfully - to prevent WikiLeaks from releasing other classified military documents as well.

After WikiLeaks' latest hoorah, Forbes published an interview with Assange in which he claimed to have damning information about a large U.S. bank.

Assange declined to name the bank, though adept Google searchers were able to find a reference to Bank of America in another interview with the ashen Web pirate last year. In that October 2009 Computer World article, Assange said he had 5 gigabytes of data from the hard drive of a Bank of America executive and was determining how to present it in the most effective way.

It's hard to tell what Assange could have up his sleeve -- and that's exactly the reason Bank of America's stock is selling off so hard.

Rochdale Securities analyst Richard Bove suggested that it may be some information about Countrywide's lending practices, its "friends of Angelo" program that gave sweetheart mortgages to government officials or the Merrill Lynch acquisition. But all of those topics appear unlikely, given the way Assange described the information. He compared it to Enron, cited "flagrant violations, unethical practices that will be revealed" and characterized it as a window into "the ecosystem of corruption."

"It will give a true and representative insight into how banks behave at the executive level in a way that will stimulate investigations and reforms, I presume," he told Forbes, concluding that the disclosure "could take down a bank or two."


Bank of America responded by saying, essentially, that this is old news and it doesn't know what Assange is talking about: "More than a year ago WikiLeaks claimed to have the computer hard drive of a Bank of America executive. Aside from the claims themselves we have no evidence that supports this assertion," a Bank of America spokesman told TheStreet. "We are unaware of any new claims by WikiLeaks that pertain specifically to Bank of America."

Needless to say, BofA's statement didn't inspire confidence.

There are two polar opposite - but equally valid - viewpoints on how the "megaleak" about the "megabank" might play out. Unfortunately, both views are founded on shaky ground.

One camp thinks Bank of America shares are selling off on nothing more than hype. But that view relies on a belief that its previous management would have acted in a scrupulous manner and disclosed important information up-front - something it had a terrible track record of doing. (Remember the Merrill bonuses, the Merrill losses and the bullying from Bernanke and Paulson to complete the deal?)

The other camp thinks the headline risk to Bank of America isn't worth the potential upside. But that view relies on the word of a guy who sounds, frankly, a little bonkers.

Assange's statements sound eerily like a conspiracy theorist with a little too much power. He also tends to overstate the importance of WikiLeaks' disclosures at times. For instance, while the diplomat leaks are certainly humiliating, there doesn't appear to be any groundbreaking information in them. And while earlier leaks provided details on U.S. military strategy, failures and terror targets, it's questionable whether making those details publicly available offset the danger posed to U.S. forces and foreign allies.

Assange began his career as a computer hacker, then hop-scotched around the world as something like an international genius-vagabond. The mother of his child left him in the early 1990s after police raided their home. More recently, Sweden issued an arrest warrant for Assange based on rape allegations and he now seems to be free on borrowed time. He's been hopping, once again, among various countries, unsure whether any of them will honor Sweden's potential request for extradition. (On Tuesday evening, Interpol added Assange to its list of "wanted" suspects, making it even more likely that he will have to face authorities soon.)

It annoys Assange that media outlets focus on any of that - or even question him at all. He would like to be thought of as an unorthodox journalist who's breaking the rules in the name of free speech and capitalism. Assange walked off the set of CNN when an interviewer inquired about the effects of his organization's leaks and gave lip to Larry King when asked about his personal life.

In the worst-case scenario for bank investors, Assange has got a data trove that threatens to take down not just one particular bank but cause a domino effect among any that have engaged in similar tactics. WikiLeaks is expected to release the information next year, which leaves plenty of time for speculation, fear-mongering, navel-gazing and leaks about the leaks.

In the best-case scenario, Ken Lewis' simply had a large, provocative iTunes playlist.

The outcome is likely to land somewhere in the middle, much like other scandals that have plagued big banks of late - from the SEC's investigation of Goldman Sachs ( GS - Get Report) to more recent probes into foreclosure practices and worries about exposure to mortgage buybacks:

¿ A big announcement is made, with embarrassing and fearful disclosures.

¿ Big bank stocks - or just one in particular - will sell off.

¿ Speculative investors will make a killing shorting the stock while long investors sit on the sidelines, digesting information.

¿ There are investigations, hearings, statements and settlements.

¿ A few months later, when the stock's on the mend, investors will rib each other about a deal that belonged in the litter box.

It's Wall Street's cycle since the financial crisis began: Wash, rinse, repeat.

-- Written by Lauren Tara LaCapra in New York.

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