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Texas’ own private CIA

February 28, 2012

The anti-secrecy group Wikileaks claims its got massive dirt on Austin-based private “global intelligence company” Stratfor, saying a trove of over 5 million emails hacked from the company’s servers reveals a shadowy web of informants, collusion with government, and the shuffling of dark corporate cash to offshore tax havens – the “private intelligence Enron,” as Wikileaks chief Julian Assange told a group of reporters in London Monday.

That’s a lot to promise. So far the some 300 internal emails Wikileaks dumped Monday and Tuesday, while embarrassing, contain no real bombs, and may even do more to question the value of the group’s costly tailor-made intelligence reports and analysis.

As Atlantic associate editor Max Fischer argues, “The group’s reputation among foreign policy writers, analysts, and practitioners is poor; they are considered a punchline more often than a source of valuable information or insight.” There’s long been criticism that Stratfor simply uses available, open source material – i.e. news reports out of the regions they’re covering – blending in a heavy dose of gossip (drawn from retired officials, former spooks and others) to provide analysis laced with intelligence jargon. Emails show they were tasked with “tracking” humor-activists the Yes Men and others on behalf of Dow Chemical, a frequent target for their handling of the Bhopal chemical disaster, though it appears Stratfor largely gathered intel by monitoring daily news reports.

In another string of messages, Coca-Cola approaches Stratfor to monitor the activities of PETA activists. It seems the task was handed off to an intern for primary internet research on the group.

Some of the emails contain embarrassing internal banter, like when CEO and founder George Friedman wrote this creep-tastic message to the company’s Latin America analyst Reva Bhalla on how to get more out of a source dishing gossip on Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez’s battle with cancer: “You have to take control of him. Control means financial, sexual or psychological control.”

Friedman trumpeted the company’s prospects this way in a 2004 email: “Everyone in Langley knows that we do things they have never been able to do with a small fraction of their resources. … [M]aybe they can learn.” In another email, Stratfor’s vice president of intelligence, former State Department security agent Fred Burton claimed: “I can get access to the materials seized from the OBL safe house.”

The emails already released reveal Stratfor’s breathtaking client list. The company has scored big fish like Coca-Cola, Goldman Sachs, and Merill Lynch, while also being in the ear, and pockets, of big oil, big agribusiness (emails allude to Stratfor monitoring activities of anti-agribusiness activists on behalf of Archer Daniel Midland), and the military industrial complex, with clients like the Department of Homeland Security, the Marine Corps, and Northrop-Grumman, along with a host of other private military contractors. With exploding drug violence, and growing attention to it, in northern Mexico, Stratfor has also delved deep into analysis of security in Mexico and the cartel trade routes in recent years. Some of the client lists contained in the emails show companies with maquiladoras positioned on the border, particularly south of the Rio Grande Valley, have used Stratfor for private security assessments in the past.

There’s still an odd paradox to consider with Stratfor banking off “intelligence” providing – presumably acquired through anonymous, and official sources dishing secrets they aren’t supposed to – and the internal venom spit over those who would shed light on government secrets. Citing the case of Bradley Manning, accused of leaking classified military documents later published by Wikileaks, Stratfor’s Burton wrote, “Manning should fry and hopefully will,” even while Stratfor analysts mused in other emails over how to cash in on the “leak-focused gravy train.”

And there was clearly no love for Assange even before he put Stratfor in the Wikileaks crosshairs. In late 2010 email, Burton remarked, “Assange is going to make a nice bride in prison. Screw the terrorist.” The following month, Burton dug up some real, secret dirt: “Not for Pub – We have sealed indictment on Assange. Pls protect.”


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