What price bad intelligence? Some 5m internal emails from Stratfor, an Austin, Texas-based company that brands itself as a "global intelligence" provider, were recently obtained by Anonymous, the hacker collective, and are being released in batches by WikiLeaks, the whistleblowing website, starting Monday.
The most striking revelation from the latest disclosure is not simply the military-industrial complex that conspires to spy on citizens, activists and trouble-causers, but the extremely low quality of the information available to the highest bidder. Clients of the company include Dow Chemical, Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman and Raytheon, as well as US government agencies like the Department of Homeland Security, the Defense Intelligence Agency and the Marines.
Analysts working on the Middle East for the company appeared to be very poorly informed, with no more experience than a semester of studying abroad, according to journalists who have studied the documents. "They used Google translate to read al-Akbar news articles," says an incredulous Jamal Ghosn, associate editor of that newspaper in Beirut, Lebanon. "This is a guaranteed way for good intelligence to be lost in translation."
Mike Bonnano of the Yes Men, a group of international pranksters who impersonate corporate executives and government leaders to highlight environmental and social abuses, was astonished to discover that his group was being tracked by Stratfor, which was apparently making money selling a list of his public-speaking engagements.
"They [are] making it sound better to clients simply so that they can make money," says Bonnano, after reviewing the material provided to him by WikiLeaks. "We're not talking about good intelligence, we're talking about a lot of information because more information means more money. That does not mean that it's smart."
Bonnano gave another example: Stratfor allegedly sent a memo to Dow Chemical summarising a public blogpost on the use of an environmentally-friendly washing machine used by activists campaigning against the 1984 lethal gas leak from Union Carbide's plant in Bhopal, India, which killed over 2,259 people instantly and an estimated 25,000 over the next few years.
Stratfor is not the first company to be caught selling low-quality "intelligence" to government agencies and multinational corporations. Aaron Barr, then CEO of HB Gary Federal, a Sacramento, California-based company that sells similar services, boasted in 2010 that he could extract information about hackers like Anonymous from social media. In early February 2011, the company website was hacked to reveal the company was selling very inaccurate information about WikiLeaks.
What is more disturbing is that the information revealed about HBGary Federal and Stratfor suggests both companies were also seeking to profit by disrupting journalists and activist groups. HBGary Federal documents suggest that they were marketing a campaign for Bank of America to attack Glenn Greenwald of Salon and for the US Chamber of Commerce to attack the Washington, DC-based thinktank, the Center for American Progress (full disclosure: I do consulting work for the CAP). (There is no evidence Bank of America or the US Chamber of Commerce responded to the alleged offer of these services.)
Likewise, Stratfor has been actively following anti-Union Carbide activist groups like the Bhopal Medical Appeal, a tiny, Brighton, England-based non-profit, which worked with the Yes Men in July 2009 to stage a protest outside the Dow office in Staines in the UK. The newly-released emails suggest that the Dow shut down its offices on that occasion to avoid the protesters, after receiving a Stratfor report.
"Why is a company like Stratfor sniffing around us?" said Colin Toogood, of Bhopal Medical Appeal. "It makes you question how smart they are. How much is this costing? Wouldn't it be better PR to just get out and clean Bhopal up?"
Julian Assange of WikiLeaks says that the emails also reveal that Stratfor has recruited a "global network of informants who are paid via Swiss banks accounts and pre-paid credit cards - which includes government employees, embassy staff and journalists around the world." This, he says, "is corrupt or corrupting because Stratfor is a private intelligence organisation that services governments and private clients."
Assange notes that Stratfor is also seeking to profit directly from this information by partnering in an apparent hedge-fund venture with Shea Morenz, a former Goldman Sachs managing director. He points to an August 2011 document, marked "DO NOT SHARE OR DISCUSS", from Stratfor CEO George Friedman, which says:
"What StratCap will do is use our Stratfor's intelligence and analysis to trade in a range of geopolitical instruments, particularly government bonds, currencies and the like."
The claim that Stratfor buys information from insiders, while seeking to profit from their analysis, could attract the attention of regulators like the Securities and Exchange Commission, which polices Wall Street. This is something that Stratfor is already worried about. In an August 2011 memo released by WikiLeaks, Friedman wrote to his employees:
"We are retaining a law firm to create a policy for Stratfor on the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act. I don't plan to do the perp walk and I don't want anyone here doing it either."
The company has refused to answer any questions about the emails. Instead, it released a short statement (https://www.prnewswire.com/news-releases/stratfor-statement-on-wikileak...) that says:
"Some of the emails may be forged or altered to include inaccuracies; some may be authentic. We will not validate either. Nor will we explain the thinking that went into them. Having had our property stolen, we will not be victimized twice by submitting to questioning about them."
Assange slyly points out that this is in keeping with a lunchroom memo from Fred Barton, Stratfor's vice-president of intelligence, in which he states that he has an unofficial rule:
"Admit nothing, deny everything and make counter-accusations."
Statfor belongs to an extensive industry. In Top Secret America, a new book by Dana Priest and William Arkin of the Washington Post, the authors reveal that there are literally thousands of so-called intelligence analysts hawking equally dubious information to the federal government.
By its very nature, of course, such information is secret and often protected by government order. Nothing short of a major congressional investigation will be able to drill down into this intelligence-industrial cartel to assess not just the quality of the information and the way it was obtained, but whether or not any of it serves the public interest - or the very opposite. That is, unless Anonymous or WikiLeaks gets there and does the work first.