February 27, 2012

I love WikiLeaks — by which I mean that any organization that helps ferret out the secrets of states or the nefarious secrets of corporations deserves a cozy place in my heart. But as anyone who has experienced my love can tell you, it’s not always lovely. So I don’t feel bad at all about taking the business end of my press-crit rake to the latest WikiLeaks project, “The Global Intelligence Files.”

The Files contain in excess of 5 million emails from the Texas-based private intelligence firm Stratfor. WikiLeaks appears to have obtained the email from the hackers at Anonymous, who nicked the haul late last year. There may be great stuff in the 5 million emails, but the files released thus far, which International Business Times puts at 194 emails, underwhelm.

We learn, for instance, that Coca-Cola asked Stratfor for some intelligence on the animal-rights group PETA in 2009 in relation to the coming Winter Olympics in Vancouver: How many PETA supporters in Canada? How inclined toward activism are they? What relation does PETA Canada have to PETA U.S.A? Stuff like that. Stratfor’s vice-president for intelligence, Fred Burton, purportedly shares that he knows about a classified investigation of PETA operatives that the FBI has produced and that he’ll see what he can “uncover.” Another Stratfor employee assigns an intern to the project. In WikiLeaks lingo, this amounts to Coca-Cola “Contracting Stratfor to Spy on PETA.” If asking an intern to look up some information constitutes spying, you could say that I’ve been in the espionage business for 30 years and my operatives have probed hundreds of government bodies, public institutions and corporations. This particular WikiLeaks dump should probably be taken to the dump and dumped.

International Business Times has condensed today several of the Stratfor emails into straightforward, compact stories whose headlines may sound sensational but then fail to deliver. The IBT story “Stratfor Monitored Bhopal Activists ‘Yes Men’” alleges that Stratfor “monitored and analyzed” both Bhopal activists and the Yes Men political prankster group on behalf of Dow Chemical, which now owns the Bhopal chemical plant. I wouldn’t put anything past Dow, but keeping an eye on your political opponents doesn’t seem beyond the bend. Likewise, “Stratfor Plotted with Goldman Sachs to Set Up Investment Fund” glimmers with journalistic possibility, but swap out the word “Plotted” for “Planned” and you’ve captured the gist of the story. Again, there is a safe bet that something nefarious may be going on here; when an outfit like Stratfor teams up with Goldman Sachs, they don’t intend to stage teddy bear picnics. But wouldn’t it make supreme sense to pair an intelligence gatherer with an investing operation? Where is the story?

And so on. “Israeli Commandos Have Destroyed Iran Nuclear Facilities, says Stratfor” doesn’t say much more about the emails it’s based on than can be gleaned from the headline. “Stratfor Says Attack on Iran a Euro Crisis Diversion,” also from IBT, is completely conjectural. “US Ambassador to Russia ‘Scared to Death of Putin’” is a second-hand report. “Stratfor Predicts Huge Oil Profits from Attack on Iran” states the obvious. If this is intelligence, I don’t want to get anywhere near stupidity.

One could make a case that this maxim — “Admit nothing, deny everything and make counter-accusations” — expressed by Stratfor Vice-President Fred Burton, exudes the sinister. But read the context. Burton is making a joke while he apologizes for having stolen someone’s lunch (“Amy’s Pesto Tortellini”) from the office kitchen’s freezer.

Over at the Nation, Greg Mitchell has corralled an early set of first reactions to the Stratfor emails by the reporters who cover this beat. Talking Points Memo‘s Carl Franzen complains of a lack of “major revelations from the documents yet, unlike Wikileaks’ previous notable dumps.” Wired‘s Danger Room tweeted: “Wow, these #Stratfor emails are really hot stuff. Next up: [Stratfor CEO] George Friedman’s coveted tapioca pudding recipe.” The most trenchant critique of the Stratfor emails came from Carl Bildt, foreign minister of Sweden, who tweeted this objection to a Stratfor email about him: “Wikileaks released obscure email saying I’m ‘super tall, has photographic memory and is very smart’. Isn’t this slightly ridiculous?”

The closest WikiLeaks has come to making news today is the London Telegraph story that refers to Stratfor emails that make a variety of assertions about what Pakistani intelligence knew about Osama Bin Laden’s residency in Abbottabad and Hugo Chavez’s health. How much of the contents of Stratfor emails is true and how much of it is speculation or plain wrong is anybody’s guess. As Dan Murphy points out in his Christian Science Monitor piece today, the claims that Stratfor is some sort of “shadow CIA” — a label that Stratfor doesn’t really discourage — must also be balanced with what we know about the organization. “I’ve found some Stratfor analysis to be flat wrong,” he writes. It’s safe to bet that some Stratfor emails are probably superflat wrong.

Today’s email dump and the first set of stories based on them aren’t a complete waste because they help demystify both WikiLeaks and Stratfor. Both organizations are capable of doing “good” work. But little of that is on display here.


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PHOTO: WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange speaks at a news conference in London, Feb. 27, 2012. REUTERS/Finbarr O’Reilly

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i think you are on to something, jack. i think if you pursue the story a bit further you might discover that strafor is a scam that’s been pulled on a lot of folks! how much did goldman pay, coke etc. for what?? >

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