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On Stratfor, Assange and Anonymous just don't get it

Wikileaks' Julian Assange is trumpeting the release of emails stolen from the security analysis and consulting firm Stratfor as a major coup. Here's why he's wrong.

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Wikileak's says the emails "reveal the inner workings of a company that fronts as an intelligence publisher, but provides confidential intelligence services to large corporations, such as Bhopal's Dow Chemical Co., Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, Raytheon and government agencies, including the US Department of Homeland Security, the US Marines and the US Defense Intelligence Agency. The emails show Stratfor's web of informers, pay-off structure, payment laundering techniques and psychological methods."

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The language in that short paragraph is like one long toot on a dog-whistle for the paranoid. There are dozens of companies that provide strategic analysis and intelligence to large corporations. Some of them even employ lots of former CIA operatives and specialize in ferreting out the dirt inside companies. Still others have their own mercenary armies (i.e., Blackwater). Statfor is on the mild end of the scary shadow CIA/stodgy think tank spectrum.

Yet Stratfor, which courts publicity and has a high profile thanks to its free circulation of much of its content, has attracted plenty of speculation over the years. The company's Victoria Allen vents about this in one of the stolen emails. "The media refers to us as a think tank, a political risk consultancy, a security company and worse--academics," she writes. "The Russian media calls us part of the CIA. Arab countries say we are Israelis. It’s wild.  The only things we haven’t been called is a hardware store or Druids."

Indeed, Russia Today, a Kremlin propaganda arm that recently gave Assange his own show, is fond of calling Stratfor a "shadow CIA." (RT, as it's known, hit my radar screen with its fact free reporting that Tripoli wasn't falling last August).

But there is nothing nefarious about collecting and sharing intelligence. And while Wikileaks presents itself as an anti-secrecy organization, there's something more than a little ironic about targeting a group that works on ... revealing secrets. And from where I sit, it's not much of a stretch from targeting a group like Stratfor to going after newspapers or academics. 

That's certainly how Stratfor is seeking to paint the situation. "This is a deplorable, unfortunate — and illegal — breach of privacy," Stratfor said in a press release. "As with last year's hack, the release of these emails is a direct attack on Stratfor. This is another attempt to silence and intimidate the company, and one we reject."

When I was a freelancer in the 1990s, I occasionally did contract work for a private intelligence firm. I was paid to research Indonesian companies. I would take former employees and competitors to lunch and try to find out whether a firm was concealing debts or engaged in asset-stripping. Though I was never told who the clients were, it was clear they were foreign firms interested in investing who had limited on-the-ground assets to conduct research.

I see no shame in this. But if my occasional employer from more than a decade ago had been hacked, my name would probably be included in a list of "paid informants" like the ones Assange is now circulating. Wikileaks is treading a dangerous path, and one that can lead to more concealment of information as easily as it could to less. 

Follow Dan Murphy on Twitter.

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