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.

Finbarr O'Reilly/Reuters
WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange holds a document containing leaked information at a news conference in London on Feb. 27. The anti-secrecy group WikiLeaks began publishing on Monday more than five million emails from a US-based global security analysis company that has been likened to a shadow CIA.

Julian Assange and Wikileaks have been desperate for another home run in the 24 months since they began releasing a vast library of US diplomatic cables and military reports from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Mr. Assange's organization has been on the decline since, with credit card companies refusing to process donations, infighting among early Wikileaks programmers that has left it without a secure "drop box" to receive leaks, and early journalistic collaborators like The New York Times and The Guardian falling out with Assange.

But Assange thinks he's hit paydirt again, with seven years of emails stolen from the Texas-based Stratfor, a company that provides intelligence and geopolitical analysis. Stratfor says it generates its own intelligence for reports, though it also relies heavily on open-source data collection. I've read dozens of their reports over the years. I've found some wildly speculative, others accurate but banal, and still others intriguing.

And while I've found some Stratfor analysis to be flat wrong, and so perhaps harmful if conclusions are taken by policymakers at face value, I've never seen anything nefarious or dangerous. Yet today, the

internet is filled with claims that the Stratfor is some kind of "shadow CIA," with ominous warnings about its hidden influence and functions.

The emails were stolen by hackers who claim to be aligned with the amorphous activist group "Anonymous." Though Assange hasn't confirmed they're the source, there was much online crowing by the Anonymous crowd in December that they'd broken into Stratfor's computers.

Assange is of the view there's something dangerous about Statfor. "Here we have a private intelligence firm, relying on informants from the US government, foreign intelligence agencies with questionable reputations and journalists," he told Reuters. "What is of grave concern is that the targets of this scrutiny are, among others, activist organizations fighting for a just cause."

I'm not sure what evidence of "activists fighting for a just cause" being "targeted" by Stratfor will emerge from the millions of emails stolen by hackers from the company's servers (there is evidence that they collected information on Occupy Wall Street protesters but, well, so were lots of journalists). And the first half of that quote on their methods applies to, well, me and any other reporter who's ever covered international affairs. Over the years, I've received information from spies, diplomats, other hacks, and a few really unsavory characters (murderers). If you want information, you go where the information is.

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."

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. 

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