About a year ago, Julian Assange's WikiLeaks, the anti-secrecy organization that became a global sensation with the release of tens of thousands of US diplomatic cables and military field reports, said it had hit paydirt again: Seven years worth of emails from the private consulting firm Stratfor, about 5 million in all, that were stolen by hackers.
It had been 24 months since the big leaks, which the US alleges were orchestrated by Pvt. Bradley Manning, a soldier currently detained awaiting trial by the army on charges that include aiding the enemy, theft of public records, and computer fraud. On Saturday, Private Manning will enter his 1,000th day of detention. Mr. Assange has fared relatively better. Neither he nor anyone at WikiLeaks has been charged with the release of the US documents, but after losing an extradition battle in the UK over sexual assault allegations he faces in Sweden, he fled to Ecuador's London embassy, where he's lived for the past 8 months.
Nevertheless, most of his energy and that of WikiLeaks have been tied up in his fight against extradition to Sweden (he insists that the allegations, stemming from complaints from two women, are spurious and part of a conspiracy between the US, UK, and Sweden) and leaks have been few and far between.
He had hoped that the Stratfor emails would get WikiLeaks back on track, and trumpeted them as a major anti-secrecy coup. But he and his supporters don't appear to understand that Stratfor, its own PR to the contrary, is less of an intelligence player and more of an analyst of open sources. Few of the thousands of emails of Stratfor's that WikiLeaks have released in the past year have garnered much press attention. That's mostly because, unlike the US cables, they aren't very interesting.
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 function.
Today comes a rather humorous example with a potentially alarming undercurrent (that I'll explain in a minute). Today WikiLeaks released some new Stratfor emails (it's labeling the Stratfor dump, rather self-importantly, the "Global Intelligence Files.") That caught the eye of a supporter who tweeted "New #Stratfor docs: US soldier stealing $22M from Iraq?" This was duly retweeted by the main WikiLeaks account.
That's pretty eye catching, right? Well, until you open the file.
It begins with a wry comment from a Stratfor employee, who was forwarding something on to his colleagues "Now they're getting really creative - anyone want to help a poor soldier get rid of some money?" The forwarded text has the subject line "Dear Friend," and begins:
My name is Sgt.Walter Evans, an American soldier; with Swiss Background, serving in the military of the 3rd Infantry Division in Iraq with a very
desperate need for Assistance. I and my partners moved one of the boxes containing funds which we believe is belonging to Saddam Hussein in March 2003, the total fund in this box is (TWENTY-TWO MILLION UNITED STATE DOLLARS), this fund had been moved via a safe Diplomatic Courier Service to a secured security company...
Basically since we are working for the American government we cannot keep these funds, we are Three (3) persons in involved. This means that you will take 25% percent and 75% will be for me / my partners.
Anyone who has used email since the mid-1990s will immediately recognize this for what it is: a variant of the Nigerian scam, a con-artist come-on that always revolves around some prince/lucky treasure hunter/disgraced politician/international banker who promises you an enormous financial windfall if you'll just come to his assistance with some money up front (to facilitate the eventual transfer of the loot to his "dear friend.") This isn't intelligence, it isn't even analysis. It's spam. And that's obvious to any media literate person who reads the first two sentences.
Now we get to the alarming part. When WikiLeaks released the US embassy and military documents, it failed to take steps to protect the identities of confidential sources to US officials, putting people in country's across the word at potential danger for reprisal killings or arrest. That's one of the reasons the army charged Manning (still not convicted of any crime) with aiding the enemy.
While I'm of the opinion that the odds of anything potentially dangerous being found in the Stratfor emails is very, very low, this release is a sign that there's next to no vetting going on. Since WikiLeaks, unlike me, believes there's big secrets lurking in this stuff, shouldn't they be taking steps to read stuff before they release it? And if they are, how on earth did this get by them?
It's been a rough time for Mr. Assange and his organization. Earlier this month, Jemima Khan, an associate editor of The New Statesman in the UK, became the latest in a string of stalwart supporters of Assange to abandon ship. She was one of the people who had posted bail for Assange while he fought extradition and lost the money when he fled to the Ecuador Embassy. On February 7, she wrote:
It may well be that the serious allegations of sexual assault and rape are not substantiated in court, but I have come to the conclusion that these are all matters for Swedish due process and that Assange is undermining both himself and his own transparency agenda – as well as doing the US department of justice a favour – by making his refusal to answer questions in Sweden into a human rights issue. There have been three rounds in the UK courts and the UK courts have upheld the European Arrest Warrant in his name three times. The women in question have human rights, too, and need resolution. Assange’s noble cause and his wish to avoid a US court does not trump their right to be heard in a Swedish court. I don’t regret putting up bail money for Assange but I did it so that he would be released while awaiting trial, not so that he could avoid answering to the allegations.
She concluded her piece by writing that "it would be a tragedy if a man who has done so much good were to end up tolerating only disciples and unwavering devotion, more like an Australian L Ron Hubbard." The Stratfor emails, for now at least, are not going to do much to turn things around for Assange.