Stratfor Is a Joke and So Is Wikileaks for Taking It Seriously

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The corporate research firm has branded itself as a CIA-like "global intelligence" firm, but only Julian Assange and some over-paying clients are fooled.

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Left, Stratfor chief George Friedman in his Austin office in 2004. Right, Wikileaks' Assange at a press conference today. / AP

On June 2, 2009, Anya Alfano of Stratfor, which describes itself as a private "global intelligence company," sent an email to a colleague requesting some global intelligence on a certain trans-national civilian group on behalf of a powerful international client. That email has now been released to the world, along with five million others like it, by global transparency group Wikileaks, thus revealing Stratfor's shadowy scheme.

According to Anya Alfano's email, Stratfor's target was PETA, the animal rights group, and its client Coca-Cola. Their top secret mission was to find out "How many PETA supporters are there in Canada?" and other tantalizing global secrets that could only be secured through such top-secret means as calling PETA's press office or Googling it. Alfano concluded her chilling email, "I need all the information our talented interns can dig up by COB tomorrow."

"Stratfor is just The Economist a week later and several hundred times more expensive."

Shortly before the release, Wikileaks told the world to prepare for "extraordinary news." In announcing today's release, Wikileaks describes Stratfor as "a company that fronts as an intelligence publisher, but provides confidential intelligence services to large corporations." The group's announcement says that the released emails "show Stratfor's web of informers, pay-off structure, payment-laundering techniques and psychological methods" and calls the company "a money-making scheme of questionable legality." It adds, "The material shows how a private intelligence agency works, and how they target individuals for their corporate and government clients."

Maybe what these emails actually reveal is how a Texas-based corporate research firm can get a little carried away in marketing itself as a for-hire CIA and end up fooling some over-eager hackers into believing it's true.

The group's reputation among foreign policy writers, analysts, and practitioners is poor; they are considered a punchline more often than a source of valuable information or insight. As a former recipient of their "INTEL REPORTS" (I assume someone at Stratfor signed me up for a trial subscription, which appeared in my inbox unsolicited), what I found was typically some combination of publicly available information and bland "analysis" that had already appeared in the previous day's New York Times. A friend who works in intelligence once joked that Stratfor is just The Economist a week later and several hundred times more expensive. As of 2001, a Stratfor subscription could cost up to $40,000 per year.

It's true that Stratfor employs on-the-ground researchers. They are not spies. On today's Wikileaks release, one Middle East-based NGO worker noted on Twitter that when she met Stratfor's man in Cairo, he spoke no Arabic, had never been to Egypt before, and had to ask her for directions to Tahrir Square. Stratfor also sometimes pays "sources" for information. Wikileaks calls this "secret cash bribes," hints that this might violate the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, and demands "political oversight."

For comparison's sake, The Atlantic often sends our agents into such dangerous locales as Iran or Syria. We call these men and women "reporters." Much like Statfor's agents, they collect intelligence, some of it secret, and then relay it back to us so that we may pass it on to our clients, whom we call "subscribers." Also like Stratfor, The Atlantic sometimes issues "secret cash bribes" to on-the-ground sources, whom we call "freelance writers." We also prefer to keep their cash bribes ("writer's fees") secret, and sometimes these sources are even anonymous.

So why do Wikileaks and their hacker source Anonymous seem to consider Stratfor, which appears to do little more than combine banal corporate research with media-style freelance researcher arrangements, to be a cross between CIA and Illuminati? The answer is probably a combination of naivete and desperation. Wikileaks chief Julian Assange, after all, felt comfortable taking credit for the Egyptian revolution; how good can his understanding of world events, and the actors shaping them, really be? Anonymous, which tried and failed to hack the Vatican's websites, doesn't appear to have much of an ideology beyond mischief-making. Wikileaks has been declining rapidly since first releasing Bradley Manning's trove of U.S. diplomatic cables; their finances are shrinking, their organization disintegrating (due in part to what former employees describe as Assange's poor leadership), and their credibility with his past media partners is mostly gone.

Assange would probably like to regain some of his former glory; Wikileaks' 2010 release of video from a U.S. army helicopter in Iraq sparked a small international incident and won praise from much of the media, including me. What better way to do it than by taking on an easy target and then claiming you'd exposed an international corporate-imperialist conspiracy? Stratfor is not the shadow-CIA that Wikileaks seems to believe it is, but much of the blame for this mistake actually lies with Stratfor itself.

The group has spent over a decade trying to convince the world that it is a for-hire, cutting-edge intel firm with tentacles everywhere. Before their marketing campaign fooled Anonymous, it fooled wealthy clients; before it fooled clients, it hooked a couple of reporters. A breathless October 15, 2001, Barron's cover story called Stratfor "a private quasi-CIA," the evidence for which appears to be this quote from Stratfor chief George Friedman: "The CIA has to spend thousands of dollars a month to have an agent in, say, Teheran or Peshawar to monitor local newspapers or political developments that we can find on the Internet within a few hours." In other words, they have Google. But Stratfor's first big break had come in 1999 with a spate of glowing articles such as this January piece in Time, which reported Stratfor's "striking" theory that the U.S. bombing of Iraq in December 1998 was "actually designed to mask a failed U.S.-backed coup." That theory, like so much of Stratfor's "intelligence," was discredited long ago.

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Max Fisher is a former writer and editor at The Atlantic.

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