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

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."

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

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