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Feb 29, 2012

The filth and the fury (and the catfood): Stratfor talks WikiLeaks

The Stratfor emails confirm that the US now has an indictment against Julian Assange.

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Emails cracked from US intelligence consultants Stratfor by Anonymous and published by WikiLeaks have confirmed what was long suspected: that the US government has a grand jury indictment for Julian Assange ready and waiting.

“We have a sealed indictment on Assange,” Stratfor vice-president Fred Burton, a former senior State Department official, told colleagues in January 2011.

But they also again demonstrate the fury, loathing and “obsession”, as one Stratfor analyst put it, that WikiLeaks has generated in the private intelligence industry.

The insight into Stratfor gained from the emails shows that a flimsy intelligence-gathering model can be the basis for generating significant revenue, as long as clients don’t suspect just how poor the information they are getting is. As revealed in its emails, like many consulting firms, Stratfor — bizarrely described by some journalists as a “shadow CIA” — relies heavily on the government contacts of former bureaucrats and pulling together publicly available information and putting a gloss on it.

Fred Burton, for example, as a former Diplomatic Security Service chief in the State Department, is plainly plugged into information networks within his old department, or at least routinely boasts as much. But much of Stratfor’s operation is amateur-hour stuff, as Pratap Chatterjee showed in The Guardian — Stratfor analysts used Google Translate to read Arabic news articles and recycled blog posts for sale to clients.

The comparison has already been made to another victim of Anonymous cracking, Aaron Barr of cybersecurity firm HB Gary Federal, who tried to use publicly available social media datan to sell the FBI a list of key Anonymous members.

It also calls to mind the grandly named National Open Source Intelligence Centre, the mum-and-dad Melbourne company that makes a motza from the AFP and ASIO by collecting publicly available information online that those agencies — despite an extraordinary expansion of their budgets and staffing over the past decade, are unable or unwilling to find on the internet themselves.

That’s not to say Strafor doesn’t have delusions of grandeur. CEO George Friedman is plainly in spy movie mode when he orders a young female senior analyst, Reva Bhalla, to take “financial, s-xual or psychological control” of a source.

What emerges most strongly from the Strafor emails, however, is the sheer froth-mouthed fury that WikiLeaks and Julian Assange elicits from the intelligence industry. “Assange is going to make a nice bride in prison. Screw the terrorist. He’ll be eating cat food forever, unless George Soros hires him,” Burton tells colleagues. He wants Assange “water boarded until he gives us the code” to the WikiLeaks “insurance file”.

And then there’s this revealing email from Burton to Friedman.

“We probably asked the ASIS [Australian Secret Intelligence Service] to monitor Wiki coms and email, after the soldier from Potomac [Bradley Manning] was nabbed. So, it’s reasonable to assume we probably already know who has done it. The delay could be figuring out how to declassify and use the Aussie intel on Wiki… The owner  is a peacenik. He needs his head dunked in a full toilet bowl at Gitmo.”

Why the fury? At one stage in the “cat food” email exchange, which begins when someone using the WikiLeaks internet address as cover starts a denial-of-service attack on Stratfor, Bhalla tells her colleagues “we sound just as obsessed as the rest of the media over this thing. Let’s focus on real issue.”

What’s never said is that WikiLeaks is in fact a competitor to Stratfor, but one that refuses to play by the industry’s rules. Stratfor, like so many firms offering consulting and “strategic advisory” services, and not just in the intelligence or cyber security or foreign policy sectors, has a business model based not so much on offering real intelligence and high-quality analysis, as collating publicly available material, dressing it up with “strategic analysis” and preserving a mystique of secrecy around “intelligence” that impresses clients.

WikiLeaks’ diplomatic cable dump smashed that model, revealing a vast trove of information normally controlled by governments and privileges contacts in industry and the mainstream media, and demonstrating that the supposedly arcane and complex world of diplomacy was in fact a mundane world of bureaucratic empire-building, gossip and corporate influence-peddling.

It’s this “Wizard of Oz” moment that has enraged so many who make their living from exploiting the myths around intelligence and foreign policy analysis. The best local example of this is the Lowy Institute’s chief US apologist Michael Fullilove — allegedly mooted as a replacement for Mark Arbib — who incessantly criticised WikiLeaks’ cable release and continued to insist it was dangerous and irresponsible long after even Obama administration officials had admitted only embarrassment had resulted from the leaks.

The fury of people whose business model has been disrupted by WikiLeaks is one thing. The grim reality is that the US government is every bit as determined to destroy WikiLeaks, and it has given itself the legal means to effect the grubby threats of Fred Burton.

Bernard Keane — Politics Editor

Bernard Keane

Politics Editor

Bernard Keane is Crikey’s political editor. Before that he was Crikey’s Canberra press gallery correspondent, covering politics, national security and economics.

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18 comments

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18 thoughts on “The filth and the fury (and the catfood): Stratfor talks WikiLeaks

  1. Edward James

    GROUCHO
    Posted Thursday, 1 March 2012 at 10:24 am | Permalink
    As you seem to have missed the point my activities are p0litical, the evidence I publish of corruption abuse of power and cover up is well suited for the business of the people in the court of public opinion. What is published by me has been supported with my photos attached to the reports I write http://bit.ly/EJ_PNewsAds What I have done is publish information which is being ignored by our elected representatives Labor and Liberal National Coalition and often questions what main stream media have either distorted or ignored. I do that because it is easier for me and I believe its certainly more effective on the bad attitudes of our politicians. Doing it in the run up to elections local State and Federal has certainly had more effect than protesting alone outside NSW Parliament for years. But when the occasion warrants it, I do see the value in providing a bus for my fellow citizens to go to Sydney and lobby en mass outside Parliament, for the return of our very important rehabilitation wing to Woy Woy Public Hospital. I have no doubt our politicians and their supporters read Crikey.com certainly media monitors keep an eye on what is getting a run. You suggested I take my concerns to ICAC. Been there done that. I was surprised you would ask someone who has been so active for over decade. Have you had any success with ICAC which you can tell us all about? Edward James

  2. Groucho

    @Edward James

    One again you demonstrate everything that is wrong with media in this country.

    You are making allegations. That in and of itself is not evidence. There seems to be a pervasive attitude that if you say something slanderous and are not successfully sued then it must be true.

    Your own perceived sense of self importance does not equal evidence either.

    Yes anonymous allegations must be substantiated or measured against known fact.

    To claim as you have that because you attach your real name every allegation, look up the meaning of the word, is therefore true is absurd.

  3. AR

    ARiddle36 – nice bit of rabble-soothing there, nothing to see, move along, consume, shut up & die.
    Assange is screwed whatever happens in his appeal to the UK ‘Supreme Court’ (nee Privy Council).
    If he walks free of the Swedish extradition order, he’ll be subject to the supine brits over willingness to accede to US extradition demands – just last week a respectable 66yr old tory business owner was shipped off on the flimsiest grounds on something not an offence in the UK.
    If he is handed over the Swedes his feet wont touch the ground before he’s on a US black flight.
    As with the exposure of dismal security at Sydney airport in 2005, the Customs bloke accused was destroyed even after the flaws were admitted and fixes promised.
    Authority does not welcome truth and has the power to intimidate all but the bravest/foolhardy.

  4. Edward James

    I am the public trust journalist Grougho I am not publishing rumour! What are you thinking? We the people do not have the time to measure hearsay from sock pupetts. My allegations are on the public record Crocho. Many of the full page stories the links are provided Edward James 0243419140 http://bit.ly/EJ_PNewsAds have been put in the hands of those politicians named and often photographed. I have not been publishing opinions Croucho I have been publishing allegations about a corrupt council for years. And I have been using my birth name to avoid people with no real names like you telling others these are allegations from someone no one knows. Cheers Edward James

  5. Groucho

    @Edward James

    The problem is publishing of rumour and failing to do basic fact checking. As for myself my “opinions” are based on publicly available information and while my identity is not the claims I make can be measured against that information.

    Which is what journalists are supposed to do and which is what Stratfor appears to have done even though the reality is far from the “mystique” they are trying to foster.

    It appears you’ve confused your ability to pay to have whatever it is you want published and the failure of Politicians to respond to a third rate publication with evidence.

  6. Michael de Angelos

    Both the AFP and ASIO need a complete overhaul and preferably a clean out of the top personnel.

    The incompetents are still there-the ones who said ‘arrest anyone’ which they did with Dr Haneef with the “investigating” officer now in charge of the cowboys.

    Denis Richardson who presented the lies Howard delivered in parliament to justify attacking Iraq and killing tens of thousands of Iraqi citizens is rewarded with a plum US post after telling us to ‘give up some of our freedoms”.

    Now we hear the that the government has adopted the very worst of US practice of outsourcing to idiots in private companies. What a joke. And yet the huge criminal organization under investigation in the UK for perverting the course of justice, even as they were being exposed, who have bugged government ministers and the Deputy PM to date , carries on as if none of it matters.

    Even worse that same corrupt corporation dares to run an editorial today questioning why the Finklestein Inquiry even exists.

    On the plus side-the bozo Bob Carr who actively encouraged the bombing of Iraq won;t be going to Canberra and the lightweight McLelland is sunk.

  7. Bernard Keane

    John Lewis – very good question, and one that should be directed to Business Spectator. Neither I nor anyone else at Crikey has an editorial input into BS beyond the exchange of articles to which you refer.

  8. andrew.riddle36

    I know you needed to make a story out of this, Bernard, but don’t you think you’re overheating it a bit? We’ve read the same emails you have, and acting as though the Stratfor people are deeply outraged and hateful of Wikileaks doesn’t cut it. This is mainly watercooler talk, and professionals (poor ones) who are irritated by Assange’s personality and the combination of knowing cynicism and complete lack of understanding of how the world works that characterises him and so many professional activists. They’re mostly not angry so much as speculating about what the consequences might be and what the actual US security establishment might do to limit the potential damage.

    At one point in an email chain, a Stratfor analyst actually expresses overall positive sentiments towards Wikileaks, qualifying that Assange himself is obnoxious – and let’s face it, only the most deluded of his cultists could disagree with that.

    It’s troubling to hear about the sealed indictment against Assange – but that comes in from a CNN story, of all things! It comes as no news to me, nor to anyone who’s actively apprising themselves of the situation.

    And perhaps you could have pointed out just how thoroughly Assange has overhyped this release – quoting out of context from an email about someone eating someone else’s lunch from the fridge as though this joking statement was a criminal indictment of the entire company, and pretending that Stratfor’s hiring of freelancers in various location amounts to prima facie corrupt collusion. Or the ‘Confed FuckHouse’, which Assange pretended was some kind of damning global network, but actually comprises a few dozen stringers, many of whom are not even in any actual ongoing relationship with Stratfor or have rebuffed the organisation entirely.

    There may be some dynamite in later releases – but if there is I doubt Wikileaks knows about it, because otherwise why open with this pack of duds?

    The best part, of course, is the glossary where in the word “Clancies’ Stratfor unwittingly provides the very best definition for themselves – a bunch of people who’ve read too many airport novels and think they know spycraft.

  9. klewso

    There’s a lot of people making an awful lot of money behind the mystique of this iron-on curtain – if Assange and co take it down, down go their futures?
    That’s his biggest crime – exposing them and their practices?

  10. Edward James

    Just for fun ….Will many of those with an opinion here and else where on Crikey.com have an identity? Edward James 0243419140 http://bit.ly/EJ_PNewsAds

  11. shepherdmarilyn

    Yeah, and the moron Gillard and co. lambasted Rudd for daring to defend Assange against this behaviour.

    And Arbib I bet was up to his teeth in it.

  12. John Lewis

    Here’s a go, Bernard. You give Stratfor a serve on Crikey! today, but also today, on Business Spectator – where your articles regularly appear and which regularly contributes pieces to Crikey! by Alan Kohler, Karen Maley, Gotty et all – there is an article by … Stratfor, unattributed, and as it happens, a gratuitous what-everybody-already-knows cobbled-together article about Greece – the very sort of tarted up tripe you’re talking about. Que?

  13. Queensberry Rules

    Excellent piece. I remember 10 years ago when Stratforcia were beating their chests about some special intelligence they had uncovered about the Chinese economy, only to realize that I already had it on file for 12 months prior to their release. Assange makes them look like amateurs.

    ((Reva Bhalla, to take “financial, s-xual or psychological control” of a source.))

    I hear she’s “nice” Bernard…and possibly coming your way.

    ((The best local example of this is the Lowy Institute’s chief US apologist Michael Fullilove — allegedly mooted as a replacement for Mark Arbib — who incessantly criticised WikiLeaks’ cable release and continued to insist it was dangerous and irresponsible long after even Obama administration officials had admitted only embarrassment had resulted from the leaks.))

    This is serious.

  14. Jones Rob

    I fear for the safety of Assange.
    And from this it appears as if torture is a normal operation conducted in the US military institutions.
    People who still believe we are the good guys are delusional.

  15. Edward James

    Bernard Keane your fellow citizens here in Australia, peoples like me are publishing allegations at our own expense in public forums Peninsula News on the Central Coast in NSW. Edward James 0243419140 http://bit.ly/EJ_PNewsAds which remain publicly unchallenged by our elected representatives as evidence which calls into question the personal values of these very elected representatives at Local, State and Federal level of government. Crikey, Groucho, Peter Ormonde, Suzanne Blake, Marylyn Shepard in fact an long list of un-identifible people with an opinion but nothing much to back it up.

  16. Groucho

    The point was the media in Australia are suffering the same delusions that Bernard is ascribing to Stratfor.

    Your right though. Even Stratfor can claim a greater credibility than the current pack of journos in this country.

    Using google is far more indepth research than the regurgitation of PR releases that passes for journalism these days./

  17. Peter Ormonde

    Groucho …

    Big difference between leaks – documented and sourced – and secret, unsourced and patently self-serving gossip that some in the Press Gallery have been peddling about as if it was news. Shameful.

  18. Groucho

    When you were writing this piece Bernard did the irony not strike you?

    Replace Stratfor with the Australian media and the same questionable “sources” and apply it to your other article on the leadership spill.

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