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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.

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