Our taxes pay spies to work for rich shareholders-- and pay for the corporatization of war itself
On the last day of last year, Austin's daily newspaper led with a story that it tagged as an "Internet Privacy" report. "Hackers leak Stratfor data," hollered the front-page headline in bold type.
It's likely that 99.9 percent of readers had never heard of Stratfor, Inc. (including me), and the story really wasn't all that newsy. The main point seemed to be that the hack attack was pulled off by Anonymous. This amorphous global collective of incognito, anarchistic "hactivists" has shown a remarkable techno/politico ability and agility, having penetrated deeply into the supposedly secure computer networks of a wide range of big targets, including Visa, the Church of Scientology, Monsanto, the Egyptian government, Universal Music, the Justice Department, the Tunisian government, Sony, PayPal, and the Bay Area Rapid Transit system.
According to the story, the group had grabbed and publicly released 860,000 email addresses and 75,000 credit card numbers of the obscure firm's customers. While this swipe certainly could be a pain for the customers and an embarrassing mess for Stratfor, such computer invasions are hardly uncommon these days, and this one didn't seem to be very large or significant (perhaps the story's front-page placement stemmed from an editor's civic pride: "By gollies, our little city is big enough to be hit by Anonymous." More likely, Stratfor got top billing because this was a Saturday, New Year's Eve paper with mighty slim pickings for news).
The firm's full name is Strategic Forecasting, Inc., blandly described in the newspaper as a "geopolitical analysis and security intelligence company" that merely "gathers open source information on international crises," which it repackages and sells to clients. Okay, but why would its database be a target of Anonymous, much less cause the group to boast on its website that it would cause "mayhem" by publishing the information? The article offered no insight, concluding that "Anonymous' motives for the attack remain hazy."Out of the haze
Luckily, non-establishment media -- watchdog bloggers, Democracy Now! (Amy Goodman's intrepid TV/radio show), Mother Jones, Rolling Stone, The Nation, et al, -- were both more knowledgeable and more curious, and they soon made clear that the true import of the Anonymous/Stratfor story was not the hack, but the hackee. Digging through the names "liberated" by the hactivists, these investigative journalists reported that far from being just another internet privacy story, the Stratfor hack offers a public peek into the dark and deep netherworld of the fast-expanding privatization of our nation's intelligence, foreign policy, and military responsibilities.
Among the corporation's customers were such prominent names from Ye Olde Spookesville as Henry Kissinger, as well as such oddities as Dan Quayle (whose link to any sort of "intelligence" has always been considered tenuous). Of much greater interest was the fact that Stratfor's secret list of email addresses included 19,000 officials from the US military, 212 from the FBI, 71 from DIA (the Pentagon's own spy operation), 29 from the National Security Agency (another global eavesdrop-ping apparatus, attached to the White House), and 24 from the CIA. In addition to these national governmental officials, the range of email listings stretched from Apple Inc. to the Miami Police Department.
After disgorging this intriguing file of names, Anonymous tweeted tauntingly to Stratfor: "Not so private and secret anymore?" But the expose had only begun. Stratfor was flushed even further out of the darkness in late February when WikiLeaks, the whistle-blowing website, published five million of the secretive corporation's internal emails, dated from July 2004 to the end of 2011. Also obtained from Anonymous, this email trove revealed that the company posing as a compiler and publisher of publicly available information actually operates as a snoop-for-hire intelligence agency for military contractors, Big Oil, high-tech giants, Wall Street financiers, global food marketers, electric utilities, and other major corporations, as well as universities and government agencies. Reuters news agency dubbed the firm a "shadow CIA," and each of its clients plunks down tens of thousands of dollars a year to buy services from Stratfor.
What sort of services? WikiLeaks' pile of emails -- as sorted out by Mother Jones national security reporter, Adam Weinstein, in a Feb. 27 article -- shows clients purchasing surveillance reports on the activities of their global competitors, personalized analyses of potential threats to their international expansion plans, and clandestine monitoring of their political "enemies." For example:
- Northrop Grumman wanted the inside scoop on Japan's nuclear weapons program.
- Intel wanted intel (sorry, I couldn't resist) on Hezbollah's "general ability to blow things up" in Latin America.
- Archer Daniels Midland wanted Stratfor to track the movements of animal rights activists and environmental protestors.
- Dow Chemical and Union Carbide even wanted a surreptitious watch put on the "Yes Men" -- a fun group of satirists who protest corporate excesses by doing skits and holding press conferences in which they pose as corrupt and clueless CEOs, politicians, bankers, etc.
Stratfor's corporate emails also depict its use of a "web of informers," including government insiders, embassy staffers, and journalists located in the US and various regions of the world. According to WikiLeaks' website, the emails disclose the corporation's use of pre-paid credit cards, Swiss bank accounts, and "payment laundering techniques" to pay off informants. Other emails offer tips to staffers on squeezing more particulars out of informants -- for example, a Dec. 6, 2011 email from Stratfor CEO George Friedman instructs one of his "analysts" on ways to exploit an Israeli informant: "You have to take control of him. Control means financial, sexual, or psychological control."
This little-watched world of corporate intelligence is shrouded in a fog of ethical permissiveness in which a rogueish, anything-goes ethic can flourish. One who seems to relish the fog is Fred Burton, the former deputy chief of counterterrorism for the state department's diplomatic service. In 2009, he slipped through the revolving door between official spookdom and the for-profit version to become Stratfor's VP of intelligence, where he is touted to clients as "one of the world's foremost experts on security, terrorists, and terrorist organizations." Modesty is not a virtue in the spy-for-hire game.
Burton plays up his many connections deep inside government intel circles, including those he refers to as his "CIA cronies," and he periodically erupts with assertions that seem to place him on both sides of the revolving door at once. One instance of this parallel existence surfaced in an email, since published by WikiLeaks, in which Burton blurted to his fellow Stratfor operatives that "We have a sealed indictment on Assange."
That would be Julian Assange, the Australian founder of WikiLeaks. He is loathed by the White House, CIA, FBI, et al. for his derring-do ability to obtain and publish bales of embarrassing emails, cables, and other documents written by government policymakers and corporate officials. He is also intensely detested by Stratforites, who venomously demonize him in emails as an inhuman monster who should face "a bajillion-thousand counts of espionage," be waterboarded, "get the death sentence," and otherwise be destroyed.
Their fulminations and incantations are pretty ironic, however, for what Assange & Group do is, in essence, the same kind of extractive work that Stratfor has turned into a business. WikiLeaks, however, distributes its findings to the public for free, rather than to powerful clients for profit, thus helping us commoners learn about some of the nasty secrets that power elites don't want us to know.
Certainly no outsiders (including Assange or any media source) knew the official top-secret information that, curiously, Burton apparently was given -- namely that the US attorney general has a grand-jury indictment tucked in his pocket, thus allowing his agents to jail Assange as soon as they can grab him. Thus, when Burton wrote the grand "We" in his exultant Stratfor email, he signaled that his corporation and our government are now one.
Bad enough that the shadowy intelligence function of government is being privatized, but far worse that the privatizers -- who have no oversight by Congress, practically no scrutiny from the media, and no enforceable professional standards -- are proving to be stunningly careless and incompetent. Following the Wiki-dump of Stratfor's email cache, CEO Friedman played the outraged victim and ducked into his we-are-a-private-business shell to hide from any inconvenient inquiries by customers, media, or authorities: