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Joshua FoustBack to OpinionJoshua Foust

The Stratfor files: Much ado about nothing

Julian Assange, founder of WikiLeaks looks at paperwork during a press conference in London, Monday, Feb. 27, 2012. Photo: AP/Kirsty Wigglesworth

WikiLeaks has released another enormous tranche of documents, this time from Stratfor, a self-described “private intelligence agency.” Stratfor suffered a serious data breach last year when the hacking collective Anonymous stole their email lists and credit card numbers, and now WikiLeaks is publishing the stolen data in full.

Like their last few leaks from the U.S. government, what we have seen so far is notable only for its banality. For example, we learn that corporations like Union Carbide used Stratfor to keep tabs on anti-corporate activists — hardly nefarious activity. The company would be negligent to pretend such activists either don’t exist or can’t harm the company. We learn that Stratfor had clients in the U.S. and foreign governments — something they bragged about in their documents. But this hardly qualifies as top-secret intel. I routinely saw Stratfor analyses cited and quoted when I worked for the U.S. intelligence community a few years ago.

So if most of Stratfor’s business practices can be described as usual and customary, why does WikiLeaks describe the group in the darkest possible terms? To wit, on their website, WikiLeaks says, “The emails show Stratfor’s web of informers, pay-off structure, payment-laundering techniques and psychological methods.” But aren’t these activities one would normally associate with any investigative organization? Stratfor works at the intersection of private intelligence and media, mixing elements of each while never being properly classified as either.

WikiLeaks doesn’t do much to clarify the situation when it uses loaded terms to describe fairly routine tradecraft. A “web of informers” is a rather loaded way to refer to Stratfor’s self-described “global network of human sources.” What investigative organization wouldn’t have a network of sources to gather information? And how different is that from reporters at papers like The New York Times cultivating friendly insiders to funnel it information?

A pay-for-play structure for an analysis shop is similarly not that unusual. Max Fisher, an editor at The Atlantic, outlined his magazine’s investigative process in terms similar to the ones used by WikiLeaks to describe Stratfor’s operations. Fisher not only underscores how easy it is to create a sense of illegality where none exists, but also hints at a larger truth: In the world of for-profit information brokerage, many sources expect to be paid for information. After all, Stratfor is not a news organization — both CEO George Friedman and Julian Assange go to great lengths to point this out. So why would sources provide them information sans fee?

Similarly, the “psychological methods” WikiLeaks describes — having a woman use the promise of sex to elicit information — is hardly groundbreaking. Ingratiating oneself to a source with desirable information – through flattery or flirtation — is a common practice, hardly restricted to the intelligence community. (One could go as far as to call it human nature.)

So far, WikiLeaks hasn’t paid off on its promise of “money-laundering techniques,” and, with the exception of a possibly unethical joint venture with Goldman Sachs on a co-branded investment firm, there’s not really anything illegal in the emails. Which raises the question: Why, exactly, did WikiLeaks go after Statfor?

It certainly can’t be because they’re good at what they do. For a firm so brassy about its information, Stratfor has surprisingly poor information security — even the Vatican was better prepared to fend off an attack by Anonymous late last year. Furthermore, outside of a narrow slice of government officials Stratfor is widely derided for its poor, unsourced analysis. (At my personal blog, I’ve been laughing at their terrible work for years). And despite its impressive roster of clients, one would be hard pressed to argue that Stratfor has much of an effect on policy.

Perhaps a clue can be found in WikiLeaks’ latest press release, which notes Statfor’s focus on the document-leaking organization. Stratfor clearly disliked WikiLeaks, and WikiLeaks clearly did not take kindly to being criticized. Just today, WikiLeaks released an email by Stratfor’s Vice President for Intelligence, Fred Burton, boasting last year to have acquired a “sealed indictment” of Julian Assange. That indictment still hasn’t been made public, but Burton’s email might explain why WikiLeaks focused on such a seemingly marginal group.

But really, what’s the point? The cause of whistleblowing to expose wrongdoing is a noble one that needs support. Hacking an unpopular company’s emails and publishing them is not whistleblowing. In the few emails discussed so far there are certainly prurient details of how a corporation conducts its business and solicits clients but there isn’t any criminal wrongdoing.

Even potentially explosive news, like the claim by two Stratfor analysts that Israeli and Kurdish commandoes blew up an Iranian nuclear facility, ultimately fails to deliver. Keeping in mind the reports in early February about Israeli commandos trying to kill Iranian nuclear scientists, the Stratfor claims remain unsubstantiated and unsourced — like much of their other, questionable analyses they’ve sold to gullible clients over the years.

Neither interpretation of this leak really makes a moral argument for exposing a private company’s proprietary information. Disliking Stratfor — as I do — does not give one the right or remit to steal their information and publish it on the Internet, especially when that theft does not expose any criminal wrongdoing. Much like WikiLeaks’ last major data dump,  this one is filled with lots of banal information that was either public already or not furthering a noble goal like transparency. And like the Cablegate, it will go a long way toward making both the government and the corporations who work with government agencies more secretive and less transparent.

When compared with dedicated researchers who legally uncover and declassify national security secrets, like George Washington University’s excellent National Security Archive or Steven Aftergood’s Project on Government Secrecy, the reckless data vandalism of WikiLeaks seems amateurish and shortsighted. Using strong-arm tactics like data theft to “force transparency” is counterproductive, and the huge volume of data makes it difficult to isolate important information. As time goes on, it is increasingly difficult to understand just what WikiLeaks is trying to accomplish.

Joshua Foust is a fellow at the American Security Project and a columnist at