On Monday, Wikileaks began releasing an alleged 5 million emails stolen by “hacktivist” group Anonymous from geo-political consulting firm Stratfor. The sensationalist title that Wikileaks gave the material — The Global Intelligence Files — as well as the statement announcing the release attempt to make the released emails out to be top-secret information from some sort of clandestine “private CIA”.
The Stratfor emails reveal a company that cultivates close ties with US government agencies and employs former US government staff. It is preparing the 3-year Forecast for the Commandant of the US Marine Corps, and it trains US marines and “other government intelligence agencies” in “becoming government Stratfors”. Stratfor’s Vice-President for Intelligence, Fred Burton, was formerly a special agent with the US State Department’s Diplomatic Security Service and was their Deputy Chief of the counterterrorism division. Despite the governmental ties, Stratfor and similar companies operate in complete secrecy with no political oversight or accountability. Stratfor claims that it operates “without ideology, agenda or national bias”, yet the emails reveal private intelligence staff who align themselves closely with US government policies and channel tips to the Mossad – including through an information mule in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, Yossi Melman, who conspired with Guardian journalist David Leigh to secretly, and in violation of WikiLeaks’ contract with the Guardian, move WikiLeaks US diplomatic cables to Israel.
Having read the statement, Haaretz journalist Yossi Melman took offence to being labelled an “information mule”. He has written a response in Tablet, explaining both his meagre relationship with Stratfor and the personal grudge held against him by Julian Assange that probably led to his being named in the statement.
I have known Fred Burton, a senior researcher and editor at Stratfor, since he contacted me a few years ago to ask about my views regarding a book he was writing on the mysterious murder in July 1973 of Col. Joe Alon, Israel’s Air Force attaché, in Washington, D.C. A year or so later the book came out in English and Hebrew, and a colleague at the Israeli daily Haaretz and I wrote about it.
Apparently that was enough for WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, who awaits a court decision in London to be extradited to Sweden to face rape charges. As a professional propagandist with a mind captivated by conspiracy theories, he is a master of innuendo.
Smearing me as a pawn of the Israeli government is a clumsy effort by Assange to sully my name and my reputation for petty personal revenge. WikiLeaks’ press release also characterizes me as someone who has “channeled tips to the Mossad.” It’s not the first time that I’ve been accused of being a Mossad agent, contact, facilitator, or God knows what else. I never was.
My relationship with Assange, so to speak, began ayear ago. He phoned and offered me an interview. I consulted with my editors, and we agreed we wanted it. A few days later he called again, this time with all sorts of demands and preconditions. He demanded that he would be granted the right to censor the interview before publication and that I would ask no questions about references he had made about the nature of Jews. In return, he promised to provide me and my paper with new documents about Israel that had not yet been published. We rejected his offer on the spot.
The attack on Melman was not the only piece of dubious information containted in the released emails. For instance, a letter of resignation by Stratfor CEO George Friedman was exposed as a forgery and emphatically denied by Friedman himself, who remains the CEO. Also, in an article by Fairfax reporter Phillip Dorling published in the Age and the Sydney Morning Herald, there were allegations that the US is planning to charge and deport Assange that emphasised the veracity of the source.
In an internal email to Stratfor analysts on January 26 last year, the vice-president of intelligence, Fred Burton, responded to a media report concerning US investigations targeting WikiLeaks with the comment: ”We have a sealed indictment on Assange.”
He underlined the sensitivity of the information – apparently obtained from a US government source – with warnings to ”Pls [please] protect” and ”Not for pub[lication]”.
Mr Burton is well known as an expert on security and counterterrorism with close ties to the US intelligence and law enforcement agencies. He is the former deputy chief of the counter-terrorism division of the US State Department’s diplomatic security service.
This morning saw a follow-up op-ed from Jennifer Robinson claiming that the “revelation” is an indictment on the Australia-US relationship.
The question we must now ask: if a Texas private intelligence firm knew of the sealed indictment for more than a year – why doesn’t our government? Did the government know? Was its denial of knowledge dishonest?
It is rather ironic, and an embarrassing indictment of the US-Australia alliance, if the Australian government learnt this information, as we have, through a WikiLeaks release. Indicting Assange represents a dramatic assault on the First Amendment, journalists and the public right to know. Assange, recently awarded the Walkley Award for most outstanding contribution to journalism, faces criminal prosecution – marking the first time a journalist has been prosecuted for allegedly receiving and publishing ”classified” documents.
The reliability of these sources, however, is extremely questionable. Atlantic Wire reporter John Hudson has noted that, in contrast to the 2010 US State Department cables released by Wikileaks, the Stratfor emails are largely gossip and conjecture (emphasis added):
The source emphasized that gaining access to Stratfor emails is far more difficult to do anything with, as opposed to the leak of State Department cables where the names of ambassadors were attached to quotations that were identifying foreign ministers and other diplomats by name. By contrast, the Stratfor emails represent gossip in many cases that has no sourcing.
A case in point was today’s “secret indictment” on Assange relying on Stratfor vice president of intelligence Fred Burton who merely wrote in an email, “We have a sealed indictment on Assange” without attributing that information to anyone. As our source says, these tidbits of information mostly make for good tips but not necessarily publishable stories.
Hudson also details the bizarre embargo that Wikileaks has placed on the media partners — including Fairfax — to which it has released the emails, meaning that certain topics (such as Israel, Turkey, India and Afghanistan ) are off-limits until Wikileaks gives the go-ahead. The Fairfax papers were accused of breaching the embargo by releasing the story about Assange early, when in reality they had obeyed the instruction to withhold the information simply until Wednesday, but Wednesday came earlier in Australia than for Assange in the UK.
In fact, many analysts have dismissed any claims that the information being released is especially revelatory, or even reliable. Atlantic writer Max Fischer gave a particularly scathing critique of Stratfor and the “private CIA” comparison.
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.
Last year, Tzvi Fleischer noted the decline of Wikileaks from a widely-hailed “transformative global phenomenon” to an increasingly irrelevant organisation. It is very revealing, therefore, that Wikileaks would attempt to portray these emails in such a sensationalist manner, playing-up the significance of what is essentially a corporate consulting firm that likes to market itself as some form of secret service.
The whole exercise smacks of massive hypocrisy. Wikileaks claims to be an organisation dedicated to “openness and accountability” and yet it is manipulating the media through embargoes and invented conspiracy theories with the intention of re-establishing its former significance and smearing its enemies in the process. While there is probably no indictment on the Australian government (or on Assange, for that matter), there may be an indictment on the media for buying into this ploy.