Stratfor: Inside the World of a Private CIA
By: Yazan al-Saadi
Published Monday, February 27, 2012
The leak of over five million emails from the US-based intelligence firm Stratfor, including information about credit card details, passwords, and the identities of sources, sheds new light on the rapidly changing world of intelligence gathering and exposes those behind it. Al-Akhbar gained access to the data obtained and published by WikiLeaks, including sensitive material pertaining to the Middle East.
◙ Browse through emails referenced in this article
The Strategic Forecasting Inc., commonly known as Stratfor, is a private firm dealing in the lucrative business of intelligence gathering and assessment.
Founded in 1996, the company gained global prominence during the NATO bombing of Kosovo in 1999 when its seemingly cutting-edge analysis was publicized by various news agencies. But it was the events of 9/11 and the subsequent “war on terrorism” that elevated the stature of the firm, turning it into a highly sought after informant for major Western media organizations like Bloomberg, Associated Press, Reuters, The New York Times, and the BBC.
Commonly referred to as the private CIA, Stratfor claims that it gathers its intelligence through a number of publicly accessible sources, such as wire services, chat hubs, other Internet sites, and unclassified government studies, in addition to well-placed sources internationally. The agency now boasts close to 300,000 subscribers and over two million recipients of free email updates.
Until recently, much of the inner workings of Stratfor had been shrouded in mystery. But last December, members of the internet activism collective Anonymous hacked into the system during the "LulzXmas" campaign to highlight the plight of Bradley Manning, an American soldier currently incarcerated by the US government for suspicion of passing on information to WikiLeaks.
Preliminary readings of these new emails gradually shed light on how the institution is structured, the process of bringing and building up sources, and an intriguing insight into how employees interact with each other. Notably, and contrary to the impression Stratfor tries to project, the emails reveal a corporation that has organizational issues, at times shockingly uninformed, and over-dependent on certain sources in manufacturing their predictions that are highly coveted.
What is Stratfor?
Stratfor was founded over a decade ago in Austin, Texas by George Friedman, a former political science professor. Friedman is the company’s chief intelligence officer, financial overseer, and CEO.
Presenting himself as a “best selling author” on the company’s About Us page, Friedman has a history of working on matters of security and defense with the American military, as well as other institutions like the notorious RAND Corporation.
A self-proclaimed disciple of neo-conservative icons such as Leo Strauss, Friedman has routinely emphasized the "jihadist threat" of al-Qaeda. Indeed, the forecast report compiled by members of Stratfor for the decade between 2005 and 2015 is mainly concerned with the prominence of the United States as a global hegemonic power and its conflict with al-Qaeda .
Friedman's wife, Meredith, is actively involved in the operations of the think tank. She is the chief international officer and vice-president of communications. From the emails, it seems her role is to expand Stratfor's public relations network, setting up events and interviews for her husband with the media, as well as academic and political personalities. Moreover, Meredith organizes the international wing of Stratfor, where employees are sent off to conferences overseas.
Fred Burton, Stratfor's vice-president for counter-terrorism and corporate security, makes up the final component in leadership of the think tank. He was a special agent with the US Diplomatic Security Service and was appointed by Washington to investigate the assassination of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, the assassination of Rabbi Meir Kahane, and a number of bomb plots by al-Qaeda prior to 9/11.
Burton has clear pro-Israeli sentiments and links to the Israeli military and intelligence sectors. In one email discussion regarding the Gaza Freedom Flotilla, Burton, adopting the Israeli narrative, argues that the flotilla was funded by questionable sources.
Sources: The Double-edged Sword
Certainly, some type of relationship exists between Stratfor and official security agencies, particularly within the United States. A number of internal emails circulated within Stratfor have attachments of internal, albeit unclassified, documents from the FBI and other agencies . Digging further within the leaked emails may provide more concrete evidence of such a direct link.
The organization is structured like a pyramid. At the top, as noted, are the Friedmans and Burton who make the decisions. Below them are Watch Officers (WOs) who comb over the various sources of intelligence for any significant value. Next are analysts, also at times called “handlers,” employees that discuss and scrutinize intelligence, and are tasked with finding and building up relations with individuals in order to exploit information. Finally, at the base are sources. (See details in box below).
Sources are indispensable for Stratfor. They are the lifeline for the think tank, whether acquaintances of a Stratfor employee or highly placed individuals.
Sources are rated with basic grading scale, with “A” denoting the best, and “F” denoting the worst . They are also coded according to the region or topic they represent and are assigned a number .
However, the internal emails of Stratfor suggest a level of frustration, and at times confusion, in terms of employees following through with regulations . It was only last April that an overall source review process took place. Following the email trends for this review, one can sense frustration by those tasked with getting the source lists together. In one case, a source list was mistakenly leaked into the "Open-Source" (OS) list.
In one email exchange between Anya Alfano, who works as a briefer, and Meredith Friedman, Alfano outlined an overview of the source review process . The overview suggests Stratfor is not as informed as it would like others to think. Most sources are located in particular countries and are not available region-wide nor are they spread in a variety of sectors. Stratfor’s major source in the Middle East, codenamed ME1, is a case in point.
According to various emails, ME1 has been actively involved with Stratfor as far back as 2006, maybe even earlier. It seems that the source has connections within the Lebanese military, has a good grasp of English, and seems to be a major supplier of a number of other sources for Stratfor that apparently include college students to Hamas members, a number of Arab diplomats in Lebanon, and others.
The importance of ME1 is further highlighted by a pay increase he received in October 2011, bringing his salary to $6,000 per month . The wire transfer list for 2011 shows that ME1 is the third highest paid source .
The confidence in ME1 is reflected in two emails. The first shows that members of Stratfor believe they have “journalist contacts (editors) for pretty much every Lebanese media agency of any significance via ME1” . The second, and perhaps the one that exemplifies the lack of actual knowledge by members of Stratfor and their over-reliance on outsourcing intelligence gathering, shows a debate regarding the sectarian identity of Assef Shawkat, the Syrian deputy Minister of Defense and husband of Bushra Assad, and Ali Mamlouk, the Syrian General Intelligence Director . Despite OS information detailing that Shawkat and Mamlouk are Sunnis, as one analyst points out, ME1's handler Reva Bhalla firmly writes back, “I trust ME1 on this question. I hate this region, aaaaargh.”
Behind Stratfor's Hype
Putting aside the obviously embarrassing and damaging security breach for an institution that thrives on the need for privacy of sources, the general knowledge of the employees seemed to be filtered through a specific paradigm.
Stratfor is an institution that is ideologically based on neo-conservative ideas of pragmatism. There is an underlying sense of delight for the global power projected by the United States, and its allies. More pointedly, there is a total disconnect from the actual realities and vast complexities of the regions and topics they cover. The analysis and discussion regarding the Middle East is most noteworthy in this regard.
For members of Stratfor, a Palestinian editor is deemed a “nut job” for expressing his belief that Jerusalem will be liberated through “military honor” . By contrast, despite clear racism exhibited by an Israeli army intelligence officer towards Arabs, his comments still have value . What is more telling in the email regarding the officer, is the admission by the analyst that Stratfor is similar to the Israel Defense Intelligence office because they both are “disconnected with domestic policies” of the regions they deal with.
Most of the employees have a fleeting understanding of the topics they cover. It seems that analysts are tasked with topics that they commonly have no background in. In an informal email exchange, aside from the questionable jests by the parties regarding AIDS, the first line transcribed lets on that the analyst placed in charge of Latin America is not actually an expert on the region, yet was still able to gather intelligence to the satisfaction of her superiors .
Furthermore, many of the internal documents forwarded around are from Western or Israeli agencies, rather than from other sources in the region, which reinforces the disconnection within Stratfor.
Stratfor has been a critical tool for various western media agencies and intelligence organizations. The light shown into the secretive corporate intelligence entity presents a partial explanation of why Western media agencies and intelligence organizations have persistently failed to understand non-Western societies. Most of the analytical thinking developed within organizations like Stratfor and then distributed on a wide scale is defined by a narrow narrative, which does not truly capture the complexities and sentiments of individuals living in the region nor its vibrant political, economic, and social structures.
The video in which Friedman introduces Stratfor’s work to potential clients gives the opposite impression. Friedman dismisses the Washington-based culture of policy papers that, as he put it, no one reads. Boasting about the superiority of intelligence to journalism, an unassuming but confident Friedman argues that journalism is “backward-looking” while intelligence is all about the “why” and what is “going to happen.” Little did Friedman know that looking back at the way his organization operates by journalists around the world today will tell us a lot more about the “why” he is after, and will affect what will happen next to intelligence gathering in the Middle East, and beyond.
In future articles starting next week, Al-Akhbar will examine the workings and findings of Stratfor in the Middle East.
Stratfor's Emails: A Pyramid of Collaborators
Stratfor is a corporate think tank that is concerned with accumulating intelligence that is internally assessed, discussed, and graded. Most of the information relates to military, political, and economic matters, and email is a primary tool for knowledge exchange amongst its staff.
The intelligence extracted from sources is usually compared with publicly accessible data, termed Open-Source (OS), and then incorporated in various assessments and reports to publicize. This is shared with a public news subscribers list, tailored according to the subscriber’s regional interest or subscription package.
Internally, Stratfor depends heavily on mailing lists in its communications. From the privileged “alpha” list to the “analysts” list to regional team list such as “MESA,” “LATAM,” and “Eurasia,” each piece of intelligence is shared through specific channels for processing.
The company has a number of departments dealing with compiling information. Currently, there are more than 130 employees at the the think tank. Many of the employees have more than one operational position. For example, Jennifer Richmond is the China Director and Director of International Projects. The emails reveal that she played, and possibly still does, an administrative role as well, trying to organize and coordinate source lists for evaluations and labors to ensure that employees follow through with the insight scoring criteria.
Speed is key in the Stratfor’s intelligence game and the role of Watch Officers (WOs) is essential. They act as “objective source evaluators” who comment on information given by sources and compare it with what is publicly available. As one employee termed them during an internal email discussion, WOs “hold the family jewels of the company” . This department is headed by Michael Wilson.
Analysts are the next crucial cog in the machine. Analysts are expected to collect sources, categorize them along lines of reliability, timeliness, accessibility/position, credibility and uniqueness of insights provided. How they recruit sources varies, but mainly the source is painstakingly charmed into cooperation .
Described as “handlers,” analysts have a direct connection with the source and their priority is ensuring that the relationship continues.
Additionally, analysts with Stratfor are expected to interact with subscribers to extract further information and groom possible sources for future use. This is clear in one email exchange in which a lower-level tactical analyst outlines how he has developed a new source, an individual within an unnamed German security office who had been a subscriber to Stratfor for over nine years.
Tactical analysts within Stratfor are mainly concerned with observing and commenting on military, intelligence, and other security operations within the United States and beyond. Scott Stewart, Vice-president of Tactical Intelligence and affectionately dubbed “Stick,” heads the department.
This article has been modified March 1, 2012 13:17 GMT