Curiosity prompted me to peruse some of the material placed on the web today by Wikileaks. My curiosity was whetted by Startfor’s location only a mile or so from the University of Texas. Moreover, a few students of mine have penetrated the inner sanctum as interns. Here are my impressions based on my examination of the material and the testimony of those interns. They concentrate on Stratfor as a phenomenon rather than on the substance of the leaked documents which are pretty anodyne.
Stratfor is a sleazy outfit. It was established as a money machine by George Friedman and a former Texas Congressman (now out of the picture) who served at one time on the House Foreign Affairs Committee. His being the co-founder along with the presence in the vicinity of numerous retired military people and civilian officials helps explain the selection of Austin as the company’s home. They hustle; everything they do smacks of a hustle. They exploit the student interns while playing on their desire to partake of the mysterious and the romantic. Those they do hire for regular positions get the skimpiest of wages. Expertise and languages are little valued. Their hallmark tool is an electronic pair of scissors. One student had spent four years as an interrogator for the U.S. Army in Iraq and Afghanistan. He served as an employee of a contract firm there. His first assignment as a junior member of the Stratfor team was to prowl around the Rio Grande Valley looking for stuff on the drug cartels; he never had been there before.
Stratfor cultivates a mystique of secrecy and insider intelligence because in fact they have little to sell that is exceptional. They use open sources and communicate with old pals in and around government to get a feel for what’s going on. The Wikileaks material corroborates this, and it provides the further insight that they pay people for information and/or contacts. Those people include journalists, politicos, the occasional academic and professional tattlers. Sources and clients seem to overlap, i.e. Stratfor plays both ends against the middle. Having been shown a couple of Stratfor reports, I am singularly unimpressed by the supposedly inside information and the quality of the analysis.
The most stunning feature of the operation is that they induce many large organizations to pay them hefty fees for ‘customized’ analyses which, at times, pass as the product of an intelligence investigation. Coca Cola, for example, lined their pockets for providing answers to a set questions about the aims, intentions and means of PETA which they feared might disrupt the winter Olympics in Vancouver where the company had an advertising stake. The information requested could have been uncovered by a five minute web search. Evidently, Coca Cola’s tens of thousands of employees do not include anyone capable of conducting such a search. Management, of course, derives greater reassurance when the product is received from a super secret unit with cachet.
Even more baffling is that Stratfor does contract work for agencies of the United States government. The Marine Corps has been one of its clients. Apparently, the latter found itself in need of an external source to supply training materials on the global Muslim threat. In light of exposes about the appallingly bigoted writings, films and lectures imposed on FBI and NYPD officers, seeking new providers is not a bad idea in principle – even though one might reasonably expect that after ten years in the region the Marines might know enough not to throw Korans onto bonfires as did their Air Force counterparts. Still, relying on a dubious bunch like Stratfor is not reassuring. The leaked communications give no indication of what was served up.
The tenor of the communications conveys the sense of a crass outfit populated by fatuous people. There is an adolescent quality to it. Code words, lots of expletives, a self-conscious secrecy about their doings, generally a ‘wow aren’t we clever’ atmosphere. The whole thing a frat house prank or a community college “Skull & Bones.” My own attempts to contact them ran into this secret society mentality. A suite address but restricted entry; no telephone numbers for the principles or email addresses; the aura of an ultra, ultra select coterie of initiates.
Stratfor strikes me as emblematic of what’s perverse about the consulting cum information universe. Supposedly grave matters trivialized, deformed and used as cover to make big bucks for hustlers and charlatans. As for the institutions that make use of their services? well let’s just say that there must be something deeply unsatisfying at home . Brenner