WikiLeaks Goes Inside Corporate America’s Wannabe CIA

What do Coke, Goldman, the Marines, and the Knights of Columbus have in common? They all paid Stratfor to act as their own private intelligence agency.

<A href="">Okko Pyykkö</a>/Flickr

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Coca-Cola asked about stability problems in China in advance of the Beijing Olympics. Northrup Grumman asked—twice—about the possibility of Japan getting nuclear weapons. Intel asked about Hezbollah’s presence in Latin America “and their general ability to blow things up.” And the owner of the Radisson Hotel chain inquired: “[D]o you have an expected completion date for the Militant Islamist Perception Report we ordered?”

The 200-plus emails that have been released from WikiLeaks’ cache of “Global Intelligence Files“—more than 5 million messages lifted from Stratfor, a private “global intelligence” firm—are a comical mix of breathless geopolitical intrigue and workplace chitchat, equal parts Tom Clancy and Office Space. But the trove also offers insights into the business of corporate intelligence, showing how multinational companies paid Stratfor tens of thousands of dollars to watch global hotspots, cover their competitors, and even monitor pesky activists.

It was all part of Stratfor’s “Global Vantage” plan, a subscription-based program for companies to obtain personalized intelligence briefings. Launched in 2006, the service became an overnight success: Organizations as diverse as Coke, Goldman Sachs, Merrill Lynch, the Marine Corps, Duke Energy, and Georgetown University plunked down $20,000 or more a year to get their hands on tailored sensitive information. As Stratfor’s leaked master client list shows, major military contractors were well represented, as were Big Oil and agribusiness.

Internal documents show how Global Vantage helped build the reputation—and the 300,000-strong client list—of Stratfor, a Texas-based private intelligence company. In an email last year, CEO and founder George Friedman told his employees that the CIA saw them as direct competitors: “Everyone in Langley knows that we do things they have never been able to do with a small fraction of their resources. They have always asked how we did it. We can now show them and maybe they can learn.” After Osama bin Laden was killed, Stratfor’s vice president for intelligence (a former State Department security agent) claimed in an internal email, “I can get access to the materials seized from the OBL safe house.”

WikiLeaks claims that it has more than 5 million Stratfor emails, which members of the hacktivist group Anonymous took from the company’s servers late last year. Stratfor has called the theft of its messages “a deplorable, unfortunate—and illegal—breach of privacy.” It’s also tried to cast doubt on the cache’s authenticity, saying that “Some of the emails may be forged or altered to include inaccuracies; some may be authentic. We will not validate either. Nor will we explain the thinking that went into them.”

Sometimes, the corporate intelligence requests Stratfor received were relatively innocuous, such as when representatives of the Knights of Columbus inquired about their safety before a St. Patrick’s Day tour of the Emerald Isle. “Client is interested in a short briefing regarding security in Dublin, Ireland for an upcoming trip for staff members,” their Stratfor contact reported. “Security team working on it.”

Multinationals also asked Stratfor to run plumbing operations against perceived anti-corporate enemies. In May 2006, a Stratfor rep named Anya excitedly reported on her conversation with someone from Intel. “Answered client question about activist group, he thanks us, VERY happy with information,” she wrote. “Possible opportunity for upsell—talking with Public policy group about more information.” The following month, Stratfor sent “activist information on Iraq contractors” to Lincoln Group and Bechtel, two of the biggest private military companies to grab contracts in Iraq and Afghanistan. Using publicly available information, Stratfor also kept tabs on the Yes Men on behalf of Dow Chemical and Union Carbide, regular targets of the anti-corporate pranksters. 

Few companies seemed as concerned about threats from activists as Archer Daniels Midland, the “Goliath of world food production” Mother Jones once described as equally concerned with “possible price-fixing in Bulgaria” and “influence-peddling in Washington.” Shortly after Stratfor started its Global Vantage service, Rich Ryan of ADM’s “investigative unit” began to hit them up for intel on political enemies:

• On July 24, 2006: “Rich called to ask a few more questions about activist campaigns to pass to other business divisions. Watching for more information.”

• Two days later: “Talked with Rich several times about activist campaign against the company.”

• On November 9, 2006: “Received email from Rich regarding some animal rights protesters. Setting up a meeting while he and Mark are in DC next week.”

• Five days later: “Rich came into the office for a brief discussion about animal rights as it relates to their new facilty [sic.] in Decatur. He seems very happy with the service, and happy with our information and assistance.”

In late 2007, the Rainforest Action Network organized a protest at ADM’s annual shareholder meeting at its headquarters in Decatur, Illinois (a.k.a. the “soy capital of the world“). RAN activist Robin Beck recalled meeting with the town’s deputy police chief: “He had called me a couple days before and asked if I’d come meet with him. Apparently ADM had told him we were coming.” It’s not clear if Stratfor provided the information that lead to the tipoff.

The WikiLeaks emails show how Stratfor’s analysts and marketers kept their corporate clients coming back for more. When the telecom giant Lucent Technologies banked on business in Iraq, for example, company rep Kevin Kennedy leaned heavily on Stratfor’s staff. Lucent had won a $75 million contract in 2004 for the repair of Iraq’s corporate and government phone lines; that was in addition to a $25 million subcontract to reinvent the nation’s telecom infrastructure shortly after the United States invaded in 2003. As civil war simmered in Iraq—and in Sri Lanka, another Lucent area of operations—Kennedy began to receive weekly briefings on security in the two countries. “Kevin particularly concerned with Arbil area at the moment—has folks moving in and out of the area frequently,” a Stratfor rep reported after an August 2006 briefing. “Also worried about IED threat. Also discussed situation in Sri Lanka, killing of aid workers.” In the following months, the firm gave Kennedy privately obtained intelligence on rumored risks of chemical and biological attacks in Baghdad’s Green Zone, as well as an imminent “Big Battle of Baghdad” and “the possibility of a militant offensive in the area ahead of US elections.”

Stratfor even worked for an outfit that has a pretty robust intelligence capability of its own—the Marine Corps. “I get so much from Stratfor that admittedly, I quickly review your daily summaries and focus on the terrorism analyses,” Lt. Colonel Bill Gresham, a top officer at the Corps’ headquarters security division, wrote the company. “[W]e are interested in—terrorism; daily terrorism briefs and anything from George Friedman. Additionally, the situation in Iraq and Afghanistan.”

Stratfor founder Friedman sold himself as a modern-day Nostradamus to clients like Gresham. “I am the public face of Stratfor,” he wrote in a long missive to his employees. “My speeches and travels build the brand, create intelligence opportunities, and give me a clearer vision of how the world works.” He was rumored to have resigned Sunday night after WikiLeaks began to release the emails; a purported copy of his resignation email was published online. But Stratfor insists that’s a hoax and that Friedman’s still at the helm of his own CIA for hire. Apparently, the resignation rumor was one piece of intel the CEO hadn’t anticipated.


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