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Mark LeVine
Mark LeVine
Mark LeVine is a professor of history at the University of California-Irvine.
Stratfor and geopolitical instruments of our demise
The privatisation of intelligence procurement has led to the rise of Stratfor, as recently leaked emails reveal.
Last Modified: 06 Mar 2012 17:11
WikiLeaks recently began publishing emails from intelligence-gathering firm Stratfor [EPA]

Irvine, CA - "There is no way the United States can be this incompetent. The chaos here has to be at least partly deliberate."

So explained an Iraqi military psychiatrist as we sat in his office in Baghdad's al-Yarmouk hospital, trying to understand how his US counterparts could commit so many basic errors in military judgment during the occupation of Iraq, the most important of which was the stationing of battle-weary troops in the heart of Fallujah (the doctor predicted that doing so would likely precipitate a massacre, which in fact had occurred shortly before we met; his American counterparts remained unconcerned, or at least unmoved, at his warnings).

The United States was spending untold billions of dollars every month to rule Iraq, and yet at most every turn it seemed that it was making the wrong decision. Many people I knew who studied the US presence or spent time working in Iraq, did feel that the US was simply "that incompetent".

But based on my experience in the Occupied Palestinian Territories and discussions with colleagues who worked in Central Asia and Africa, I came to believe that the seeming incompetence was a mask for the deliberate sowing of chaos by governments in order to profit - whether strategically, or even more often quite literally monetarily - from instability and confusion.

Making this dynamic even more attractive was the privatisation of security, military and intelligence activities that became a hallmark of the Bush wars. To put it simply, there was little coin in competence. Much of the so-called war on terror has been run on a "cost-plus" basis (that is, profit was added onto whatever the supposed "expenses" were, regardless of how over budget they ran). Incompetence and its twins corruption and cronyism paid extremely well, whether you were an Iraqi official or an American contractor.

Strategic ignorance

Indeed, strategic ignorance was perhaps more important than strategic intelligence - getting people to avoid understanding or exploring, or even thinking about the consequences of their actions enabled the larger system to run guilt-free.

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Unfortunately for the thousands of people who reaped fortunes small and large from America's Iraqi adventure, the gravy train couldn't continue forever. Sooner or later, the money and jobs would begin to dry up in Mesopotamia, and new ways of capitalising on the seemingly insatiable government and corporate need for "intelligence" and "security" would have to be devised.

Short of convincing the US to invade and occupy yet another Muslim country (which, insanely, might actually be a distinct possibility in the near future), one of the most cost-effective ways to generate business would be through the creation of private intelligence firms, staffed with former government employees from most every branch and level of government, who could offer to procure and sell proprietary intelligence to corporate and government customers on a range of issues, from the threat of terrorist attack to the potential for market penetration of new (and often security and/or intelligence related) products.

The selling of "risk analysis" and other forms of intelligence "solutions" by for-profit "think-tanks" is not a new phenomenon. Nor is the desire by corporations to obtain supposedly secret or otherwise high quality intelligence data.

What's new today is that the almost frantic belief in the need for such information regardless of its actual worth, and the faith in specialised research and intelligence shops to produce accurate assessments about the situation on the ground that would otherwise be unavailable to their clients.

Few if any companies today represent this trend better than the Austin, Texas-based Stratfor, or Strategic Forcasting, Inc, founded in 1996. The company, a kind of intelligence analysis counterpart to Blackwater's more "kinetic" - that is, violent - services, has received much unwanted attention as of late when the hacker collective Anonymous managed to steal millions of internal emails. These show the inner workings of the company: How it collects its intelligence, how senior officials characterise the company's products, and what exactly its corporate and government clients are actually getting for their clearly large sums of money they pay Stratfor for supposedly inside information and insight.

Getting what you pay for?

Stratfor rose to prominence in the wake of the September 11, 2001 attacks, and was quickly cited by major media outlets as being "ahead of the news - and of the CIA" because of its analyses of al-Qaeda and bin Laden's motives and likely goals.

Whatever one thinks of the CIA's prognosticatory capabilities, the idea that a private intelligence company with relatively few resources - and none of them clandestine - would have a better idea of bin Laden's modus operandi or goals than the CIA units which had been tracking him for years is nonsensical.

But it made for very good copy for media outlets who themselves were desperate to show readers or viewers that they had some inside information about America's Public Enemy #1 to be able to claim access to an authoritative source.

"The problem is that Stratfor's so-called intelligence is almost entirely the kind of pablum that one could get from an off day's reporting at the Financial Times or Wall Street Journal."

Given the failure of the US government to stop the attacks, and the broader neoliberal ideology that anything the government could do - including intelligence - the private sector had to be able to do better, it wasn't surprising that Stratfor's self-promotion worked exceedingly well. Before long the company was being called a "shadow CIA".

With none other than Vice-President Cheney declaring the war on terror would be fought largely "in the shadows", who better than a company like Stratfor to provide the intelligence media outlets and corporations would need to "stay one step ahead" of who and whatever it was they were trying to stay ahead of.

The problem is that Stratfor's so-called intelligence is almost entirely the kind of pablum that one could get from an off day's reporting at the Financial Times or Wall Street Journal. For a company that prides itself as a leader in "global intelligence" production, its analyses - divided into such interesting-sounding things as "Analysis", "Geopolitical Diaries", and "Situation Reports", are so obvious and mundane that one wonders why anyone would read them, never mind pay for them.

Surely, customers such as major defence contractors Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman, and government agencies like the Department of Homeland Security, the Marines and the Defence Intelligence Agency, don't need Stratfor to access the so-called "intelligence" the company provides. (In response to the Anonymous hacking, Stratfor has been offering most of its products free on its website. You can see the full range of its "intelligence" for a limited time by visiting their website).

A good example of the analytical acumen of its researchers arrived in my inbox just as I was finishing this column. Titled "Geography: The Arbiter of Power," it announced to subscribers that:

For Stratfor, geography is an introduction to how the world works. We look beyond the ideologies and policies of leaders to the underlying physical realities of place. These realities define how a nation develops, how it interacts with its neighbors, whether it is exploratory or isolationist, rich or poor, powerful or weak. The constraints of geography define what is impossible, what is possible, and often times, what is probable. Stratfor always begins with what is possible after geography's impossibilities are accounted for.

Based on such a grand theoretical foundation, the company offered three "monographs" demonstrating the relevance of its approach, the most interesting of which was titled "The Geopolitics of Israel: Biblical and Modern". In it, the writer argues that Israel's geography has meant that it has never faced an existential threat from its surrounding neighbours, but only from great powers farther afield.

Palestinians are barely mentioned before the end, where they are described as little more than "irritants" who can be "managed" as long as internal unity is maintained - as in the US, internal opposition is the main danger and, it's implicitly argued, must be repressed - an argument that is sure to appeal to an increasingly paranoid Israeli and Diaspora Jewish leadership and their fundamentalist Christian allies (and Stratfor is more than happy to help out, for a nice retainer). 

The "monograph" concludes that "For Israel, the retention of a Davidic independence is difficult. Israel's strategy must be to manage its subordination effectively by dealing with its patron cleverly, as it did with Persia. But cleverness is not a geopolitical concept. It is not permanent, and it is not assured. And that is the perpetual crisis of Jerusalem."

And here we see Stratfor's latest intelligence coup - Jews have to be cleverer than their neighbours to survive in a hostile territory, and that Israel of 900 BCE can provide a good model for understanding the threats facing Israel today - is grounded in a geography.

It is for such unimpressive displays of analytical acumen that customers are paying hundreds of thousands, if not millions of dollars in fees. Part of the reason is no doubt that with "intelligence" valued as such a premium in the corporate world as well as government, and budgets for obtaining supposedly "intelligent" information there for spending, government and corporate officials in these networks find it quite reasonable to spend money to be told what they want to hear by people who are pretty much just like them.

In fact, Stratfor's raison d'etre would seem to be to provide a sinecure for out of work or wanna-be spies, intelligence analysts, security officials and "diplomats" who aren't high enough up the CIA or State Department food chain or respected enough to land the more plumb positions at conservative think tanks like the Heritage Foundation or Washington Institute for Near East Policy. There are, in fact, thousands of people fitting just this description "hawking" various bits of information for a price to any corporation or arm of the US government willing to pay for it.

The low and mid-level spooks who work at Stratfor ply their trade brusquely and it seems clear, illegally at least part of the time (through bribes and payoffs). But by virtue of their supposed credentials and reputation for being "connected", they give their clients yet another feedback loop, or echo chamber, through which to pass strategic, corporate or political objectives, which then get recycled, through the production of tailor-made intelligence "analysis" and "reports" to the broader media and public.

At the same time, by serving as an echo chamber for military, intelligence and corporate leaders, Stratfor is able to ingratiate itself into these networks and turn them "into government [or corporate] Stratfors" (as another email put it); that is, providers of the kind of intelligence that the company can then pass onto other clients. And of course, since most everyone Stratfor deals with, and particularly its "sources", is constantly looking out for their own futures, the company is more than just a provider intelligence, it's also potentially a future employer.

Strategic ignorance

The echo chamber in which Stratfor operates might offer strategic intelligence, but its most important function is to reinforce client's willful strategic ignorance of the realities of American policies on the ground globally; that is, their moral, political and economic costs, and how they impact the US position in the world.

US intentions are never questioned, and the true costs of US actions (such as the massive increase in sickness, including various cancers, caused by the massive use of depleted uranium bombs and bullets across Iraq), are left off the strategic ledger complied by Stratfor "analysts", who, like their government and corporate comrades, never seem to find such information worth compiling or considering. 

These dynamics are no doubt why many people who have looked at Stratfor's reports find them not just troubling, but banal and unoriginal as well. As one person whose organisation was "investigated" by Stratfor for a corporate client put it, "They [are] making [the "intelligence"] sound better to clients simply so that they can make money... We're not talking about good intelligence, we're talking about a lot of information because more information means more money."

A glance at one of the key documents uncovered by WikiLeaks, the so-called "The Stratfor Glossary of Useful, Baffling and Strange Intelligence Terms", has been described by Time magazine as demonstrating the company's unexpected talent for comedy. This might be true, but there is also serious information in the document, whose upwards of 200 terms explain how "background checks" can help "run up clients' bill and makes it appear that you are busy", how "briefs" for customers need to "make sh*t smell good", and how often, "When the Briefer has obtained zero valuable intelligence from analysis, he finds something in the inside of the morning paper, powers up a view graph, and 'Briefs the Times'. Customers are frequently impressed".

Most important, the Glossary points out that ultimately it's the "briefer", rather than the intelligence being provided that matters since he "makes or breaks an intelligence operation". Not because of his or her ability accurately to synthesise complex data, but because of the far more important ability to get the customer to sign onto another contract for three times the present price.

Useful idiots or savants?

This is not to say that Stratfor doesn't have actual intelligence sources; indeed, not surprisingly, some of them would seem to come from the Israeli intelligence community, which no doubt has a strong interest in developing relationships with the kinds of low and mid-level former operatives and analysts who still have access to the official intelligence bureaucracy.

Because of this, while some reports have highlighted emails in which CEO George Friedman tells one of his female assets to "to take... financial, sexual or psychological control" of a supposed Israeli intelligence source who purportedly had access to inside information on Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez's medical condition, I would be shocked if the Israeli intelligence source didn't hear more or less the same speech from his superior, who hopes to use the selective feeding of information to Stratfor to gain yet another entree into US intelligence networks that Israel has so successful exploited for decades.

If the comedy that is Stratfor's "strategic forecasting" were limited to the sexcapades and blackmail of low and mid-level intelligence operatives, the whole affair wouldn't rate much more than a straight-to-video intelligence thriller starring Nicolas Cage.

But aside from the waste of taxpayer dollars and the culture of corruption Stratfor's activities represent, there is a much more nefarious side to the story, which is that Stratfor's corporate customers are hiring the company to do research on various types of human rights and other activists whose work threatens their profits, as the company's research on behalf of Dow Chemical on activists in Bhopal, India, makes clear. The company even offered its services to Bank of America to investigate Salon.com columnist Glenn Greenwald.

More troubling is Stratfor's contracts with Homeland Security, which is on record as coordinating the recent police attacks on the Occupy movement across the United States, as documented by Rolling Stone.

At the very least, we should not be surprised if in the coming years, Stratfor and similar organisations play an increasingly prevalent and pernicious, role in the privatisation of the security, intelligence and policing by governments across the world. It is this function - the ability to monitor and even attack citizens when governments can't afford to get their hands dirty - which will be the most important "geopolitical instrument" (to use CEO George Friedman's term) that companies like Stratfor can offer their corporate and government customers.

If so far their "craft" remains amateurish, the experience of Iraq shows that all they need to do to succeed is sow enough chaos and distrust among their adversaries to keep the customers happy and the profits rolling in. If Stratfor can do that, George Friedman and his henchmen will have the last laugh, no matter who is reading their emails.

Mark Levine is a distinguished visiting professor at the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at Lund University in Sweden and the author of the forthcoming book about the revolutions in the Arab world, "The Five Year Old Who Toppled a Pharaoh".

Follow him on Twitter: @culturejamming

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

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Al Jazeera
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