WikiLeaks exposes corporate spooks

2012-02-28 11:00
Washington - WikiLeaks' decision to publish five million Stratfor e-mails swings a vast column of light on private intelligence firms, a murky and profitable corner of global business. But the view is less than flattering.

In any financial centre, war zone or mineral-rich backwater, private intelligence staff are easy to stumble across.

Conspicuously inconspicuous, they can be found mingling at barbecues or muckraking at parties, trying to glean scraps information that could help or harm their clients in business and government.

Few of the sector's biggest players - Aegis, Control Risks, Diligence, Kroll - are household names, but their clients certainly are.

It is big business. According to Tim Shorrock, author of Spies for Hire, intelligence outsourcing is worth $45bn each year in US government agency contracts alone.

Industry insiders say the sector has grown exponentially in recent years.

Green badgers

The internet has made non-classified data more readily available to analysts, governments are outsourcing ever-more activities and economic issues - not always the staple of spies who lived through the Cold War - have been woven into the intelligence mainstream.

In CIA parlance the "green badgers", or contractors, have become as vital to national intelligence as the blue-badge-carrying government employees.

Today intel firms help negotiate the release of oil firm hostages in Nigeria, investigate potential Ecuadoran business partners for sketchy links and gather information on Syria's armed opposition for anxious Western governments.

Stratfor's snatched e-mail cache showed the firm's clients ranged from the US Defence Intelligence Agency to Coca-Cola, Lockheed Martin to Dow Chemical.

On the surface Stratfor offered these clients "strategic intelligence on global business, economic, security and geopolitical affairs".

Beneath the surface that meant Stratfor monitored animal rights group Peta for Coca-Cola, which feared protests linked to the 2010 Vancouver Olympics and groomed Pakistani intelligence sources to get insight on Osama bin Laden's final days.

Qualification question

While Stratfor correspondence shows an impressive breadth of coverage, it also shows private intelligence is sometimes more Google hits than GoldenEye, more meta search than Mata Hari.

While firms like Britain's GPW boast of hiring former MI6 station chiefs to provide top-class insight, some of Stratfor's staff appear less qualified than clients might wish.

Asked for intelligence about Peta, one Strafor staffer seems to have responded: "I'd like to put a really good research-oriented intern on the case."

Industry insiders insist that Stratfor is not held in high esteem by its peers, but that kind of treatment of issues is likely to raise questions from clients of all firms.

The question of how good private intelligence is, is a longstanding one according to a one-time government client.

"In many ways you could claim that these people are doing things that actual government or military employees do, but get paid much more money," said Richard Bloom, a psychologist who spent 20 years as a US military officer and intelligence operations manager working in various US intelligence agencies.

Intelligence failures

According to Bloom, there is often a solid case for the government going outside for a fresh take. He points to research which suggests the United States developed a nuclear weapon more quickly than Germany because Berlin restricted access to the programme too much.

Intelligence failures in predicting the fall of the Soviet Union or Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait may well have been spotted had a broader group of analysts been brought in.

But too often, said Bloom, the relationship between the government and contractors seems to be a one way street.

"Quite frankly, a typical successful contractor will try to interface as much as they can with the people who are providing the money or who are asking the question and trying to pick your brain as well."

"It certainly happens that there are times when what the contractor provides you is well written summary of what you already knew."

Read more on:    wikileaks  |  us  |  espionage

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