Our Man in Havana, Stratfor-Style
I thought they were just con-men, Alexander Cockburn said to me about the intelligence website Stratfor when the Wikileaks published a huge cache of their emails. The late lamented CounterPunch co-editor’s opinion of state intelligence agencies was not high, but of private intelligence services like Stratfor it was lower than a barmaid’s décolleté. He thought that these guys had a brisk trade in newspaper cuttings, selling other journalists’ work as their own at a premium.
Alex was not alone. Much of Stratfor’s business model as an intelligence firm consists of giving clients a brief of day-old New York Times articles and week-old Economist stories under the guise of valuable “intelligence”, said The Atlantic. They also charge $20,000 per annum per client for it.
It would be better if they were sticking to their cuttings, as our investigation proved, for when they act independently, the results beat those of Graham Greene’s character, James Wormold, from his novel Our Man in Havana.
Often appreciatively described as a “Shadow CIA”, the “global intelligence company” (whatever that means) Stratfor has been cited by CNN, Reuters, The New York Times and the BBC as an authority on strategic and tactical intelligence issues. In February 2012, the Anonymous hackers lifted some 5 million emails, and some 25 newspapers began to sift the lot.
As we expected, the emails revealed a very low level of intelligence; newspaper articles copy-pasted and forwarded; some nasty remarks, often in bad taste; and a certain amount of very interesting titbits of dubious provenance. For instance, a Stratfor report claimed that “The Israelis already destroyed all the Iranian nuclear infrastructure on the ground weeks ago” by their commando raid “with the help of Kurdish militants”. If you believe that, you passed the tooth fairy stage.
For nasty remarks and bad intelligence, the plum goes to Fred Burton, Stratfor’s vice president for intelligence. On February 22, 2010 Burton wrote: “One can look at Mossad’s recent covert activities and get a sense of their mindset. I also think they will assassinate A-Dogg [President Obama]. His helo [helicopter] will have a malfunction.” As we know, this dire prediction failed even two years later. Burton described the Israeli PM “my good friend BB Netanyahu” and says that “BB trusts Obama about as much as he trusted Arafat”. Obviously, every newspaper reported bad feelings between Bibi and Obama, but it took Stratfor to dress these reports as personal knowledge and peddle for a lot of money.
In May 2007, Burton claimed that Mossad covertly assisted their Saudi counterparts with “intelligence collection and advice on Iran”, and that “several enterprising Mossad officers, both past and present, are making a bundle selling the Saudis everything from security equipment, intelligence and consultation”. He also proposed to sell this dubious and vague info to Prince Bandar, the present head of Saudi intelligence agency, as “$100,000 deal is nothing to these folks”.
Weird claims are a must with Stratfor agents. James F. Smith, former director of Blackwater, currently the Chief Executive of SCG International, a private security firm, stated that his “background is CIA” and his company is comprised of “former DOD [Department of Defense], CIA and former law enforcement personnel.” He claimed that he participated in killing of Qaddafi, was connected to Congresswoman Sue Myrick to engage Syrian opposition. (La Myrick once demanded to strip Jimmy Carter’s US citizenship for meeting with Hamas leaders.) Smith claims he is active with the Syrian rebels. But apparently he is just another con-man in the con-men outfit.
He allegedly defrauded a Sanford family of $12.5 million. His degree came, not from Harvard, as he claimed, but from an evangelical school founded by Pat Robertson. He left Blackwater in 2002 under circumstances that neither he nor Blackwater would discuss on the record, says Linda Minor.
Mossad subcontracted the assassination of Mabhouh in Dubai, says Burton, and “the Iranian physicist hit was also a subbed out job”. He adds that he passed the info to Yossi Melman, a Ha’aretz writer on intelligence affairs who is often considered “too close to Mossad”. (This last rumour undermined an attempt of Melman to get in touch with Wikileaks: Julian Assange preferred to steer clear of him.)
However, before we even consider that some of the Stratfor claims could be worth their print, let us go into their Russian operation. Their woman in Moscow was Lauren Goodrich, and she claimed she has the Russian Prosecutor General Yury Chaika as her regular informer “RU101.” Plucky Lauren delivered a lot of juicy titbits to her employers. Once, she dipped into a swimming pool in Moscow and befriended a Turkmen oil minister who told her everything about Turkmen plans to build oil pipeline. She met with the Russian awesome siloviki (enforcement agencies’ bosses) and they spilled the beans about Putin and his intrigues. Armed Venezuelans promised her to tell everything if she would sleep with them (she refused). Chaika was her best card, for he told her everything she wanted to know.
An explosion in Moscow? Chaika told Lauren what car it was, how it was bombed and who did it. Kremlin groups argue between themselves, and Chaika explains it in mouth-watering detail. Nothing beats the following report she named Fucking Russian Defense Guys:
Just wanted to say that I met for 4 hours with the Kremlin’s Advisory Board to the Ministry of Defense & have enough incredible info to fill dozens of pages of intel-all which will make Nate change his pants a few times. But the meeting did not go as well as I wished-they spent the first 45 min yelling at me for “forcing” them to meet with them on a Sunday. One guy screamed that he was being forcibly kept away from his wife and two babies just because “this girl happens to be the darling of a powerful man in the Kremlin”. Then they yelled at me for being a girl “trying to work in the man’s defense area” and then for being connected to Stratfor and the American Administration. But we did finally get past all this and discuss the Russian defense sector. I have info on the real stuff behind the French Mistral deal for this week’s meeting. I’ll type that stuff up first (hopefully tonight), since it is most timely. Then I hope to start getting to the other info as I have time. I should have a few hours late tonight as I am staying the night at my godfather’s [Chaika] house after a dinner he is throwing for me.”
The Russian Reporter, an independent weekly, jumped on the stuff. They put one of their best investigative journalists, Mika Velikovsky, with intention of unmasking the Stratfor spy at the Kremlin, namely Mr Yuri Chaika. Mika wrote to Chaika’s office, and refused to take “it is b*shit” for an answer. He was convinced that Goodrich would not dare to lie in such a brazen way, while Chaika would, thirtyish Mika, with his clean-shaven-head and last-week-shaven cheeks, told me over a customary glass of whatever. His chief editor Vitaly Leibin added that he was already prepared to go down fighting in the interests of clean government.
It did not turn out to be necessary. The girl proved to be a spectacular liar. Mika went to see Ruslan Pukhov, a well-known Russian military expert, director of the Centre for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies. Lauren wrote that he arranged for her meeting with “the entire board of the Ministry of Defense behind the Kremlin” (a.k.a. Fucking Russian Defense Guys). Pukhov actually met the girl, not at the Kremlin, but in the hotel lobby, and alone, without “the entire board”. He gave her one of his centre analytic papers, freely available from their site, including his assessment on Iskander and Mistral. “Not only she presented it to her management as an “information bomb”, but she also had turned our meeting into an impressive conference,” said Pukhov.
Other discoveries of Lauren were of similar kind. She would meet a relatively important person and build up a story around it, using freely available sources. Only after checking and faulting a few of her reports, the Russian Reporter began to have strong doubts in her integrity. This was quite relieving feeling, said Leibin. – We were ready to take on Kremlin’s No. 4, and instead, we found a small but enterprising creature.
Then Mika went all the way to Tomsk in Western Siberia, where, according to Stratfor files, Lauren Goodrich had lived with her family for many years, studying and teaching in the Polytechnic University, organizing her own NGO “Russian Peace Fund”, setting up five orphan asylums and a school for the deaf in Tomsk. Her father was a missionary with the United Methodist Church (UMC). It turned out that Lauren lived in Tomsk for a few months, the Russian Peace Fond was established before she was born and as for asylums – perhaps she visited one, but not sure. She never taught and hardly studied in Tomsk U.
Still one can’t help but be impressed by Lauren. A friend of her youth in Tomsk described her thus: “she is very emotional, oriented to some romantic, fairy stories. She wants life to be like a fairy tale, a prince to appear and everything to become wonderful.” And so she did.
Eventually some of her lies were uncovered by the Stratfor investigation, but here the resemblance with Our Man in Havana continued. Wormold received an OBE, as it would be too embarrassing to admit his lies. Lauren Goodich remained Stratfor’s senior Eurasia analyst and, as before, churns out analytical notes and reports, comes out on behalf of the organization in the press, and is the co-author of a book on geopolitics in the Caucasus, which was out last year, wrote the Russian Reporter. George Friedman, the boss of Stratfor, wrote to Lauren after full disclosure: “how valuable you are in spite of everything!” For Stratfor, this disclosure also had no consequences. People do not want to rock the boat.
The Russian expert community was fast to conclude: “StratforGate writes off the private intelligence services. Sometimes they are appendages of state security, some of their advisers have connections in the security services, and there are clowns imitating spies. Stratfor positioned itself as an efficient private alternative to the state-owned CIA, being better than media and better than intelligence services. The Russian Reporter’s investigation proved that they were a mixture of bad intelligence with bad media”.
Vitaly Leibin is amazed: “How come? We proved that Stratfor’s analysis is not worth a penny. Some of recent political history should be re-written, including Stratfor-supplied assessments of “Russian threat”, of Venezuela insurrection, of the regime change in the Philippines. But nothing happened. Our discovery went into nowhere, nobody picked it up.” Indeed, not a single Western newspaper reflected on their mind-boggling discovery, until we came.
The Russians did not understand the real function of Stratfor and similar bodies: they are to provide excuses to the global powers, like WMD in Iraq, uranium in Niger, mustard gas in Syria, evil plans of Chavez. Their secondary role is to siphon off some of budget money and share it between old hands like Burton. At that, they are best. For real information, you’d be better off subscribing to CounterPunch.
Israel Shamir has been sending dispatches to CounterPunch from Moscow.