The Stratfor Scandal

News that Stratfor, the "private intelligence service," has been whacked by Anonymous has brought the former organization and its reputation into sharp focus.  The fact that Stratfor hadn't bothered to fulfill one of the lowest requirements of cybernetic security -- encrypting sensitive client data -- is one of the most damaging things that can be said about any company in the digital age, much less an "international security organization."  This intrusion went quite a bit farther than most -- the Guy Fawkes boys actually managed to extract funds (a reported $500,000 worth) from Stratfor's clients (whom the company insists on calling "members"), which they then gave to charities.  The humiliation here is total, and Stratfor will be lucky to survive.

But should it?  Stratfor (Strategic Forecasting, Inc.) has achieved a middling reputation among people who don't know any better as the go-to organization for intelligence and analysis on just about anything.  There's rarely a topic in the news that the organization doesn't sound off on, either through its own website or in the form of published "reports."  (Stratfor also used to be quoted quite a bit by legacy news organizations, though that seems to have died down in recent years.)

Stratfor's reputation has always been problematic, for a number of reasons.  First, there's the "private intelligence service" claim, which seems to suggest more than it could possibly fulfill.  It calls to mind the epoch of Sidney Reilly and Erskine Childers, gentleman-adventurers off to amuse themselves who suddenly find that they have the fate of nations in their hands.  But that epoch folded its tents a century ago, and there are no gentleman-adventurers these days -- scarcely any gentlemen at all, in fact.  Intelligence on all levels has attained a sophistication and complexity unmatchable by private means.  I have long suspected that Stratfor's operatives were simply poring through archives and news reports and then packaging the information for the company's paid clients.  This is a perfectly legitimate system, and in fact quite a bit of government intelligence-gathering occurs in exactly this way, but it's not what most people think of when they think of an "intelligence service."   

Then there's those strangely plodding reports -- teasers published in order to tempt clients into springing for the paying service.  Except that teasers of any sort are supposed to be exciting, interesting, and enticing, and Stratfor's reports have been anything but.  The reports I've seen have been poorly written and badly organized, and they have featured completely obvious conclusions and recommendations.  (My favorite was the report published after Hurricane Katrina in which Stratfor made the argument that New Orleans should not be abandoned because the Mississippi requires a major city at the end of it.  How true!)  It's difficult to see how any sort of a client base (much less the U.S. Air Force) could have been attracted by this kind of stuff.  Intelligence analysis of any sort should reveal knowledge, flair, imagination, and insight.  Stratfor has skipped over all this in favor of belaboring the obvious.

Lastly, we have the lack of any visible breakthroughs or worthwhile predictions.  Anyone involved in analysis of any kind makes predictions.  A lot of people, columnists and correspondents among them, make their livings off it.  They often succeed only in making complete asses of themselves, but when they hit, it is valuable, it is enlightening, and it is memorable.  Intelligence services operate the same way.  In fact, making predictions is their major function.  But in all the reports and stories concerning Stratfor, there is not a single case of an impressive, accurate, and useful prediction.  There's no lack of bland, obvious statements of the "on the other hand..." variety, but nothing breathtaking or in any way impressive.

There are other complaints.  For example, assertions that Stratfor was manipulating its information to support certain agendas.  (I was once told by an individual involved in the company that they were taking a certain stance concerning the Gulf War because his daughter was serving as a naval officer in the Persian Gulf.  This kind of thing is understandable but not excusable.)  But all that is secondary to the simple, undeniable fact of the break-in.  That alone puts Stratfor in the clown car with an orange wig and two-foot-long shoes.  There are plenty of ways an organization can go wrong and recover, but there is certain kind of error that is almost always fatal -- the type that turns you into a punchline.  If you were to make a film about Stratfor, it wouldn't be a thriller -- it would be a comedy.

There's certainly a place for a professionally run and seriously intentioned private intelligence service in the U.S.  But Stratfor isn't it.  Much as I hate to say it, this is a case where the Anons have done us all a favor.

J.R. Dunn is consulting editor of American Thinker.