WikiLeaks has begun publishing five million emails from the US-based security firm Stratfor that allegedly expose its “web of informers, pay-off structure, payment-laundering techniques and psychological methods”, the group said in a statement.
The hacker collective Anonymous reportedly stole the emails - which date from July 2004 to December 2011 - when it broke into Stratfor’s website on Christmas Eve.
Anonymous also posted online the names, e-mail addresses and credit card numbers of thousands of Stratfor subscribers.
In its press release, WikiLeaks said the emails would “reveal the inner workings of a company that fronts as an intelligence publisher, but provides confidential intelligence services to large corporations, such as Bhopal’s Dow Chemical Co., Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, Raytheon and government agencies, including the US Department of Homeland Security, the US Marines and the US Defense Intelligence Agency.”
The statement added: “The material contains privileged information about the US government’s attacks against Julian Assange and WikiLeaks and Stratfor’s own attempts to subvert WikiLeaks. There are more than 4,000 e-mails mentioning WikiLeaks or Julian Assange.”
The emails also allegedly contain evidence of payments by Stratfor to government employees, embassy staff and journalists in exchange for information. The payments were made through Swiss banks accounts and pre-paid credit cards.
But Stratfor CEO and founder George Friedman has laughed off the new leaks: “God knows what a hundred employees writing endless emails might say that is embarrassing, stupid or subject to misinterpretation … As they search our emails for signs of a vast conspiracy, they will be disappointed.”
Dr Michael McKinley, a senior lecturer in international relations at Australian National University and an expert on Australian and American intelligence agencies, said Stratfor generally employed people with a strong establishment background who knew the inner workings of government and policy making at the highest level.
“The people who work for Stratfor are in government, have been in government, or are academics closely connected to government or journalists who are operating overseas or are very close to the Pentagon or the State Department.”
Stratfor was “an organisation that operated on principles of international relations realism, which is about alliances, balance of power, military strength - it’s unexceptional,” said Dr McKinley, whose credit card details were among those posted online in December. “There are a myriad of think tanks and government departments which operate in the same way.”
“Given that sometimes the United Nations and the Red Cross are used as a sort of stalking horse for intelligence, it’s inevitable that Stratfor has been used in the same way as well.
Daniel Baldino, a political scientist at the University of Notre Dame who specialises in intelligence sector reform, said it was unlikely there would be a smoking gun among the emails.
"Secret deals with the media or journalists are nothing unique, although people might question whether such relationships can create a slippery slope that encourages unethical or even illegal behavioural patterns,” Dr Baldino said.
“It is more likely that the emails might create some political red faces and short term headaches. Given that secret intelligence briefs don’t have to worry about diplomatic niceties, we may find that some of the privileged information analysis is particularly raw and blunt with the potential to cause wider embarrassment - and entertaining media headlines.”
But in an interview with Reuters, WikiLeaks’ founder, Julian Assange, said: “What is of grave concern is that the targets of this scrutiny are, among others, activist organisations fighting for a just cause.”
The Yes Men, an anti-corporate group known for impersonating official spokespersons, was one group of interest to Stratfor, the emails reveal. They show that Dow and Union Carbide hired Stratfor to monitor the Yes Men and other groups as they attempted to raise awareness of India’s Bhopal tragedy, a massive gas leak that killed thousands of people in 1984, in the lead up to its 25th anniversary.
In another email, George Friedman advised a Stratfor analyst how to exploit an Israeli intelligence informant who was providing information about the medical condition of the President of Venezuela, Hugo Chavez: “[Y]ou have to take control of him. Control means financial, sexual or psychological control… This is intended to start our conversation on your next phase.”
And in a further email, Mr Friedman discussed a money-making scheme of questionable legality, which involved trading in geopolitical instruments, “particularly government bonds, currencies and the like”.
But Dr Baldino, from the University of Notre Dame, cautioned that the contents of the emails “should not be equated with evidence”.
“Given that the analysis is based, in part, on human sources, we might also find that information provided by Stratfor is prone to error, mistakes and miscalculations.”