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Tuesday, February 28, 2012

WikiLeaks' Data Dump: Let's Hold Off on Pronouncing It a Dud

Posted By on Tue, Feb 28, 2012 at 11:15 AM

If the widespread derision of WikiLeaks' latest document drop is any indication, the struggling organization might be nearing the end of its useful life. Still, the stolen e-mails it started publishing on Sunday night so far seem more interesting in general than the trove of diplomatic cables it published in 2010, which consisted largely of mundane, mid-level chatter and gossip about ambassadors and so forth.

In the present case, only a tiny fraction of the e-mails has been published so far, so we don't yet know how much more interesting this might get.

The e-mails have to do with the multinational corporations that are clients of Stratfor, a Texas-based publisher of "global intelligence." Commentators have taken to making fun of WikiLeaks' breathless presentation of the e-mails. For example, a 2009 discussion of Coca-Cola's desire for information on People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals as the Vancouver Winter Olympics approached was headlined by WikiLeaks thusly: "Coca-Cola Contracting Stratfor to Spy on Peta."

Well, not really. The e-mails reveal that Stratfor gathered publicly available information about PETA and sent it along to Coke, which was worried about being besieged by activists at the Winter Games. One Stratfor employee said the FBI had a file on the group and that he would try to find out more about that, which sounds intriguing. But otherwise, Coke could probably have put a couple of interns on the job and gotten the same result at far less cost (and in fact, Stratfor used one of its own interns for the task). It might turn out that the biggest revelation to come of this is that giant companies are willing to pay for Stratfor's services, getting little in return.

Still there are millions of e-mails yet to be posted, and many of those will comprise private discussions among Stratfor employees and employees of huge corporations that are looking for "intelligence." They are e-mails that none of the parties want anyone to see, so at least some of them are likely to be at least interesting, and possibly embarrassing for the parties involved, even if they fall short of being earth-shattering.

But who knows? There might be something earth-shattering, too. Let's assume, as some of the critics have noted, that these companies are stupid to contract with Stratfor. Can we then presume that at least a few of them might be stupid enough to talk about sensitive matters in e-mail discussions with Stratfor?

Jack Shafer is one of the best media critics in the country, though he too often takes a "oh, what's the big deal?" stance on issues that are, sometimes, a big deal. In this case, in pooh-poohing the Stratfor e-mails, he might be right, but he also might be premature. Even he pretty much says so:

"There may be great stuff in the 5 million e-mails," he writes (so far, only a few hundred have been published). And on what might be the most interesting revelation in the e-mails so far -- that Stratfor worked with a former Goldman Sachs exec to create an investment fund to trade on the intelligence it gathered -- Shafer concludes that "there is a safe bet that something nefarious may be going on here; when an outfit like Stratfor teams up with Goldman Sachs, they don't intend to stage teddy bear picnics." But then he writes it off as a non-story. At the very least, it's an interesting tidbit. Further revelations might reveal it as being far more than that.

Over at the Atlantic, Max Fisher doesn't even mention the hedge-fund plan, and cites only the "spy" operation on PETA in characterizing the document dump as much ado about nothing much. He also fails to acknowledge that only 0.00006 percent of the e-mails have been published so far. His piece is well worth reading, however, because it hilariously makes righteous fun both of Stratfor, which sometimes likes to present itself as something out of a Tom Clancy novel -- and WikiLeaks, which is attaching all kinds of breathless adjectives to its docu-dump that it, so far, doesn't deserve.

And both organizations do have their silly aspects. But many large corporations and governmental bodies seem to take Stratfor seriously. Maybe that's the only story -- though if so, even that's a story.

The fact that WikiLeaks began its document dump with such relatively ho-hum material (Tuesday morning's newly posted e-mails aren't much more revelatory, except for the possibility that the U.S. government has secretly indicted WikiLeaks' Julian Assange) might, or might not, be an indication of what's to come. In any case, it's probably best to wait until a sizable selection of the e-mails has been published before pronouncing the whole thing a dud.

Dan Mitchell has written for Fortune, the New York Times, Slate, Wired, National Public Radio, the Chicago Tribune, and many others.

Follow us on Twitter at @TheSnitchSF and @SFWeekly

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Dan Mitchell


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