On January 26, 2011, Fred Burton, the vice president of Stratfor, a leading private intelligence firm which bills itself as a kind of shadow CIA, sent an excited email to his colleagues. "Text Not for Pub," he wrote. "We" – meaning the U.S. government – "have a sealed indictment on Assange. Pls protect."
The news, if true, was a bombshell. At the time, the Justice Department was ramping up its investigation of Julian Assange, the founder of the anti-secrecy group WikiLeaks, which over the past few years has released hundreds of thousands of sensitive government documents. An indictment under the 1917 Espionage Act would be the most serious action taken to date against Assange, possibly paving the way for his extradition to the U.S. (Assange is currently under house arrest in Britain fighting extradition to Sweden on sexual assault charges.)
Burton, a former federal agent with the U.S. Diplomatic Security Services, had reason to trust his information. He often boasted of his stellar government sources ("CIA cronies," he called them in another email), and in his role as a government counter-terror agent he had worked on some of the most high-profile terrorism cases of recent years, including the arrest of the first World Trade Center bomber, Ramzi Yousef. As the VP of Texas-based Stratfor Global Intelligence, a private firm that contracts with corporations and several government agencies, like the Department of Homeland Security, to collect and analyze intelligence on political situations around the world, it was part of his job to keep those contacts alive and share inside information with analysts at the company. (The emails cited in this story – contained in a leak of 5 million internal Stratfor messages – were examined by Rolling Stone in an investigative partnership with Wikileaks.)
Burton's information had the ring of truth. As Salon's Glenn Greenwald reported last May, a secret grand jury had begun taking testimony from Wikileaks supporters in a courtroom in Alexandria, Virginia. In December, during the pre-trial hearings of Bradley Manning, the Army private who allegedly gave WikiLeaks a huge trove of classified information in 2009, prosecutors repeatedly tried to convince the judge that Assange had conspired with Manning to release the data. Assange’s own lawyers had warned of a possible indictment a month before Burton said one existed.
A Department of Justice spokesperson declined to comment on whether there was an indictment against Assange; a Strafor spokesperson also declined to comment, directing me to the statement and YouTube video the company released following the disclosure that WikiLeaks was planning to publish 5 million of the company’s internal emails it obtained. "This is a deplorable, unfortunate – and illegal – breach of privacy," the Stratfor’s CEO George Friedman said in a statement, warning that some of the emails may have been "forged." To be sure, we're in new territory here. The latest leak has set off a round of debate over the ethics of publishing information alleged to have been stolen. Members of the hacker collective Anonymous claim to have passed the emails to WikiLeaks; WikiLeaks maintains it does not know the identity of the leaker(s) and stands by its policy of not commenting on its sources.
Assange, who reacts to the indictment revelation in a statement here, has become an obsession for U.S. intelligence and government officials, and the Stratfor staff is no exception. The WikiLeaks founder’s name appears 2102 times in their emails over the past two years. The venom reserved for Assange (and Bradley Manning, too) in the internal email traffic is intense: "astonishing douchebaggery," says one analyst in relation to Assange. Writes another, referring to the sexual misconduct allegations against Assange, as well as his family background: "getting a rapist off the street is getting a rapist off the street. Also, his mom owns a puppet theater." The same analyst continues in another email: "I look forward to Manning and Assange facing a bajillion-thousand counts of espionage." A final note from yet another Sratfor analyst, sent after the arrest of 16 Anonymous hacktivists last July: "These assholes should get the death sentence, along with their hero Julian=Assange."
Predictably, it’s not just intel and government officials (both current and former) that have displayed their distaste for Assange. After WikiLeaks announced on Sunday that they would begin publishing the Stratfor emails, the derision rained down from the usual suspects in the Beltway media. A typical response: one editor at The Atlantic called WikiLeaks "a joke," dismissing the Strafor emails out of hand.
This perplexes me: To advertise a complete lack of interest in the inner workings of a major private intelligence firm, whose corporate clients (who pay up to $40,000 for Stratfor's services) include companies like Lockheed Martin, Goldman Sachs, and Bank of America – seems, to say the least, rather un-journalistic. If Stratfor is a joke, what does that say about the government agencies like the C.I.A. and other intel shops that supply Stratfor with employees. And if WikiLeaks – an organization that 's pulled off a few of the biggest coups in the history of journalism – is a joke, whom, exactly, is the joke on?
Already, via these emails, we’ve seen a company, Stratfor, getting paid by large corporations to spy on activists around the world, scheme with Goldman Sachs, and pontificate about money laundering soccer teams. Whatever angle you look at it from, this is news. Though it’s unlikely the Stratfor emails will have the impact that Cablegate or the Iraq Diaries and the Afghan War Logs, it does provide for another fascinating exposé of the types of organizations that are becoming ever more profitable and powerful: intelligence firms that blur the lines between private and government work. Remember, when Burton said "we" have an indictment against Assange, he didn’t mean Stratfor – he meant the U.S. government, our government.
Michael Hastings is the author of The Operators: The Wild and Terrifying Inside Story of America's War in Afghanistan.