Rolling Stone’s Michael Hastings last night posted a story on an internal DHS report entitled “SPECIAL COVERAGE: Occupy Wall Street,” dated October of last year. The five-page report, part of five million newly leaked documents obtained by Wikileaks, sums up the history of the movement and assesses its “impact” on the financial services and government facilities.
The process of combing through the huge amount of leaked documents has only just begun, but Hastings considers the revelation that the government was keeping tabs on OWS to be the biggest news so far to come out of the latest dump.
The monitoring, or spying (depending on how generous one is feeling), process included DHS scouring OWS-related Twitter feeds.
“[DHS] was following all of the social networking activity that was going on among Occupy Wall Street,” says Hastings. “Now, I’m sure this is going to be spun tomorrow as this continues to grow that, oh, it’s just benign, DHS just used open source material to do this, and that’s true, but the question is: why is a large government bureaucracy who’s mandated to protect the homeland…monitoring very closely a peaceful political protest movement? They’re not monitoring the Democratic National Committee, they’re not monitoring Young Republican meetings. They’re monitoring Occupy Wall Street.”
The report emphasizes the need to “control protesters,” terminology Hastings finds troubling, along with DHS’s assertion that OWS will likely become more violent. Hastings calls that prediction “quite a leap,” as there is no evidence so far that the overwhelmingly peaceful movement is prone to become violent.
“[The report] names all the sort of groups [DHS is] worried about, one being Anonymous, this hacktivist group, but it also names the other people in Occupy Wall Street: labor unions, student groups,” Hastings says.
One might expect to read some hand-wringing over public safety concerns in a government document, and yet the DHS document appears to be more concerned with protecting the mechanisms of the financial sector than in ensuring the safety of citizens who are exercising their First Amendment rights.
“They talk about threats to ‘critical infrastructure’ and this fear that these protests are going to…make commerce difficult and people are going to start losing money. There is a kind of bottom line in analysis to what they’re talking about. There isn’t an emphasis on public safety in a way one would expect from a department that’s supposed to protect the homeland. It’s this sort of sense that they’re protecting somebody’s homeland, and they’re the folks who generally make all the money.”
This same business-over-people bias is present in the second major leak involving the Stratfor emails. “When you go look at the back-and-forth, it’s all about, well, we have to protect lower Manhattan so the bankers can get to work on time.”
Hastings talks about two troubling tracks: In the DHS case, the U.S. government monitoring activist groups, and in the Stratfor case, large corporations paying a private intelligence firm to monitor other activist groups.
Dow Chemicals had Stratfor analyze the activities of Bhopal activists such as the Yes Men, who famously pranked the company by impersonating a Dow Chemical executive and publicly apologizing on the BBC for the Bhopal disaster that killed 8,000 people.
The list of Stratfor’s corporate clients is an impressive one, including Dow Chemicals and Coca-Cola. Clients are willing to pay the firm $40,000 for a subscription to Stratfor’s services (and additional huge sums of money for more services,) because the company bills itself as a private CIA, privy to high-level intelligence access.
“You have the DOW Chemicals situation, you have Coca-Cola hiring Stratfor to go after animal rights activists, to sort of keep tabs on them, and then also the question is: why would Stratfor have this Department of Homeland Security document, right? And the answer to that is Stratfor’s clients, or clearly Stratfor saw a business opportunity in keeping track, and figuring out how to handle protesters. In fact, in the email record…they’re talking about different tactics in lower Manhattan about, well, the streets are narrow down there, so if they push the protesters this way, or that way, that’s a better way to catch them. They’re drilling down into the best ways to kind of protect the financial services who are some of their clients.”
On Jan. 26, 2011, Fred Burton, the vice president of Stratfor, fired off an excited email to his colleagues: “Text Not for Pub. We have a sealed indictment on Assange. Pls protect.”
The question was: who did Burton mean by “we”?
“It’s like the Big Lebowski, right? The royal We,” says Hastings.
What Burton meant by “we” was the U.S. government.
“We know that the Department of Justice had been investigating Assange, and playing this game of oftentimes not explicitly saying what they were doing, but sort of threatening they would be doing this espionage investigation. We know that they’ve interviewed people in a grand jury, and then a few weeks ago with the Bradley Manning pre-trial that they were actually trying to make this espionage case against Assange,” says Hastings. “Burton claims that there in fact a secret U.S. indictment against Assange related, essentially, to espionage. That’s pretty big news.”
Hastings is braced for all of the typically condescending and dismissive remarks to come rolling in from the beltway in the wake of these latest leaks. In fact, the derision has already begun. One editor at The Atlantic called Wikileaks “a joke,” and dismissed the Stratfor emails out of hand.
Hastings expects others to say there’s no difference between a private intelligence firm and a newspaper or news bureau.
“I think that’s totally wrong. Journalists have sources and informants, but also our mission is to share that information with the public so the citizenry can make more informed decisions. Stratfor’s mission is to gather information so it can sell it to the highest bidder so corporations can essentially make more profit and get a competitive edge on their opponents,” he says.
That kind of knee-jerk dismissiveness strikes of bad journalism, according to Hastings. While no cheerleader for Wikileaks – during the interview, Hastings admitted there’s a lot of stuff one can criticize Wikileaks about, particularly the practice of releasing large amounts of data that hasn’t been reviewed very carefully – he still finds the overall work done by the group extremely newsworthy.
“What news organization has had a bigger impact than Wikileaks? Iraq war logs, Afghan war logs, the Cablegate. These are important stories. This is news. DHS was monitoring Occupy Wall Street. That’s a story, and it’s a significant story. We’re talking about Occupy Wall Street: one of the biggest grassroots, political movements that we’ve seen in a generation and the government’s response to that.”
One of the most worrying aspects to the Stratfor story is the privatizing of yet another typically goverment-only function. Like Blackwater, here is another shadowy private agency doing the work usually done by the U.S. government, a recipe, as we’ve learned time and time again, for unaccountability and disaster.
Also, Stratfor is ripe for the revolving door effect.
“It’s a chance for people who worked in government in these various intelligence agencies to, once they leave, to have lucrative positions where they’re able to – in the same way some politicians become lobbyists to ply off their old contacts – to have these great, well-paying positions where they can use their former intelligence contacts and sell their services in the corporate world,” says Hastings.
To naysayers claiming there’s nothing wrong with former government officials capitalizing on their particular skill sets, Hastings responds, “Once you start spying on activists, and peaceful protesters, then I would say that’s very troubling.”
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