Naked City

War Forecasters

Tuesday's terrorist attacks in Washington, D.C. and New York were wake-up calls to members of the intelligence community -- including Stratfor (see "Is Knowledge Power?" p.20). Throughout the day, the Austin-based global intelligence company's Web site culled together information collected from NPR, international newspapers, and the major networks to provide additional analysis, spin, and even some subtle self-promotion.

Stratfor, the company claims, is the best source for intelligence. How right have they been? On the day of the disaster, stratfor.com provided short reports of breaking news updated throughout the day, beginning at 10:15am until nearly 8pm Austin time. The coverage was thorough, regular, and reliable, but early on suffered from the same problem as everyone else: Credible information was hard to come by.

Stratfor's first analysis -- posted at 10:15am -- discussed the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine, who allegedly claimed responsibility for the attacks. Those claims later turned out to be untrue. A second analysis, "The Intelligence Failure," was written by Stratfor founder George Friedman and posted on the web site at 12:45pm. Friedman surmised (also erroneously) that the two World Trade Center towers collapsed from secondary blasts caused by explosives aboard the planes. His piece also criticized the intelligence community. "Whether we are facing a decline in U.S. intelligence capability or an increase in counter-intelligence blocking the United States, Sept. 11, 2001, will go down as one of the major intelligence failures in U.S. history," he wrote.

In all, more than a dozen long analyses followed, written in Stratfor's trademark crisp prose and topped off with discouraging titles: "The Global Financial Fallout," "Response Will Impact Oil Market," and "Emergency Response in High Gear." The company took no risks; their forecasts revealed no geopolitical secrets but were mostly common sense.

As far as taking opportunities for self-promotion are concerned, competitor Open Source Solutions (OSS), based in Arlington, Va., beat Stratfor to the punch. At 12:17pm, Open Source President Robert Steele, a perennial critic of intelligence efforts, issued a press release titled "The Intelligence Failure" in response to the buildings' collapse. "The U.S. Intelligence Community is a huge Cold War Frankenstein obsessed with building ever-more-expensive secret satellites that are useful only against the electronic communications of a select handful of governments," Steele wrote.

By criticizing U.S. intelligence, both OSS and Stratfor seem to insinuate that private companies have clearer visions of global intelligence needs than the military. Ironically, Stratfor had just closed its high-profile Washington, D.C., bureau. As company executives note, they were reallocating resources for long-term custom intelligence jobs, away from the realm of breaking international news. The shift in priorities was apparent by Wednesday afternoon, when Stratfor was updating its news reports less and less frequently.

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