Fun and Games With Stratfor

APD and DPS collaborated with private 'geopolitical intelligence firm' – including bomb demonstrations and undercover surveillance

Fun and Games With Stratfor
Illustration by Jason Stout

One of the murkier and more forbidding aspects of the post-9/11 world has been the massive growth of what's become known as the "intelligence industrial complex." Simi­lar to its sibling, the "military industrial complex" (as it was called by President Dwight Eisenhower), the intelligence industrial complex is a national and international web of numerous partnerships between government and various private corporate entities of all shapes and sizes. In a major 2010 report by The Washington Post on "Top Secret America," investigators summarized, "Some 1,271 government organizations and 1,931 private companies work on programs related to counterterrorism, homeland security and intelligence in about 10,000 locations across the United States." That was four years ago; despite federal budget cuts, this quasi-"defense" economic sector has continued to grow.

Based on the broad figures provided in annual federal budgets, from 2001 to 2012, spending on "homeland security" has quadrupled. During that time, the federal government has persistently outsourced intelligence work, as government employees routinely carry their security clearances into the private sector. (The Post estimated that 854,000 people – or roughly the total population of Austin – held "top-secret" security clearances nationwide as of 2010.) Consider just Booz Allen Hamilton, former employer of National Security Agency whistle-blower Edward Snowden and the company where he accessed the documents he leaked. According to a U.S. General Services listing of government contractors, BAH maintains extensive connections with government agencies and provides a variety of services, including intelligence gathering and analysis, worth in 2012 more than $4 billion.

However, you needn't travel to Hawaii, where Snowden worked, to find examples of overlap between government, law enforcement, and private intelligence. You don't even need to leave Austin.

The Stratfor Hack

On Dec. 24, 2011, activist Jeremy Ham­mond completed several weeks of work hacking the computer files of Austin-based global intelligence company Strategic Forecasting, Inc., better known as "Strat­for." Soon afterwards, several of the company's emails and many of its subscriber credit card numbers were released on the Internet. By February 2012, the material made it to the website of Wikileaks, which gradually began to release more emails. An early release revealed a connection between Stratfor and the Texas Department of Pub­lic Safety, concerning the DPS surveillance of Occupy Austin. (See "Strange Bedfel­lows," Feb. 3, 2012). Those documents reflect that a Texas DPS agent was providing undercover intelligence information on Occupy protesters not only to his state agency superiors, but to private firm Stratfor – although neither the company nor the DPS would provide any additional information or comment on the relationship, and DPS claimed at the time that it couldn't verify the existence of any undercover agent.

Stratfor VP Fred Burton
Stratfor VP Fred Burton (Photos by John Anderson)

On Nov. 15, 2013 – the day Hammond was sentenced to 10 years in prison for violating the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (and after holding them back during Hammond's trial) – Wikileaks posted on its website the rest of the Stratfor emails. The Wikileaks website now includes posts of more than five million Stratfor emails, dating from July 2004 through December 2011. It's an imposing data file, and has steadily revealed more about the inner workings of the intelligence industrial complex.

Asked by the Chronicle for comment on the additional emails, a Stratfor spokesman referred to the company's standard response, originally attributed to founder and chairman George Friedman: "Some of the emails may be forged or altered to include inaccuracies. Some may be authentic. We will not validate either, nor will we explain the thinking that went into them. Having had our property stolen, we will not be victimized twice by submitting to questioning about them." (See "Stratfor's Web," March 9, 2012.)

Boys and Their Toys

On its website, Stratfor describes itself as "a geopolitical intelligence firm that provides strategic analysis and forecasting to individuals and organizations around the world" – in other words, a high-tone foreign policy think tank – and it regularly issues news bulletins and analytical essays to its subscribers. But the hacked emails (which Wikileaks dubbed "The Global Intelligence Files") reveal another, much more local aspect of the privately owned company. The emails reflect that Stratfor has cultivated relationships with members of the Austin Police Department and the Texas Depart­ment of Public Safety for the purpose of gathering locally based "intelligence" – specifically, surveillance of protest groups – that one would presume (perhaps naively) would not normally be shared beyond immediate law enforcement circles. In addition to the sharing of confidential information about local activists, the emails also reflect several examples of trainings or demonstrations provided to Stratfor by APD personnel.

For example, throughout August 2011, a number of Stratfor emails discuss an APD demonstration for Stratfor employees using live explosives near Austin-Bergstrom Inter­national Airport. In an internal Stratfor email dated Aug. 27, 2011, with the subject line "weekly," Stratfor Vice President Fred Burton announced blissfully: "The highlight of the week was the Austin Police Department (APD) Bomb Squad 'special' training session for Stratfor staff. A six-man team augmented by the Austin Fire and EMS set off a wide variance of explosive charges for our group, to include ANFO [i.e., ammonium nitrate/fuel oil]. The staff got a chance to feel, smell and touch 'real' explosives; and feel the energy output when bombs are detonated (called a blast wave). The sound and color of the various explosives will enable the team to better understand attack scenes from as they say at Foggy Bottom [i.e., the U.S. State Depart­ment] 'dispatches afar.' We also examined the blast seats (craters). Several said it was the best damn training they have ever received at Stratfor. We also had a little bit of fun (or panic) when two brush fires were started. ... Man 'ole man was it fun."

(Burton's personal notions of amusement are already notorious from earlier email releases, as when he speculated on the possibility of the U.S. killing or torturing Wikileaks founder Julian Assange at Guan­ta­namo, and reminisced about the good old days at the State Department when political assassinations were not so controversial. Here's Burton (April 27, 2010), musing nostalgically on Bolivian President Evo Morales and then Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez: "Back in the day, we would have been planning [Morales'] (and Chavez's) helicopter 'accident.' Guess I'm getting old, I think it's best to keep these lads around for comic relief.")

Stratfor founder and chairman George Friedman
Stratfor founder and chairman George Friedman

In addition to the oddity of APD blowing things up for the entertainment (or "understanding") of a private company, the brush fires mentioned by Burton (and apparently extinguished by the Austin Fire Department, which was standing by along with EMS) occurred during a countywide burn ban, and the worst year of the current severe drought – indeed, less than two weeks before the great Bastrop County fire. Seemingly oblivious to these conditions, Burton emailed Stratfor employees the day of the demonstration, flippantly warning: "If anyone calls from the arson squad, we were never there. ... Admit nothing, deny everything, make counter-accusations. (CIA Bombing School motto)."

But the live explosives demonstration, while undoubtedly "fun" for Burton and his colleagues, was also – according to an email sent before the demonstration to Burton from APD Senior Officer Robert Nunez – "law enforcement sensitive" (the phrase routinely used by APD brass to classify information as confidential). Nunez advised Burton, "Photos are ok, no video ... we don't like seeing any bomb squad stuff on any social media sites." Asked for comment recently, Cmdr. Nick Wright of APD's Explosive Ordnance Disposal division explained via email, "Live explosive demonstrations are very rare," and contrary to Nunez's earlier warning to Burton, Wright later added that "no law enforcement sensitive information is shared." Nevertheless, Burton was thoroughly pleased with the demonstration, writing to Stratfor employees three days after the demonstration: "The folks are kind enough to cook off whatever we want to see."

Earlier this month, the Chronicle asked APD the purpose of this exercise, and received a response that essentially echoed Burton's internal Stratfor emails. Cmdr. Wright explained, via email: "The explosives demonstration was a familiarization training for Stratfor analysts so they better understand the intel they processed around the globe regarding improvised explosives and their capabilities." Wright added, "The demonstrations are part of the regional explosive awareness training mission performed by the Bomb Squad for various law enforcement and governmental agencies. Stratfor was considered a partner NGO (Non-Governmental Organization) and U.S. Government contractor in the global war on terrorism through its activities in the global intelligence field."

Team Building

The Stratfor emails reflect that watching APD personnel ignite explosives was believed to be of crucial importance to the "analytical" work of Stratfor staffers. According to an internal email dated Aug. 24, 2011, the day of the demonstration, Stratfor employee Sean Noonan informed Burton and others, "I'm hop[ing] all of you that thought this was just for fun and games understand how important this is to us tactical analysts understanding what we are doing."

In another email, Officer Nunez provided Burton with a list of six APD officers, including himself, who attended the demonstration, adding "We appreciate the cooperation and open communications." It's unclear why Stratfor would need a list of APD officers who were present, but another Stratfor email offers at least one hint – the eagerness of APD personnel to take part in the theatrics – and perhaps, eventually, to have an opportunity to join the Stratfor "team," in the long-standing tradition of mutual interests between uniformed police forces and private security firms.

Occupy Austin participants float signs outside Stratfor offices to protest the company's involvement with law enforcement officers infiltrating the group.
Occupy Austin participants float signs outside Stratfor offices to protest the company's involvement with law enforcement officers infiltrating the group.

According to an Oct. 2, 2011, email, Strat­for employee Jen Richmond wrote Burton: "James Stanesic – the detective that has helped me out so much – texted me today and said he heard a rumor that we were collaborating with the APD. I told him that we were but that I didn't know the specific details. He said: 'I want in.' You know I can't recommend him enough, so whatever we are doing, I highly suggest him being on the 'team.' He's one of the best cops I've met."

Intel 'R' Us

And this "collaborating" and "cooperation" extended beyond explosives and beyond APD. Numerous emails reflect the sharing with Stratfor of undercover information on local activist groups.

For example, an email dated Dec. 5, 2011, sent from APD officer J.J. Schmidt was forwarded to Burton by APD Lt. Tom Sweeney: it contains information about an Occupy Austin march to Chase Bank at 221 W. Sixth that took place on Dec. 8, 2011. Schmidt's email contained APD's confidentiality notice; despite that warning, Burton was told, "It is unclear how many people will be in attendance. It appears that the bank is the target of the protest, however, there are a few other offices of concern at this location." However, Sweeney added, "[w]e don't expect trouble." One possible "office of concern" would be that of Stratfor itself, also located in the Chase Bank office building. In another internal email regarding a different march, Burton shares similar information that came "from an LE [Law Enforcement] intel source."

When asked about APD's policy regarding informing businesses about the activities of protesters, Wright responded (somewhat at cross-purposes), "APD does not have [a] policy [of] informing businesses when protesters are expected. However, if there is a public threat to a business then it is the Austin Police Department's duty and obligation to let the businesses know."

APD was not Stratfor's only source for information on activists. According to a Dec. 14, 2011, email, DPS Agent David Dud­ley provided Burton with "research" on Occu­py Austin, environmental activist group Deep Green Resistance, and local organizers LoveATX, whose website lists their goals as "develop holistic culture" and "unite for progress." Dudley wrote ominously to Burton that LoveATX "has a website that seems all warm and fluffy, but ...." He includes a two-and-half-page research document by an unnamed author (possibly Dudley himself), titled: "'Deep Green Resist­ance' Joins Forces with 'Occupy Well Street.'" "Occupy Well Street" was the name given by Occupy to activism concerning natural gas "fracking," and the document mainly recounts anti-fracking protest actions.

A Texas Department of Public Safety trooper videotapes while another trooper asks Occupy Austin participants to leave the state Capitol on Nov. 27.
A Texas Department of Public Safety trooper videotapes while another trooper asks Occupy Austin participants to leave the state Capitol on Nov. 27.

After numerous requests, DPS would not comment on Dudley's activities nor his relationship with Stratfor. A spokesman would only confirm that "David Dudley is a Criminal Investigations Division agent stationed in Austin."

One person mentioned in the Dudley email is Occupy Austin participant and 2012 City Council candidate John Duffy, who told the Chronicle via email, "Seeing your phone number in [APD] documents is a bit worrisome, because it makes you wonder if they are listening to your calls. ... It just seemed so disproportionate to what Occupy was doing."

Punching Stratfor's Ticket

The dubious relationships among Strat­for, APD, and DPS remain unexplained to this date, and none of the parties are eager to discuss the subject. APD describes the bomb demonstration as "an attempt [by APD] to stay well informed," but the department also confirmed that "there are no legal contracts, agreements that document this relationship" with Stratfor – unlike a direct government contractor that might at least be bound by contract terms.

DPS had even less to say, and in the absence of more information – unlikely to be forthcoming – it remains unknown how Stratfor came to receive the access it has to the state law enforcement agency. Equally troubling, it's also unclear under what legal authority a now acknowledged DPS agent was providing undercover intelligence directly to Stratfor.

Stratfor VP Burton's own brief stint at the DPS, in 2009, as Assistant Director for Intelligence & Counterterrorism, likely played a role in establishing Stratfor's network. According to Burton's "weekly" email about the live explosives demonstration, "You simply can't pay (nor get in) this kinda training without having the right tickets punched."

In that context, Burton was apparently not shy about returning agency favors, as suggested by law enforcement personnel clamoring to join his "team." He's also listed on the board of directors of the Greater Austin Crime Commission, an organization of mostly local businessmen and a few public officials devoted to "public safety." In that capacity, he reports in an Oct. 2, 2011, Stratfor email string that he met with the ACC in "executive session" (presumably the executive committee of the board), after he was asked "to help with a councilman trying to reduce police head count. ... I was asked to help articulate why the police should not reduce their manpower."

Council Member Bill Spelman, also of UT's LBJ School of Public Affairs and an expert on modern police staffing, will no doubt be amused to discover that his perennially quixotic efforts at City Hall to bring rational limits to the public safety budget were the subject of such high-level strategizing at the Crime Commission. As for Stratfor, in the wake of these emails, it's easy to guess at least one reason why onetime Maryland cop Burton would want to ensure a steady supply of Austin police officers: more undercover intelligence for the company, and more potential recruits for the "team."

Additional reporting by Jordan Smith.

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News, intelligence industrial complex, homeland security, Jeremy Hammond, Strategic Forecasting, Inc., Stratfor, Wikileaks, Texas Department of Public Safety, Occupy Austin, Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, George Friedman, Austin Police Department, Fred Burton, Robert Nunez, Nick Wright, Sean Noonan, J.J. Schmidt, David Dudley, Deep Green Resistance

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