A Military Drudge
Special to washingtonpost.com
Monday, July 5, 1999 When last we spoke, there was a great mystery about the origin of a widely distributed fake essay attributed to retired Gen. John Shalikashvili in which the Clinton administration policy on Kosovo was effectively deemed a failure. This was before the Serbs had agreed to leave Kosovo.
Thanks to e-mail from a number of readers, we know now that the words were pirated from an analysis by Strategic Forecasting and Intelligence (STRATFOR), an Austin-based company.
Someone somewhere cut and pasted STRATFOR's May 3 weekly war analysis and added the name of the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The Internet did the rest in propagating the "essay." STRATFOR is not amused.
"We were the victims," said George Friedman, the company's chairman and a former political science professor. He dismissed any possibility that his firm was behind the false attribution. "We don't need the publicity," Friedman said.
Well, at least STRATFOR doesn't need bad publicity.
The four-year-old start-up is attempting to change itself from being an intelligence producer for corporate clients to an all-Web news company based upon advertising revenue. "It's the same work under less constraints," Friedman said in a telephone interview. "And more fun, more lucrative."
The Holy Smoke Factor
George Friedman thinks governments "ours and theirs" are not trustworthy. He abhors Beltway gossip and "expert" information. Even CNN is too slow. And when it comes to matters military, reporters "don't know what questions to ask."
A number of Pentagon reporters say they think STRATFOR is influential among military people, at least judging from the e-mail they receive.
Why? "It is the distilled essence of conventional wisdom from a conservative military point of view, all processed in the STRATFOR strategic Cuisinart," said one Pentagon reporter who asked that his name not be used.
"KLA bad; Clinton stupid; Clark too comfortable with diplomats and reporters; Albright trigger-happy," he said, referring to what he thinks are the simple, and simplistic, explanations often popular with disgruntled Washington observers.
When the Kosovo war began in March, STRATFOR was propelled into the mainstream with the creation of its "Crisis Center." Wire stories, newsgroup gossip, e-mail tips were processed into timely dispatches. Armchair generals and would-be pundits had an "open source" view that rivaled, if not bettered, the mainstream media.
At least that is how George Friedman and the STRATFOR boosters see it.
Steven Aftergood, an intelligence policy analyst at the Federation of American Scientists in Washington, is suspicious of such a characterization. If open sources are the equivalent of "organic farming," he said that is, the raw material itself that is now available in great abundance online STRATFOR is food processing.
"Their analysis consistently strikes a tone of omniscience which doesn't ring true," Aftergood says. "It is the Voice of God, the consolidated opinion based on some sort of Friedman machine."
Aftergood, a critic of the intelligence establishment, sees great danger and conceit that there are no qualifications in the predictions made. "There is a phony kind of assurance that masks the vast uncertainties that exist in the world, let alone in the data available," he says.
Eliot Cohen, a professor of strategic studies at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, calls it information "comfort food." He is equally ill at ease with what he calls the "unnuanced" and "unsophisticated" analysis of STRATFOR.
As a teacher and an Internet champion, Cohen sees great danger in "one-stop shopping" for news, given the riches of the Web. With tens of thousands of sources available, he struggles to give even his savvy graduate students better critical reading skills.
Bad News is Good Business
When Cohen received multiple copies of the supposed Shalikashvili essay via e-mail, he thought it didn't smell right. But, he says, others circulated it whether they agreed with it or not, saying "Wow, look what Shali just wrote."
Friedman also thinks it laughable that anyone would mistake his company's forecast criticizing the administration's handling of the Kosovo war with the views of Gen. Shalikashvili. "He is a fine man," Friedman says of the retired four-star general. "But these could not be Shali's views. If they were, then he just pounded the Clinton administration."
How does "pounding the Clinton administration," a decidedly partisan way of describing his product, comport with independent analysis? On that point, Friedman said that his company has all sorts of viewpoints: "leftist, Greens, military."
As Eliot Cohen sees it, "Alarmism hinges on the idea that there is something really big out there that others haven't noticed." It is the basis of conspiracy theory and one of the weaknesses in our intellectual culture, he said.
"Linking from one juicy bit to another juicy bit," Cohen added, leads to the STRATFOR phenomenon. But it is not the makings of a complex understanding of anything, he concludes.
All that linking. All that cutting and pasting of other people's reporting and opinions. It is, of course, the lifeblood of new Web intelligence entrepreneurs and gossip hounds. It is also the instrument that led to the creation of the Shalikashvili fabrication in the first place.
Is STRATFOR thus the victim or merely another player in the dumbing down of independent thinking?
William M. Arkin can be reached for comment at email@example.com