WikiLeaks has been releasing emails pilfered from Stratfor, a private global intelligence firm. One email thread in particular has been grabbing headlines today, even though it was actually disclosed last week – The Journal has a story dated March 1st about them. In this exchange, Stratfor’s vice-president for intelligence, Fred Burton, discusses the disposal of Osama bin Laden’s corpse with CEO George Friedman, and suggests he thinks the official account of bin Laden’s burial at sea is false.
These were internal and confidential emails, sent between the officers of a private firm. They’re big news today because a hacker group stole them, and handed them over to WikiLeaks. There probably isn’t much point in tut-tutting everyone about eagerly taking part in this forcible violation of privacy, but it’s interesting to observe that many of those feasting upon Stratfor’s data today would, on any other day, profess themselves deeply concerned about violations of their digital privacy. Why is anyone who frets about the Patriot Act more comfortable with privacy that exists only until a group of hackers – appointed by no one and accountable to no one – decides to violate it?
Stratfor CEO George Friedman released a statement about the hacker attack on his company’s systems, which he called “a deplorable, unfortunate – and illegal – breach of privacy.” He said this was “a direct attack on Stratfor” designed to “silence and intimidate the company,” and also warned that “some of the emails may be forged or altered to include inaccuracies.” One of the reasons he made this statement was that a fraudulent email supposedly announcing his resignation gained wide circulation on the Internet.
Friedman said Stratfor would not validate any of the leaked correspondence, because “having had our property stolen, we will not be victimized twice by submitting to questions about them.”
Now that global media organizations are writing about the bin Laden exchange, there’s no way to un-spill the milk. If Stratfor sticks to its guns and refuses to confirm the validity of the leaked data, we’re left to consider the conversation on its merits, and wonder if the participants – who are well-connected private analysts, not government officials – actually had access to information concealed from the rest of the world.
In the leaked email exchange, intelligence VP Burton expressed a bit of skepticism toward the official story of bin Laden’s aquatic corpse disposal. A few hours after the raid on the old monster’s compound, Burton said “Reportedly, we took the body with us. Thank goodness.”
25 minutes later, he sent an email declaring “Body bound for Dover, DE on CIA plane. Than [sic] onward to the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology in Bethesda.”
An hour later, Burton once again says he “doubts” bin Laden’s body was dumped at sea, because “we would want to photograph, DNA, fingerprint, etc.” the remains. He discusses the similarity of the bin Laden situation and the death of Nazi leader Adolf Eichmann with company CEO George Friedman, who is the son of Holocaust survivors, and a student of military history. Friedman points out that “Eichmann was seen alive for many months on trial before being sentenced to death and executed,” although his body was then cremated to avoid creating a shrine for Nazi die-hards. He thought this was very different than “suddenly burying [bin Laden] at sea without any chance to view him, which I doubt happened.”
Burton agrees with this analysis, and says “the US Govt needs to make body pics available like the MX’s do, with OBL’s pants pulled down, to shout down the lunatics like Alex Jones and Glenn Beck.” I can’t speak for Jones and Beck, but I would like to assure the Administration and the U.S. military that I really don’t need to see that photo.
Fred Burton, in addition to his position at Stratfor and a career in counter-terrorism at the State Department, is also a published author. According to his author bio at MacMillan, he has appeared on Glenn Beck’s show. I haven’t been able to find audio of the appearance, but perhaps Beck will discuss it during his radio show today. It’s not impossible that Burton would nevertheless regard Beck as a “lunatic” on par with Alex Jones, or that he has come to view Beck that way since his last appearance on the show, but it seems a bit unlikely.
A few hours later, an email Burton declared, “Body is Dover bound, should be here by now.”
Once again, we don’t know if this email exchange is genuine, and even if it is, we don’t know if Burton was addressing solid information. The entire leaked conversation between Burton and Friedman happened within eight hours of bin Laden’s death, when a lot of very excited people were saying a lot of different things. The Obama Administration ended up revising the official story of bin Laden’s death something like forty times over the following week.
It’s quite possible these leaked emails are frauds. It is also possible that they are genuine, and Fred Burton was both sincere and misinformed. The decision to release this information to the public was not made by the owners of the Stratfor data, experienced security analysts, or highly trained counter-terrorism officers, but by anonymous hackers.