|Pretty interesting article about Stratfor and its founder, George Friedman, who is the author of the book I mentioned in the previous post:|
By Mark Lisheron
Saturday, October 09, 2004
George Friedman is feeling expansive.
A world crabbed and cowed by fanatics, insurgents, paladins and rogues is a business opportunity for Friedman and for Stratfor, the company he founded here in 1996.
"We are growing," Friedman says as he sits in a soft black conference chair
looking out at a sunny Austin from his ninth-floor headquarters at the Chase Building downtown.
Stratfor, short for Strategic Forecasting, has more than 100,000 customers, according to Friedman. Most are subscribers to the Stratfor Web site, where, for
just $79 a year, they can be briefed weekly on when and where the world will be unsafe next. For upwards of $100,000 a month, he says, at least 100 companies receive far more detailed forecasts.
Risk assessment can be a risky business, says Friedman, who admits he's not always right.
"Intelligence is a very lonely place where you stand with your own views without any need for approval," he says.
Despite the hazards, Stratfor's role as a provider of global intelligence has become well-known among people in that field. Among them is Bob Inman, who served as both National Security Agency director and deputy CIA director.
"Stratfor's value outside of its value to its customers is as an alternative view of events from the information gathering being done by the government,"
says Inman, a faculty member at the University of Texas LBJ School of Public Affairs.
Last week, Stratfor's counterterrorism expert, Fred Burton, offered an assessment of the potential for a terrorist attack in the United States before the election. His short list of targets included Houston, a petrochemical center Stratfor believes may be home to one of the last terrorist sleeper cells in the country, and Austin, because of its symbolic connection to George W. Bush. How imminent is an attack, Burton cannot say.
Friedman is more specific.
"Do I think there will be an attack in the U.S.? Yes," he says. "Do I think it will be in Austin? No."
Clients are eager to pay for this kind of certainty, but they aren't the only ones paying attention to Friedman's pugnacious geopolitical forecasts. In 1999,
after Friedman correctly and precisely predicted the war in Kosovo, Stratfor's dispatches on the region suddenly made their way into the Early Bird, the early
morning briefing at the Pentagon, according to Clark Murdock, a senior national security and defense analyst for the Center for Strategic & International Studies in Washington.
Stratfor's client list is growing, and the company is hiring. More than 70 people work for Stratfor in Austin and in its newly opened Washington offices,
half of them in intelligence gathering and analysis and half in sales and marketing. Stratfor is a leading private intelligence firm in a market where $50
billion will be spent on intelligence and security this year, according to Fortune Magazine. (Friedman won't discuss corporate revenue numbers or divulge the names of clients.)
Riding the momentum, Friedman last week set off on a tour to promote his new book, "America's Secret War ? Inside the Hidden Worldwide Struggle Between America and Its Enemies" (Doubleday, $25.95). As of Saturday night, the book was No. 92 on Amazon's best-seller list. It offers a detailed critique of the Bush administration's handling of the war in Iraq and on worldwide terror that leaves room for hope.
"I can't escape the conclusion, the remarkable conclusion, that we're actually winning this war," Friedman, 55, says during two lengthy interviews before the
book tour. "I conclude that Osama bin Laden was a very smart man who took a very big risk and failed. On the broadest level, his goal of an uprising in the Islamic world, of altering Islamic governments and transforming them, has failed."
'The Shadow CIA'
Stratfor was once called "The Shadow CIA" in a Barron's headline that conjures a world of skulkers in trench coats coming in from the cold. There are tantalizing
hints of this within Stratfor. The company's director of intelligence, Victor Gubareff, is a former Russian colonel who is able to tell you almost nothing about his background in several languages. Burton spent 15 years with the U.S.
State Department. He was the deputy chief of global counterterrorism who headed the American investigation of the assassination of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and whose office posted the $25 million bounty on bin Laden.
Even Friedman hews to an official history as an academic specializing in international affairs.
"Am I a spook?" he says, repeating a reporter's question, without confirmation.
"I've been interviewed many times recently and, do you know, you're the first to ask."
Stratfor does indeed rely on an international cadre of sources who are paid for
providing timely information on elections, uprisings and foreign and domestic policy shifts. "Yes, I do have somebody in Amsterdam sitting in a cafe sipping
coffee," Friedman says slyly.
The company's view of the world is crafted by analysts of varied backgrounds with intellectual curiosity in common assembled by Friedman to scour the Internet for news, information and arcana. The environment is competitive, the
analysts say, a jostling to draw attention to their particular point of view or region.
Analysts spend hours on the Internet reading newspapers, work the CIA once paid operatives posted throughout the world to do. A Stratfor analyst is looking for disclosures that challenge the current accepted wisdom, anything that might
reveal a turn in the politics or the economy of any place in which a client might be interested.
Kamran Bokhari, who is affectionately referred to by colleagues as Stratfor's jihadist, had been teaching at Austin Community College after getting a master's
degree in international affairs from Southwest Missouri State University. Peter Zeihan is a self-described adopted, gay Eagle Scout from Marshalltown, Iowa, who
knocked around three different colleges before working at the Center For Political and Strategic Studies in Washington. Friedman hired Zeihan, whose specialty is Russia, five years ago after Zeihan contacted him to point out a flaw in one of Friedman's Web analyses.
Stratfor also hires interns of varying backgrounds from the University of Texas to gather intelligence on the Internet.
"Common background? There is no common background here except for the quality of mind and a passion for knowing what is going on everywhere," says Rodger Baker, the director of geopolitical analysis, sitting in front of maps of Korea studded with handwritten stickies. "When you come here, you basically apprentice. There is a way of doing things here at Stratfor."
This way is the Friedman way. Talk to enough of his colleagues, and a fierce loyalty to Friedman's methods and some of his swagger emerges.
"What you do is work your butt off to prove yourself wrong, to find the anomalies that don't make sense, to find what you're not looking for," Baker says.
Friedman packages this brand of intellectual skepticism with an air of confidence that suggests an intimate connection to the world and a passion that is personal as well as academic.
He was born in 1949 to Hungarian Jewish parents who survived separate concentration camps only to be driven from their home country by the Communists, Friedman says. While his mother made her way with her newborn to New York from
Vienna, Austria, Friedman's father stayed behind in Eastern Europe for two years, a period he never discussed with his family. Although he has no proof, Friedman fancies that his father was involved with U.S. intelligence.
After earning a bachelor's degree in political science from New York's City College and a doctorate in government from Cornell University, Friedman taught for 20 years at Dickinson College, American University and the Army War College
in Carlisle, Pa. Increasingly, he focused on military strategy, defense and security, making himself available to brief the military, government and political think tanks.
"Growing up, I was obsessed with international affairs because to me it was life and death," Friedman says. "During the revolution in Hungary (1956) our family discussed casualty figures at the table the way some families discuss baseball scores."
In 1994, Friedman headed the Center for Geopolitical Studies, which was started that year with $1 million in Pew Foundation money at Louisiana State University.
After two years, Friedman says, he concluded he could profit just as well from his work as had the school for which he toiled. He took more than a dozen scholars and analysts from the center with him when he moved to Austin. He could
have started Stratfor anywhere, but he and his wife, Meredith, a public relations specialist, chose Austin for its climate and the research advantages of the University of Texas library system.
Friedman's timing could not have been better. The end of the Cold War was changing the nature of government intelligence gathering. The geopolitical focus no longer centered on the Soviet Union but on unrest in some of the remotest
places on Earth. Technology would make getting to those places cheap.
"What I realized in 1996 was that the Internet was going to change the entire architecture of gathering information," Friedman says. "I came from the classical world of intelligence, where information was scarce and expensive."
Looking back, ahead
For all of his expertise, Friedman has been glaringly and publicly wrong.
In the early 1990s, in a book he wrote with his wife, Friedman predicted the inevitable economic clash of the United States and Japan, shortly before Japan's
economy began a long and slow decline. In 1995 he forecast a collapse of the economic network in East Asia that did not materialize. One can only imagine the
wealth Friedman would have amassed had he imagined early in 2001 what bin Laden would do to draw the United States into a war in the Islamic world.
"The thing that I was most wrong about was my forecast in 2000 that the Middle East would become a geopolitical backwater," Friedman says. "I failed completely
to understand how far al Qaeda was willing to go."
Friedman believes in owning up, adjusting the world view and proceeding. For the foreseeable future, Stratfor's money is on terrorism. Three years without another attack in this country is proof of the damage done to al Qaeda, but the
organization is far from finished, he says.
Friedman brought on Burton within the past year as a vice president to head its division of counterterrorism and corporate security.
Burton says he will be watching the presidential election carefully, but "I personally think either one of them will have no choice but to go down the road to prevent another 9/11."
Friedman says he could be happy with either President Bush or John Kerry. Both, he says, are decent men with the best interests of the country at heart. Both
will be subject to the Stratfor analysis, the kind that doesn't exist to satisfy a presumption or a policy.
"Honest to God, I couldn't care less what anyone thinks of my positions. If I did, I couldn't do what I do," Friedman says.