By Ulrik McKnight
Wikileaks has recently released a collection of documents from the private intelligence and forecasting firm Stratfor, controversially hacked by the activist collective Anonymous. Stratfor has been labeled a “Shadow CIA” by the media, and has in the past tried to cultivate an image of being a super-efficient private spying agency. Their clients include Citigroup, Morgan Stanley, Coca Cola, Amazon.com, and Wal-Mart. Much of what Stratfor offers is geopolitical analysis, but some companies used them for other purposes.
The released materials have yet to yield the kind of revelations that previous Wikileaks releases have done. The documents make clear that Stratfor generated a fair amount of hot air. Boisterous posturing giving the impression of deep insider access seems often to have been based on nothing more than repackaged news reports and vague gossip. Claims in the documents such as Osama Bin Laden’s body being on its way back to the continental US, or a major story about to break exposing Russian money in US politics, do not seem to have been correct.
Assessing the quality of Stratfor’s intelligence turns out to be less interesting than examining who is paying them for what – and asking why. Any company willing to pay tens of thousands of dollars or more to have Stratfor investigate something is pursuing a serious interest. For most Stratfor clients that interest is probably innocuous and prudent: trying to understand regional stability before investing in a particular country, or a safety briefing before an executive travels to a war zone. But this may not always be the case.
The Stratfor files are largely devoid of India-specific material – with one major exception. The documents reveal that Dow Chemicals, in the midst of their controversial $100+ million sponsorship of the Olympics, has taken an acute interest in their subsidiary Union Carbide and the Bhopal disaster.
Union Carbide India Limited’s 1984 Bhopal pesticide plant leak is one of the worst industrial accidents in history, killing 4,000 people overnight and leaving 500,000 severely ill. The accident site has still not been cleaned up, victims continue to die in many thousands, and to suffer in hundreds of thousands. Dow Chemicals, which now owns Union Carbide, explicitly refuses to take any responsibility. Dow’s argument is partially that Union Carbide liquidated their stake in their Indian entity after the disaster and used the proceeds to build a hospital in Bhopal. This is akin to crashing your car, quickly selling the wreckage to someone else, donating the money you got for the burnt out husk of your car to the people you ran over, and then not taking responsibility for the accident, the victims, or the car that still sits blocking the road.
The Stratfor materials make it clear that not taking responsibility is not the same as not taking interest – they reveal that over an extended period of time, Dow has employed Stratfor to produce intelligence reports on Bhopal activists.
This was not a one off piece of analysis, but an ongoing, multi-year, and presumably very expensive campaign. Dow had Stratfor conduct extensive online surveillance on Bhopal activists and provide weekly updates. Tweets, press releases, summaries of appearances, and web postings were reported to Dow, who disturbingly were also at times notified of the upcoming physical whereabouts of specific activists. Ironically Stratfor themselves used the Wikileaks release of US Embassy cables as a source, and shared with Dow a Mumbai Consulate cable: “TWENTY-FIVE YEARS LATER, BHOPAL DISASTER NOW HAUNTS DOW”.
The Stratfor files reveal what Dow paid Stratfor to do, but why?
While Dow has been able to successfully avoid taking responsibility for the Bhopal disaster, they are hounded by their role in it and the position that they have taken.
In 2004, on the 20th anniversary of the Bhopal disaster, the satirical activist group The Yes Men staged a hoax announcing that Dow accepted responsibility for the Bhopal disaster. People around the world rejoiced at the news, but Dow had $2bn wiped off of its market value before the news was revealed as a hoax. Not surprisingly, The Yes Men were under Stratfor surveillance.
Mike Bonanno, co-founder of The Yes Men, tells The India Site:
“We were not aware of surveillance by Stratfor, but we did have one instance where it appears that they were so afraid of us, due to their ‘intelligence’, that when we held an impromptu protest at their headquarters we found that they had shut down the whole office, leaving no workers, only some guards!”
That Dow face massive potential financial downside over Bhopal puts their behavior into further perspective. As a comparison, the loss of life in Bhopal is much greater than that from the BP Gulf Oil spill, but BP settled for nearly $8 Billion, while Union Carbide paid less than one sixteenth of that amount ($470 Million) for what is an ongoing human and environmental catastrophe in the capital of Madhya Pradesh. Given the potential financial downside that Dow faces, the $2bn of market value that they lost during the Yes Men hoax could be interpreted as a small price to pay if they were to actually clear their books of the Union Carbide liability.
Dow’s public indifference is revealed as an obvious fiction: Stratfor’s weekly briefings appear to have gone directly to at least five Dow employees, including their Director of Corporate Advertising & Branding, who is responsible for Dow’s “Corporate Reputation”, as well as to the person who must have the worst job in the world of PR: firstname.lastname@example.org.
The author Indra Sinha wrote a fictionalized account of the aftermath of the Bhopal disaster in his novel Animal’s People, which was shortlisted for the Booker prize. As a vocal and long-time activist for the Bhopal cause, he was not surprised to discover that he was mentioned repeatedly in the Stratfor files. He tells The India Site:
“The Olympics mean a lot to Dow. They have sunk a lot of money into it. Bhopal publicity has already been disastrous to them, and that a small group of Bhopal activists may be able to jeopardize their Olympic sponsorship gives them a very strong motive for wanting to know what we are doing.”
Dow essentially paid Stratfor to be an immensely invasive, full time cyber-stalker. The question of whether Dow and Stratfor have the legal right to conduct in depth international cyber-surveillance on individuals and groups, and whether a public company doing so is in the best interest of its shareholders, does not seem to have deterred it from happening.
Dow effectively chose to spy on their Indian victims rather than help them. That senior members of the Dow management team chose to do this sends a clear message that they are immensely worried about their Bhopal legacy, but at the same time will not publicly acknowledge it or take responsibility for improving it.
Indra Sinha interprets it this way:
“Dow’s actions tell us that they are paranoid about Bhopal – they spend hundreds of millions of dollars on surveillance, lawyers, ad campaigns, and sponsorships such as the Olympics. All that money, over all these years, could have actually cleaned up Bhopal and made some difference to survivors.”
The Stratfor documents beg the question of how Dow management could choose to engage in this behavior even as victims are dying on the streets of Bhopal, and what can be done to resolve this situation. Indra Sinha suggests:
“If Dow said, ‘This is just ridiculous, we’re letting a small rag tag group of activists run circles around us and make us look stupid – why don’t we just clean it up?’ If Dow cleaned up the site as the London Olympic site has been cleaned up they would find a very receptive audience to sorting out the controversy. Everyone wants it behind us.”
Union Carbide avoiding full responsibility back in the 1980s does not mean that Dow should be able to do so today. The poison released that night continues to sicken and to kill. India in 1984 was a very different place to India in 2012. Perhaps India today can address a wrong committed against its people in 1984. As Mike Bonanno says:
“The whole system we’ve got is not only destroying the people of Bhopal, it’s threatening the entire planet. We’ve got to solve that, or we all are Bhopal victims ourselves.”
Ulrik McKnight is a regular contributor to The India Site.