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On May 1, 2011, not only did US special forces kill Osama bin Laden, they collected a treasure trove of intelligence from his compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan—material that would be of tremendous value to analysts, both in and out of government. Less than two weeks later, Fred Burton, the vice president for intelligence of Stratfor, a private US intelligence firm, was telling colleagues within the secretive company that he could get his hands on the Abbottabad booty. If so, that would be quite a coup for Stratfor, which peddles expensive intelligence reports on economic, security, and geopolitical matters to private clients, such as major corporations, around the world.
This week, WikiLeaks published 214 internal Stratfor emails that it was provided by Anonymous, the online activist collective that hacked into Stratfor's servers and swiped 5 million emails. In one of those messages, sent by Burton to a "Secure List" of Stratfor colleagues on May 12, 2011, he noted,
I can get access to the materials seized from the OBL safe house.
What are the top (not 45) questions we want addressed.
Within minutes, Sean Noonan, a tactical analyst at Stratfor, wrote back:
1 specific operational plans
2 communications with franchise groups (like AQAP [Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula])
3. connections to anyone associated with the Pakistani state.
This sort of information—what Al Qaeda was planning and with whom it was working—could certainly be sold to Stratfor's clients for a good price. And this email raises a question: Has Stratfor, which maintains various contracts with the Defense Department and other federal agencies, penetrated the US intelligence establishment for its own benefit? ("Having had our property stolen, we will not be victimized twice by submitting to questioning about them," Stratfor said in a statement on Monday; the company did not respond to a message from Mother Jones.)
The next day, Burton wrote back to Noonan:
More on # 3 --
Several /in ISI and Pak Mil, less than 12.
Burton seemed to be suggesting that the intelligence obtained at the compound indicated that less than a dozen officials working with Pakistani intelligence and military were somehow connected to bin Laden. He didn't cite any specific materials or documents.
Noonan was excited. He emailed back: "awesome. Please see what you can find out about what kind of department they are in, or area they cover." Another Stratfor employee, Kamran Bokhari, replied to Burton's note: "No surprises here. We will never find out their departments but their ranks would be very telling."
In response, Burton gave the impression that he might indeed be able to learn more of what was in the cache of OBL intelligence. He emailed, "I may be able to get that, let me ask." And hours later he sent this email.
Same response as before:
Mid to senior level ISI and Pak Mil with one retired Pak Mil General that had knowledge of the OBL arrangements and safe house.
Names unk [unknown] to me and not provided.
Specific ranks unk to me and not provided.
But, I get a very clear sense we (US intel) know names and ranks. I also do not know if we have passed this info to the GOP. [Government of Pakistan]
If I was in command, I would not pass the info to the GOP, because we can't trust them. I would piece meal the names off and bury in a list of other non-related names for internal ISI traces in a non-alerting fashion, to see what the Pakis tell us.
I may also trade one or two names for the captured tail rudder.
Burton seemed to have informal—or unofficial access—to this information. (He didn't describe it in these emails.) And the final line about trading a captured tail rudder—from the helicopter disabled (and then blown up) at the compound?—for the identities of Pakistani military or intelligence officials connected to bin Laden is, to say the least, intriguing.
The released emails do not indicate whether Burton truly possessed significant access to the bin Laden material—and what he had to do to obtain such access. But as a former deputy chief of the State Department's counterterrorism division, he could be expected to have contacts within the US intelligence community that could feed him information of this sort.
Burton, who has not responded to an email query, might not be the best spy. In a 2008 "Internal Use Only" email to Stratfor colleagues, sent out after the presidential election, he claimed to have sources with information on Democratic "Dirty Tricks," noting,
The hunt is on for the sleezy Russian money into O-mans coffers. A smoking gun has already been found. Will get more on this when the time is right. My source was too giddy to continue. Can you say Clinton and ChiCom funny money? This also becomes a matter of how and when to out.
The Russian-money-to-Obama story never materialized, but perhaps Burton was better connected concerning the OBL raid. The emails he sent on this matter ought to cause intelligence watchers to wonder whether Stratfor has burrowed into US intelligence and sensitive information has been compromised—and whether Burton and his cloak-and-dagger colleagues exploit their ties to US spies for their own good.