The Spying Game

How an Austin company is winning the information war over Kosovo.

GEORGE FRIEDMAN POINTS EXCITEDLY AT THE MAP. “These are the only roads out of Albania into Kosovo,” he says. “You don’t support four or five divisions that way.”

It’s the middle of April, the crisis in Kosovo is three weeks old, and Friedman can’t believe that some politicians and reporters are talking so naively about mounting a ground war against Yugoslav forces. “There’s no way in hell we’re gonna cross this frontier and attack. Now, there is a line of attack here, but we have to invade Montenegro first. Also, we can’t build up in Albania because there’s no way to get troops from here [Greece] to here [Albania]—the Greeks have denied us the use of Thessalonike. So all this talk about a ground war is very crazy nonsense.”

Friedman has been spouting such opinions since March 24, the day NATO began bombing Yugoslavia and the day his Austin-based company, Stratfor—which specializes in corporate intelligence gathering and analysis—put the Kosovo Crisis Center on its Web site. That first day, the site had some 20,000 visitors. Since then, Stratfor has posted numerous reports, including one on the forbidding logistics of a ground war, another on the hostility between the two main Kosovar rebel groups, and another on NATO’s “preposterous” claim that an old CIA map led to the May 7 bombing of the Chinese embassy. By then Stratfor was predicting that the war was winding down, a process accelerated by the embassy bombing: “Germany and Italy are tired of U.S. leadership in this crisis, and of U.S. mistakes.” Not the kind of things the talking heads at CNN or CBS have the time or the inclination to talk about.

At least on the air. Since day one of the bombing, more and more journalists and government officials have found themselves pointing their browsers to stratfor.com, which has earned a reputation as a vital source of information on Kosovo. They’re also signing up for the company’s e-mail intelligence updates, subscriptions to which have almost doubled in the past four months, to 29,300. “I use their stuff all the time,” says Ken Allard, the military analyst for MSNBC. “It’s timely, accurate, and honest. And they have a huge influence.” The Washington Post and the New York Times have cited Stratfor as a source; the St. Petersburg Times calls Stratfor’s “perhaps the most comprehensive coverage of the war.” Steve Glain of the Wall Street Journal says he uses Stratfor’s commentary as a “benchmark to measure the spin coming out of Washington, Brussels, and London.” Indeed, Stratfor’s biggest contribution to the war effort has been its attitude—refusing to take the word of NATO as the truth and diving deep into issues the mainstream media have overlooked. As a result, Stratfor has angered people  of various agendas, from Serbs to Albanians. “We’re getting roughly equal amounts of hate mail and kudos from all sides,” says senior analyst Matthew Baker. “Our role is this,” says David Marshall, Stratfor’s president, “We’re the bullshit detectors.”

Stratfor’s secret:

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