A cache of millions of leaked emails from global intelligence firm Stratfor, released by Wikileaks on Monday, reveals that The Phnom Penh Post was one of dozens of media outlets worldwide with confidential information-sharing relationships with the Texas-based global intelligence company.
In numerous emails with Stratfor analysts, editors at the newspaper provided their analysis of events unfolding in Cambodia, along with their thoughts on Cambodia’s often-contentious relations with Thailand.
Dubbed “Confederation Partners,” other regional newspaper involved with Stratfor included Filipino daily newspaper The Manila Times and Malaysian news website Malaysiakini. Chinese business website Caijing also partnered with the intelligence firm. However, state-run newspapers Vietnam News and The Saigon Times did not partner with Stratfor despite having been approached by the company.
Wikileaks notes in a statement accompanying its trove of leaked emails that Stratfor’s relationship with such media outlets and journalists fell into an ethical gray area.
“While it is acceptable for journalists to swap information or be paid by other media organizations, because Stratfor is a private intelligence organization that services governments and private clients these relationships are corrupt or corrupting,” Wikileaks said in the statement.
Stratfor provides confidential intelligence services to large corporations and governments including Dow Chemical Co. and Lockheed Martin along with government agencies, including the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency.
An email exchange in January 2011 between Jennifer Richmond, Stratfor’s China director, and Bernie Leo, a former editor-in-chief of The Phnom Penh Post, describes the agreement between Stratfor and its media partners.
“[I]t is really quite informal. We usually try to touch bases with our partners about once a week, unless there is something breaking, to inform them of any research we’re doing that interests them and also get insight from our partners on what is happening in the region,” wrote Ms. Richmond.
“It will be a week at least before I can get to this. However, I can see no problems with the arrangement…. I look forward to this arrangement that has mutual benefits,” Mr. Leo replied.
Shortly after Cambodian and Thai forces clashed on the border around Preah Vihear temple in February 2011, Post editors were asked for their analysis of the situation.
“The border has calmed and what won’t be written is how it all actually started. It was the Chinese New Year period. Add liquor to soldiers and…” a Post editor responded, insinuating that the combinations of alcohol and arms had somehow caused the fighting at the border.
Further internal emails between Stratfor analysts called into question the likelihood of the editor’s claim that alcohol had led to the border clash.
“I don’t know how things are in the Cambodian military but I’ve never worked with any military where soldiers with their gats [guns] and live rounds, placed in forward positions on borders that experience regular armed conflict have access to booze,” Stratfor analyst Chris Farnham wrote in response to the editor’s claim.
“And that someone would get drunk and just start shooting at people across a border for the f— of it?! Highly doubtful, in my opinion,” the Stratfor analyst added.
In a series of correspondences after the Thai general election in July 2011, in which Yingluck Shinawatra became prime minister, editors provided their assessments of the implications of the Pheu Thai Party victory.
“Thailand is a tricky one right now. Relations with Cambodia will certainly improve but the new Thai government will have to tread carefully because of the nationalist movement in Thailand. If they try to sort out the [Cambodia] border issue, the Thai nationalists will accuse them of giving away Thailand,” an editor wrote.
“Hun Sen certainly played the nationalist card but most of the problems on the border were connected to Thai politics, rather than Cambodian politics. Hun Sen is well entrenched and doesn’t really need to drum up support,” the editor added.
Alan Parkhouse, editor-in-chief of The Phnom Penh Post, said that he did not believe his newspaper’s relationship with Stratfor crossed any ethical boundaries, and that “No money ever changed hands.”
Mr. Parkhouse explained that the agreement with the intelligence firm allowed Stratfor to publish stories from his newspaper and in turn they would publish analysis pieces from Stratfor.
As a Confederation Partner, Mr. Parkhouse said that he and other editors were occasionally asked by Stratfor analysts for their insight into current events and Cambodia’s foreign relations, but the information was given with the assurance that the journalists would not be quoted.
A February 2012 article in The Atlantic magazine online, following Wikileaks’ announcement that it would release the Stratfor emails, was titled “Stratfor Is a Joke and So Is Wikileaks for Taking It Seriously.”
“[Stratfor’s] reputation among foreign policy writers, analysts, and practitioners is poor; they are considered a punchline more often than a source of valuable information or insight,” the article says.
“Maybe what these emails actually reveal is how a Texas-based corporate research firm can get a little carried away in marketing itself as a for-hire CIA and end up fooling some over-eager hackers into believing it’s true,” it continues.