As some of you already know and for the edification of those that do not, some of the most significant things that interest me are technology, international intrigue and Mexican geopolitics. So when Anonymous accessed and Wikileaks started publishing internal emails from the private intelligence firm STRATFOR, I just couldn’t wait to get my hands on the smorgasbord of missives fast enough.

Imagine my surprise when one of the first tidbits to hit cyberspace wrapped all of my major interests into one little morsel for me to enjoy. That little morsel of digital text had me salivating from the very first word. That is, until I realized that it was nothing more than gossip wrapped in a cheesy cloak-and-dagger story plot.

This created a situation where one small blog posting would not do justice to the discussion of this disclosure. So, you will all have to bear with me as I bring you along this journey of sexual intrigue, geopolitics and the Mexican UAV’s that supposedly might have participated in the Georgian-Russian conflict of 2008. Oh, and let’s not forget that Israeli UAVs have supposedly being compromised by the Russians.

Before I get to the juicy parts I think it is important that I set the stage for those that do not necessarily follow geopolitics, intelligence agencies and cyber-activists.

The major protagonists in alphabetical order are:

Anonymous has been making headlines recently through the intervention, disruption and access to private and governmental computer systems and websites. Anonymous is a loose-knit community of computer hackers that sometimes, in mass or in small groups, act in concert with each other to circumvent computer security or intervene on websites. To this date they do not seem to represent a specific agenda and do not seem to espouse a specific doctrine. One of their most recent system interventions was the access and public disclosure of over 5 million internal emails from STRATFOR, an Austin-based private intelligence gathering and analysis firm operated by George Friedman.

Strategic Forecasting, Inc., or more commonly known as STRATFOR, is a pioneer in information gathering and online distribution of intelligence and analysis of geo-political information, or so I was led to believe. For all intents and purposes, STRATFOR operates as a private intelligence agency, spying and analyzing information for private and governmental entities. STRATFOR was founded by George Friedman in 1996. Friedman is an author and self-described political scientist.

Friedman and his company, STRATFOR are often cited by the media in regards to the ongoing War on Drugs in Mexico. I and many others have questioned their portrayal of the dynamics of the drug trafficking organizations (DTOs) against the empirical evidence on the ground as disseminated and commented on by STRATFOR. In my opinion, STRATFOR’s intelligence briefs, the ones made publically available and those circulated by the media seem to revolve around the worst-case scenario with nothing more than dire-predicting headlines. STRATFOR briefed that Mexico was on the verge of becoming a failed-state in 2008.

With the secretive nature of STRATFOR’s access, gathering and analysis of the data they use to make their assumptions and the necessary need for Mexican and US government security over threat analysis it is difficult to determine how accurate their intelligence analysis is. The unintended access to their work product via Wikileaks should give us an insight into their methods and access to the actionable information they use to create their analysis.

Wikileaks is best known as the disseminator of information surrounding the US Embassy cables and US Army Private Manning’s ongoing Court Martial in regards to those. Julian Assange is currently fighting extradition to Sweden on a sexual assault charge. Wikileaks is publishing the STRATFOR documents on its website.

The intrigue that is just starting out threatens to significantly change my, and possibly our understanding of private security and intelligence firms, government backed data collection and investigative agencies and reveal to the world a clearer picture of the geopolitics of today’s world. With that in mind and hoping that the intelligence continues to pour in, I will be creating a section on this blog about the STRATFOR morsels I expect to further soon devour. These will be interposed between my continued irreverent commentary and observations of the El Paso political drama that never ceases to amuse.

Is Mexico becoming a weapons exporter? UAVs for Chavez and Georgia?

In August of 2008, former Soviet satellite Georgia preemptively started a war against Russia by shelling a Georgian breakaway province, South Ossetia, in order to put International pressure on the Russians.

According to an email recently released by Wikileaks purporting to be from STRATFOR, from Reva Bhalla to a STRATFOR internal dissemination list, Georgian government officials were looking to purchase Mexican UAV’s in their upcoming war against Russia.

Some readers will remember that a Mexican operated Isreali UAV was lost in El Paso Texas. On December 2010, the world first became aware of Mexican operated unmanned aerial aircraft (UAV) that had been deployed against the drug cartels when a Mexican UAV inadvertently descended into the backyard of an El Paso home. The media has erroneously referred to the uncontrolled descent as a “crash”, but all indications, although unconfirmed, are that the aircraft deployed its emergency parachute when it lost contact with its operator.

On August 2010, the Latin American Herald Tribune reported that the Mexican government had purchased an unknown number of Israeli Hermes 450 unmanned aerial aircraft (UAV) to patrol the Mexican border with the United States. According to the publication, the information was attained from a response to an open records request filed with the Mexican government. The number of UAV’s deployed or purchased was not confirmed, although unconfirmed reports have speculated that at least two aircraft are currently operating. This is the UAV that is presumed to have unintentionally parachuted into the El Paso backyard.

A Mexican company, Hydra Technologies, has been developing and deploying the S4 Ehecatl, which is presumably the one being discussed by the email. The S4 Ehecatl, which according to specifications revealed during the 2007 Paris Airshow, is capable of 8-hour missions at an altitude of 15,000 feet. The Ehecatl has a wingspan of 12 feet (3.7m) and a cruising speed of 38 knots. According to public sources, the Ehecatl is being marketed to the Mexican Federal Police.

The email, disclosed by Wikileaks, goes on to describe a clandestine swap between Israel and Russia whereby Georgian operated Israeli UAVs were compromised by the Russians, therefore rendering them ineffective for the Georgians. This disclosure has many in the intelligence community either confirming their suspicions of Israeli compromised UAVs or asking if this was the case. Regardless, this is the first time the notion of Israeli compromised UAVs has entered the realm of public discussion.

As discussed below, there are many questions regarding the veracity of this information.

A first take on Friedman’s and STRATFOR’s intelligence gathering and analysis.

I am not impressed. For all the public posturing of STRATFOR as a significant private intelligence gathering firm, the initial exposure of their emails shows a company acting as an authority on international security, but in reality is nothing more than a sophisticated news gathering organization selling news. Actionable intelligence requires analysts that understand not only the information they are gathering but also the ability to needle-down into the gem hidden within the extravagant information shared by informant’s whose motives, by their nature, must be understood in order to glean the actionable intelligence from their utterances.

In the specific case of the email reference above (#64027), the author appears to be Reva Bhalla based on the email address information included in the disclosed email. According to a LinkedIn profile under the name of Reva Bhalla, she is the Director of Analysis at Stratfor. According to the profile, Bhalla is a graduate of Georgetown University and her area of expertise is the Middle East, Southeast Asia and Latin America.

From her online picture she is an attractive lady.

Before anyone starts to assume anything, let me explain the relevance of the last statement. Sources of information, especially those cloak-and-dagger sources of clandestine information are usually motivated to open up via money, sex or a need to stay out of jail. This has been true since intelligence gathering became a science.

I am sure it is the same for all males in many countries, but in the case of Mexican males, and yes, I am one of those, a pretty lady creates the need to exaggerate and attempt to please the woman flirting with us. It is part of our culture, although many of us will deny it.

Intelligence analysis requires that we take the masks off and deal with information in its rawest and purest form therefore we must be honest about the information. In the case of the Mexican male I must acknowledge that we are like the peacock which must flutter our feathers to attract the lady in the room.

When I first read the email “INSIGHT – Russia/Israel/Georgia/Mexico – defense deals and swaps” I was intrigued and excited. Here was proof of Mexico’s rightful place in the geopolitical intrigue of the world and its capability. But it bothered me.

The email reads like a school girl email to a friend rather than an intelligence brief for insertion into the data repository for further analysis and integration into the other sources of data. It seemed like gossip. Of course all intelligence is gossip but this just seemed like office gossip between two colleagues rather than intelligence data. The “dude is getting shadier by the day” probably stands out the most.

The email thread makes it clear that the source for Bhalla is a former Mexican police officer who is attending a school in the United States, possibly in the Washington area who is collaborating with Jane’s, a weapons analysis publication publisher. The source is a male who most likely met a lady in a bar. Most likely he fluttered his peacock feathers in order to attract the lady’s attention. So far, this is common tradecraft.

The problem I see is that the plier of information should have the basic knowledge of the topic at hand in order to be able to pry the appropriate information from the target.  In the case of this email, and based on this email only, Ms. Bhalla has little or no knowledge of Mexican culture, the language and especially weapon systems.

Bhalla’s email clearly shows this. First, she refers to “6.22 mm rounds” and NATO standard without clearly understanding that the most likely round the source was discussing was the 7.62 mm round. Anyone, with basic understanding of ammunition would have made the point that they may have heard “6.22” but it was clearly either the 7.62, or 5.56 chambered by Mexican security forces, especially after mentioning the Chinese as the source of the ammunition that needed to be replaced.

Why is this important? In order to glean the most effective information from a talkative informant it is important to know enough of the subject matter in order to control the conversation. The information gatherer never knows if there will be another opportunity to gather more information from that source.

The other troubling aspect about the email is that, although Ms. Bhalla lists one of her areas of expertise as Latin America, she clearly does not speak Spanish. In her email, Bhalla refers to “Idra” as a private Mexican company manufacturing UAVs. A Spanish speaker and someone with a rudimentary understanding of weapons systems would have known enough to refer to “Idra” properly by its actual name: Hydra Technologies.

To me the email is clearly gossip from an overzealous analyst supplying information from pure gossip. The source is obviously trying to garner Bhalla’s attention by providing information that is unreliable at best and an outright fabrication at worst. Bhalla, on the other hand, is clearly out of her element and is unable to properly control the conversation to produce actionable intelligence. In the end, it is nothing more than gossip without a foundation from where to glean actionable data from.

For STRATFOR, the loss of 5 million emails, including customer credit card information does not give it the credibility it has created via the careful manipulation of a public persona operating in the nether world of intelligence. As the emails continue to be made public, if the information contained therein continues to show that their sources of intelligence data is nothing more than college kids playing at the spy game then the “analysis” the media relies on to report on the conflict areas of the world needs to be seriously questioned. Right now, STRATFOR looks like nothing more than a façade of intelligence want-to-be attempting to play in the big leagues.

Were Georgian’s looking to deploy Mexican UAV’s in their war against Russia? Highly unlikely. Is it likely that a former Mexican cop would have access to knowledge that Israeli UAV’s have been compromised through a Russian and Israel swap? Very unlikely. In the end, just gossip and nothing more.

Too bad, it would have been cool to be able to write a blog entry detailing Mexican UAV operations in the 2008 Georgian/Russian conflict.

Martin Paredes

Martín Paredes is a Mexican immigrant who built his business on the U.S.-Mexican border. As an immigrant, Martín brings the perspective of someone who sees México as a native through the experience...