Are activists being used as spies?

    The activist training group CANVAS is willing to talk to anyone about the power of nonviolent resistance. But what happens when that anyone is the private intelligence firm Stratfor?
    Screen shot of Wikileaks' Global Intelligence Files.)
    Screen shot of Wikileaks’ Global Intelligence Files.)

    Over the weekend, following hacker Jeremy Hammond’s guilty verdict, Wikileaks released over 500,000 new Stratfor files. Among the few it chose to promote on Twitter was an email instructing Stratfor employees how to gather intelligence from a contact at CANVAS, or the Centre for Applied Nonviolent Action and Strategies:

    Based in Belgrade, Serbia, CANVAS is a non-profit NGO run by two former members of Otpor, the youth movement that helped overthrow dictator Slobodan Milosevic in 2000 — one of whom is Waging Nonviolence advisory board member Srdja Popovic. CANVAS is known for its work training pro-democracy activists in over 40 countries. So it is no doubt disconcerting for activists to see a tweet like the one above.

    What isn’t immediately apparent from that tweet or email, however, is whether CANVAS actually supplied any sensitive information about the activists it works with. To find that out requires a bit more digging — through some 200-plus emails in which CANVAS intel is discussed. These emails reveal a lot about Stratfor — mainly its ignorant and sometimes racist views on global politics. But what they don’t reveal is the exchange of secrets that would justify any claim that CANVAS was helping Stratfor spy on opposition movements.

    Stratfor seems to have dramatically misunderstood CANVAS in a number of ways. First, seeing them, rather than the people they train, as the source of power. As one Stratfor analyst enthusiastically explained to another, “They just go and set up shop in a country and try to bring the government down. When used properly, [CANVAS is] more powerful than an aircraft carrier battle group.” This not only overlooks the fact that CANVAS has only an office in Belgrade and a staff of just five people, but also — and more importantly — that revolutions are the product of the people waging them, not a few outsiders.

    The “intelligence” gathered by Stratfor from CANVAS can broadly be described as general public information, about both the strategies and dynamics of civil resistance, as well as about the current political situations in major conflict regions. CANVAS also agreed to connect Stratfor with willing activists — making the information being gathered of the overt, not covert, variety.

    In perhaps the most controversial email exchange, CANVAS shared its strategy for Venezuela. For some, this may appear like a breach of trust with the activists it was working with, but as Popovic explained to Waging Nonviolence, it was soon-to-be published and made available to the public on its website, like the many other strategic playbooks already there. Bizarrely, the internal Stratfor response to this was, “Let’s sell it to [Venezuelan President Hugo] Chavez.” It’s either a joke or a telling example of how the profit motive trumps politics.

    Meanwhile, others are sure to object to organizing against the democratically-elected Chavez and take this as another sign that CANVAS is politically aligned with U.S. interests. However, what is oftentimes overlooked by critics such as Wikileaks are the many activist groups CANVAS has trained that do not align with U.S. interests, such as those in Egypt, Western Sahara, Palestine and West Papua. If CANVAS has a consistent position, it’s a commitment to work, or at least engage with, anyone open to learning about nonviolent struggle.

    When asked to elaborate on this, Popovic said, “We believe in talking to everybody and presenting the power of nonviolent conflict to not only activists and students, but also journalists, analysts, think tanks, international institutions, NGO’s and even military, secret services or dictators. If you ask me whether I would present to decision makers in NATO — the people who decided to bomb my country in 1999, almost killing my mom — if I believed there was a chance to shift their minds and, for example, prevent them from thinking about foreign military intervention in Syria, I would do it gladly.”

    There is some question, however, among practitioners and educators of nonviolent resistance as to whether having such an open policy is a sound, if not ethical, position. Kurt Schock, a professor of sociology and global affairs at Rutgers University, chooses not to deal with organizations like Stratfor, saying, “They are not the types of groups that I want to be associated with, and I don’t really see what good would come from interacting with them.”

    If CANVAS’s hope in interacting with Stratfor was to pass along some wisdom that might prevent more violence in conflict regions, it’s not clear that it has worked. Looking back, Popovic agrees, saying, “From the published emails, I can tell that they definitely were ignoring and downsizing the importance of civil resistance, sometimes even in a very harsh voice.”

    Furthermore, while many internal Stratfor emails do make reference to terminology learned from CANVAS (e.g. dilemma actions and nonviolent discipline), the company’s analysis does not seem to have been seriously impacted. In one email about Palestine and the Israeli raid on the ship Mavi Marmara in 2010, Stratfor analysts exhibit a lack of knowledge about the Palestinian nonviolent struggle and racist assumptions about the violence of Arabs and the benevolence of Israelis.

    Marko Papic: “As we discussed earlier, Palestinians have no idea how to exploit what just fell into their laps. They are too disorganized and inherently incapable of non-violent opposition.”

    Fred Burton: “In Websters, next to Palestinian is FUBR. The hot-heads will always prevail. The educated Palestinians are elsewhere.”

    Marko Papic: “It’s just insane that after 50 years of not getting anywhere with their intifadas against Israel they don’t get what would work. If there is any government in the world where non-violence would work, it is Israel.”

    Even more interesting is that George Friedman, CEO of Stratfor, seemed to have very little patience for CANVAS and other groups working to spread knowledge about civil resistance, believing they wouldn’t give up the information he desired.

    George Friedman: “Guys. Please hear me. I’m not interested in jared cohen [co-founder of] or canvas or any of these guys. I know who they are, I know who pays them and they won’t give you an honest answer on thei egyptian conyacys no matter what. These guys are there to make sure we don’t find out who the players are and to take credit for what they do.”

    Marko Papic: “George, we know what you are saying. These guys will give us contacts of April 6, Kafiya etc. Thats the point.”

    While it does appear that CANVAS later found an April 6 leader willing to talk to Stratfor, it also appears Friedman was not interested in talking to him. Ultimately, Friedman’s views of people power during the time of the Arab Spring remained staunchly ignorant and racist, as depicted in this exchange with a young analyst:

    George Friedman: “You are getting passionately entangled with the region. Back off, calm down and look at the big picture. Common problem in a young analyst but one to guard agains. I’m sensing that you’ve bought the ‘my god, a rising of the opressed has happened’ line. Easy does it. Whatever happened is not as simple as it appears. Liberalism and democracy in the arab world never wins but is always used by others.”

    Bayless Parsley: “I am trying to balance between something that I truly believe is happening in the region (people not scared anymore, people perceiving that it is possible to enact change by taking to the streets, whether they understand the dynamics at play in Tunisia/Egypt or not, their perception is that protests work), and what I know to be the truth – that liberalism and democracy in the Arab world never win. I fully understand this point, and am not disputing this at all.”

    While Stratfor may not have gotten the kind of intel it was after, and CANVAS may not have been able to impart the deeper understanding and appreciation of nonviolent resistance that it had hoped for, the situation isn’t exactly moot. Wikileaks, after all, saw little nuance in the relationship between the two groups, and sent out a rather misleading tweet to over two million followers, many of whom are the kind of activists who might benefit from the knowledge CANVAS has to offer. In that regard, CANVAS’s work will have to speak for itself.

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