It's always weird to get a sincere press release from the Yes Men, kind of like seeing Stephen Colbert or Sacha Baron Cohen break character. But while the Yes Men share Colbert's and Cohen's knack for satire — as seen in their subversive impersonations of business leaders and government officials — their roots are in activism, not comedy.
This serious side of the Yes Men was on display in a press release the group issued Monday, which highlighted a new batch of 5 million emails published on the anti-secrecy website WikiLeaks. The emails were obtained by Anonymous, a global hacking group, after it infiltrated a "strategic intelligence" firm in Texas called Stratfor.
Stratfor's emails illuminate the hidden world of corporate espionage, according to WikiLeaks, revealing "the inner workings of a company that fronts as an intelligence publisher, but provides confidential intelligence services to large corporations." And as the Yes Men argue in their own press release, the emails also reveal how Stratfor helped companies "spy on the Yes Men and other grassroots activists."
The Yes Men statement focuses mainly on Dow Chemical and its subsidiary Union Carbide, the recipients of many Stratfor emails over the years. The Yes Men have a history with Union Carbide, which owned a pesticide plant in Bhopal, India, that leaked toxic methyl isocyanate gas in 1984, killing 3,800 people and injuring tens of thousands more. The group has long criticized Union Carbide and Dow for their handling of the disaster — and the Stratfor emails suggest this didn't go unnoticed.
According to the Yes Men's press release Monday:
"Many of the Bhopal-related emails, addressed from Stratfor to Dow and Union Carbide public relations directors, reveal concern that ... the Bhopal issue might be expanded into an effective systemic critique of corporate rule, and speculate at length about why this hasn't yet happened — providing a fascinating window onto what at least some corporate types fear most from activists."
Here are three excerpts from Stratfor's emails that the Yes Men highlight:
"[Bhopal activists] have made a slight nod toward expanded activity, but never followed through on it — the idea of 'other Bhopals' that were the fault of Dow or others."
— Joseph de Feo, reportedly a "briefer" for Stratfor
"Maybe the Yes Men were the pinnacle. They made an argument in their way on their terms — that this is a corporate problem and a part of the a [sic] larger whole."
— Kathleen Morson, Stratfor's director of policy analysis
"With less than a month to go [until the 25th anniversary of the Bhopal disaster], you'd think that the major players — especially Amnesty — would have branched out from Bhopal to make a broader set of issues. I don't see any evidence of it. If they can't manage to use the 25th anniversary to broaden the issue, they probably won't be able to."
— Bart Mongoven, Stratfor's vice president
On top of trying to forecast the Yes Men's next moves, Mongoven also implies the group's efforts may be affiliated with other activist campaigns (which, according to the Yes Men, "had nothing to do with each other").
"The Chevron campaign [in Ecuador] is remarkably similar [to the Dow campaign] in its unrealistic demand," Mongoven wrote, comparing the Yes Men's Bhopal activities to a long-running battle over oil pollution in Ecuador. "Is it a follow up or an admission that the first thrust failed? Am I missing a node of activity or a major campaign that is to come? Has the Dow campaign been more successful than I think?"
In their press release Monday, the Yes Men mock this as "paranoia among corporate titans," whom they see as scheming with Stratfor under a sort of bunker mentality. "It's almost as if Mongoven assumes the two campaigns were directed from the same central activist headquarters," they write.
This reaction, they add, indicates the Yes Men "movement is on the right track."
The Yes Men joined WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange in London Monday for a press release about the emails, in which Assange called Stratfor a "private-intelligence Enron" that is "simply out of control," according to the Associated Press.
The firm is defending itself, though, issuing a statement that insists its business is legal and legitimate. "Stratfor has worked to build good sources in many countries around the world, as any publisher of global geopolitical analysis would do," the company states. "We have done so in a straightforward manner and we are committed to meeting the highest standards of professional conduct."
But as the AP points out, some of the leaked emails may seem to weaken that claim. One, for example, relishes a shroud of secrecy: "I think showing too much of our inner workings devalues our Mystique. People don't know how we collect our intelligence and that's one of the cool, mysterious things about STRATFOR."
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