02/27/2012 06:16 pm ET

WikiLeaks Email Trove Shows How Companies Gather Intel With the 'Shadow CIA'

Past WikiLeaks document dumps have offered peeks at how governments gather intelligence. The latest promises a look at how private companies do it.

One key difference: While governments are often gathering intel on national security threats, companies are gathering intel on such threats as People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA).

WikiLeaks is slowly unveiling what it says are about five million emails, obtained by way of the hacker group Anonymous from an Austin, Texas, geopolitical intelligence firm called Stratfor. In the past, Stratfor has been dubbed a "Shadow CIA."

The emails released Monday show big companies, including Dow Chemical and Coca-Cola, using Stratfor to gather information that could affect their images and how they do business around the world.

Stratfor has refused to comment on specific emails and has warned that it can't be sure some of the emails being hosted on WikiLeaks weren't altered or forged.

Earlier Monday, an email made the rounds that seemed to show Stratfor CEO George Friedman planning to announce his resignation, but that email has since been debunked as an apparent forgery.

The emails released so far have caused little stir among analysts of both foreign policy and business news. As of yet they don't seem to reveal much more than what is likely a normal course of business for many companies and the intelligence and consulting firms they employ. Some scoff at the idea that Stratfor deserves billing from WikiLeaks as some shadowy private spy agency.

But even if some of these emails are forgeries or mostly detail mundane, relatively innocuous practices, they still do offer a flavor of how big companies use consulting firms like Stratfor to gather intelligence -- whether it's good intelligence or not.

For example, a June 2, 2009, email from a Coca-Cola executive to Stratfor asks for the intelligence firm's help monitoring the animal-rights group PETA, which it thinks will protest at the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver, British Columbia.

"We are now looking at PETA and the potential for protests at the Vancouver Olympics and related events," the Coke executive writes. "We'd like to schedule a time for a conference call with you and/or your analyst(s) on this topic."

According to the email, Coke wanted to know how many PETA supporters were in Canada, how many might travel from the U.S. to Canada to join a protest, PETA's methodology and structure and other information.

Other emails show Stratfor employees discussing Coke's request, including one who writes, "The FBI has a classified investigation on PETA operatives. I'll see what I can uncover."

In a statement emailed to The Huffington Post, Coca-Cola responded: “We consider it prudent to monitor for protest activities at any major event we sponsor, as such activities may affect our partners, customers, consumers or employees.”

In other emails, an analyst at a separate consulting firm, Allis Information Management in Midland, Mich., provides frequent and detailed updates to Stratfor and Dow Chemical executives of press coverage of the Bhopal disaster. In 1984, a gas leak at a Union Carbide plant in Bhopal, India, killed thousands. Dow Chemical bought Union Carbide 15 years later.

At first look, WikiLeaks may have overstated Stratfor's involvement with at least one company, Goldman Sachs. In its press release on Monday announcing its email trove, WikiLeaks said it had evidence that Stratfor and Goldman Sachs had worked together to form a hedge fund, called StratCap, to cash in on Stratfor's intelligence-gathering expertise.

Based on a study of the emails released so far and conversations with sources familiar with the matter, it appears that StratCap, which is still in its formative stages, involves just one former Goldman employee, Shea Morenz, a former regional manager overseeing Goldman's private-wealth business in Houston.

Goldman spokesperson Andrea Raphael said Morenz, who is now an officer at Stratfor, left the firm in July 2011.

Goldman declined to comment on the WikiLeaks allegations. It also declined to comment on the question of whether it was involved with discussions to form StratCap, or on whether it had been a client of Stratfor, as some of the leaked documents suggest.

Goldman Sachs was listed as a Stratfor client in a 2006 Excel spreadsheet included among the WikiLeaks documents, but its name was struck through in another client list from 2007.

Multiple calls to Morenz were not returned.