In 1984 a gas leak at Union Carbide’s facility in Bhopal, India killed 15,000 people in one of the world’s worst industrial disasters. In 2000 Dow Chemical bought Union Carbide, allowing it to jettison further obligations to the families of the 15,000 dead and hundreds of thousands affected. According to a spokesperson, Dow’s subsequent payout of $500 per victim was “plenty good for an Indian.” The gas leak remains a live issue in Indian politics, both at the community and national levels, and for reasons of national pride, as well as basic fairness. Yes Men, what?
It was this note of basic fairness that Dow finally struck in 2004 when, in an epic act of humility a Dow representative used the 20th anniversary of the Bhopal disaster to announce that the Union Carbide subsidiary of Dow, valued at $12bn, would be liquidated, and the money distributed to the victims. The historic announcement hit the wire services, investors fled, and Dow’s market valued plummeted by $2bn.
The announcement, of course, turned out to be a hoax. Dow representative Jude Finisterra was in fact Andy Bicklebaum, of Yes Man fame, and his announcement was yet another example of Yes Men’s Identity Correction campaign:
“Identity theft has become a major problem on the internet: scoundrels intercept personal information like your date of birth, residence and credit card numbers, have all kinds of fun at your expense. What we have done is the opposite: we have found people and institutions doing horrible things at everyone else’s expense, and have assumed their identities in order to offer correctives. Instead of identity theft, identity correction” (Yes Men 2004:11; cited in Falzone 2008).
When Dow realized what had happened, they issued a press release, stating they would not liquidate Union Carbide, nor would it be releasing additional funds to the victims. A nearly simultaneous and almost identical press release went out from the Yes Man offices, reading in part: “Dow will NOT commit ANY funds to compensate and treat 120,000 Bhopal residents who require lifelong care.” If the initial (fake) announcement made headlines, the correction from Dow, the correction from Yes Men posing as Dow, and apologies from the BBC only extended the story’s life-cycle.
And Dow noticed. The latest trance of WikiLeaks’ documents include email showing that from 2004-2011 Dow Chemical retained Stratfor, the American for-profit intelligence firm, to monitor groups protesting the company’s handling of the Bhopal disaster. Stratfor was covertly monitoring advocacy groups like Bhopal Medical Appeal (BMA) and International Campaign for Justice in Bhopal (ICJB) … and the Yes Men.
The Yes Men have made a name for themselves engaging in high jinks identity correction and “speaking (un)truth to power” (Falzone 2008). Yet groups mobilizing to stop them have gotten hardly any attention, most likely as a result of their covert nature. The latest WikiLeaks release, however, demonstrates an impressive additional resource in the movement target’s repertoire: for-profit infiltration services. In one report, Senior Analyst Ann Sigsby mentions that a Yes Man event was attended by “art students on class assignments and free entertainment, and some professors used the lecture as a substitute for regularly scheduled classes.”
The primary concern, it appears, is that the Yes Men would launch a more sustained structural critique of corporate control, rather than just limiting themselves to “an argument in their way on their terms.”
It stands to reason that organizations like Stratfor are not limited to tracking the Twitter feeds and events posting of an organization, but are also able to deploy countermobilization measures and disinformation campaigns of their own. Of course the Bush years provided plenty of fodder for activists concerned about Federal infiltration of peace groups. The Obama administration’s defense of warrant-less GPS-tracking and willingness to assassinate American citizens has extended this concern into the present.
So it should be no surprise that a group called Allisinfo collaborated with Stratfor in the project, and that the latter has contracts not just with Dow/Union Carbide, but also with “Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, Raytheon and government agencies, including the US Department of Homeland Security, the US Marines and the US Defense Intelligence Agency,” according to WikiLeaks. Indeed, another case prompted CEO George Friedman to write that a Stratfor analyst should take control of an informant: “Control means financial, sexual or psychological control. This is intended to start our conversation on your next phase.”
As if to prove that the Yes Men are not the only masters if irony, Stratfor founder and CEO George Friedman decried the WikiLeaks, calling the affair a “deplorable, unfortunate – and illegal – breach of privacy.”
Breach of privacy indeed.