London: The anti-secrecy group WikiLeaks began publishing on Monday more than five million e-mails from a US-based global security analysis company that has been likened to a shadow CIA.
The e-mails, snatched by hackers, could unmask sensitive sources and throw light on the murky world of intelligence-gathering by the company known as Stratfor, which counts Fortune 500 companies among its subscribers.
Stratfor in a statement shortly after midnight EST (0500 GMT) said the release of its stolen e-mails was an attempt to silence and intimidate it.
It said it would not be cowed under the leadership of George Friedman, Stratfor`s founder and chief executive officer. It said Friedman had not resigned as CEO, contrary to a bogus e-mail circulating on the Internet.
Some of the e-mails being published "may be forged or altered to include inaccuracies; some may be authentic," the company statement said.
"We will not validate either. Nor will we explain the thinking that went into them. Having had our property stolen, we will not be victimised twice by submitting to questioning about them," the statement said.
WikiLeaks did not say how it had acquired access to the vast haul of internal and external correspondence of the Austin, Texas company, formally known as Strategic Forecasting Inc.
Hackers linked to the loosely organised Anonymous hackers group said at the beginning of the year they had stolen the e-mail correspondence of some 100 of the firm`s employees. The group said it planned to publish the data so the public would know the "truth" about Stratfor operations.
Stratfor describes itself as a subscription-based publisher of geopolitical analysis with an intelligence-based approach to gathering information.
WikiLeaks and Anonymous maintain the e-mails will expose dark secrets about the company. Stratfor said in its statement it had worked hard to build "good sources" in many countries, "as any publisher of global geopolitical analysis would do”.
In December, hackers broke into Stratfor`s data systems and stole a large number of company e-mails.
WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange said: "Here we have a private intelligence firm, relying on informants from the US government, foreign intelligence agencies with questionable reputations and journalists."
"What is of grave concern is that the targets of this scrutiny are, among others, activist organisations fighting for a just cause."
Friedman, the chief executive, said on January 11 the thieves would be hard pressed to find anything significant in the stolen e-mails.
"God knows what a hundred employees writing endless emails might say that is embarrassing, stupid or subject to misinterpretation. ... As they search our e-mails for signs of a vast conspiracy, they will be disappointed."
People linked to Anonymous took credit for the data theft. "Congrats on the amazing partnership between #Anonymous and #WikiLeaks to make all 5 million mails public," AnonSec Tweeted. AnonSec is one of several Twitter accounts used to promote and organise activities associated with Anonymous.
It was not immediately clear what impact the release of the e-mails might have on Stratfor, its employees, clients and information sources.
Previous releases from WikiLeaks, such as secret video battle footage and thousands of US diplomatic cables about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, in 2010 have angered the US government. WikiLeaks` disclosures also have raised questions about the safety of confidential sources quoted in previously secret documents.
WikiLeaks said it was working with two dozen media organisations worldwide that have access to a database of the Stratfor e-mails. These include the US newspaper publisher McClatchy Co.
"We have begun reviewing the e-mails and will publish as warranted," McClatchy`s Washington bureau chief, James Asher, said.
WikiLeaks said its other media partners include L`Espresso and La Repubblica newspapers in Italy, the ARD state broadcaster in Germany and Russia Reporter.
The group gave a sneak preview of the e-mails to The Yes Men, an activist group that targets what it views as corporate greed.
The Stratfor e-mails discuss an elaborate hoax the group staged to criticise Dow Chemical Co`s handling of the Bhopal chemical disaster in India, according to Andy Bichlbaum, one of The Yes Men.
"What is significant is the picture it helps to paint of the way corporations operate," Bichlbaum said. "They operate with complete disregard for rule of law and human decency."
After Stratfor`s computers were hacked at least twice last December, the credit card details of more than 30,000 subscribers to Stratfor publications were posted on the Internet, including those of former US secretary of state Henry Kissinger and former US vice president Dan Quayle.
The FBI began investigating the matter in December.
Australian-born Assange, 40, is currently under house arrest in Britain and fighting extradition to Sweden for questioning over alleged sex crimes.