Years ago when stationed in Moscow as office manager of a large news magazine, I was approached by a representative of a multinational company and presented me with a tempting offer. He said he had highly sensitive documents revealing possible criminal activity by a Russian competitor. The documents were mine on one condition: advance notice so that he could be out of the country when a story was published.
I had every reason to believe that the documents came from a private intelligence agent hired by the company – there were many in Moscow – but I did not ask my source for its source. Instead, I embarked on a somewhat poignant investigation and by corroborating the documents, I was able to publish a vivid story.
This episode came back to me while reading Barry Meier’s new book, Spooked: The Trump Dossier, Black Cube and the Rise of Private Spies. An old New York Times An investigative journalist, Meier sheds a harsh light on both “private spies” and journalists who make frequent use of the nuggets unearthed by these agents. In the book’s afterword, he revives the idea of ”a kind of ‘spy registry’ in which agents for hire should disclose the names of their clients and their assignments,” just as Congress now demands. lobbyists hired to influence lawmakers.
Is this really a problem that needs a solution? Or would a spy registry create more serious problems?
It is tempting to conclude that there is really nothing new here and that private spies may even provide a public service. In the original golden age of the late 19th century, the Pinkerton Detective Agency devoted itself to the art of subterfuge. In 1890, a Pinkerton man sneaked in on behalf of his client, the Governor of North Dakota, and confirmed after a rigorous investigation in a bar that a fair amount of ‘boodle’, pot money- de-vin, was distributed by supporters of a state lottery opposed by the governor. The governor exposed the dirty tricks to the public and the lottery program failed, possibly for the good of civil society.
Today’s circumstances are very different. Inexpensive, out-of-the-box technologies for surveillance, hacking, and identity theft make the spy game easier to play than ever. What hired detective isn’t traveling now with one of those metallic cloth bags that block GPS signals from cell phones, like the GoDark Faraday model that sells online for $ 49.97? This is an insignificant element on the expense report.
Tools of the digital age of commerce, coupled with promiscuous media happy to receive stolen emails, say news agencies could not legally acquire on their own, made a “perfect petri dish “Meier writes in Scared, “where the influence of private spies would fester and reoccur, unchecked and unchecked.” Based on an estimate from consulting firm ERG Partners, it assumes that private investigation industry revenues, at $ 2.5 billion in 2018, have doubled from 10 years earlier.
Meier lays his indictment over two ethically charged episodes, one involving Black Cube. Founded in 2010, the global business intelligence company touts its use of a “select group of veterans of elite Israeli intelligence units” to deliver its product of “Creative Intelligence: Tailored Solutions Based on Intelligence of high quality, cutting-edge technology, unique expertise and original thinking ”, as its website informs us.
“Out of the box” indeed. In 2016, in hopes of preventing the press from publishing allegations of sexual harassment against Harvey Weinstein, the law firm of super-lawyer David Boies hired Black Cube to work on Weinstein’s behalf. The contract, Meier notes, specifically mentioned the intelligence firm’s use of “avatar operators”: social media experts who specialize in creating fake Facebook pages, LinkedIn profiles, and the like. for field agents. One such agent, a female IDF veteran under the guise of a women’s rights activist employed at a London investment firm, befriended an accuser of Weinstein, the actress. Rose McGowan. The agent’s secret objective was to persuade McGowan to share an as yet unpublished memoir that dealt with Weinstein. All of this later appeared in Ronan Farrow’s 2017 Black Cube exhibit. When asked if Black Cube’s tactics involving false identities constituted a false statement, Boies fell back on unconvincing legal jargon: “I think it may depend on how important the false statement is to the community. person who receives it. “
The other key example from Meier is from the Washington, DC company Fusion GPS, which promotes “research, strategic intelligence and due diligence services to businesses, law firms and investors around the world.” The company is run by a pair of ex-the Wall Street newspaper reporters, Glenn Simpson and Peter Fritsch, and, unsurprisingly, makes enterprising use of his close personal ties to the journalistic fraternity.