Years ago, doc located in Moscow as head of the office for a large newspaper magazine, a representative of a multinational company approached me and presented him with a tempting offer. He said that he has very sensitive materials that reveal the possible criminal activity of a Russian competitor. The documents were mine under one condition: to announce in advance that he might be out of the country when any story was published.
I had every reason to believe that the materials came from a private intelligence operative hired by the company – there were many such operatives in Moscow – but I did not ask my source for its source. Instead, I began my somewhat tedious investigation and, corroborating the materials, managed to publish a dirty story.
This episode came back to me as I was reading a new book by Barry Meier, Spooked: The Trump Files, The Black Cube, and the Rise of Private Spies. Ex New York Times an investigative reporter, Meier sheds a sharp light on both “private spies” and on journalists who often use the lumps dug up by these operatives. In the book’s talk, he revives the idea of a “spy registry” in which hiring operatives would have to reveal the names of their clients and tasks, “just as Congress is now asking lobbyists hired to influence lawmakers.
Is this really a problem that needs a solution? Or would a spy registry create worse problems?
It is tempting to conclude that there is really nothing new here and that private spies can even provide a public service. In the original gilded age of the late 19th century, the Pinkerton detective agency devoted itself to the art of planting. In 1890, a Pinkerton man went to a secret location on behalf of his client, the Governor of North Dakota, and from a rigorous investigation into the premises confirmed that he was a representative of the state lottery opposed by the Governor. The governor revealed dirty business to the public, and the lottery plan failed – and all maybe for the public good.
Today’s circumstances are far different. Cheap, ready-made technologies for surveillance, hacking and phishing make spy games easier to play than ever before. What does a hired sleuth now travel with one of those metal fabric bags that blocks GPS signals from cell phones, like the GoDark Faraday model sold online for $ 49.97? This is an insignificant item in the expense report.
The tools of the digital age trade, along with promiscuous media that gladly received missed emails, say that news organizations could not legally obtain them on their own, created for the “perfect petri dish,” Meier writes in Spooked, “Where the influence of private spies would be fertilized and multiplied, uncontrolled and uncontrolled.” Based on an estimate by consulting firm ERG Partners, it assumes that revenues for the private investigation industry, amounting to $ 2.5 billion in 2018, have doubled compared to ten years earlier.
Meier files the indictment on two ethically fulfilled episodes, one relating to the Black Cube. Founded in 2010, the global corporate intelligence firm advertises that it uses “a select group of veterans from Israel’s elite intelligence units” to deliver its product “Creative Intelligence: Customized Solutions Based on High Quality Intelligence, cutting-edge technology, unique expertise and out-of-the-box thinking.” informs us of his website.
Really “out of the box”. In 2016, hoping to prevent reporters from publishing sexual harassment charges against Harvey Weinstein, the law firm of super-attorney David Boies hired Black Cube to work on Weinstein’s behalf. The contract, Meier notes, specifically mentioned that the intelligence firm uses “avatar operators”: social media experts who specialize in creating fake Facebook pages, LinkedIn profiles, and the like for field operatives. One such operative, a female Israeli military veteran, who had the cover of a women’s rights advocate employed by a London-based investment firm, befriended the Weinstein indictment, actress Rose McGowan. The agent’s covert goal was to persuade McGowan to share an as-yet-unpublished memoir dealing with Weinstein. All of this later came to light in Ronan Farrow’s 2017 Black Cube exhibition. Asked if Black Cube’s tactics involving false identities constituted false representation, Boies withdrew into unconvincing legalese: “I think it may depend on how significant false representation is to the person receiving it.”
Another Meier example includes Washington-based Fusion GPS, which advertises “cutting-edge research, strategic intelligence and in-depth analysis services to corporations, law firms and investors around the world.” The company is run by a couple of exesWall Street Journal journalists, Glenn Simpson and Peter Fritsch, and it is not surprising that he makes enterprising use of his close personal connections with the journalistic fraternity.