A look at the burgeoning world of private spies, the elimination of any privacy, and the price we may pay as a society
Once, it took human agency to leak or gather secret information, as Daniel Ellsberg did with the Pentagon Papers, and Richard Nixon did with his plumbers. Today, hackers, private spies, and an entire network of secret information gatherers make everything we do and say potentially public. And with absolutely no human interaction.
Looking beyond the traditional forms of political opposition research and corporate intelligence, our guest on this special WhoWhatWhy podcast, Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative journalist Barry Meier, author of Spooked: The Trump Dossier, Black Cube, and the Rise of Private Spies, takes us deep into the world of modern-day espionage operatives for hire. His basic message: Stop worrying about privacy. There is no privacy,
Meier explains how today’s off-the-shelf cyber tools that harvest raw data from the vast repository of cyberspace make privacy an outdated concept, and, worse yet, there is now no stigma attached to doing this dirty work.
Personal and political espionage, Meier shows, is a significant growth industry, with huge paydays coming from dark money and big payouts to talent recruited from the CIA, the FBI, and the world of investigative journalism.
Meier reminds us that more deeply personal information is being gathered on everyone. And there are news outlets more than willing to release information on public and even not-so-public figures. No longer is there any kind of media filter to validate information before it gets broadcast. One example: the notorious Steele dossier on Donald Trump — an early salvo in the barrage of unfiltered and unverified information that can be directed against anyone in the public eye.
As a result of all of this, will people change their behavior? Will politics become the playground of only the squeaky clean and those who just don’t care what’s revealed about them? And what price do we pay as a society for the demise of privacy?
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Jeff Schechtman: Welcome to the WhoWhatWhy podcast. I’m your host, Jeff Schechtman. Referring to the ever-growing power of online information, the founder of Sun Microsystems, Scott McNealy, famously said in 1999, ‘You have no privacy, get over it.’ Since then, it has only become more so. Certainly, more and more information is available on every part of the web, but in many ways, that’s just the start. All of that information curated in the hands of people that know how to mine it and how to use it is even more revealing.
For the private eye of today, nothing is secret. Personal intelligence, corporate intelligence and espionage, and government secrets are all part of the information flow. Long gone are the days of Sam Spade, Philip Marlowe, and Kinsey Millhouse. Today, even the efforts of the corporate detectives, guys like Allan Pinkerton and Jules Kroll, are too genteel. In our current environment, everything from lowlifes like Anthony Pellicano to former investigative journalists and former CIA officers are unbound by previous standards.
Today’s secrets are tomorrow’s headlines, but what does all this mean for our government, for our business, for our politics, and for our personal lives? We’re going to talk about all of this today with my guest Barry Meier. Barry Meier is a former New York Times reporter and a member of the Times team that won the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for international reporting. He’s also a two-time winner of the prestigious George Polk Award for investigative reporting and he’s the author of the previous books Pain Killer and Missing Man. It is my pleasure to welcome Barry Meier here to the WhoWhatWhy podcast to talk about his latest work Spooked: the Trump Dossier, Black Cube, and the Rise of Private Spies.
Barry, thanks so much for joining us.
Barry Meier: Of course, Jeff. It’s a real pleasure. Thank you.
Jeff: It’s great to have you here. Certainly espionage today, whether it’s personal, corporate, even governmental, is more sophisticated. There’s certainly more money involved, more at stake many times, but is it really different in terms of methods and operations today?
Barry: Well, there’s some changes in methods because they reflect evolving technology. One of the simplest things to think about is 20 years ago, hacking was going on but to hack someone 20 years ago, you basically had to get into their computer through a Trojan, something that you might implant with a memory stick. Nowadays it can all be done remotely. There’s no contact involved.
There’s been a technological evolution. Also, the tools that investigators use, specifically the cyber tools that they may use, are very cheap. This has now become off-the-shelf technology. In terms of the technology of private spying, that certainly has evolved. The methodology in terms of human resources is the same but they’ve also adapted digital spying techniques onto that.
Jeff: In doing all of this, are they coming across, as a result, more information than they might’ve been looking for in the old days and as a result, doing more with that information that can be nefarious and criminal in many cases?
Barry: Well, they’re certainly becoming more aggressive regardless of how they get the information. That’s one of the trends that I try to bring to light in the book, which is basically that they’re customers. We live in a society where everyone wants to win, be it the lawyers representing rich, controversial clients, be it political parties, what have you. They are working for people who want to win and their clients, their customers expect them to do the type of work that will allow them to win. It’s become a much more predatory and aggressive industry in recent years.
Jeff: I guess there’s less of a stigma on those people that hire these private eyes of today, that it is expected that this kind of espionage at every level goes on.
Barry: It’s remarkable. One of the cases I talk about in the book is that Black Cube, and Black Cube was this Israeli private intelligence firm. They’re pretty well known by now because of all the publicity they got out of the Harvey Weinstein case, but they essentially dispatched operatives under false identities. They had Facebook pages, LinkedIn pages, phony company pages. You would think they would be working for low-life law firms and the like.
In fact, David Boies, one of the most famous lawyers in America, his law firm used Black Cube. There are no boundaries here. We think about, oh, well, Black Cube, they are a bunch of con men. Only shysters and con men would use them. That’s not, in fact, the case.
Jeff: Are you seeing any pushback anywhere to this because there’s a sense that since everybody’s doing it, there’s much less pushback to it because the day will come when you need to use this method?
Barry: In fact, I’ve seen the opposite. To cite an example, and not simply to stick with Black Cube, but last year I believe it was, Black Cube sued an Israeli investigative news program claiming that this show had libeled them. The lawsuit was filed in England and under British libel laws, you have to show financial damage in order to succeed in your case. Lo and behold, about three or four months ago, Black Cube withdraws their lawsuit. They’re still claiming that this television station libeled them but their business has boomed to such an extent that they couldn’t show any sort of financial losses as a result.
Jeff: What are we seeing in the world of politics with respect to this?
Barry: We’re seeing the same type of evolution. The involvement of private eyes in what’s known as political opposition research, or ‘oppo’ as it’s typically called, began in earnest during the Bill Clinton campaign, and then in Spooked, I tell the story of that evolution as well. He hired some private eyes to go after women that were accusing him or about to accuse him of extramarital affairs.
That’s where you have the real entry of private eyes into the arena of political oppo. But it went to a massive, metastasized scale in the 2016 presidential campaign with the involvement of Fusion GPS and this former British spy, Christopher Steele, who was hired to put together what became known as the Trump dossier.
Jeff: Explain for our listeners that may not know how this became part of this broader subject of private eyes in politics today.
Barry: Just to put the Steele dossier or Trump dossier into context, in 2015, Fusion GPS — which was an investigative firm in DC headed by two former Wall Street Journal reporters — was initially hired by Republican Party interests to gather oppo about Donald Trump as a way of trying to derail his presidential nomination aspirations. Once Trump became clear that Trump was going to win the presidential nomination, they then went and shopped their services to a law firm representing the Hillary Clinton campaign.
They were then hired to work on behalf of the Hillary Clinton campaign and they hired Christopher Steele, the former MI6 agent who ran his own private investigations firm in London. Their remit to Steele was to gather dirt on Trump and his colleagues in Russia because they thought that this could then be used to call into question Trump’s qualities as a candidate and possibly derail his candidacy.
Through a source, Steele gathered information — basically about 18 or 19 memos — that became known as the dossier. These memos, which were shopped to reporters prior to the 2016 election, really only took on cultural and political currency afterward, when in January of 2017, Buzzfeed posted these memos verbatim on its website.
Jeff: Did anybody make money in all those transactions? Did Fusion GPS make much money, did Steele make much money?
Barry: They made a ton of money. Fusion GPS made about $1 million during the five months that it worked for the Hillary Clinton campaign. Christopher Steele made several hundred thousand dollars, but even more tellingly, after the election Fusion GPS, at least two former reporters Glenn Simpson and Peter Fritsch, set up basically a dark money group, which began taking in donations from people that were unhappy about Trump’s election and were hopeful that other stuff could be dug up that would muddy him up and make things difficult for him.
So they brought in, this foundation brought in $7 million in 2017 in donations, which was then funneled to Fusion GPS, an entity associated with Christopher Steele and other people. This kind of political oppo work continued even long after the election was over.
Jeff: That all happened before it was so easy to hide money in Bitcoin and on the blockchain.
Barry: [chuckles] Yes, this was just straight cash, but you did have the advantage of these nonprofit entities that are used by people all across the political spectrum, so-called dark money organizations where you are not legally required to disclose your donors.
Jeff: Are there more and more people getting into this business? Are we seeing consolidation in the business? Are there more people freelancing? What does the state of this business look like?
Barry: The state of this business has always been in evolution, companies rise, firms rise and fall. At a certain point, about 10 years ago, private equity companies came in and started buying them up because they saw the profits that could be made. This industry has boomed dramatically over the past decade. It went from what was estimated to be a half a billion dollar a year industry in terms of revenues, tripling in size to $1.5 billion. There are more firms, it’s the life cycle: Someone will go work for an outfit, then they’ll leave and start their own outfit. There’s constant entrants entering and leaving the field.
There’s just a lot of money sloshing around, part of it coming from the demand for these services from people like Russian oligarchs, controversial companies here in the United States, and folks like Harvey Weinstein.
Jeff: What about just what used to be referred to as old-fashioned corporate espionage? How much is that a part of the equation still, and has that gotten more sophisticated?
Barry: Well, the companies spying on companies, or people trying to reverse engineer a product or device that they’re interested in, that’s going on too, and there’s obviously a lot of cyberactivity going on in that space. What we’re seeing, though, is that the boom is really taking place in the arenas of litigation because of the increase in litigation that’s going on between oligarchs and businesses in the political arena and in basically, the general muddying up that controversial people want to — basically, they want to destroy the reputation of their opponents or muddy them up before they can come out and say anything against them.
The perfect example, again, being the Harvey Weinstein case where there are women who felt, that had evidence that Harvey Weinstein had sexually abused them, had attacked them, whatever, and his immediate response was to hire four private investigative firms to dig up dirt on these women effectively to try to shut them up.
Jeff: The case of Harvey Weinstein, he had a reputation for doing this even before working with guys like Anthony Pellicano.
Barry: Right, but now it was crunch time. Now, these allegations were going to come public, and most importantly, they were going to come public, both in the New Yorker magazine and in the New York Times. One of the things that Black Cube was hired to do was try to kill these stories. David Boies’s firms signed an agreement with Black Cube that Ronan Farrow of the New Yorker eventually revealed, in which Black Cube would have gotten a multimillion-dollar bonus if it succeeded in killing the Times story.
Jeff: One of the points you make is that a lot of this work now is not just to expose things, but it’s really, as you’re talking about in the Weinstein case, to hide things.
Barry: Right, exactly. It’s to cover it up, it’s to divert attention from things. It’s to launch attacks on people so that the investigations into possible wrongdoing by the customer or the client is, there’s less attention paid to that.
There’s a case that has played out over in the last decade in England, where this controversial mining company — which is under investigation by regulators there — has launched, basically, this decadelong war where it’s hiring private spies to dig up dirt on everyone they can, as a way of trying to cast doubt or discredit this investigation.
Jeff: Where does this go? How far can this be taken because there’s an element of this as there are more people doing this as it becomes easier with respect to the technology that you talked about at the outset, to gather this information? There’s a kind of mutually assured destruction quality to all of this?
Barry: Well, I am not so hopeful [chuckles] that there will be usually a sure destruction; that would be a wonderful resolution to this problem. I think it’s only going to get worse, and more predatory, and more aggressive. Let me give you one example. We think that and we know it’s illegal for someone to defraud you out of money. Someone gets caught doing that, they can go to jail. However, it is not illegal in any way, shape, or form, for someone to be paid to get information from you by fraudulent means. Until that kind of behavior is cracked down on, there’s no reason to think anything here is going to change.
Jeff: What is the state of public policy on this to extend what you were just talking about a little bit? Where is the opposition to creating laws necessary to adapt to the extremes of this culture today? Who are the people for it? Who are the people against it?
Barry: Well, in England, there have been laws passed that make private intelligence firms vulnerable to civil lawsuits if they use certain tactics, intrusive tactics, to basically invade people’s privacy, and that’s what they do. If they get caught doing it, the people whose privacy has been invaded can sue them civilly. There have been cases where those people have received damages.
We have nothing like that in the United States. We have nothing that makes it illegal for someone to use fraud and subterfuge to effectively invade your privacy and gather information about you. This is only going to stop at the point where someone who is in power or who wields power takes this up as an issue and makes it an issue. Right now, there is no sign that anyone in the United States is prepared to do that.
Jeff: Why do you think that is? Why is this so low on the totem pole of public policy concerns right now?
Barry: I guess because maybe people benefit from it. The people who would shout loudest about it may also be beneficiaries of it, like political parties. They may not want to bite the hand that feeds them.
Jeff: You say you’re somewhat pessimistic about where all this is going. What is the worst-case scenario, how bad can it get? How bad can the damage be?
Barry: Well, we’ve already seen it and a large part of my book is dedicated to the dossier and to the shopping of the dossier and to its embrace by the media — its obsessive embrace by the media for three years. If you turned on the television, you listened to the news, you read newspapers, you were bombarded with stuff about the dossier and how this was going to either lead to the end of the Trump presidency or get people sent to jail or whatever the case may be.
Now you don’t hear a word about it. That’s in part because much in the dossier has not been proven to be true and quite a lot of it has been proven to be untrue. The damage here is really substantial. It’s damage to the institution that I revere, which is journalism. What happened as a result of the media’s obsession with the dossier was that Trump and his allies were able to use it as a cudgel to beat the media.
Because they were obsessed with the dossier, reporters weren’t focusing on things that they should have been looking at during the Trump administration. It, one, became a diversion for serious reporting to go on, and then secondly, it became a weapon for Trump and his allies to use against the media. There was substantial damage that was caused as a result of this episode.
Jeff: One thinks about former Labor Secretary Ray Donovan, who was charged and ultimately acquitted of charges and said, after being acquitted on the courthouse steps, where do I go to get my reputation back?
Barry: I don’t know where he would go and whether he would in fact get his reputation back. We as journalists have a duty, and that is to scrutinize things, verify things, report out things before we publish things or air things. That didn’t happen here. One motivation I had in writing the book was to say to my fellow journalists and to news organizations.
I’m not going to point the finger at individual journalists, but as a profession, as an institution, we really need to sit back and think about what happens here and how we go about doing our business in the future.
Jeff: Is that more difficult though, in the journalistic environment today, where you have really a greater bifurcation, you have individuals with their own newsletters, their own outlets, their own reputations, and more and more opportunity for information to get out there as a result of all of this, and therefore, a greater competitive landscape that everybody feels that they’re a part of.
Barry: Absolutely. The book makes clear that that was the petri dish that allowed the Trump dossier to fester and grow. But as to the subtext of the question you’re asking, yes, it’s much more difficult to do it now, but that also makes it even that more important for it to happen now, because we are moving into an increasingly bifurcated and toxic media environment.
It’s not just happening on one end. It’s happening on both ends and there is the danger that it’s going to spill over and affect the mainstream media, where I spent my career. To my mind that makes it more important for people, in the mainstream media particularly, to say this is not the road we’re going to go down. These are not the people we want to deal with. If we’re going to take information that is shopped to us by a firm like Fusion GPS or other higher operatives, we’re going to let our readers know where this stuff is coming from so that they know this is coming to them from people who have a vested interest and may be getting paid to get it out there.
Jeff: It seems the danger, of course, is that something equivalent to the Steele dossier comes along in several years or whenever, and turns out to be correct. As a result of this concern that you’re talking about, the mainstream media stays away from it. It gets picked up by other sources. It turns out to be true. The mainstream media winds up with egg on its face.
Barry: That’s presupposing that something like a Steele dossier or something that comes from the private intelligence industry will be true. And even if it is true, it will be something of such a monumental nature that mainstream news organizations will be kicking themselves for the next decade. Yes, there may be very true things that private intelligence firms generate and bring to the media, but I have to say having some familiarity with the topic and been approached throughout my career by private intelligence firms that want to shop stories, none of it really is of a monumental nature. It’s if you missed it and a competitor got it, that would be fine.
Jeff: Except that now, bringing this full circle to where we started because of technology, because of the way information can be gathered now that the private intelligence universe has a lot bigger pool to swim in, there’s a lot more opportunities to gather this negative information. The marriage or the dance that happens between the private intelligence community and journalism takes on a whole different complexion, given so much information and so many ways to get it.
Barry: Yes. You’re absolutely right, but you still come back to a central issue that is like: I can approach you, I can have a ton of information, but what does it boil down to? What is the story? How crucial is that story? Is it a story that’s like a one-day wonder and we get a little scoop out of it or is it a more sustaining, important story?
Again, my experiences as a journalist is … limited to stories I worked on and stories I worked on with colleagues. And the stories that for me have always had the biggest impact were stories that I developed myself, that I dug out myself. I didn’t rely on anyone to bring me those stories. I think most journalists who are proud of their work will tell you the same thing.
Jeff: One wonders what impact all this will have on people’s behavior. There’ll be a greater fear that virtually anything you do, or say, or write can wind up on the front page of the paper.
Barry: There have been numerous situations in recent years where emails that people never expected to appear publicly have appeared publicly. They’ve dealt with the upshot of that. We should all be very careful in what we do, say, and certainly commit to writing.
Jeff: Finally, Barry, who’s going into this business today? Who are the people that are getting involved in, if not the ground floor, the elevator going up on this industry?
Barry: Well, it’s an interesting scattershot mix. You have former government spies like Christopher Steele, you have ex-law enforcement agents, former FBI people. Increasingly, you have former journalists like Glenn Simpson and Peter Fritsch, or Fusion GPS. A decade ago, there was a huge consolidation that was taking place across the media landscape. Big papers like the Washington Post and the New York Times were losing money. People were jumping ship, so you had journalists increasingly moving over to private intelligence firms.
There’s several stories in the book about how these journalists end up investigating or getting involved in cases involving their former colleagues and start pulling stunts involving them. One of them being the case of Theranos and how Fusion GPS was monitoring informational requests by John Carreyrou, the Wall Street Journal reporter, while he was investigating, Theranos.
Jeff: It’s a whole new world out there in this business.
Barry: Yes, and it’s a very scary one. That was the reason for writing the book, to make the public, readers, people in my profession, and in other professions aware that when we think of spies, we tend to think of the CIA, MI6, Mossad, whatever, but there’s this huge booming industry of private spies. Every day, they’re invading our privacy, profiting from deception, and trying to manipulate the news.
Jeff: Barry Meier. His book is Spooked: The Trump Dossier, Black Cube and the Rise of Private Spies. Barry, I thank you so much for spending time with us.
Barry: It’s been so much fun. Thank you.
Jeff: Thank you. Thank you for listening and joining us here on the WhoWhatWhy podcast. I hope you join us next week for another radio WhoWhatWhy podcast. I’m Jeff Schechtman. If you liked this podcast, please feel free to share and help others find it by rating and reviewing it on iTunes. You can also support this podcast and all the work we do by going to WhoWhatWhy.org/donate.