the Cold War ended, it didn’t spell curtains for the secret agent.
Private espionage is a booming industry and environmental protest
groups are its prime target
As you hunker down for the last few days of the Camp for Climate
Action, discussing how to force your way into Kingsnorth power station
in an attempt to prevent the construction of a new coal facility, cast
your eyes around your fellow protesters. Do they look entirely bona
fide to you? And don’t look for the old-school special branch officers
– Kent Police are a tiny force. It’s the corporate spies hired by
private companies you need to watch out for.
According to the private espionage industry itself, roughly one in four of your comrades is on a multinational’s payroll.
Russell Corn, managing director of Diligence, one of a growing
number of "corporate intelligence agencies", with offices high in the
Canary Wharf glass tower, says private spies make up 25 per cent of
every activist camp. "If you stuck an intercept up near one of those
camps, you wouldn’t believe the amount of outgoing calls after every
meeting saying, ‘Tomorrow we’re going to cut the fence’," he smiles.
"Easily one in four of the people there are taking the corporate
In April this year, for instance, the anti-aviation campaign network
Plane Stupid, one of the main organisers of the eco-camp built to
protest against the expansion of Heathrow Airport, announced that one
of its activists, Ken Tobias, was actually called Toby Kendall, was
working for a corporate espionage firm called C2i, and had been leaking
information about the group to paying clients and the media. He had
been hired by an as yet unknown private company to provide information
and disrupt the group’s campaigning.
When Tobias first turned up at Plane Stupid’s meetings in July 2007,
he seemed a committed former Oxford student dedicated to reducing
aircraft emissions. The group gradually became suspicious because he
showed up early at meetings, constantly pushed for increasingly drama
tic direct action and – the ultimate giveaway – dressed a little too
well for an ecowarrior. When they showed his picture around Oxford they
found an old college pal who identified him as Toby Kendall. A quick
Google search revealed his Bebo page with a link to a corporate
networking site, where his job as an "analyst" at C2i International,
working in "security and investigations", was pasted in full public
Just a month earlier, a woman called Cara Schaffer had contacted the
Student/Farmworker Alliance, an idealistic bunch of American college
students who lobby fast-food companies to help migrant workers in
Florida who harvest tomatoes. Like the cockle-pickers of Morecambe Bay,
many of these workers are smuggled into the US by gangs which then take
their passports and force them to work without pay to clear often
fictitious debts to regain their papers.
Digging up dirt
Again, Schaffer’s excessive eagerness aroused suspicion, and again,
the internet revealed her true identity. She owned Diplomatic Tactical
Services, a private espionage firm which had pre viously hired as a
subcontractor one Guillermo Zara bozo, today facing murder charges in
Miami for his role in allegedly executing four crew members of a
chartered fishing boat, an allegation he denies. Schaffer turned out to
be working for Burger King – the home, perhaps appropriately, of the
The cute thing about these two bozos is that they got caught pretty
early on, but that was because they were young and had no background in
The real market is in proper, old-school spies who are suddenly
entering the private sector. For professional spooks, the 1990s were no
fun at all. The Cold War was over, defence spending was down and a
detailed knowledge of cold-drop techniques in central Berlin was
useless to governments looking for Arabic speakers who knew the Quran.
From New York and London to Moscow and Beijing, any decent-sized
corporation can now hire former agents from the CIA, FBI, MI5, MI6 and
the KGB. The ex-spooks are selling their old skills and contacts to
multinationals, hedge funds and oligarchs, digging up dirt on
competitors, uncovering the secrets of boardroom rivals and exposing
investment targets. They are also keeping tabs on journalists,
protesters and even potential employees.
"MI5 and MI6 in particular have always guided ex-employees into
security companies," explains Annie Machon, the former MI5 agent who
helped David Shayler blow the whistle on the security services back in
1997. "It’s always useful to them to have friends they can tap for info
or recruit for a job that requires plausible deniability. The big
change in recent years has been the huge growth in these companies.
Where before it was a handful of private detective agencies, now there
are hundreds of multinational security organisations, which operate
with less regulation than the spooks themselves," she says.
Corn’s company Diligence, for instance, was set up in 2000 by Nick
Day, a former MI5 spy, and an ex-CIA agent, Mike Baker. Before long,
the duo had built up a roster of high-paying clients including Enron,
oil and pharmaceutical companies, as well as law firms and hedge funds.
In 2001, a small investment by the Washington lobbying company Barbour
Griffith & Rogers propelled their growth. However, BGR and Baker
sold their stakes in 2005, shortly before a scandal shook Diligence.
KPMG, the global professional services firm, accused Diligence staff of
impersonating British spies to gain information on a corporate takeover
for a Russian telecoms client called Alfa Group. Diligence settled the
lawsuit without admitting liability.
Since then, it has recruited the former Conservative Party leader
Michael Howard as chairman of its European operations. And it is that
sort of respectability and lobbying power that big players are after.
In 2007, the parent company of the US private military firm Blackwater,
which hit the headlines for gunning down Iraqi civilians in Baghdad
last September, entered this market through Total Intelligence
Solutions (TIS), a new CIA-type private operation, to provide
intelligence services to commercial clients.
Blackwater’s vice-chairman, J Cofer Black, who runs TIS, spent three
decades in the CIA and the state department, becoming director of the
Counterterrorist Centre and co-ordinator for counter terrorism, a job
with ambassadorial rank. He describes the new company as bringing "the
intelligence-gathering methodology and analytical skills traditionally
honed by CIA operatives directly to the boardroom. With a service like
this, CEOs and their security personnel will be able to respond to
threats quickly and confidently – whether it’s determining which city
is safest to open a new plant in or working to keep employees out of
harm’s way after a terrorist attack."
Black also says TIS will operate a "24/7 intelligence fusion and
warning centre" that will monitor civil unrest, terrorism, economic
stability, environmental and health concerns, and information
technology security around the world.
The established firms already operating in this area include Kroll,
Aegis, Garda, Control Risks, GPW and Hakluyt & Co. More firms are
opening every day and there is little regulation of the sector.
Hakluyt & Co was founded in 1995 by former British MI6 officers,
with a reputation for discreet and effective investigations. The
company butler, a former gurkha, greets visitors to its London HQ, a
town house off Park Lane. In winter, meetings can be conducted beside
the fire. Computers are rarely in sight. Hakluyt’s advisory board has
become an exit chamber for captains of industry and former government
officials. Members have included Sir Rod Eddington, a former BA CEO,
and Sir Christopher Gent, former chief executive of Vodafone.
"It is hard to work well for an oil company without knowing who all
the key decision-makers in a government are and having the right
contacts to reach them," explains Stéphane Gérardin, who runs the
French private security company Géos. "We have an intelligence section
where we employ some investigative journalists, people from the finance
sector, from equity banks and some from security backgrounds.
"It is an important part of image protection for our clients as
well. We have our own tracking and monitoring centre, with analysts
doing risk mapping and preparing our clients for every potential
problem. It could be about alerting them to local sensitivities. Or, in
this globalised internet age, it can be a group of students in
Cambridge who have launched a protest website, who may be sending out a
"So we need to be able to understand and prepare our own propaganda
to counter such attacks. This is work we do to protect our clients."
Like the state security services, which ended up running Class War
in the 1990s after a hugely successful penetration, these spies work to
become reliable members of any protest movement. In April 2007, the
Campaign Against Arms Trade called in the police after court documents
showed that the weapons manufacturer BAE Systems had paid a private
agency to spy on the peace group.
BAE admitted that it had paid £2,500 a month to LigneDeux
Associates, whose agent Paul Mercer – accepted as a trusted member of
the campaign – passed information, including a legally privileged
document, to BAE’s director of security, Mike McGinty.
Unlike the security services, however, these services don’t bother
with penetrating the far left or anti-fascist groups. Their clients are
only interested in the protest movements that threaten corporations.
And as that is the nature of much protest in these times, it is a wide
field, but with a particular impact on environmental groups.
At any of this summer’s green protests the corporate spies will be
there, out-of-work MI5 agents tapping green activists’ mobile phones to
sell the information on to interested companies.
Russell Corn knows of incidents where a spook at a meeting has
suggested a high-street bank as a target, then left the meeting to
phone the officers of said bank, telling them that he has penetrated an
activist camp planning an attack and offering to sell the details. Corn
has no time for such behaviour, however.
"The thing about a really good private spy," he tells me, "is that you’ll never know he’s around and he’ll never get caught.
"The fact you can’t see them . . . it means nothing at all."