New Statesman Article, August 2008

The new spies

Steph­en Arm­strong

When
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
shil­ling.”

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
view.

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
Whop­per.

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
espi­on­age.

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.

Discreet investigations

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
peti­tion.

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.”

Trusted friend

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.”