The first time I met a spy was in January 2007.
I had been a reporter in Washington, D.C., for more than twelve years by that time, and I'd met congressmen, senators, ambassadors, and a president of the United States. I wrote about good guys, meeting with officials from the American Red Cross, police forces, and religious orders. And I wrote about bad guys, visiting a federal prison to interview a convicted embezzler and chatting with the infamous lobbyist Jack Abramoff at his restaurant on Pennsylvania Avenue. I thought I'd seen pretty much everything the nation's capital had to offer a reporter. But I'd never met a spy.
So I was excited as I walked up Connecticut Avenue toward Dupont Circle on that chilly afternoon. I quickened my pace, past Burberry, Brooks Brothers, and the other luxury stores that front the broad avenue. I stepped into the boxy, nondescript corporate office building that held the office of the man I was going to meet: Nick Day.
Day was in his late thirties, only a few years older than I was, but he was already a veteran of the British counterintelligence and security service MI5. He was the CEO of Diligence, LLC, a globespanning firm that sold intelligence services to private-sector clients.
His cofounder at the firm was a fourteen-year veteran of the CIA. They had connections at the top of British and American business and intelligence, and they worked for some of the richest people in the world.
I'd spent nearly five months gathering information on Diligence at that point, and I'd been astonished at what I'd found. Day and his employees had run a months-long covert undercover operation designed to penetrate the offices of KPMG, the global accounting giant. They'd done it on behalf of a Washington lobbying firm that was in turn working for a company controlled by one of Russia's most powerful oligarchs. And they'd gotten caught.
I didn't know what to expect. I'd never been to Langley, so I imagined that a spy headquarters would look something like a cross between the laboratory of James Bond's 'Q' and Batman's cave. But when I arrived on Day's floor, I walked into a reception area that looked much more like the offices of a 1990s dot-com company than a Hollywood set. Day's receptionist offered me coffee, and soon Nick Day himself came striding out from the back office. He was of medium build, with dark hair and rolled-up shirtsleeves that revealed hairy forearms. He was charming and friendly, and didn't seem the least bit fazed by the mess his company was in. I figured he'd seen worse. He led me past a row of analysts hunched over computer screens to an office that was cluttered with brown boxes. It looked as though he'd been packing files.
Day gave me a brief on-the-record interview in which he explained his company's role in the world economy. Spies, he said, are sometimes the only people who can solve a company's problems. That was intriguing enough, but I soon learned that Diligence wasn't the only company in the corporate espionage business. There are probably hundreds of firms like it around the world. Corporations, financial institutions, and wealthy individuals can hire intelligence contractors in Britain, America, Europe, Asia, and the Middle East.
In Washington alone, I discovered, potential clients have a wide menu of options to choose from. They can hire firms staffed by ex-FBI agents, ex-CIA officers, or ex–Secret Service employees.
They can hire ex-British MI5 officers like Day at Diligence. There's even a spy firm made up of ex-Soviet KGB and military intelligence officers. It's located in suburban Virginia, not too far from CIA headquarters, and I had coffee with the owner. We went to Starbucks.
I had stumbled across an entire hidden industry of spies for hire, and I was captivated.
For me, the industry I'd found represented a chance to cover something new. This was a heck of a lot more interesting than a congressional hearing, a lobbying fight, or even a corruption scandal. I began calling the spies, to see if they'd talk to me. To my surprise, most of them were happy to open up about their business—if not always on the record. I met with corporate intelligence operatives in Washington, New York, London, and Berlin, many of them veterans of the world's most elite military forces and intelligence services. I studied the history of the corporate espionage industry and learned that private-sector spying had long been intertwined with the government's own intelligence operations.
The result of that research is this book. In writing it, though, I struggled to answer the most important question about corporate spying: is it right or wrong? To be clear, corporate spying doesn't necessarily involve anything illegal or even unethical. To call people spies simply means that they use intelligence techniques or are veterans of government intelligence services.
The question of right and wrong, though, has haunted private intelligence operatives and their clients since the dawn of the industry in the 1850s. In fact, Allan Pinkerton, the man acknowledged to be the inventor of the private intelligence business, set down the first industry code of conduct in the mid-nineteenth century in order to ensure that such work would remain the 'high and honorable' calling he felt certain it was. Pinkerton outlined basic rules for his agents. They would not work for defendants in criminal cases, and they would not investigate jurors, public officials, or union members. They would not work for a political party against its opposition, they would not work for 'vice crusaders,' and they would work only for flat fees, not for a percentage of the spoils. Moreover, they would never investigate the 'morals of a woman'; nor would they handle divorces or other cases of a 'scandalous nature.'
As the 1860s dawned, that was the bright ethical line of the private intelligence industry. But the line didn't hold. Many of Pinkerton's modern-day counterparts routinely violate every one of his gentlemanly commandments. The ethical line vanished so quickly, in fact, that Pinkerton's own agency became known as one of the best union-busting tools of America's corporate elite. By then, Pinkerton's sons controlled the company he had founded. Sons don't bear the sins of their fathers, it's true. But history teaches that sons don't always bear their virtues, either.
As the world's economies intertwine and different value systems collide, the ethical lines are shifting again. In London, corporate surveillance practitioners grumble about their eastern European competition. The British spies—who tail executives, eavesdrop on conversations, and obtain damaging information about their targets—complain that the eastern Europeans go too far. One British operative told me that she'd never spy on a target while he was with his children. To her, tailing an executive to his son's soccer game feels unseemly. She won't do it. But she acknowledges that there are others who will.
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The way things are going in the private spy business worries some intelligence professionals. As one experienced industry operative told me, 'We're just one scandal away from a government crackdown.' He meant that with so much unsavory conduct going on, the industry is bound to explode into public view. The veteran CIA officer John Brennan, a deputy national security adviser in the White House, is another concerned observer. 'The problem is that you do things in the service of your country that are just not appropriate to do in the private sector,' Brennan told me in the months before he was tapped for his White House role by President Barack Obama. 'I hope they've brought their ethics with them.' At the time, Brennan was between government jobs, and sitting in a bland office at the suburban Virginia company where he worked, which is called The Analysis Corporation. It, too, is a private intelligence firm, although it sells its services to the government, not to the private sector.
Even as it remains a largely hidden industry, the private spying business is becoming an integral part of the way companies do business around the world. The past several years have made it abundantly clear that there are far more hidden, and dangerous, secrets at work in the global economy than even many sophisticated businesspeople once thought. For nervous financiers and executives, ramping up private intelligence capability is an understandable response to the confusing and sometimes deadly situations that surround them. The global economy is a paranoid place. What will a world shaped by that kind of corporate paranoia look like? To understand, we first need to see the private spies in the field.
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Our story begins on a warm afternoon on the island of Bermuda.
Excerpted with permission of the publisher. All rights reserved.
Copyright ©2021 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All Rights Reserved. 87990cbe856818d5eddac44c7b1cdeb8
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