This week, WikiLeaks has begun time-releasing documents related to the global private intelligence industry. What exactly is this field, and what do you, as a citizen, need to know about it?
So far, the published open-source documents are limited to TECHNINT, or technical intelligence, detailing equipment allegedly created by Western companies and used by governments around the world, including dictatorships, to monitor individuals or communities. Yawn. Stay off Facebook. Next.
But I have a feeling WikiLeaks is just warming up. There’s a lot more to the industry than this. Anyone who has worked at the highest level of journalism, business, or politics has likely come across at least one person in the private global intelligence field – whether they’re aware of it or not. In Europe, where I spend a lot of time, they’re rampant. The problem is that most people have no idea what one of these creatures looks like or how he operates.
When, as a journalist, I call up a source and preface the conversation by saying that I’d like to talk to them on background about something I’m researching, this statement can be followed by a meandering hour-long conversation, at the end of which my interlocutor asks, “So what did you want to discuss exactly?” I respond: “It’s all good. We’ve already discussed everything.” The person hangs up without knowing exactly what information I was seeking. This is also how private spies – usually government spy agency or diplomatic reconverts – routinely operate, except without the finesse, ethics, forthrightness of status, and sophistication of a journalist.
They can often hide their true intentions and even their job or position. This modus operandi is what’s called a “false flag” in the intelligence world, also known as “cover for action” or “cover for status”. They may pose as a recruiter, a potential suitor, a new friend, or even a classmate in your continuing education course at the local community center, with their presentation hiding their true intent. They may not even use their real name. Don’t think you’re important enough to be targeted? If you’re a CEO or a high-level official, you’re too “hard” of a target – the human equivalent of North Korea, Russia or China. Mid-level employees or officials are ideal. Or even the target’s personal friends, who might be of much lower status than the mark.
So who do private spies work for? They’re usually found in one of three roles:
1) They may perform outsourced government-contracted information gathering or analysis on the down-low, so leaders like Barack Obama can brag that there are officially no American “boots on the ground”, as he did with Libya. A leader could say that no CIA agents are in a particular theater while it’s teaming with ex-CIA agents who went private, or even current CIA agents acting in a private capacity in a second job. The media obsession over American war efforts and their negative portrayal has, in part, led to this phenomenon of military support outsourcing. We reap what we sow.
2) Some work for rich private investor cowboys looking to make potentially high-risk, high-return investments in the Wild West of emerging markets. They need to know which mobster’s or politician’s palm they have to grease and who is prone to chopping off hands in lieu of litigation. They may need to vet potential local partners or investors. In these cases, the private spies they hire tap into their network of other current or former spies. It may be ugly, but it’s how some countries work. If local embassies openly offered investors such services for a reasonable fee, these private spies would be redundant.
3) Others spy on multinational companies on behalf of other companies. Capitalism and the principle of free-market fair play get thoroughly corrupted as trade secrets and proprietary information are stolen. Espionage for national interest during wartime is patriotic; espionage for strictly financial benefit on behalf of some company against a competitor is grift. Countries like France are further beefing up laws against such activity, but when caught out, these cases are usually settled with a financial kiss-off and rarely prosecuted criminally. After all, what federal investigator would want to blow a lucrative post-retirement gig by forcing all the private spying industry’s secrets out into the open?