Posted on June 30, 2021

Private Spies Are the Puppetmasters of the Modern Political Smear

Colin Freeman, The Telegraph, June 4, 2021

Given that most Western newspaper readers know little of Kazakhstan beyond the Borat movies, feuds within its ruling elite might not be expected to get much coverage. Yet in 2008, numerous column inches were devoted to a vicious power struggle between President Nursultan Nazarbayev and his son-in-law Rakhat Aliyev, alleging corruption on a massive scale in Nazarbayev’s regime. Kazakhstan’s answer to Watergate, however, wasn’t quite the Pulitzer-worthy scoop that it seemed. Nazarbeyev’s aides then claimed that much of the dirt had been dug up (or fabricated) by corporate private eyes hired by Aliyev, who spoon-fed it to reporters to blacken the president’s name.

Private eyes have long enjoyed cosy relations with the media, from Benji “The Binman” Pell, who raked through the dustbins of law firms and showbiz agents in the 1990s, to the ex-coppers who sold tips to the News of the World. But as ex-New York Times journalist Barry Meier points out in his new book Spooked: The Secret Rise of Private Spies, in recent years their work has involved more than just celebrity scandal.

Today, they can charge $1,000 per day and work for everyone from stock market-listed firms to political parties, usually just vetting individuals and potential business partners. Behind their blue-chip façade, however, it seems that some “corporate intelligence” agents are not much different to the lowliest tabloid gossip-mongers. For one thing, they dig up dirt on people’s personal lives – a service that was a specialism of Black Cube, the Israeli firm hired by Harvey Weinstein to find scandal on his accusers and tail the investigative journalist Ronan Farrow. And, as in the Kazakh feud, much of what they tout turns out to be wishful thinking.

Nazarbayev vs Aliyev was a milestone – one of the first disputes where private eyes used digital hacking methods to acquire vast quantities of information. Stashes of documents that would once have filled entire offices can now be stolen via computer malware and downloaded onto a thumb drive. The spooks investigating President Nazarbayev, for example, had access to his chief financial aide’s emails, passwords and browser history, plus every document on his computer. This digital boom has helped private spying become a multi-billion-dollar industry, with London now a major hub for what Meier describes as the “informational underground”. Meier’s book is a guided tour round this twilight world, few of whose inhabitants sound very sympathetic.

We meet, for example, Russian-born Rinat Akhmetshin – who is, in his own words, for hire at $450 an hour “to f— with people” in business feuds. Then there is ex-TV prankster Rob Moore, who once helped the likes of Chris Morris and Ali G do their spoof shows. When his career fell apart in his early 40s, he worked for corporate intelligence firm K2, posing as a documentary maker to infiltrate activists campaigning against asbestos. Moore, who says that he quickly became disillusioned, later turned double agent, planning to expose K2’s methods. But the activists sued, and K2 eventually reached a “generous” financial settlement with them out of court.

Moore is among many journalists to drift into private eye work, which, Meier says, is perfect for “misfits, oddballs, also-rans, wannabes, and the occasional sociopath”. Indeed, his book’s central character seems to have all those traits – Glenn Simpson, a Wall Street Journal reporter who wrote many articles on the warring Kazakhs. Both talented and truculent (he allegedly encouraged his pet dog to poo under his editors’ desks), Simpson became so acquainted with private intelligence firms that he eventually set one up himself.

Ahead of the 2016 US presidential election, his outfit, Fusion GPS, was paid by Hillary Clinton’s campaign to look into Donald Trump’s Russia ties. Fusion in turn hired Christopher Steele, a former M16 Moscow desk chief who ran his own private eye firm in London. Steele then produced what would later become infamous as the “Steele dossier”, which claimed that Russia’s FSB had a covertly-filmed video showing Trump watching two prostitutes urinating on a bed in a Moscow hotel room.

Simpson touted the “Pee Tape” claims – which Trump denied – widely among his old journalistic networks. Many in the anti-Trump camp seized on it as proof – courtesy of a seasoned ex-spy – that the Kremlin had blackmail material on the president. Sceptics, though, wondered how Steele, who had left M16 years before, would have found out something that had eluded both the CIA and the FBI. And when FBI agents finally tracked down Steele’s top “Kremlin source”, the man told them most of it was hearsay, which he claimed Steele had exaggerated.

The Pee Tape, in other words, was yet another dodgy dossier – just like the one about Iraq’s WMD in 2003. And while this time it came from private spooks rather than government ones, once again it got far more airtime, and far less scrutiny, than it should have. It is, Meier argues, proof of a “toxic relationship” between journalists and private spies – and anyone who reads this forensic, well-told exposé will probably agree.