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Photo: Andrew Sondheim

Harvey Weinstein and Uber hired ex-intelligence agents to go to work on their enemies. As the ranks of civilian spies continue to grow, should we be worried?

Actress Rose McGowan’s literary agent introduced her to “Diana Filip” in May 2017. Filip said she was the employee of a wealth management firm that wished to fight discrimination against women in the workplace. She wondered if McGowan, a vocal women’s rights advocate, would speak at a gala for the event. Their correspondence evolved into an in-person meeting in Los Angeles, before breaking odd. Filip questioned McGowan relentlessly.

New York reporter Ben Wallace met “Diana Filip” as well, except to him she went by “Anna.” She told Wallace she had an allegation against Harvey Weinstein, the powerful media mogul whose predatory behavior has come out of the whisper network and been screamed across the nation. She grilled Wallace too. Who was he talking to? How wide was he casting the net? She asked him to sit close in their second meeting, as if recording him.

Both Wallace and McGowan were being targeted by Weinstein, who had contracted private investigation firm Black Cube to stifle the reports of his abuse, Ronan Farrow revealed in The New Yorker. Farrow’s exposé on Weinstein revealed the producer hired an investigation firm with strong ties to Israeli intelligence services to explicitly stop the publication of abuse allegations against him. They rolled out espionage tactics like the “Diana Filip/Anna” false identity, in reality a veteran of the Israeli Defense Forces, and in the process dragged the shadowy world of private research, investigation, and espionage into something approaching sunlight. Weinstein is not alone in being caught in the damaging position of hiring ex-spies to protect his interests; security firm Ergo, whose employees have CIA and National Security Council experience, was hired by Uber to dig up dirt on a class-action lawsuit lawyer and its plaintiff, The Verge reported. The Steele dossier, containing information on Russia’s efforts to both court and compromise President Donald Trump, was assembled by a former MI6 officer.

It seems that the spies have not only come in from the cold, they’ve infiltrated the civilian world. Trained in espionage tactics beyond the usual open-source research, former intelligence officers are using techniques once used to protect national security on crime victims, journalists, non-governmental organizations and ordinary citizens. Turned on the populace but subject now to the rules and oversights which govern civilian law and life, they are an option mostly available to those with wealth and resources—be they corporations or individuals—for protection. But questions remain as to their effectiveness and the threat they pose. After all, what good are spies, if we know they’re out there?

“[T]here are many scandals that may be waiting to be told if somebody were to ask questions.”

Private research, investigation and security firms have long been stocked with former law enforcement officials, lawyers and congressional office investigators. More recently, former intelligence professionals have become sought-after hires.

“We have to go back as far as post 9/11, when the government started to outsource a lot of its intelligence capability to the private sector,” said Dr. Frederic Lemieux, Faculty Director and Professor of the Practice at Georgetown University’s School of Continuing Studies’ Masters in Applied Intelligence program.

“The rise of private intelligence firms is very noticeable and sizable for the past 10 years. And what we see is an exodus of the workforce from the public sector to the private sector, just because of the pay scale and the opportunities.”

Many of these firms are now staffed by veterans of not only law enforcement—including police forces, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and the FBI—but intelligence organizations like the CIA. The beefed-up agencies of the post 9/11 landscape created thousands of new, capable intelligence pros who have migrated into the private sector. They now represent a large portion of the private security and research workforce.

“Intelligence has grown. It has been recognized as something of value,” said Gene Ferraro, founder and CEO of Denver-based investigation, research and risk mitigation firm ForensicPathways. “And depending upon the mindset of the industry, the organization, it might be a go-to resource that they want to tap. Thinking that they can put those people, who had that experience or played those roles in government, could be valuable to them.”

Harvey Weinstein hired ex-Mossad agents to target his accusers and the journalists covering them. Dennis Van Tine/STAR MAX/AP

The vast majority of intelligence work is done via open resource investigation and other benign means, resembling the research tactics employed regularly by students, lawyers and journalists. According to Lemieux, clandestine work accounts for only 8-10 percent of the CIA’s operations. Those not doing open source research are often involved in the collation and analysis of information. But it is their knowledge of the “dark arts” of espionage—deception, manipulation, seduction—that can potentially separate intelligence veterans from their counterparts. And when these arts are removed from the sphere of government activity, they can create an ethical quagmire.

The state provides spies with a looser framework of what is and is not permitted.

“They have the training to severely interfere with your liberty and privacy—wiretaps, unwarranted photographs, blackmail, stalking, recording your activity, accessing your online content, breaking and entering, etc.—if they want to, but none of the official legal hoops to jump through,” Dr. Ross Bellaby, lecturer in Security Studies at the University of Sheffield and author of The Ethics of Intelligence: A New Framework told A Beautiful Perspective via email.

This is permitted, within reason, by the state and society to prevent immediate and alarming threats. In essence, a spy working for their government is given more leeway because we feel that the ends justify the means. New questions arise once those tactics are employed protecting an alleged rapist and serial abuser.

“Private spies don’t have this ethical end to justify their actions,” Bellaby said. This makes the ethical justification of their work difficult.

“It can create issues to the degree of intrusiveness,” Lemieux said. Hacking, blackmail, intimidation; these are allowed, to a degree, by the state, but not in the civilian world.

“When the bad guy is a potential victim of sexual harassment, it kind of flips things upside down.”

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The vast difference between what is permissible for state versus private intelligence begs two vital questions: How worried should we be about former government intelligence experts operating in the civilian world? And, when the government no longer bears ultimate responsibility, who is watching the spies?

Appropriately enough for a murky world like espionage, there are no concrete answers. According to Gary Ruskin, former director of the Center for Corporate Policy and author of the study Spooky Business: Corporate Espionage Against Nonprofit Organizations, we have very few hard facts regarding private intelligence. Everyone A Beautiful Perspective spoke to for this report agreed the impact of intelligence veterans in the civilian sector is hard to gauge.

“There is a tremendous reticence to talk about the subject of corporate espionage against nonprofit organizations, against people,” Ruskin said. “I think it speaks to the latent fear that in both the communities of former CIA, FBI and law enforcement officials as well as the companies that employ them, that there are many scandals that may be waiting to be told if somebody were to ask questions.”

Ruskin’s report focused on the impact corporate espionage has when utilized against nonprofits: Greenpeace is a common target; oil companies have sicced firms with MI6 ties on them. The notorious contractor Academi, neé Blackwater, infiltrated activist groups for Monsanto, the multinational agro-biotech goliath. He has very real concerns about the impact the “dark arts” can have on a society when directed at targets that present a threat not to states, but companies or wealthy and powerful individuals.

“What we do know already, just from the facts we have, is that corporate espionage against nonprofits undermines democracy, and it may well be a threat to democracy,” Ruskin said.

Ferraro of ForensicPathways, does not feel former spies pose any more of an immediate threat now than they ever did. He said he has been contracted to teach espionage skills at the Federal Law Enforcement Training Centers and has organized many undercover operations for private actors.

Ferraro believes that the legal protections afforded private citizens, and the lack of sweeping governmental powers—lying to an FBI agent is a crime; lying to a private investigator is not—makes many former intelligence agents less effective when they step into the civilian world.

“When they leave for the private sector, they leave that badge and gun behind,” Ferraro said. “They have to play by the same rules as everybody else. And the shock to them is they can’t do the things that they did when they were on the job. It’s very difficult, and many of them fail. They don’t transition.”

 

When former government operatives move into the corporate world, who ensures they don't turn the "dark arts" of spycraft on innocent civilians? Andrew Harnik/AP Photo

Yossi Melman, an Israeli intelligence and military affairs journalist for The Jerusalem Post and co-author, with former CBS reporter Dan Raviv, of Spies Against Armageddon, agrees. Melman believes laws aimed at curbing civilian espionage are unnecessary.

“We have enough laws,” Melman wrote in an email. “If people want to break the law nothing will stop them.”

Furthermore, both Melman and Ferraro believe that the fact this article and others like it exist is evidence that former spies are not a lurking menace.

“Actually I wrote in one of my columns in Hebrew that Black Cube is a huge failure,” Melman wrote. “Its employees are exposed time and again in London, the USA, Romania, and more countries. The number one rule of every good spy or detective is don’t be caught, don’t surface, don’t make waves.”

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It would be difficult to write laws protecting single actors or nonprofits from being legally spied on without violating the First Amendment. The same techniques an ex-CIA agent may use to dig up information on an environmental activist group could be used by an investigative journalist looking to expose a sweatshop. The consensus among the sources for this story seemed to be that the rise of corporate spies is not dire enough to warrant potential First Amendment rollbacks.

More exposure to sunlight may turn out to be the best protection. Weinstein’s hiring of Black Cube makes him look like even more of a monster, and  Ergo’s intelligence gathering for Uber not only put the company in a bad light, but also left them facing potential fraud charges.

There are real concerns when powerful corporations and powerful people access the skills and abilities of former government intelligence experts and the turn them against potential victims of a crime and whistleblowers. Intelligence veterans, private research firms, and academics like Bellaby will all help to shape the new world of investigative ethics.

“Intelligence as an activity is one which is very special—a bit like war—in that we recognize that it has a lot of potentially harmful powers that we just don’t allow in everyday society,” he said.

But it is still unclear who will make sure the war-trained spies play by the civilian rules.

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