Book Review: Big profits in the global spying game

"The central thesis of Meier’s book is that the privatisation of spying has created a secret $2.5 billion industry which has had far-reaching effects upon all of our lives"
Book Review: Big profits in the global spying game

A copy of the local Chinese magazine ‘Global People’ with a cover story that translates to “Why did Trump win?” is seen with a front cover portrait of US president-elect Donald Trump at a news stand in Shanghai on November 14, 2016 ... the answer must be: Because of Russian interference. Picture: Johannes Eisele/AFP/Getty Images

  • Spooked: The Secret Rise of Private Spies
  • Barry Meier
  • Sceptre, hb €23.50

“THE relationship between private operatives and journalists rarely comes to light and when it does it is usually because things go sideways,” writes Barry Meier, Pulitzer Prize-winning former New York Times investigative journalist, and author of Spooked: The Secret Rise of Private Spies.

The central thesis of Meier’s book is that the privatisation of spying has created a secret $2.5 billion industry which has had far-reaching effects upon all of our lives, from the manipulation of public opinion via social media, to the skewing of corporate fortunes and government decisions via the careful manipulation of “old media”, often by agents who maintain a sometimes-nebulous status somewhere between journalist and spy.

Spooked opens in 2019, with Meier being driven around Farnham in England by Ian Withers, a 79-year-old private investigator and occasional intelligence operative with a colourful and questionable history.

The two men are on the trail of Christopher Steele, the former Moscow-based MI6 agent who had produced an explosive dossier on Donald Trump around the time of the reality TV star’s unexpected 2016 electoral success.

The Steele dossier painted a picture of a Trump hopelessly compromised by Russian kompromat, incriminating evidence of financial vulnerabilities, criminal culpability and, allegedly, sexual depravity, and the dossier’s credibility, or otherwise, are as much at the heart of Meier’s book as is the author’s own pursuit of Christopher Steele and other private spies operating in a twilight area between journalism and spying.

Steele had been hired by Fusion GPS, a corporate intelligence firm founded by former Wall Street Journal reporters Glenn R Simpson and Peter Fritsch, which had first been engaged to dig up dirt on Trump by a billionaire supporter of Florida Senator Marco Rubio’s bid for the Republican Party’s presidential nomination, and later by the Democratic Party.

Meier touches on other players, “misfits, oddballs, also-rans, wannabes, and the occasional sociopath,” as he puts it, and the Israeli-connected firm Black Cube gets a look-in for its sleazy efforts to undermine the testimony of survivors of convicted Hollywood rapist Harvey Weinstein.

Given the myriad cast of sometimes shady and often interlinked personalities amongst the dramatis personae of Spooked, Meier has a generally helpful habit of reintroducing recurring characters with a brief precis, but some readers may find themselves tripping over repeat variations of such phrases as “Russian aluminium oligarch Oleg Deripaska”.

One bit-part player singled out in Spooked is Mark Hollingsworth, a 62-year-old journalist who, as Meier puts it, had “operated for years as a hybrid version of a reporter and a private operative”. Hollingsworth freelanced for The Guardian, the Financial Times, and other British outlets, and consulted for the BBC, while simultaneously acting as a contractor for private intelligence firms like Christopher Steele’s own company Orbis Business Intelligence, and for Fusion GPS.

It is Meier’s contention that for all of Hollingsworth’s career longevity in the UK (with some crossover into this country), his “dual career as a journalist and private operative would have been short-lived in the United States”, where – apart from tabloids like the National Enquirer, newspapers don’t buy information from private investigators, and major outlets tend to fire and blacklist staffers or freelancers moonlighting as hired spies.

Noting that the culture and practices of British news media are different from those of the United States, Meier says Ian Withers, the private eye who at the start of this book drives the author around Farnham as they look for Christopher Steele, himself worked years ago as an investigator for the Sunday Times, gathering information for investigative reporters, a practice rife in British journalism.

Leaked Kremlin documents, which independent experts assessed as appearing to be genuine, suggest that Vladimir Putin in 2016 personally authorised a secret spy operation to help propel a “mentally unstable” Trump into the Oval Office, with the stated purpose of undermining the US, and creating a “social explosion”.
Leaked Kremlin documents, which independent experts assessed as appearing to be genuine, suggest that Vladimir Putin in 2016 personally authorised a secret spy operation to help propel a “mentally unstable” Trump into the Oval Office, with the stated purpose of undermining the US, and creating a “social explosion”.

Despite the public outcry at the 2011 revelations that operatives working for the News of the World and other tabloids had hacked into the mobile phones of murdered schoolgirl Milly Dowler and the victims of the 7 July 2005 London terrorist attack, Meier suggests practices have not changed completely in British media, with new procedures requiring freelancers to disclose potential conflicts of interest being entirely voluntary and lacking robust oversight, thus creating opportunities for “reporters/operatives with feet in both worlds”.

As for the Steele dossier, Meier suggests that Steele depended upon rumours and innuendoes fed to him, possibly by people who had an interest in either portraying Trump as being in the thrall of Putin, or else in making the suggestion of a Trump-Putin connection appear ridiculous by overstating it.

This is not to suggest that Russia did not interfere in the 2016 US presidential election – it manifestly did, as Robert Mueller’s 2019 report found – or that the Trump campaign was not very interested in Russia or the help it might offer, but the prosaic explanation seems the most likely: whether he had it or not, Putin never needed kompromat on Trump, because Trump was only too willing to abase himself in the hope of future enrichment.

As Meier puts it, “secret efforts during the 2016 election to strike a deal to build a Trump Tower in Moscow … provided a simpler way than a tangled conspiracy theory to understand Trump’s subservient behaviour toward Vladimir Putin. 

"Trump didn’t expect to become president so he was sucking up to Putin for another reason: To make money.” 

For all of that, of course, questions will likely always remain. In July of this year, The Guardian published a story based on one of the rarest things on the planet – a Kremlin leak. The leaked documents, which independent experts assessed as appearing to be genuine, suggest that Vladimir Putin in 2016 personally authorised a secret spy operation to help propel a “mentally unstable” Trump into the Oval Office, with the stated purpose of undermining the US, and creating a “social explosion”.

If the Kremlin papers are genuine, then Putin considered Trump to be an “impulsive, mentally unstable and unbalanced individual who suffers from an inferiority complex”. The documents also contain references to Trump’s earlier “non-official visits to Russian Federation territory”, seemingly confirming the existence of kompromat on the future US president, referring to “certain events” that happened during Trump’s trips to Moscow.

Readers are invited to find details in appendix five, at paragraph five, the document states, but it is unclear what that appendix contains.

We will probably never know the truth about the 2016 US election, and that probably suits Vladimir Putin down to the ground. Any disagreement about the validity of that election would later prove to be only a dress rehearsal for 2020, when faith in US democracy was so degraded that 53% of Republicans still believe – or claim to believe – that Trump won. One way or the other, with the US more divided than at any time since perhaps the Civil War, Putin has won.

If Barry Meier is right, however, and money really was at the root of Donald Trump’s obsequious attitude toward Vladimir Putin, then money is also at the root of the growing industry of corporate intelligence, and Meier is scathing in his assessment:

“Few professions are more deserving of a comeuppance than the smug and morally bankrupt men and women who work as spies-for-hire. Suing them, wherever and whenever possible, might help trim their sails.” 

Reading Spooked, two quotes come to mind. The first is from Bob Dylan’s Idiot Wind: “Someone’s got it in for me, they’re planting stories in the press.” The second began life in 1918 as a sign on the desk of an editor in the Chicago Herald and Examiner: “Whatever a patron desires to get published is advertising; whatever he wants to keep out of the paper is news.” 

As Meier writes: “Readers and viewers have a right to know when material that appears in a piece originates with an operative paid to dig it and plant it.” For journalists, and for private citizens, the lesson appears to be simple: always double-check your sources.

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