“Survival,” George Smiley said, “is an infinite capacity for suspicion.”
Only these days, suspicion has become a business in ways Smiley, John le Carre’s spymaster extraordinaire, might have never imagined.
Long before the world learned this week of memos claiming Russia had compromising material on Donald Trump -- memos believed to have been prepared by a former British intelligence officer -- the business politely known as corporate intelligence had exploded into a multibillion-dollar industry.
Today private CIAs and MI6s are deeply entwined in business and politics, but their services don’t come cheap. The going rate can run as high as $1,200 an hour, on par with that of a white-shoe Wall Street lawyer.
$19.4 Billion This Year
Worldwide, private spooks, sleuths and assorted security experts are expected to rake in $19.4 billion in revenue this year, according to the research firm Gartner. That doesn’t include intelligence operations inside major corporations like Exxon Mobil Corp., whose chief executive, Rex Tillerson, is Trump’s pick for secretary of state.
Since Jules Kroll pioneered the modern U.S. corporate intelligence industry in the 1970s, the business has gone global and, predictably, high tech.
"It’s a totally different landscape today, having gone from the early days of men in fedora hats under lampposts to quite a sophisticated marketplace,” said Patrick Grayson, the chief executive officer of corporate intelligence firm GPW Ltd. in London, who opened a London office for Kroll in 1986. Competition has gotten tougher, too, he said.
Orbis Business Intelligence, the private intelligence firm believed to be at the center of the Trump memos, has suddenly thrust this hush-hush industry into the headlines. Christopher Steele, a former MI6 officer who co-founded the London firm, has been widely named as the author the memos, which contain unsubstantiated allegations about Trump’s personal life and business activities.
Speaking Wednesday at his first news conference as president elect, Trump called the claims "fake news" and "phony stuff.”
Money plundered, deals cut, bribes paid -- uncovering such secrets and more helps drive the private intelligence industry.
When England’s Football Association was preparing to bid for the 2018 soccer World Cup, for example, it turned to Steele’s Orbis Business Intelligence to find out what rival bidders were up to.
In London, a center of the global private intelligence community, industry figures, including several close to Orbis, were stunned by Steele’s -- and their industry’s -- sudden notoriety. Telephone calls to Orbis’s offices weren’t answered; Steele couldn’t be reached.
Steele is a respected Russia expert, fluent in the language. He worked for MI6 in the 1990s and 2000s in Moscow and London, according to a person who worked with him
He set up Orbis in 2009, with Chris Burrows, a former British Foreign Office official. Their stated aim: to provide clients with “strategic insight, intelligence and investigative services.”
Staffed by four analysts and two directors, Orbis is a relatively small player in London and vies with bigger competitors such as Control Risks Group, Hakluyt, Kroll’s K2 Intelligence and GPW.
Yet back in 2010, Steele’s small firm was hired by the Football Association to learn what rivals such as Russia at FIFA were doing to secure votes and to sweep hotel meeting rooms for bugging devices, Bloomberg News reported in 2011. Using intelligence agents was a common practice among the various bidders. Following a controversial process during which allegations of wrongdoing were made against several members of FIFA’s board, Russia was named host, with England’s bid eliminated after the first round of voting. A month after the vote, then-Prime Minister David Cameron, described the vote as "murky."
Corporate intelligence isn’t cheap, with many in the industry charging anywhere between 600 and 1,000 pounds an hour, according to Grayson. The work includes everything from tracing assets to investigating fraud to handling whistle-blower cases. In the political sphere, the work can also include opposition research, or “oppo,” aimed at digging up dirt on rivals.
Several Russia experts in the intelligence industry said this week that gathering intelligence in Russia was notoriously difficult.
"It’s really hard to get good information,” said Andrew Wordsworth, a Russian expert and co-founder of corporate intelligence firm Raedas in London. "Half a dozen firms in my sector have high standards and are tough about doing this work, but clients can’t tell the difference between good stuff and crap stuff.”
© Copyright 2022 Bloomberg News. All rights reserved.