The Murky World of Private Spies and the Damage They May Be Doing

The Trump Dossier, Black Cube, and the Rise of Private Spies
By Barry Meier

In “Spooked,” the former New York Times investigative reporter Barry Meier makes clear he has some big and important ambitions: to probe deeply into the murky world of private spies, he writes early on, and the “oversized impact” they were “suddenly having on politics, business and our personal lives.”

In what feels like a curt 278 pages of text — as an investigative reporter, I craved a deeper dive — Meier focuses much of his narrative on the now-notorious “Steele dossier,” the elaborate handiwork of Christopher Steele, a former MI6 spy. Steele had been hired by Fusion GPS — one of these newfangled private spy outfits, which was started by former Wall Street Journal reporters, and which was hired by the Democratic Party to dig up kompromat on Donald Trump before the 2016 presidential election. Also making cameos in “Spooked” are the investigative company Black Cube and the nefarious role it played in the revolting tale of Harvey Weinstein, along with Rob Moore, a freelance spy working out of the London office of K2 Intelligence, a firm started by Jules Kroll, the industry pioneer, and his son Jeremy. “Everywhere one looked,” Meier writes, “operatives-for-hire seemed to be running amok.”

Meier is at his best telling the tale of Glenn R. Simpson, a former and somewhat celebrated Wall Street Journal reporter. Following 9/11, Simpson wrote about how terrorists got the money they needed to operate; then, after becoming a foreign correspondent based in Brussels, he abandoned journalism because, according to Meier, he saw “a void in the corporate intelligence industry and an opportunity to fill it with a different type of firm — one that embraced the values and ethical standards of journalism while working for private clients.” This ambition led Simpson to start SNS Global, with Sue Schmidt, another Journal reporter. SNS Global’s intent was to take assignments only from “good guys” — nonprofits, public interest groups and companies with “legitimate legal gripes.” But SNS Global failed after a year; Meier reports that Simpson and Schmidt had different personalities, different political views and different ambitions.

Fusion GPS was Simpson’s second coming. He started it with Peter Fritsch, yet another Journal reporter. Like SNS Global, Fusion GPS would tap Simpson’s and Fritsch’s investigative reporting skills for nonjournalistic purposes: both to work on projects with more explicit political goals and to get consistently higher paydays. Disseminating Steele’s unsubstantiated tales of Trump’s questionable behavior while in Moscow was meant to thwart his presidential aspirations.

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