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Episode Summary

Five years after it was written, the so-called Steele dossier, a collection of memos compiled by former British intelligence officer Christopher Steele, alleging extensive ties between Donald Trump and various Russians, is still one of the most heavily discussed pieces of writing about the ex-president.

The document has come under intense scrutiny by American law enforcement and intelligence officials. And most of its sensational allegations about Trump have collapsed under examination. It’s also become increasingly apparent that Russia’s own intelligence officials became aware of what Steele was doing and began trying to manipulate him as he did it.

And the document has become the locus of a passel of far right conspiracy theories, alleging all kinds of strange and fanciful things, even more bizarre and intricate than anything that Christopher Steele ever imagined.

How much truth is in the Trump-Russia dossier will likely never be known, but the document is actually part of a larger issue that has received almost no attention. And that is that the Steele memos were the product of multiple private intelligence services, a growing and very secretive industry that is built on the premise of collecting information at the behest of clients. And then using that to generate news coverage without disclosing to the public where it came from. In recent years, many media outlets have been slashing their budgets for independent investigative reporting. Are private spy agencies filling this gap? And what does it mean if they are?

Joining me in this episode to discuss is Barry Meier. He’s the author of “Spooked: The Trump Dossier, Black Cube, and the Rise of Private Spies.”

The video of our discussion is below. A transcript of the audio follows.


Transcript

MATTHEW SHEFFIELD: Thanks for being here, Barry.

BARRY MEIER: Thanks, Matthew. I’m really happy to be here.

SHEFFIELD: So you have written a very intricate book, so I want people to be sure to check that out. Just for those who are not familiar with your background, Barry, why don’t you tell us a little bit about what you were doing before you started getting into writing books and your background in investigations and things like that.

MEIER: I’m retired now, but I spent most of my career in the newspaper industry, mainly doing investigative reporting often in the health and public safety arena. I worked, originally for the Wall Street Journal then for New York Newsday, a sadly now defunct newspaper in New York City.

And then I went to the New York Times in 1989 and stayed there until 2018. So that’s 28 or 29 years, I’ve lost track. Over the course of time, I wrote a lot of stories I think were significant, that I think were a public benefit. I was the first reporter to report extensively about Oxycontin, Perdue Pharma and the Sackler family.

And in 2003, I published a book called “Painkiller” that first chronicled, that whole story. Subsequently, I published, almost 12 years later, I published my second book “Missing Man,” which was about the case of Robert Levinson. A former FBI agent turned private investigator who disappeared in Iran.

It was very high- profile case. People might be familiar with him from seeing photographs of this guy in an orange jumpsuit with very long hair and a beard. And sadly, the U.S. government told his family about a year ago that they believe he perished at some point in captivity.

And then when I was leaving the Times, or about to leave the Times, I did two things of note. I broke what may have been one of the crazier stories of my reporting career, which was about the NXIM cult, or that cult near Albany, New York, where women were being branded with the initials of its founder.

And, I also decided that, okay, I’m leaving daily journalism. What’s my next step. And along with, updating “Painkiller” to reflect the many developments that had happened since I first wrote the book, I decided, it’d be a good time to look at the corporate investigations industry, because there were three big stories happening in late, in 2017 and in the run-up to my retirement, one was the dossier. One was the Harvey Weinstein story. And the third one was the story of Theranos and Elizabeth Holmes.

And the kind of thread that connected all of them was the involvement of these corporate investigations firms working on behalf of lawyers or companies or powerful people, and, I thought, wow, these people are having a kind of unseen influence on the media, business, and our personal lives. And it would be interesting and fun to investigate them. And that became the sort of operating theory behind “Spooked.”

SHEFFIELD: Okay, let’s maybe give a little bit of background about and talk about what was in the Steele dossier? How did it come to be? And then we’ll go from there.

MEIER: Sure. Let’s set this in the context of political opposition research, which is a phenomenon that has always taken place. In years past, you’d have campaigns hiring students, volunteers to go through old clip files and find embarrassing information about an opponent. Then, during Bill Clinton’s presidential campaign, you had the first real use of professional private eyes to dig up information.

And in this case, they were used by both sides, but particularly by Bill Clinton’s side to try to do background checks. And in some ways intimidate the women who are claiming that they had affairs with Bill Clinton.

And from that point forward over the past 30 years, it’s been off to the races, and in every political campaign, you see the growing involvement of private spies. You had that in the Obama- Romney campaign where Fusion GPS, a firm that I’m sure we’ll talk about more frequently during the show, was hired by the Obama campaign to dig into Mitt Romney’s involvement with Bain Capital and generate embarrassing stories about that.

And then as the Republican campaign for the Republican nomination started heating up, Fusion GPS was hired by a conservative outlet, the Washington Free Beacon Foundation, which is funded by Paul Singer, to basically gather “oppo” about Donald Trump, because Singer was backing Marco Rubio as his preferred candidate.

When Trump won the election, they then went and shopped their services to the Democratic Party, to the Hillary Clinton campaign. And that’s when they hired Christopher Steele, and what became known as the Steele Dossier, began to take shape.

SHEFFIELD: And of course, Fusion GPS is not the only private intelligence service out there. There are a bunch of other ones, and obviously Christopher Steele had his own as well.

But there are, there, there are quite a few other ones. Can you talk a little bit about some of the ones you talked about in your book?

MEIER: Yeah, sure. There, there are literally hundreds of these firms, there’s one man shops. There are smaller companies. There are major companies that have two to 300 employees.

In telling the story of the book and trying to tell the story of this industry, I tried to keep things relatively simple and focus the story on a few characters and a few companies. So the characters and companies that I focused on were Fusion GPS, which was founded by two ex- Wall Street Journal reporters, Glenn Simpson, and Peter Fritsch; Orbis Business Intelligence, which was founded by Christopher Steele and another former MI6 operative; Kroll Associates, formed by Jules Kroll, a very seminal figure in the history of the modern- day corporate intelligence industry; and Black Cube, the Israeli firm, which became notorious because of its involvement in the Harvey Weinstein case.

SHEFFIELD: Okay, and let’s get into that, the Weinstein side. So he, just to review, Harvey Weinstein, he’s been accused of harassing and assaulting, dozens of women over the years–

MEIER: He’s actually been convicted, yeah.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah. But I was going to say, he’s been accused of far more than he was convicted of.

MEIER: Right.

SHEFFIELD: And people wondered why, how was it that he was able to get away with this for so long? And it was basically that he had hired various, private intelligence services to intimidate, the women that he had victimized.

MEIER: Harvey Weinstein, I would say if there was one particular reason why Harvey Weinstein got away with it for so long was the insularity of Hollywood, and his power in Hollywood, and the unwillingness of actors, agents, lawyers, whomever, to tangle with him for fear that they would get blackballed from the industry. But when things really started coming to a head when it became clear that he was being investigated, by Ronan Farrow at the New Yorker, by two former colleagues of mine as the New York Times, that’s where things really started to ramp up in terms of his use of private investigators. And the most aggressive of those firms was Black Cube. And what they did was, or their sort of modus operandi is to adopt these digital and actually physical pretexts where they pretend to be other people, they approach targets, in this case, some of the actresses that were making allegations against Harvey Weinstein, and they seek to get compromising information or information from them that can be used to compromise them, if they testify in a lawsuit–

SHEFFIELD: Yeah. And some of these groups will also try to fish with reporters, trying to find out what they know by posing and pretending to be people pertinent to their investigation.

MEIER: Right. Or even feed them information, one to get negative stories. There’s a whole array of techniques, which we can talk about later on, that these firms use to intersect with reporters, and glean information.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah. Okay. And so, let’s get into the Steele side of things here. So Christopher Steele, give us a real quick background on who Christopher Steele is.

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