Authors: Eamon Javers
In the real world, though, such concerns have been swept aside by the astonishing pace of technology. Since shutter control was implemented, the United States has fought two wars, in Afghanistan and Iraq.
In 2001, as the Pentagon was drawing up plans for the battle against the Taliban in Afghanistan, planners wrestled with the issue of what to do about commercial satellites. If they used shutter control to block the Afghanistan region, they might face lawsuits from American media over freedom of information. Instead of hashing out the issues in court, the Pentagon decided to buy up the entire inventory of commercial satellite imagery of Afghanistan.
For GeoEye, that meant the entire inventory of IKONOS images of the region for three months.
The military didn’t need the IKONOS pictures—it has plenty of satellites of its own of far higher quality. It just wanted to keep the images out of private hands: otherwise, anyone with a few hundred dollars to spend might have been able to spy on preparations for the ground war against the Taliban. During the invasion, no images of Afghanistan were available to the public. But after the three-month period, many pictures taken at that time entered the public archive, and they can now be purchased commercially.
Just a year and a half later, when the United States laid its war plans for Iraq in early 2003, the government made a different decision. Figuring that by then there were so many satellite images available from foreign companies, the U.S. military didn’t restrict American commercial satellite imagery at all. The genie was now
out of the bottle. From that point on, any military force invading any location in the world would have to assume that cheap and accurate satellite images would be available to its enemies. Today, anyone with a computer can do a Google Maps search, pull up a picture of downtown Baghdad’s Green Zone, and admire the swimming pools and Blackhawk helicopters of the U.S. occupying force there.
During the long coming-out period of commercial satellite imagery, private-sector companies recruited veterans of the U.S. military and intelligence agencies—these were the biggest pipeline of experienced satellite jockeys. So it is not surprising that GeoEye is linked to the CIA: the company’s board of directors includes James M. Simon, Jr., a veteran of the CIA who served as the senior intelligence official for homeland security. Simon established and chaired the Homeland Security Intelligence Council after 9/11. Earlier in his career at the CIA, he was responsible for acquiring technology, overseeing budgets, and setting policy for the fourteen agencies that make up the intelligence community. He started his own intelligence consulting firm outside government in 2003.
UCH CLOSE AFFILIATION
with U.S. intelligence can scare away global customers, who fear that their own use of satellite imagery companies based in the United States will be monitored by American intelligence agencies.
In 1994, because of that fear, a group of American and Israeli entrepreneurs and defense veterans had an idea: why not start up an international satellite company which would be free from the perception that it was controlled by U.S. intelligence? There
were plenty of clients around the globe that wanted to buy satellite imagery, but not necessarily have the CIA know what they were buying.
To avoid giving the company an American feel, these entrepreneurs incorporated their company in the Cayman Islands, naming it West Indian Space, Ltd. They moved its official registration to the Netherlands Antilles in 2000. That year, too, they gave the company its present name, ImageSat.
In the early days, the company focused on giving global clients confidence that they could conduct surveillance without the U.S. government knowing about it. Companies and national governments could snoop aggressively without having to worry that agents in Langley were looking at their pictures, too. To that end, the American investors were never allowed to own more than 50 percent of the company. (American ownership of more than 50 percent would subject it to the same licensing requirements as its fully American-owned competitors, GeoEye and DigitalGlobe.)
Here’s how several company founders described the need for a non-American business plan in a court filing:
ImageSat’s competitors were (and still are) backed by the largest United States aerospace companies and the U.S. government. ImageSat’s principal competitive advantage against its financially superior and technically more experienced competitors was its profile as an independent and robustly international company able to sell truly independent high-resolution satellite imaging capabilities to governmental customers worldwide, free from the unwanted influence of a politically motivated regulatory or licensing regime, such as that of the United States.
The foreign clients were allowed to operate ImageSat’s satellite from their own ground stations, control the pictures taken, and keep those pictures from ImageSat’s other customers. The only
restrictions came from the Israeli government: the company would not be allowed to sell to any country or customer within a 2,500-mile radius of Israel’s own ground station, and it would not be able to sell to the “rogue states” of Iran, North Korea, and Cuba. Clients began lining up for the service, and ImageSat sold satellite surveillance to countries including Venezuela, Angola, China, Taiwan, and India.
But soon, some shareholders grew disillusioned with ImageSat’s management. The group of dissident shareholders felt that the company was being brought under the control of the Israeli government—which, because of the historic ties between Israel and the United States, meant that American intelligence would be able to obtain the details of ImageSat’s operations. In July 2007, they filed a lawsuit for up to $300 million in damages, alleging corporate malfeasance and arguing that the effective takeover was ruining the company’s business prospects. Shareholders bringing the suit included American and Israeli businessmen, and companies registered in the Cayman Islands, Switzerland, and the British Virgin Islands.
Citing this international constellation of plaintiffs, and noting that most of the relevant action took place in Israel, Judge Denise Cote of the U.S. District Court dismissed the case a year later on jurisdictional grounds. Even so, allegations that the Israeli government may influence ImageSat could continue to scare off the company’s international clientele.
It’s no use pitching yourself as a non-American company if your customers think the U.S. government has access to your top executives. As we’ll see in Chapter Nine, the business of corporate espionage has gone global. And not everyone in this business has America’s best interests at heart.
The wiry former British special forces officer introduces himself only as Nick
and sits on the edge of his plush chair in the lounge bar at the Hilton London Green Park hotel. Nick is not tall—only about five feet, seven inches. He is dressed casually: long-sleeve black crew-neck shirt, dark jeans, and gray sneakers. “No voice recordings,” he says, putting up one hand. “I just can’t afford to have my voice on tape. And no company name either. Sorry.”
Nick has a good reason to be cautious. Now in his early forties and just beginning to show specks of gray in his military-cut hair, he is one of the top corporate surveillance operatives in London, and thus in the world. He knows how far people will go to win in the corporate spying wars, and he knows that if he’s identified, his lucrative career could be over.
Today London is the crossroads of western corporate executives, Russian oligarchs, oil-rich Middle Eastern sheikhs, and the troops of lawyers, aides, drivers, bodyguards, and bag carriers who hang around them. This neighborhood, Mayfair, may be the dead center of corporate spying. Mayfair exudes money. Bentleys and
BMWs cruise the streets. Billion-dollar hedge funds set up shop in elegant townhouses, many of which display small signs letting passersby know which kings and notable members of British royalty once lived on the premises. In spring and summer evenings, the neighborhood’s pubs spill out into the streets, with expensively tailored young lawyers and financiers toasting one another’s success. Buckingham Palace is just a short walk across the park from here.
Because the money is in Mayfair, the spies are here, too. Nick is sitting just a brief walk from several of the most important spy firms in the world, including Hakluyt, whose own townhouse headquarters and small brass nameplate understate its global reach, substantial fees, and world-class corporate connections.
Surveillance operatives hate talking to a reporter, even when they’ve done everything they can to ensure that their comments will never be matched with their identity. Nick No-Name says he’s agreed to this interview only because it’s been arranged by one of his most important clients, a man who thinks nothing of paying Nick as much as $30,000 to place some of the world’s highest-powered corporate executives under surveillance. It’s a good living: A top operator in London can earn as much as $200,000 per year.
“If my colleagues knew I was here talking to you,” says Nick, “I wouldn’t say I’d be ostracized, but they’d be upset. There’s no good reason for a surveillance man to talk to a reporter. I’ve never done it before. Nothing good can come of it.” Maybe his colleagues have
under surveillance right now? “No, I’m clean at the moment,” Nick says matter-of-factly. “I’ve got a man in here.”
Which of the people in the bar is Nick’s “man?” There are two young women at a far table, looking over a map of London and comparing notes. There’s a bespectacled, balding gentleman reading a newspaper over a late-afternoon lunch. And several waiters in maroon suits glide into and out of the room. Nothing seems at all out of the ordinary. But then just as Nick sits down at the table facing a window overlooking an interior courtyard, a workman puts
a large sheet over the window, blocking sunlight and the view to the outside. Maybe it’s a surveillance-related precaution; maybe it’s just routine maintenance. Nonetheless, Nick has cased the room. Satisfied that he’s in control of the situation, he agrees to sketch his life story, explaining how he came to be one of the world’s most effective corporate spies.
ICK JOINED THE
British army right out of school, and he says his superiors in the army noticed that he had a certain potential. He’s sharp, he’s attentive to detail, and he handles weapons well. His commanding officers steered him toward a career in the special forces, where he became a trained killer and a master of weapons and tactics. More important, Nick says he learned how to match his response to the situation. Sometimes, it is far better not to kill—to defuse a situation long before it becomes violent. And that’s a far more nuanced skill than being good with guns once the shooting starts.
Nick won’t say what theaters of combat he served in, but he notes, “I was in the British military. And we’ve only gone a certain number of places in the past fifteen to twenty years.” It’s likely that his résumé includes stints in Bosnia, Northern Ireland, and the Middle East. Nick says he was often assigned to security details, where he learned the basics of what the British call “close protection” and Americans call bodyguarding.
Generally, special forces units protecting a dignitary or some other high-value target include several bodyguards who stand within two or three feet, each monitoring a different area to the front, side, or rear. You often see them on television. They are mostly big men, unsmiling in the midst of cheerful crowds greeting a president or prime minister. They seldom look up. They are watching people’s hands. Nick calls them “big, hairy-assed monsters.” But that’s not a description of Nick. He was typically assigned to the perimeter of security, working undercover. Dressed as normal members of the public, Nick and the others on his
undercover team watched the crowd from outside the security area around the subject.
Under his jacket, Nick kept a Heckler and Koch MP5 nine-millimeter submachine gun, a lightweight, air-cooled weapon favored by more than forty military forces around the world. With its stock tucked under his armpit and its barrel pointing down toward his waist, the 26.8-inch MP5 barely made a bulge in Nick’s street clothes.
In theory, anyone who wanted to attack Nick’s subject would be watching the target and the highly visible big men near him. The members of Nick’s undercover team—positioned well back from any would-be assailant—could watch without themselves being spotted.
“They’re not looking at me,” he says. “I’m the little bloke eating ice cream with his girlfriend. When the bad guy pulls out a grenade, that’s when we move from surveillance to intervention. If it’s in Iraq or Afghanistan and we think it’s life threatening, we’ll work within our legal remit and take every action necessary.” In Iraq, the “legal remit” might include shooting an assailant dead at close range. In a corporate setting, it might mean slapping the hand of a menacing heckler.
When Nick retired from the military in the late 1990s, he returned to England to do the same kind of “close protection” work in the private sector, for private military contractors. It was a logical career move. “You’ve got all these skills, and not a lot of employment opportunity,” Nick explains. But he didn’t love the work. So he drifted into corporate intelligence, reaching out to a number of London’s biggest spy agencies. He says he was astonished by what he saw there. “Their surveillance capabilities were zero. They were sitting in cars taking pictures of people.”
Nick saw a market opportunity. There was demand for top-of-the-line espionage services offered by veterans of the British special forces. He began freelancing for the corporate intelligence firms, picking up surveillance work as needed. He found himself doing a
lot of screening of new hires for large corporate clients. Before offering top management jobs to prospective recruits, the companies wanted to have them followed for a couple of days.
Does this executive have any embarrassing problems the company ought to know about?
Nick tailed them on weekends.
Did they have a secret heroin habit? A weakness for hookers? Perverse sexual tendencies?
Nick would find out. Sometimes, he says, he found that the executives did have problems, but the company hired them anyway. “Think of everything you can think of that goes on in society,” Nick says. “I’ve seen it. I’ve watched executives picking up transvestites in New York City. What we’re doing is the biggest reality TV show there is.”
It’s not clear how commonly companies conduct surveillance on their own hires. But Nick No-Name and other people involved in the business say it happens most often with a “marquee” corporate hire—any executive who is going to be paid an enormous amount of money or whose name will be linked to the company’s brand in the public imagination. Paying Nick’s steep fees can be worthwhile if he prevents millions of dollars of public relations damage months later. In some cases, preemployment surveillance seems to verge on entrapment. Nick recalls one case in which he tailed an executive to a midweek golf game. Nick alerted his client that he was observing the executive playing golf, and the client called the executive’s cell phone. After some initial chitchat, the client said, “So, what are you doing now?” Not wanting to appear as though he was slacking off, with a lucrative new career opportunity hanging in the balance, the job candidate said, “I’m just heading out to a meeting.” The client crossed him off the list for the job. What he minded wasn’t that the executive was playing a round of midweek golf—who doesn’t enjoy that once in a while?—but that the executive had lied to his future boss. “If he’ll lie about the little things,” the client later told Nick, “he’ll lie about the important things, too.”
Soon Nick had developed a network of like-minded surveillance experts who had formerly been in the military. “A couple of us got together and said, ‘We’ve got to make this a viable business.’” They
banded together and incorporated a company. Nick will not reveal its name, except to say that it has a bland corporate title designed to give no hint of its real business—“You can call it ‘Harry’s Chocolate Factory,’” Nick says elusively. The firm does not have a Web site. It does not have a listing in the phone book. “We’re nowhere,” he says. But the top corporate intelligence firms in the world know his phone number when they need him.
Nick had stumbled on a key piece of the corporate intelligence business model. Most of the hundreds of firms in the world don’t have large staffs. Instead, they serve as a kind of facade that helps connect corporate clients with the netherworld of intelligence, the more shadowy “contractors” who do most of the actual work. Each time a client project comes up, the firms put together teams of subcontractors with the specialties needed for that situation. Need surveillance in London? Insert a contractor. Need linguistic help? Contractor. Need a forensic accountant? Ditto. The teams are assembled for each case and managed by the firm. Nick doesn’t need a Web site to publicize his business. The man who pays him already has one. Also, having pictures of himself and his team members on a Web site would devalue their service: “If my face and my operators’ faces are all over the Web, we’re a blown commodity,” he says. “We’re useless.”
The money’s good. Nick says high-end surveillance firms like his charge 1,200 to 1,600 pounds sterling per day per man, plus expenses, plus mileage, and plus the cost of any special equipment. Just to place surveillance on one unsurprising executive in London can cost upwards of 15,000 pounds per day. Nick says he has no idea what the intelligence firms he works for charge their clients for his services, but he suspects they mark up the bill by as much as 20 percent. That’s fair, he thinks. The intelligence firms don’t know how to do high-end surveillance, he says, but they’re charging the client for the one asset they do have: Nick’s phone number.
In a typical executive surveillance case, Nick turns over a written report with the details of every place the executive went, the
times he went there, photos of him at each of those locations, and photos of anyone he met with while he was there. Nick’s team will also conduct audio surveillance, either with recording devices or by getting undercover operators close enough to hear the conversations in person. With modern equipment, he says, this work can be done almost anywhere.
Nick sometimes uses a laser microphone that can record conversations in a room as much as a kilometer away. Pointing the invisible laser at the glass window of the room in which a meeting is taking place, Nick can record every word that’s being said in the room—so long as he has a direct line of sight from his hiding place to the panes of glass in the meeting room’s window. The laser is so sensitive that it measures the tiny vibrations in the glass itself, and reassembles those into audible speech.
The downside of this technique is that the lasers don’t work as well, or at all, with double- or triple-paned windows, which are increasingly common. And it can be maddeningly difficult to get a good angle for the laser when eavesdropping is taking place on the upper floors of high-rise office buildings—from street level, the angle toward the windows of the higher floors can be so oblique that the devices become useless. With high-paying clients, the way to get around that problem is to rent an office or hotel room in a building across the street at about the same altitude. It’s expensive, but it puts the laser in position to record the meeting.
Nick and his team conduct surveillance all over the world, sometimes flying an entire team of nine or ten operators across continents to observe an important meeting or tail a high-value executive. Depending on the laws in the country they’re working in, Nick says they can do almost anything: “We’ll bug a house, bug cars, put locator devices on vehicles, conduct electronic intercepts of e-mails, whatever it takes,” he says. They use encrypted communications equipment to avoid being detected. “But we won’t break the law. We retain barristers here in London, and make sure we’re on the right side of the law wherever we’re operating. Otherwise,
the information we collect is useless to our clients.” Illegally gathered material is inadmissible in court—and can’t be used in lawsuits. What’s more, any lawbreaking by Nick’s team could be used by the other side as leverage in the ongoing business dispute.
Because the skills required for surveillance are so rare, the industry isn’t huge. Nick estimates that even in spy-infested London, there are only enough crews to tail about twenty executives at any one time. Given the typical nine- or ten-man surveillance crew, this implies that there are somewhat fewer than 200 surveillance people working in London. (Another surveillance operative there gives a higher estimate: 100 executives could be tailed on any one day, she says. That implies a high-end range of something under 1,000 surveillance operators prowling London’s streets.) Clients, therefore, sometimes have to join waiting lists for surveillance on a given target, or they have to pay huge fees for an American or German team to be flown in during a busy time.