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Broker, Trader, Lawyer, Spy: The Secret World of Corporate Espionage - Eamon Javers Privatization of security and intelligence capabilities is “extending the espionage culture of the cold war into the global economy.”

A phrase kept running through my head while reading while reading Broker, Trader, Lawyer, Spy, “Well, what would you expect?” We have privatized a lot of dodgy military work into the hands of entities like Blackwater (sorry, Xe), so it makes sense that an increasing amount of intelligence work would likewise be put into hands of entities that are not subject to congressional oversight. Of course, it’s not like this is brand new.

Javers offers interesting historical perspective, tracing the roots of today’s companies back to the era of the Pinkertons. You will learn some surprising things about that origin and about the rules they lived by, or claimed to live by. Of course, there are no rules these days, or very few. He traces some of the technological leaps that have advanced the capabilities of surveillance over the ages, from early wiretapping to the satellite technology and big-time private intel and security capacity of today. He tells of the rise and fall of several seminal security companies, each of which is very engaging. Howard Hughes does a turn here as well. Clifford Irving, Allen Pinkerton. The history telling here is both informative and entertaining.

In the world of private intel, there are two main trunks, private companies doing the work of governments and the same companies engaged in purely non-governmental research and operations. Some work involves little more than performing background checks on potential hires. But a lot involves spy vs spy intelligence gathering and sometimes facilitating dirty tricks on behalf of one corporate client against another corporation. Jqvers looks at both.

His organizing structure is to offer case studies as a way of telling his tales. There is a wonderfully illustrative story here about a corporate struggle between chocolatiers Nestle and Mars, fought by their respective private spooks. It captures the Armies of the Night feel of this world. It will come as no surprise that private intel firms were involved with Enron. And there are cases in which private intel companies are hired by the targets of their investigations to find out who is looking into their activities. Spooky.

Just as our public funds were spent training special ops personnel who now sell their services as mercenaries, the private intel world is staffed by former public servants from the CIA, FBI, NSA and any other three-letter governmental agency with intelligence gathering duties. (The schools of hard NOCs?) Your tax dollars at work. In the spirit of globalization, today’s private intel crews includes former members of the KGB and every other national intelligence service of note.

Although Javers does make note of how spies were placed in organizations like labor unions and Greenpeace, he does not emphasize the potential impact of increasing sophistication by intel companies on personal liberties. But the implication is clear. Today, we need not only be concerned about Big Brother, but about the entire bloody family.

In the same way that one should be alarmed about the rise of corporate military power, one should be concerned about the rise of unaccountable private intelligence entities. It seems inevitable that they will provide the same sort of cover for the government offered by private military contractors. Unwilling to actually gain popular support for a war, unwilling to institute a draft to give the army enough personnel? Don’t bother. Just hire private contractors. The bonus is that the private privates are not subject to the same rules as the military. In the same vein, in situations in which the government may be barred from performing particular monitoring or research tasks or intel operations, private firms may not be under the same restrictions, or even if they are subject to limitations, having private entities perform these questionable activities offers policy makers a layer of deniability. Personal freedom is a certain casualty here.

One of the externalizations of cost in today’s world can be found in the security business. Alarm systems that notify the police when a door or window is opened unexpectedly costs the public billions of dollars in wasted manpower, as the vast majority of such calls are false alarms. So the alarm company gets paid for providing a service, but the police force actually gets to do the work. In a similar way private intel organizations, because of the close ties between those still in government and their friends who have gone private, rely on government resources for help in performing their tasks, but the government does not get to share in the fees taken in by the private companies.

And for those who worship at the altar of free markets, this book shows yet another way in which the supposed Invisible Hand is being undercut. Why develop better products when you can steal one from your competition, or use dirty tricks to keep a superior product from market?

Broker, Trader, Lawyer, Spy is a must read, offering alarming, if not always new information about an aspect of today’s world of crucial importance to anyone who values his or her privacy and personal freedom. It is very readable and strangely enjoyable.