Spy Watch

The dangerous world of private intelligence operators


Two recent cases of dodgy reports by private intelligence firms caused enough consternation to raise serious questions about their reliability.

Two of the most talked-about stories, the leaked dossier commissioned to collect dirt on President Trump and a leaked provisional Public Protector (PP) report on the South African Reserve Bank’s (SARB) ‘lifeboat’ to Bankorp (now part of Absa) thirty years ago, brought private intelligence firms under the spotlight.

In both cases private intelligence firms were intimately involved and, coincidentally, both are British and the authors former officers in the British external intelligence service, MI6.

Both authors are described as “respected and distinguished” experts of their profession, with one a specialist on Russia and the other said to have played a prominent role in bringing peace to Northern Ireland.

End of the Cold War

The end of the Cold War and the cooling down of global ideological rivalries, many countries and especially the ‘big players’ downsized their intelligence services and realigned them to new challenges.

In the wake of this development, there was a mushrooming of private intelligence firms.  

Many experienced intelligence officers, steeped and trained in the tradecraft required to operate successfully in the ideologically driven Cold War, were ill suited for an intelligence environment with changed priorities and were lost as the digital era went into overdrive.

Many of them either resigned or took early retirement and joined up with former colleagues, combining their experience and expertise to start lucrative private intelligence firms, selling their services to whoever was prepared to pay. 

Blessing or curse?

The new private intelligence industry has been a blessing and a curse, or both.

Most governments frown upon them, and understandably so. In many countries the industry is strictly monitored or banned outright.

A key problem with private intelligence firms is that, unlike institutional intelligence structures, they are not regulated and have little or no accountability.

Some strictly adhere to a high moral code. In a highly competitive environment where the ability to provide clients with the required information is paramount to survival, others are less diligent. Credibility becomes just an added bonus.

The demands for survival and the need to satisfy a client’s demands can induce even a recognised professional private intelligence outfit to ignore some of the crucial principles of the profession – most often with dire consequences.

Serious consequences

In the two cases now under the spotlight, one (involving Trump) damaged interstate relations and the other (SARB) gave rise to domestic disquiet. 

Orbis Business Intelligence, responsible for drafting the highly controversial and unsubstantiated Trump dossier, is by all accounts a highly reputable firm, run by highly experienced and distinguished former intelligence officers.

Christopher Steele, the man in the centre of the controversy, is said have an excellent reputation with American and British intelligence colleagues. He has done work for the US Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) during investigations of bribery at Fifa, soccer’s global governing body.

It remains a mystery why someone with his experience and reputation, who, according to colleagues, was acutely aware of the danger that he and his associates were being fed Russian disinformation, could ignore the most basic principle of intelligence (or even basic good journalism): Seek confirmation of the information before going public.

Only Steele can answer this question.                

It is inviting trouble to compile and circulate a report containing unverified information, more so when it is as controversial and scandalous as the Trump dossier, particularly in an era when the selective leaking of information has become commonplace.  

The report caused MI6, Steele’s former employer, much embarrassment. M16’s head, Sir Alex Younger, according to the British media, is livid about the affair.

It left relations between the British agency and its Russian counterpart, the FSB, severely strained,

Steele is a former head of MI6’s Russia desk and was once stationed in Moscow. The Russians are great believers of the generally accepted view “that once a spy always a spy”. 

With the American intelligence community at loggerheads with President Trump. the British might also have to appease their American counterparts. The latter had to bore the scorn of Trump, after he was briefed by them on the contents of Steele’s report.

Also Read:  The Trump presidency starts on the back foot

On domestic front

In South Africa, the furore that erupted after the leaking of a ‘provisional report’ of PP Busisiwe Mkhwebane, detailing why she believed Absa should be forced to repay R1.1 billion plus interest to the South African government, can also be traced back to a report compiled by a British private intelligence firm.

The reopening of investigations by Mkhwebane’s predecessor, Thuli Madonsela – despite two previous investigations by judges Heath and Davis – has its roots in a report by private intelligence firm CIEX.

In August 1997, the owner of CIEX and former MI6 officer, Michael Oatley, approached the South African Government with a proposal dubbed Project Spear, It put forward an elaborate plan to recover “billions” looted from state coffers during apartheid.

Included in the “blueprint for recovery” was a plan to force Absa to repay the state for the “illegal lifeline” thrown to Bankorp.

The price tag attached to the elaborate plan to retrieve the stolen billions, at least R200 billion, according to Oatley, was the reason for the eventual termination of the contract the Mbeki government had initially signed with CIEX.

CIEX will have difficulty to convince the sceptics among us of their altruistic motives. On closer inspection it rather seems a well concocted and opportunistic attempt to make a fast buck.

Besides hunting for the missing billions, CIEX also presented a detailed plan to restructure and retrain the South African intelligence service, at a price.

Some valuable proposals are, however, dwarfed by arrogance and blatant untruths and the gatkruiperigheid (flattery) of the proposal is an undisguised effort to be granted what would amount to a very lucrative contract.    

While the PP has seemingly decided to pin the credibility of her office on an almost 20-year-old report compiled by British spies looking for a payday, as the Huffington Post wrote, criticism of the CIEX report has been scathing.

Daily Maverick’s conclusion that, “All that the CIEX report does is to suggest that there was widespread corruption during the last years of apartheid rule, without providing any hard evidence” is mild in comparison with Philip de Wet of Mail & Guardian who suggested during a television interview that the dustbin is the best place to file Project Spear - or words to that effect.

The remark of Johan Rupert whose business empire was also on the CIEX ‘hit list’ that their report is a “work of fiction,” is also less derogatory than the quote published by the Mail & Guardian of one former very high-ranking intelligence official who responded that Project Spear is, “a piss-poor approximation of an intelligence report that wouldn’t even be published as a novel”.


It is all too evident that the Trump dossier and the resurrected CIEX report placed the focus firmly on the risks when contracting a private intelligence firm and the inherent danger when tried and tested intelligence principles are not strictly adhered to.

Also read: What is the real story behind the Absa saga?

by Garth Cilliers

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