Part I of II. Billionaire’s Chess: What I Learned As A Private Spy for Hedge Funds

Would you pay to read a book with that title? If so, direct me to a publisher who will put it out, or make a donation to Washington Babylon, which will allow me to keep working on it in the meanwhile


Wouldn’t that be the great title for a book? I think so, and I tried to sell a book with that name in 2019, but a number of publishers turned it down.

That includes a great lefty outfit which has published a number of books by me. I can’t blame them, though. I was going through a bad time two years ago and was obnoxious and difficult to work with. I was more upset with other publishing houses. I got the distinct impression that New York publishers, a notoriously liberal bunch, were OK with a book that criticized GOP and right-wing oligarchs, like Paul Singer of Elliott Management, but not comfortable with a book that criticized Democratic party oligarchs like George Soros.

So, for example, this section of my proposal was highly problematic:

Soros can immediately get on the phone with various members of Congress and government insiders to find out what he wants to know. In one instance that I know of he rang up Nancy Pelosi to ask her about the chances that Congress would pass pending legislation that that would impact the share price of a medical company he was heavily invested in. She told him she had enough votes to get the legislation through and Soros placed his bet accordingly.

[Note: I’ll be publishing a lightly edited section of the book proposal tomorrow or a little later this week. It’s pretty damned good and I can’t believe I didn’t sell the book. It still stings.]

Also, full disclosure: I worked at a Soros-backed NGO called Global Witness and was a fellow back in 2010 to 2012 at Soros’s Open Society Foundations. I also worked for a thoroughly corrupt conservative organization called the American Media Institute (AMI), for whom I produced this story on the Clinton Foundation’s crooked operations in Colombia. By the way, the “Editor’s Note” at the top of that piece for Fusion is the only time in my career that I was chastised for not meeting journalism “standards.”

That’s ironic because I did make a few screw ups but they would have been caught if Fusion hadn’t rushed the story out after sitting on it for months. Or if AMI had a decent factchecking operation, and if Richard Miniter, the organization’s head, gave a shit about truth as opposed to pushing his donors’ agenda. It’s also ironic because Fusion, at its corporate top, had no journalism standards whatsoever. It only ran the story to show that it wasn’t totally in the tank for Hillary Clinton during the 2016 election — it was totally in the tank for her and that was one of the few if not only major stories it ran that was critical of her — and it happily caved to pressure from the Clinton Foundation and Clinton campaign after the article came out. Even though I very definitely was responsible for several mistakes, it was sickening to watch as no one else was held accountable for Fusion‘s egregious misconduct, or AMI’s.

Anyway, I also — and this was the point of the entire book — have worked for hedge funds, not directly but by working for private spy firms that work for them as contractors. You can read more about that in the excerpt from the proposal I’ll be publishing soon, but for now let me say that I never did anything that I can’t live with, and I quit doing that work — with the exception of one recent job that I billed about ten hours for — because I felt uncomfortable in the private spy world, which is typically called “private intel” or “business intelligence,” for obvious reasons.

But I never dug up dirt on any person or organization that I wouldn’t have gone after as a journalist. I also never took assignments that were flat out wrong, i.e. I was once asked to make a single phone call, or two or three at the most, in exchange for $5,000. The offer came from a boutique spy firm, which was trying to dig up dirt on Chevron — certainly a ripe target, though I am sure the firm’s client was a competitor of the oil giant’s — but the person who made the offer wanted me to pretend I was writing a story for a magazine when making the call, even though I was not writing a story, I was only going to report my findings to the spy firm.

I’ll also note, and I’m not trying to fully exonerate myself, that I disclosed my work to a number of editors I was writing for and never had a conflict of interest between my journalism work and my private work. Indeed, I continued to write critically about hedge funds throughout the time I worked for them, indirectly, through my work for spy firms. See, for example, here and here. Note that I never worked for the hedge funds named in either of those stories, to the best of my knowledge and to a 99.9 percent certainty.

So why did I work for private spy firms? Easy. Journalism sucks, the pay is generally awful, you get treated (again, generally) terribly by editors and outlets, and it’s almost impossible to make a living as a freelancer, without hustling and routinely working 16-hour days, which I do now, and not always happily. So, as I wrote in one version of the proposal, I was a concentration camp guard but I’d atone for my sins by writing about what I did and exposing the private spy industry, which has an enormous impact on journalism as those firms can push out entire narratives and get front-page stories in major newspapers and on TV. (So, I should add, do oligarch-backed NGOs I have worked for and while that’s not anywhere near as shady, it raises serious concerns.)

Anyway, I could have made a fortune working for spy firms — I could have been a made man — but decided I couldn’t live with myself if I did. As noted, I recently did a job for a spy firm, and may again, but I was proud of the work I did in the last case. By the way, you’d be shocked how many journalists, retired but also active, who work for spy firms. It’s easy to understand, if not justifiable, given how much money spy firms, using oligarch money, pay, especially compared to the trifling sums offered by most journalism outlets.

There are multiple problems with the private spy industry, beyond the most obvious ones, i.e. you’re working for the world’s richest, most amoral people. Here are a few:

—First, I know a number of people who went to work in the private spy business, founding firms or working full-time for them, and told themselves they would remain honest. It’s simply impossible to do that if you stick with it for any length of time. The money’s too good and as you get richer your standards fall. The once out-of-bounds client becomes tomorrow’s cash cow. I never made great money for my work, but I talked to one person, who was on retainer at a major DC lobbying firm and discussed hiring me for a short term project, who said he had once charged Mark Zuckerberg $300,000 for 11 days of work. Then there are the Saudis, the Israelis, the Qataris and the Emiratis, who have staggering amounts of money they can throw around DC, and they do. (I never worked for any of those countries, nor would I, but was offered big money from firms working for Qatar and the United Arab Emirates.)

—Second, and related to the first point, you are constantly being asked to do the wrong thing and given the cash incentive to go along, you’ll end up doing it if you don’t get out. There’s a private firm in town, that I think I’ll be able to name in the next story, that asks would-be hires if they’d be willing to spy on journalists, and I’m sure that’s not only common, but it’s not the worst thing spy firms do either. The whole thing reminds me of something a friend, Peter Zalewski, once told me about living in Miami: “This is a place where it’s easy to lose your moral compass. Everyone who moves to Miami wants to live in South Beach, which is fun, but the rule should always be to not renew your lease after the first year. If you do, it’s pretty much guaranteed that you’ll end up in rehab.”

—Third, and I’ll stop here for now, as a contractor to spy firms you can often figure out who you’re working for, but not always. You generally can assume, for example, that if you are asked to dig up dirt on Chevron that Exxon or another oil giant is paying the freight. But it’s even more complicated than that. I was once asked to write a report — and I did — for a British spy firm that told me it was working for a wealthy businessman who wanted to invest in the energy sector of a corrupt sub-Saharan African nation. This businessman, I was told, wanted to know how the system worked in the country, who were the key officials and who typically received bribes to grease the wheels on foreign investment deals, so he could avoid violating the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act. So I wrote up a memo, and basically drew up a political map of the country and its energy sector. But was I helping the businessman avoid making bribes, or showing him who to pay bribes to? I simply don’t know.

I’m especially annoyed now about not selling the book proposal because Barry Meier, a former New York Times reporter, has a book coming out on the private spy industry. (Here’s an article drawn from his book, that the Times recently ran.) He’s a great reporter — he asked me to talk to him, but I declined, mostly, because I thought I would eventually sell my book — but, and no disrespect to Meier intended, but I’m confident my book would have been better because he’s telling and I wanted to show, as an insider. I also know for a fact, from having read the except and about the book, that Meier got things wrong, in particular about Russiagate. That said, I’m sure it’s an interesting and well reported book.

Meier’s book excerpt in the New York Times.

As I said, tomorrow or later this week I’ll publish a lengthy excerpt from my book proposal and you can see for yourself how good it would have been, IMHO.

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