Deep into the guerrilla-held jungles of the Philippines last spring went a lone American agent on a sensitive intelligence mission.
Harry B. “Skip” Brandon, a former senior FBI intelligence official, had hunted down Middle Eastern terrorists and CIA turncoat Aldrich Ames, but his mission to Mindanao, the armed redoubt of Islamic separatists and Marxist guerrilla groups, was not undertaken on behalf of God and country.
His client: A North American mining concern. His mission: Make a deal with rebel guerillas allowing his company to do business in their territory.
Brandon is one of hundreds of ex-FBI, CIA, and military intelligence agents who are cashing in on their experience as government “spooks” for new careers in the burgeoning field of “risk analysis,” or gathering intelligence for multinational corporations.
“I like to call it risk avoidance,” says Brandon, handing me his new business card in a noisy micro-brewery in Washington, D.C., a few blocks from the White House. His partner, Gene Smith, is a dark-haired woman who has been a U.S. prosecutor and a foreign service officer. Between them, they’ve racked up tens of thousands of frequent-flier miles in the past year, carrying out corporate information-gathering and deal-making missions from Islamabad to Madrid.
Oil, mining, timber companies, and banks - any business that needs solid information before making multimillion dollar investments in volatile areas abroad - are his clients. And when companies are trying to do business in the Mafia-controlled sectors of the former Soviet Union, the narco-terrorized regions of Latin America, or the guerrilla-held regions of Liberia, the Philippines, and Somalia, they need people like Brandon to make the contacts.
“American companies aren’t really good at going abroad,” Brandon says. “There’s a lot of, ‘I met that good ol’ boy and he spoke good English.’ That’s what I call the school of, ‘If they speak good English they’re all right.’ It’s kind of sad, actually.”
This is not new. Private intelligence services were all the rage during the heyday of the British Empire, when large companies literally followed the fleet to foreign shores. What is new is the sheer number of companies going abroad, says David Lattin, who left Navy intelligence to join Control Risks, a London-based company. “Before, it was just the big companies - Gulf, Exxon, and so on.” Now all sorts of Western companies are venturing overseas, especially North American mining companies seeking to avoid stringent environmental and other limitations at home. “It’s been a huge learning curve for them,” Lattin says. “Many have gotten burnt.”
Intelligence hands point to Indonesia as an example of what can go wrong. Freeport-McMoran, a Louisiana-based mining company, had inflamed local tensions with a vast excavation in Irian Jaya. The company came under attack by local villagers. When the Indonesian Army rode to the rescue, the company unwittingly turned itself into a rallying point for the Free Papua Movement.
Bribes - or “revolutionary war taxes,” as guerrillas prefer to call them - are often the only way out of such dangerous situations. They are also, of course, a way in. Companies pay warlords for peace in Liberia and Somalia. The Russian mafia insists on its cut from foreign companies doing business in the oil-soaked regions of the former Soviet Union – or else. “Often the only solution is to develop a bigger and better fly swatter,” says Lattin, such as “hiring your favorite former KGB general’s security company to handle it.”
“Basically, it’s a protection racket,” says Clete Ramsey, one of a half dozen former military intelligence agents in the Washington office of Pinkerton, Inc., the security company recruited by Abraham Linco1n to run federal espionage during the Civil War. “Any place you have a separatist movement, a foreign corporation is a major source of funding.”
Skip Brandon’s client - whom he would not identify here - managed to avoid the slippery slope of cash bribes in Mindanao. The guerrillas settled for access to “schools, hospitals, that their dependents be able to use the facilities, stuff like that. They asked about their soldiers, and I said no, because the government wouldn’t permit it,” Brandon said.
All they really wanted was respect, he discovered during a negotiating session with a rebel chieftain in a jungle clearing ringed with machine guns - all trained on Brandon.
“I asked the commander, ‘Why did you come to talk with me?’ And he said, ‘Because we’ve never had a white man come to talk with us. I was just curious. I wanted to meet the white man who would come to talk to us.’”