Secret Sharers: The Hidden Ties Between Private Spies and Journalists

Mr. Simpson loved trying reporters, rewarding them with war stories, and presenting himself as a journalistically wise man. At a conference of investigative journalists in 2016, he said he and Mr Fritsch formed Fusion to continue their work as reporters correcting injustices.

“I like to call it journalism rental,” he said.

Fusion GPS, like its competitors, was part of a broader network of enablers – lawyers, public relations managers, and “crisis management” consultants – serving the rich, powerful, and controversial. For their part, private intelligence companies take on jobs that others cannot or do not want to be caught.

Information gathered by private investigators is often laundered by public relations firms who then distribute the material to journalists. Jules Kroll, who founded the modern private intelligence industry in the 1970s, broke this mold by sharing information directly with reporters. Mr. Simpson went a step further. He sold Fusion GPS to customers by pointing out his connections to major media outlets and reassuring journalists that he really was still one of them.

“People who have never been a reporter don’t really understand the challenges of printing what you know because you can’t just say what you know – you have to say how you know and you have to prove it,” said Mr. Simpson remarked at the 2016 conference, “When you’re a spy, you really don’t have to get into that much.”

Fusion GPS has also mined an area that other private intelligence companies have shunned – opposition political research. And when Mr. Trump emerged as the front runner for the Republican presidential nomination in 2016, Hillary Clinton’s campaign lawyers hired Fusion to look into Mr. Trump-Russia relations.

In the fall of 2016, Fusion GPS invited selected reporters from The Times, The New Yorker, and other news organizations to meet Mr. Steele in Washington and learn about what he’d found out about the Trump campaign and the Kremlin. As is often the case in the private intelligence world, the meetings had a catch: when news organizations wrote about the dossier, they had to agree not to disclose that Fusion GPS and the former British agent were the sources of the material.

Journalists were told that Mr. Steele played a pivotal role in overturning major cases, including the 2006 poisoning of Alexander Litvinenko, a former KGB agent, and the FBI’s investigation into bribery at FIFA, the football association. And when he talked about Trump and Russia, he appeared calm, reserved and confident, according to reporters who attended the meetings.

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