This article is adapted from SPOOKED: The Trump Dossier, Black Cube, and the Rise of Private Spies by Barry Meier, now on sale.
When a consortium of reporters released the Panama Papers in 2016, they wanted to block one group from plundering the database which contained records disclosing the owners of thousands of off-shore companies used to hide enormous sums of wealth: corporate intelligence operatives, or private spies. The private spying industry has boomed in recent years and operatives-for-hire are increasingly invading our privacy, profiting from deception, and manipulating the media. For hired spies, information is currency and within the industry there is a lucrative underground trade in documents, including ones that are hacked, stolen, or obtained under false pretense.
The International Consortium of Investigative Journalists knew that spies-for-hire wanted to exploit the Panama Papers for their own purposes and profit so it limited access to the database to media organizations collaborating in the project. But the group would discover years later that one operative found a way into the Panama Papers and soon began offering them to other spies-for-hire, including Christopher Steele, a former MI6 spy and the author of the infamous Donald Trump dossier.
The operative who beat the system was a hybrid journalist/spy-for-hire named Mark Hollingsworth. For more than a decade, Hollingsworth, who lived in London, freelanced for The Guardian, The Financial Times, and other British newspapers, and consulted with the BBC. At the same time, he worked as contractor for private intelligence firms including Orbis Business Intelligence, Steele’s company, and Fusion GPS, the firm run by two ex-Wall Street Journal reporters who hired Steele in 2016 to investigate Trump’s ties to Russia.
Hollingsworth also dealt in documents and in the early 2010s he gained access to hundreds of sensitive records belonging to a controversial mining company called Eurasian Natural Resources Corporation, or ENRC, which was under investigation by British regulators for suspected bribery. ENRC, which has denied the allegations, would claim years later in a lawsuit that those records had been stolen from it by a freelance computer expert it employed. Whatever the case, Hollingsworth was soon hawking the ENRC documents to other hired operatives including Glenn Simpson, a founder of Fusion GPS. “Our mutual friend Magic has obtained new documents,” he wrote in an email to Simpson, using his nickname for the computer expert.
When the Panama Papers emerged, Hollingsworth saw another opportunity for profit. And to get around the roadblocks barring private spies, he turned to a strategy he often used an operative — he put on his journalist’s hat. Hollingsworth contacted reporters with whom he had collaborated previously on ENRC-related articles and who had ties to the ICIJ, suggesting they work together on new stories about the company, which was still under investigation. The catch: They would need access to the Panama Papers. “You may recall that we did stories together on ENRC and so I thought we would revisit this one if you have the time,” he wrote a Guardian reporter in 2016. “One of the priorities is to obtain documents from the Panama Papers.” The reporter, Simon Goodley, remembered that earlier article but one thing he didn’t know was that Hollingsworth in 2013 had shared a pre-publication draft of it with Simpson, in case the Fusion GPS operative wanted to edit it. “Please check for accuracy but also feel free to insert details and material that we have missed,” Hollingsworth wrote Simpson. Goodley took a pass on Hollingsworth’s latest approach.
But Hollingsworth was soon in business because he found other British journalists who agreed to help him get into the Panama Papers, though they thought he wanted them for journalistic reasons. Hollingsworth told one private investigator in Washington, D.C., that he needed money up front to get the Panama Papers documents he wanted. “My source will not accept anything less than $2,000 for the documents and so please talk to your client,” Hollingsworth wrote. “I think that is quite reasonable.” He offered more liberal terms to a friend who was a spy-for-hire. “Please email me your hit list of individuals and companies and I will run searches for you on the Panama Papers database—happy to do some gratis but I would hope that we can get paid for some,” he wrote.
In April 2016, Hollingsworth told Steele in an email that he had gained access to the Panama Papers through a BBC producer with whom he was consulting on a project and could run searches for companies of interest to the ex-MI6 spy. (Told of the email, a BBC spokesperson said the network would “never knowingly pass confidential documents to third parties.”) Hollingsworth told Steele he asked his BBC contact to search the Panama Papers for an obscure firm called Novirex Sales. As it turned out, the shell company’s principals included Paul Manafort, whom Steele was then investigating on behalf of a Kremlin-connected oligarch, Oleg Deripaska. Hollingsworth told Steele that he hoped his efforts on the ex-spy’s behalf would cancel a business debt he owed him. “Since we spoke on the phone tonight, there is a possibility of more access to the Panama database and so I may get more hits on the second list you sent me,” Hollingsworth wrote. “If I have success, then it will resolve my problem of payment on Project Scooter.”
I don’t know how many records, if any, Steele got out of the Panama Papers because he didn’t respond to my emails. As for Hollingsworth, things haven’t ended so well for him.
Recently, ENRC, for whom Hollingworth also worked as a spy-for-hire, sued him, claiming he had reneged on their deal. It also accused him of trafficking in the documents that were stolen from it years earlier by “Magic,” the computer expert. Someone also gained access to Hollingsworth’s emails and released them.
For his part, Hollingsworth has insisted that he hasn’t done anything wrong, that he worked as an operative because his wife was very ill and he needed money, and that any ENRC records he obtained were in his capacity as a journalist. But either way, his days as a journalist and private operative appear to be over.