News & Politics

The Consultant Was a Spy

Most of the Russian spies arrested last month seem harmless—but was one of them stealing corporate secrets?

The Russian spies arrested last month and traded back to Moscow have mostly been introduced to the American public as a hot girl and a bunch of bumbling Borises and Natashas. They may have been sent here to infiltrate American institutions, and according to news reports about the information they sent back, Moscow Center might have been better served by a few American news subscriptions. But people who crossed paths with one of the recently deported spies, a Bostonian calling himself Donald Heathfield, suggest that he, at least, may have passed important American business intelligence back to Russia.

Heathfield presented himself as a strategy expert, a master business thinker who helped high-profile clients predict and exploit events on a global scale. He was especially interested in long-term shifts in the businesses of large multinational companies. Heathfield’s professional biography, posted on social-networking sites such as LinkedIn, portrays someone fluent in the language of senior executives, who could see world events through their eyes.

According to sources who met with Heathfield to discuss business, that description wasn’t far off the mark. “He seemed to truly know how international business worked, how major decision making works at a senior level,” says one source who met Heathfield on multiple occasions. Heathfield claimed to have worked for large corporations and to have friends in charge of them, and he discussed his work with an ease that led the source to believe he was probably a legitimate consultant.

Heathfield appeared more interested in corporate strategy than in government secrets, and he was especially curious about how American companies would be adapting to a post-oil economy. “He wasn’t terribly curious about domestic political issues,” the source says. “Not ‘What does this bill include?’ or ‘What’s in these energy regulations?’ But potentially ‘Where in five years will a company be looking to get funding for clean and green energy?’ ”

Global companies’ shift away from fossil fuels may not be the stuff of spy movies, but it’s important to Russian companies and government officials. Russia’s fossil-fuel deposits are the backbone of its economy, and the country is a major exporter of oil and natural gas. Russia’s biggest energy players are state-controlled entities, making business intelligence just as important to them as state secrets.

Heathfield was also pitching a software program he claimed to have developed, called FutureMap. He described it to sources and in writing as a program that would reside on a company’s internal computer network. Users could plug in variables such as election results and technological breakthroughs to see how events might affect their businesses and future strategies. A screen capture of FutureMap shows a timeline tracking events over the course of many years in a variety of categories, including “Energy and Environment” and “Medicine & Biogenetics.”

Sources who met with Heathfield about FutureMap now believe the software could have been used to steal corporate information and send it back to Russian intelligence officials without the companies’ knowledge.

“Absolutely it’s a possibility,” says John Slattery, a former FBI counterintelligence official who’s now an executive with BAE Systems Intelligence and Security. Slattery says investigators will spend the next several months digesting all the information they collected on Heathfield and the other spies, and he predicts they’ll examine FutureMap and will want to talk with anyone Heathfield contacted about it. US counterintelligence officials have said that Russia is among the chief culprits of industrial espionage against American companies.

Sources were unnerved by how sophisticated and polished Heathfield’s pitch was. If not for the FBI’s intervention, one source speculated, Heathfield could have made a successful sale, installed the software, and started sending information home. “If he had a few more customers and better marketing, he could have really pulled off something tremendous.”

Heathfield claimed, in his professional biography, to have worked for some of the world’s most prominent multinational corporations, including General Electric, Motorola, and Microsoft. Several of the companies listed on Heathfield’s résumé said they had no records of his having personally worked for them.

Heathfield did manage to get access to some potentially useful information through a partnership with a technology firm based in the Washington area. TechCast, which bills itself as “a virtual think tank,” formed a joint venture with Heathfield’s FutureMap. TechCast supplied analysis and forecasts about when a particular technology might achieve a breakthrough and what the potential economic demand for it would be.

TechCast’s founder, William Halal, a George Washington University professor, says he had a “business relationship” with Heathfield over the past decade and that he allowed Heathfield to post the forecasts on FutureMap’s Web site. The forecasts were compiled based on interviews and published research.

“Although I never suspected he was a Russian spy, I did wonder how he supported a family in Boston on what did not seem to be a prosperous business,” Halal says in an e-mail. “In retrospect, I marvel at how well he and [his] Russian associates infiltrated the normal activities of life in Washington power circles. I would bump into [Heathfield] at meetings of federal agencies, think tanks, and the World Future Society,” a nonprofit scientific group in Washington.

Halal emphasizes that none of the information he gave to Heathfield was classified. But Slattery, the former FBI official, says that typically in espionage cases like Heathfield’s, it’s more important for an agent to gain the trust and confidence of high-level sources and experts than it is to capture secrets.

“If a guy plays his cards right and becomes a real professional, an academic, or even just a consultant, he can touch a lot of people, corporations, and research-and-development labs,” Slattery says. “The ultimate goal would be to develop a relationship with someone who has the access to the information they require. It does not have to be classified.”

More>> Capital Comment Blog | News & Politics | Party Photos