From the team that brought you Blackwater and the pre-9/11 counterterrorism program Able Danger comes “Jellyfish Intelligence.”
That’s the name a group of former US intelligence officials and executives from the controversial security firm have chosen for a new private outfit that offers “predictive intelligence” for Fortune 500 corporations and senior-level executives and that aims to “protect human lives and their business interests throughout the world.
The company blends traditional models of a strategic consulting firm with what it claims is an extensive network of human sources—people who, in an official context, would be called spies. Jellyfish employs a network of “over 200 intelligence assets on the ground” in global hot spots, according to a marketing document, including countries undergoing political upheaval in the Middle East. The company won’t disclose its sources’ identities, but the document calls them “figures inside key circles . . . including within the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, clerical circles in Iran, and tribal leaderships on the Pakistani side of the [Afghanistan-Pakistan] border region.
If true—and none of the claims could be independently verified—that would make Jellyfish a private rival to the CIA. The company also says its assets are “well-connected among key opposition groups throughout the Middle East,” a claim, one company official boldly asserts, that the US spy agencies couldn’t make, as evidenced by its failure to predict political and civic uprisings in Egypt and other countries in the region.
Jellyfish’s network includes people in more than two dozen countries in Europe, Africa, Southeast Asia, Latin America, and the Middle East. At least one asset is in Tehran, the company says, in a country where US corporations and citizens are officially banned from doing business. An exectuive says that because Jellyfish was employing “foreign nationals,” it didn’t run afoul of the sanctions regime.
The market for high-level, customized intelligence about global political risk isn’t a new one. Companies such as Stratfor and any number of consulting firms staffed by former government officials, including Kissinger Associates, offer some variation on the “private CIA” model. These groups warn companies when to pull their employees out of a dangerous location. They help dig up intelligence on competitors. And they identify problems on the horizon that may affect a company’s ability to do business—either because it can’t physically operate there or because doing so is too difficult politically.
Jellyfish doesn’t shy away from its controversial pedigree. In fact, it leads with Blackwater and Able Danger in the headline of a press release announcing the company’s formation. Jellyfish CEO Keith Mahoney decided to “put the issue on the table,” because, he says, it wouldn’t be difficult to connect him and his colleagues to their previous employers. Mahoney ran Blackwater’s Total Intelligence Solutions division. And Jellyfish’s vice president for business development, Michael Yorio, is a former sales executive for Xe Services, the name Blackwater chose after it attracted controversy for its military work in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Blackwater has been implicated in civilian deaths in Iraq and is among the most notorious war contractors of the past decade. Able Danger was an intelligence effort led by the US Army that used pre-Google era search and data-mining technology to map out the global network of al-Qaeda. The operation used publicly available data from the Web, but it ran afoul of privacy regulations that bar collecting personal information about American citizens. Some of its members, two of whom are working with Jellyfish, claim they identified some of the 9/11 hijackers before the 2001 attacks. Other members of Able Danger dispute those claims.
Don’t expect Jellyfish to get into the “gates, guns, and guards” business like Blackwater, Mahoney says. It won’t be providing armed guards or physical security, nor will it be pursuing any contracts with the US government, even though the company is headquartered in DC, or, as the company calls it, “Jellyfish Station Washington.” Most of the business partners live in the city, Mahoney says, and Washington allowed Jellyfish to conduct what the marketing document calls its “Swarm operations,” giving clients access to “political intelligence operatives, lobbying firms, intelligence officials and military strategists” with whom executives said they have relationships.
In addition to its human network, Jellyfish has added technological component to its services, a system for processing large amounts of information and plucking out the most useful nuggets of intelligence. File that attribute under “holy grail,” as it’s precisely what the US intelligence community has been trying do to for years without much success.
It’s difficult to ascertain how successful Jellyfish has been because it won’t disclose its clients, nor will it provide a mockup of the customizable system it offers to high-level executives.
The tech team is headed by former Able Danger contractor J.D. Smith. Another team member, Tony Shaffer, is the military-operations adviser. Shaffer wrote a book about his career as a military intelligence officer called Operation Dark Heart. The Defense Department bought 9,500 copies of the memoir—nearly its entire first print run—and then destroyed them. Officials said Shaffer hadn’t vetted his manuscript with the government and that it contained classified information.