When women started telling their stories of sexual harassment and assault by Harvey Weinstein, many talked about the fear they had of him. Likewise, some journalists spoke of the pressure the powerful film executive had applied on them or their bosses to quash reports of his misconduct.
Now a new report by Ronan Farrow, published Monday evening in The New Yorker, shows that Weinstein hired “an army of spies” to investigate the women who were considering speaking out and the journalists who were digging into the allegations.
Though Farrow lays out the details plainly, it still reads like an espionage thriller. It involves multiple “international high-level corporate intelligence firms, using very aggressive tactics,” Farrow told NPR.
One firm’s tactics included “targeting women, targeting journalists,” Farrow said. “Showing up in their lives using fake identities. Using fake companies as a front. This was detailed, this was aggressive, and according to the women I spoke to — this was terrifying.”
According to Farrow’s reporting, this is the plot:
Last fall, Weinstein began hiring private security firms to collect information on the women who might speak out against him. One firm was Kroll, a major corporate intelligence firm. Another was Black Cube, a much newer company founded by two former Israeli intelligence officers, Dan Zorella and Avi Yanus, and which touts its staff of “veterans of elite units” from Israeli intelligence.
Black Cube was hired by Weinstein’s lawyer, David Boies. Boies is well-known attorney: he represented Al Gore in the disputed 2000 presidential election, and he fought California’s ban on same-sex marriage. He has also provided legal counsel to The New York Times in three matters over the last decade.
That last part is problematic because his law firm, Boies Schiller Flexner, hired Black Cube to accomplish two objectives. One was to learn the contents of a book – a forthcoming memoir by actress Rose McGowan – that “includes harmful negative information” about Weinstein. The other was to provide intelligence that would help Weinstein stop the Times from publishing a negative article about him.
Farrow obtained the contract between the law firm and Black Cube, which lays out some details of the deal. A key part of the mission was an agent known as “Anna,” who managed to meet and befriend McGowan, who says Weinstein assaulted her. Anna told McGowan her name was Diana Filip, an advocate for women’s empowerment at a London-based wealth management firm.
But Anna and Diana Filip are both aliases for a former Israeli Defense Force officer, Farrow reports. The operative also met with Ben Wallace, a reporter at New York magazine who was working on a possible Weinstein story. The agent and others were apparently gathering intelligence on who was likely to come forward, and which reporters were working on Weinstein stories.
Another intelligence firm, PSOPS, sent Weinstein research on Farrow, Wallace, Times reporter Jodi Kantor, and New York editor Adam Moss. Weinstein had hired Kroll to collect information on the late journalist David Carr back in the early 2000s, Farrow reports, and Carr’s widow says he “believed that he was being surveilled, though he didn’t know by whom.”
In the contract, Black Cube promised that “due to the urgency of the project,” it would use its “blitz methodology” to bring its resources to the Weinstein job.
Black Cube said its team would include a project manager, a legal advisor, “avatar operators” fluent in media analysis, linguists, an investigative journalist, a full-time agent (“Anna”), and operations experts with “extensive experience in social engineering.” It also promised the support of its board and advisors: “businessmen in key positions in Israel and abroad” and former heads of Israeli intelligence forces.
That’s a lot of firepower to unleash on actresses and journalists.
But this kind of intelligence work on behalf of private clients “is huge in Israel,” according to Israeli journalist Ronen Bergman.
The Weinstein scheme sounds like “the same sort of mindset and originality and experience that someone who served many, many years in Israeli intelligence” would have deployed on behalf of the state of Israel, Bergman told NPR. Only now, those former officers are doing that work on behalf of a private company.
Farrow reported that Boies’ firm paid Black Cube $100,000 on Oct. 28, 2016, toward an eventual $600,000 invoice. Black Cube was promised a “success fee” of $300,000 if it managed to block the Times from publishing its report on Weinstein. It would get an additional $50,000 if it managed to acquire the second half of McGowan’s book.
The mission failed, of course. The Times published its story and The New Yorker published its own (reported by Farrow). Now police in New York are building a case that Weinstein raped an actress there seven years ago.
It’s not known how much money Weinstein paid out to to all the firms he hired. Bergman, the Israeli journalist, says articles like the one you’re reading are good business development for such firms – suggesting they’ll do whatever possible for their clients, and they’ll bring significant capabilities to the task.
For Boies Shiller Flexner, the outlook is less rosy. As Farrow notes, law firms are often used as the middlemen between clients and intelligence firms, “to place investigative materials under the aegis of attorney-client privilege, which can prevent the disclosure of communications, even in court.”
Boies defended his actions, telling Farrow that he didn’t think it was a conflict of interest to hire Black Cube to work on stopping the Times story, while he was also representing the paper in a libel suit. He said he never pressured any news outlets, and that Weinstein was at that point denying the allegations.
“Given what was known at the time, I thought it was entirely appropriate to investigate precisely what he was accused of doing, and to investigate whether there were facts that would rebut those accusations,” he said.
The Times feels differently.
“We learned today that the law firm of Boies Schiller and Flexner secretly worked to stop our reporting on Harvey Weinstein at the same time as the firm’s lawyers were representing us in other matters,” the newspaper said in a statement Monday. “We consider this intolerable conduct, a grave betrayal of trust, and a breach of the basic professional standards that all lawyers are required to observe. It is inexcusable and we will be pursuing appropriate remedies.”
And it seems that Weinstein’s intense efforts to keep a lid on the allegations against him weren’t enough in the end.
It’s proof, Bergman says, that sometimes even the most highly trained staff and whole lot of money “cannot stop a truthful and profound and deep investigative journalism.”