Sons of Blackwater Open Corporate Spying Shop
- By Spencer Ackerman
- 4:44 PM
Veterans from the most infamous private security firm on Earth and one of the military’s most controversial datamining operations are teaming up to provide the Fortune 500 with their own private spies.
Take one part Blackwater, and another part Able Danger, the military data-mining op that claimed to have identified members of al-Qaida living in the United States before 9/11. Put ‘em together, and you’ve got a new company called Jellyfish.
Jellyfish is about corporate-information dominance. It swears it’s leaving all the spy-world baggage behind. No guns, no governments digging through private records of its citizens.
“Our organization is not going to be controversial,” pledges Keith Mahoney, the Jellyfish CEO, a former Navy officer and senior executive with Blackwater’s intelligence arm, Total Intelligence Solutions. Try not to make a joke about corporate mercenaries.
His partners know from controversy. Along with Mahoney, there’s Michael Yorio, the executive vice president for business development and another Blackwater vet; Yorio recently prepped the renamed Xe Services for its life after founder Erik Prince sold it.
Jellyfish’s chief technology officer is J.D. Smith, who was part of Able Danger until lawyers for the U.S. Special Operations Command shut the program down in 2000. Also from Able Danger is Tony Shaffer, Jellyfish’s “military operations adviser” and the ex-Defense Intelligence Agency operative who became the public face of the program in dramatic 2005 congressional testimony.
But Jellyfish isn’t about merging mercenaries with data sifters. And it’s not about going after short money like government contracts. (Although, the firm is based in D.C., where the intel community is and the titans of corporate America aren’t.)
During a Thursday press conference in Washington that served as a coming-out party for the company, Jellyfish’s executives described an all-purpose “private-sector intelligence” firm.
What’s that mean? Through a mouthful of corporate-speak (“empowering the C-suite” to make crucial decisions) Mahoney describes a worldwide intelligence network of contacts, ready to collect data on global hot spots that Jellyfish can pitch to deep-pocketed clients. Does your energy firm need to know if Iran will fall victim to the next Mideast uprising? Jellyfish’s informants in Tehran can give a picture. (They insist it’s legal.)
They’ve got “long-established relationships” everywhere from Bogota to Belgrade, Somalia to South Korea, says Michael Bagley, Jellyfish’s president, formerly of the Osint Group. A mix of “academia, think tanks, military or government” types.
That’s par for the course. It sometimes seems like every CIA veteran over the last 15 years has set up or joined a consulting practice, tapping their agency contacts for information they can peddle to businesses. Want to sell your analysis of the geostrategic picture to corporate clients? Congratulations — Stratfor beat you to it.
That’s where Smith comes in. “The Able Danger days, that’s like 1,000 years ago,” he says. Working with a technology firm called 4th Dimension Data, Jellyfish builds clients a dashboard to search and aggregate data from across its proprietary intel database, the public internet and specifically targeted information sources.
If you’re in maritime shipping, for instance, Jellyfish can build you a search-and-aggregation app, operating up in the cloud, that can put together weather patterns with Jellyfish contacts in Somalia who know about piracy.
Of course, there’s a security element to all of this, too. Jellyfish will train your staff in network security, as well as “physical security,” Yorio says. But Mahoney quickly adds, “Jellyfish Intelligence has no interest in guns and gates and guards.”
Message: This isn’t Blackwater — or even “Xe.” Mahoney says Jellyfish isn’t trading on its executives’ ties to the more infamous corners of the intelligence and security trades. Sure, there’s a press release that announced Jellyfish’s origins in Blackwater and Able Danger. And some companies doing business in high-risk areas might consider ties to Blackwater, which never lost a client’s life, to be an advantage.
But Mahoney says he’s just trying to be up front about his executives’ histories before some enterprising journalist Googles it out and makes it a thing. Put the moose on the table, or however the corporate cliche goes. (According to Smith, the father of 4th Dimension Data’s founder worked with Smith in an “unnamed intelligence organization.”) “Our brand enhancement,” he says, “will be the success our clients have.”