He assassinated political leaders in Vietnam. He monitored Russian missile silos during the Reagan administration, and he set up communications systems in Eastern Europe during the Cold War. If you hire Jim Fountain today, he won't kill people for you, but he'll do what many corporations around the world are asking him to do--spy on the competition.

Fountain and his Alabama company, the Phoenix Consulting Group, were in downtown Seattle last weekend attending the Society for Competitive Intelligence Professionals (SCIP) conference at the Washington State Convention & Trade Center. SCIP is the trade association for companies that sell a service called competitive intelligence, or as it's commonly known, corporate espionage. Whether it's spying on a rival CEO or learning about a new product, businesses are looking to people like Fountain to dig up the dirt.

"I'm just doing what the government taught me to do," says the former military intelligence officer in his thick Alabama drawl. From a distance, Fountain, 54, with his clean black polo shirt and cropped gray hair, looks like some sort of sporting goods salesman. But when you look closely, quite frankly, his eyes will scare the shit out of you. Bloodshot orange, his irises appear to be deteriorating and spreading outward. "Everything humans do has a pattern," he says, staring at me intently while explaining his craft. "What you eat, what time, when you go to the bathroom. Corporations have a pattern as well." According to Fountain, companies are employing former government and military men like himself more and more to gain a competitive edge on their rivals. In fact, SCIP's membership has doubled in the last two years to over 6,000 members.

In the convention center's big exhibit hall, wedged between company promotion booths and tables with fresh fruit and coffee, businesses from all over the nation--like IBM and Ford Motor Company, as well as local SCIP chapter members Boeing and Immunex--attended the event. But it wasn't just big business hanging out at the spy gala. "We're looking at information to exploit from businesses, to make our agency more effective," said NATO Deputy Chief of Intelligence James Cox.

In between coffee breaks and schmooze events across town at the Experience Music Project, the conference's 1,440 attendees had 82 workshops about corporate espionage and data management to choose from. One workshop, hosted by John Gilmore, an executive for satellite company Veridian Systems, explained the benefits of using satellite imagery to gain competitors' secrets. "From space, you can count the number of people leaving, going, and when the shifts change," said Gilmore. "Obviously, the information can be exploited and used to your company's advantage."

Corporate espionage involves the same principles and tactics that private investigators or government spies use: pretending to be someone you're not, searching for financial clues through old records or the Internet, and exploiting disgruntled workers. It could also mean going through your competitors' trash. In fact, that's just what happened to Microsoft last June.

Microsoft's main competitor, Bay Area computer firm Oracle, hired an intelligence company and a private investigator to search the trash of its rival. Oracle also tried to bribe Microsoft janitors for $1,200. It's our "civic duty," said brazen Oracle CEO Larry Ellison at the time. According to Fountain, Oracle's methods of gaining insight into Microsoft are not unique. "Look at Boeing. They are getting burned by their competitor Airbus right now, because of Airbus' superb intelligence-gathering," says Fountain.

Hiring a spy company to do your dirty work is not cheap. Fountain revealed that he charges anywhere from $8,000 to $15,000 just to do a psychological profile of a CEO, for example. "We may be hired to learn how CEOs behave, to learn how they reacted in past case studies, so we can predict future behavior," says Fountain. "Or we may try to get them elected to a variety of boards so they'll be distracted."

Believe it or not, the business of exploiting does have ethical guidelines. According to SCIP's charter, members are supposed to identify themselves to every source and follow all local relevant laws. Do they? "Well, we follow the laws, but let's just say there are a ton of companies who will do anything," Fountain says.

As the SCIP conference wraps up and booths are broken down and cups and trash are swept up from the exhibit floor, Fountain leans forward from his chair to offer some last-minute thoughts on spying for companies. "We see ourselves as a tactical team for a business," he says, his orange eyes narrowing. "The CEO issues the commands, and we just take the hill. But don't worry," he says, barely containing his laughter, "no fuzzy animals are hurt."

pat@thestranger.com

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