Why are private investigators adept for political tracking and opposition research? It isn't just their surveillance and research skill set.

 

In any kind of competition, getting a leg up on your opponent is important. In sports, scouting reports and video help coaches prepare their teams in addition to the physical training. If you’ve watched the annual spelling bee, you can see how prepared the students are as they spell triple word score-worthy words without breaking a sweat. In politics, preparation is no different.

Opposition research has been around since Roman times, when Marcus Tullius Cicero aspired to be consul. His brother, Quintus, advised him to know his opponent’s weaknesses.  

In addition to knowing their strengths and how they appeal to the electorate, knowing the opponent’s short comings and exploiting them has been sewn into American politics for hundreds of years.

Think about the infamous Trump Dossier from the 2016 presidential campaign: it was originally created for Sen. Marco Rubio’s campaign for the GOP nomination and then was abandoned. The Clinton campaign picked it up to use for their presidential campaign. Despite the whirlwind of questionable ethics and whether things had been validated, the fact remains that this bucket of opposition research was valuable to two different campaigns, two different sides of the aisle if you will.

But what do we know about Opposition Research? And who are the people behind this research? We had a chance to speak anonymously with one of the private investigators in the Trustify nationwide network who has completed opposition research for a variety of political campaigns, as well as similar research for businesses which is commonly known as corporate or business intelligence.

Why Take Opposition Research Cases?

His passion for getting to the bottom of the truth, as well as the obligation he feels towards the public, was clear during our interview.

“You want to make sure that what you’re doing is ethical and legal because this information could leak to the press. And you want to make sure that that trail is justifiable and legally obtained. You don’t want any taint in that way.”

We began with why he, and other private investigators, take on opposition research cases. “It’s incumbent upon people in this industry (journalists, private investigators) who, by their titles, are seekers or reporters. But my goal is truth. It’s not to see one person get elected over another. That decision is the responsibility of the American voter.”

What Actually Goes Into Opposition Research?

How are these background investigations different from a typical background check done for a candidate looking for a job? He alluded to the depth of these investigations: “obviously the nature of what’s being investigated is a little more sensitive." Budgets might be higher, and there may be more time allocated. The research aspect (reviewing public records, interviewing people with connections to and around the candidate, analyzing previous public statements including social media posts) can be extensive. “When I start the investigation, it’s everyone and everything.”

“Here in the United States, privacy is for sale. It’s just the way it is. You know you can really find out anything about anyone here in the US: we have the Freedom of Information Act,” he explained. “With the development of blockchain technology, a lot of that data is going to be memorialized forever. No more expungements, no more cleaning of records. If you have enough money, and you have enough credentials, you pretty much gather anything you want.”

Another facet of opposition research is political tracking, the surveillance portion of the case. “It’s truly documenting the activities of the actual political party — what they say, what they do. Obviously what they say is a little different. It has to be in public.”

The investigator brought up two infamous cases: the 2006 Virginia senate election between Jim Webb and George Allen, and the 2012 presidential campaign of Mitt Romney, both of which changed due to information revealed from political tracking. Video footage captured of both Allen and Romney revealed statements that forever altered their campaigns, more than likely costing them the position they were running for.

In Allen’s case, he referred to a worker from his opponent’s campaign by a racially insensitive term. In Romney’s case, he dismissed Obama supporters as “freeloaders.”

In both cases, the candidates were speaking off-the-cuff or ad-libbing, which is probably why so many people take issue with how political tracking is done and how “fair” it is. “(Allen) was being tracked, and he was in a very rural area of Virginia speaking with some voters, and someone was video recording it. It was in a public place, so it’s not really any privacy issues. There weren’t many people there, you really wouldn’t think you’d be tracked at that location.”

The Romney situation was different, it was a private fundraiser. “If it’s held in private, you can’t really go in without an invitation.” He explained how investigators use their available resources and assets to gain access to events like a private fundraiser. In this case, the person who shot the video was a bartender working the event.

“One of the best resources an investigator has are assets, people, connections. You figure out who’s working there. You can pay people, you can ask them to help if their agendas are aligned. ‘Do me a favor, will you videotape this for me?’ There’s nothing wrong with that… It wouldn’t be someone you would think of, but as facts develop and you learn he (Romney) has this private fundraiser, well the source of information or source of being able to generate information, becomes these individuals.”

Relying on people inside the campaign can be a risk, too. “People know that political tracking and political opposition takes place, and they’re prepared… and they’ll leak disinformation and send you down the wrong path.”

“When you’re dealing with inside sources, you have to be extremely careful on the information that they’re giving. So it’s a fact-by-fact, case-by-case pattern as to who you reach out to. It’s really based on the objectives and on all the information that you have leading up to that point as to who’s going to be your best resource.”

It is this audio visual first-hand evidence caught on tape, that is the central goal of political tracking. “Basically you’re just seeing what a person is doing when they believe that nobody is watching. Because it’s an integrity issue. They’re saying, ‘I am this person. This is what I represent. This is who I am. So therefore vote for me.’ And so all we’re doing is tracking to make sure that their public activities support that which they articulate.”

Who Else Is Investigated?

But opposition research isn’t just gathering anything and everything by any means necessary on the opponent. Investigators will provide to their clients, as a service, all of the intelligence that opposition research aimed at them will uncover. “A lot of times my clients will even look at me and go, ‘Hey wait, who do you work for? Do you work for them or me?’ No, the truth is I don’t really work for either of you.”

“The truth is I’m a neutral, detached, third-party fact finder,” he continued. “I’m not really here to be judge or jury, there’s no real opposition. It’s research. I’m giving you the facts that you otherwise don’t have, the resources to uncover, or the time to uncover them.”

“My job in the beginning is I do foundational intelligence. I gather everything in general I possibly can about an individual or a group of individuals… The goal is to uncover everything and let the client choose what in fact is relevant to them, and what is not relevant to them.”

Who Is Asking for Opposition Research?

So, other than the candidates themselves, who is hiring private investigators to conduction opposition research? “It’s really a matter of somebody that has an agenda, right? You know, it might be donors, and so they’ll want to see and make sure that their candidates are in alignment with their positioning,” he said.

“For example, a governor or a candidate for governor is talking about some reform in corporate restructuring and corporate tax benefits within the state. You know someone like a company may hire us to do research to make sure, in fact, that’s what he’s going to do. Because their company would be dramatically affected by that.”

When clients hire investigators to conduct opposition research, do they ask for specific evidence?

“A lot of times, clients will try and target specifically their objectives, and you’ve kind of got to corral the clients and say ‘okay here’s your objective, here’s how we can accomplish it, and let’s walk through the best approach.’ We can’t fabricate information, or exaggerate or confabulate information to match up with the client’s goals. It has to be targeted and focused. We’re looking for factual data, and we can only report and document that which we discover to be evident.”

“A lot of times you are gonna get certain clients that say specifically what they want. Right? But it’s very difficult to do. And sometimes it’s unethical to do... If the client said ‘I need to go get video of John saying this’, well my immediate response is I will get video of John saying that if John says it.”

He cautions setting expectations for clients. “You even kind of want to derail clients from telling you what they think the conclusion is. They can have theories, but they don’t know and that’s why they’re hiring you. If you have a conclusion going in, or a thought on where it’s gonna go, it can really derail you from finding what’s really important… I’m consistently shocked of what ends up getting discovered on individuals or corporations that there’s no way I could have reasonably foreseen.”

Why Would Someone Want to Do Opposition Research?

Is it just ‘another case’ to a private investigator? And why would a private investigator be an ideal person to conduct this research?

“I chose this field because I’m a believer that wisdom and knowledge is paramount to all things in the decision-making process,” he continued, alluding to the electorate. “You can only make sound decisions when they’re informed decisions. And for me, I can’t think of a more important decision than the one that elects political representatives. Whether it’s city council or the president.”

“If you’re in this industry, you’re a naturally secretive person. One, because you know what’s out there that someone else can obtain on you. So you’re kind of little more guarded. Two, because usually you’re working with government officials. Whether you’re in the government, or working with political officials. You have to keep your stuff clean. You’re off the radar a bit more.”

And what about the future of opposition research? Could something like campaign reform affect it? “It will affect the means by which it is done, but it won’t effect if it will be done,” he theorized. “If anything, I think we’re just going to see continued growth in this business model. I think people in the political world are now realizing in the digital world what’s accessible. And what’s accessible by their opponent.”

 

Video by Stacy Blackburn




Bernadette Vielhaber

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