The agri-chemical giant has a storied history of using shady tactics to attack critics and influence the media.
Illustration: Damon Dahlen/HuffPost; Photos: Getty

It was early March when other reporters first noticed Sylvie Barak. About a half a dozen journalists were in a northern California courtroom to cover a third lawsuit alleging that Monsanto’s pesticide glyphosate causes cancer.

Barak told others that she was a freelancer for the BBC. She was friendly and helpful, listened earnestly as reporters discussed their private lives; she offered parenting tips and shared her thoughts on the trial.

Barak also mentioned that she supplemented her income with PR consulting to pay the bills. One night, she invited several of the female reporters to a meet-and-greet for one of her clients, the European Institute of Innovation & Technology. Barak promised in her email that the event would deliver “warm fuzzies after these 4 weeks of craziness we’ve just been through!”

“It was a girls’ night out with free drinks,” recalled Kelly Ryerson, a blogger covering the trial for the site Glyphosate Girl, who spoke to HuffPost. “She was very interested in having the reporters meet her client.”

A photo from that night shows Barak smiling next to Ryerson and two other reporters. HuffPost interviewed one of the reporters, who asked not to be named to avoid association with the incident, which could jeopardize her future employment.

“[Barak] would make suggestions about interesting parts of the testimony,” the reporter told HuffPost. “And then go on and on about certain points of testimony to try and get it into stories, and it was always bad for the plaintiffs.” The reporter said that Barak seemed to be fishing for reporters’ views on Monsanto and the trial.

“She was very interested in having the reporters meet her client.”

Something else about Barak seemed off. A BBC staff journalist was also covering the trial, which raised the question: Why would the BBC send a freelancer and a staff reporter?

When journalists searched the internet for Barak, they noticed that her LinkedIn account said she worked for FTI Consulting, a global business advisory firm that Monsanto and Bayer, Monsanto’s parent company, had engaged for consulting. After the reporter sent inquiries about Barak to Bayer, Barak’s LinkedIn account changed to describe her as a freelancer. And when an Agence France-Presse reporter inquired, the BBC said Barak wasn’t working for them.

AFP published a piece in May that revealed parts of the intrigue, but did not name Barak. Much of Barak’s social media has since been deleted or locked to outside viewers, including her Twitter, LinkedIn and Instagram accounts. Her deleted Twitter page made no mention of her work for FTI, describing her rather as a “recovering/relapsing journalist.” Barak did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

FTI staff have previously attempted to obtain information under the guise of journalism. In January, two FTI consultants working for Western Wire — a “news and analysis” website backed by the oil and gas trade group Western Energy Alliance — attempted to question an attorney who represents communities suing Exxon over climate change.

Monsanto has also previously employed shadowy networks of consultants, PR firms, and front groups to spy on and influence reporters. And all of it appears to be part of a pattern at the company of using a variety of tactics to intimidate, mislead and discredit journalists and critics.

When HuffPost asked about Barak, FTI responded by reissuing a statement from earlier this year, noting that she attended the trial to take notes and that the firm has “initiated an internal review and has since taken necessary and appropriate actions.” FTI did not respond to questions about its work for Bayer or Monsanto.

Bayer has denied employing FTI for the trial, saying in a statement: “FTI is not part of the Roundup litigation multi-function team and is not involved in any work related to the Roundup litigation. Bayer did not authorize FTI to work at the Hardeman trial, and did not know anyone from the firm was in attendance until it was brought to our attention after the trial was completed. We want to be clear that the behavior this FTI employee engaged in is not in line with our principles.” The company did not respond to more detailed questions about the consulting firm for this article.

After the reporter who spoke to HuffPost contacted Bayer, Barak disappeared. Monsanto went on to lose the trial. But Barak’s presence was felt in court long after; several people covering or involved in the trial told HuffPost they were left feeling slightly paranoid about who they could trust and who else might be watching them.

Hiring A Firm With A History Of Spying

In early May, an 18-page document made public in the California trial revealed that Monsanto had also hired Hakluyt, a British private investigative firm formed by two veteran MI6 spies in the mid-1990s.

Hakluyt keeps a low profile, but it is considered one of the world’s elite spy firms. News accounts and court documents have shed some light on its past clients, including Enron and BP; in 2001, the latter deployed a spy posing as a documentary filmmaker to track Greenpeace as it planned a climate change campaign.

The Monsanto document offers a rare insight into Hakluyt’s work, its tactics and political reach. In a sworn deposition for the trial, former Monsanto attorney Todd Rands testified that Hakluyt agents deliberately hid their links to Monsanto as they gathered information from high-ranking government officials in 2018, including a Trump White House policy adviser and senior officials at the Department of Agriculture and Environmental Protection Agency.

“We wanted to make sure that we could hear things about ourselves that people might not say directly to us,” said Rands, who also notes in the deposition that he left Monsanto in January 2019 and was then consulting for FTI.

The document quotes a staffer at the environmental group Natural Resources Defense Council, who does not appear to have known they were speaking to a Hakluyt representative, stating that their litigation team “has been working overtime and is likely to continue doing so, going after both the EPA and companies.”

Rebecca Riley, legal director for NRDC’s nature program, was appalled to learn that Monsanto had hired private investigators. “We do not know where quotes attributed to NRDC came from,” said Riley, “but it is no secret we hold polluters accountable to the law—and we are proud of it.”

A spokesperson for Hakluyt said the company had no comment on how it gathers information nor about its clients.

When Traditional PR And Less Traditional Methods Collide

While traditional PR companies befriend reporters and crank out press releases to spur news articles, they sometimes deploy more aggressive tactics. Ketchum PR, which has helped Monsanto in its efforts to combat labeling products containing genetically modified organisms and sway public opinion on the safety of its products, has its own record when it comes to hiring people to spy on journalists.

Working on behalf of Dow Chemical at the time, Ketchum hired private security firm Beckett Brown International, Inc. to produce dossiers on scientists, journalists and nonprofits working to expose GMO safety concerns, as Mother Jones reported in 2010. The strategy included casing their offices, dumpster diving to collect phone records and confidential meeting notes, and planting operatives within the organizations.

“We wanted to make sure that we could hear things about ourselves that people might not say directly to us.”

Ketchum’s recent work for Monsanto appears more in line with traditional PR, though it still gathers information on reporters. In 2013, it launched GMO Answers with financing from Monsanto, DuPont and Dow AgroSciences. In a campaign video on GMOs, Ketchum bragged that “positive media coverage has doubled” and that it has closely monitored Twitter conversation to “balance” coverage. As HuffPost reported last month, the firm also worked to develop cozy relationships with reporters covering the beat and created brief bios on several journalists that discussed their contact information, reporting and congressional representatives.

Monsanto has also hired PR firm FleishmanHillard to protect its image and keep tabs on critics. In May, French television channel France 2 and Le Monde revealed that the PR giant had compiled dossiers on more than 200 public figures, including journalists, politicians and scientists, which classified each according to their opinions on glyphosate, GMOs or pesticides in general; their level of support for Monsanto; and their credibility with the public.

The revelation was notable, as France and other European countries have legal prohibitions on collecting certain information on people without their consent. A French prosecutor has opened an inquiry into the incident.

The dustup landed Bayer in PRWeek magazine for its crisis communications failure. It has since apologized and said it had “decided to suspend our cooperation with the involved external service providers for the time being.” Bayer hired an outside law firm to conduct an investigation, which said it found no wrongdoing on FleishmanHillard’s account. Bayer said it does not wish to speculate about an ongoing government investigation.

FleishmanHillard’s statement to HuffPost reiterated Bayer’s, but it did not address questions about the French inquiry.

A Network Of Third-Party Supporters

In the latest example of Monsanto’s efforts to track journalists, The Guardian reported in August on internal documents from the company’s “fusion center,” which worked to discredit reporters and nonprofits via third-party actors.

In 12 pages of emails, a half-dozen Monsanto staffers strategized on a response to HuffPost’s 2016 report that alleged Monsanto harassed Carey Gillam, a former reporter who now works for the nonprofit advocacy group U.S. Right To Know. In the emails, the Monsanto staffers note that the interview was getting traction on Twitter with other reporters and food influencers like Michael Pollan and celebrity chef Tom Colicchio. Andy Schaul of Monsanto’s fusion center advised against a direct response by bringing in third parties.

Using third-party players to sully critics has long been a critical part of Monsanto’s strategy. In 2017, LeMonde’s Stéphane Foucart and Stéphane Horel reported on some of the “well-known propaganda websiteslinked to Monsanto, such as the Genetic Literacy Project and the American Council on Science and Health. Foucart said that after publication, his social media feeds were inundated with pro-Monsanto trolling, accusing him and other French reporters of being “anti-science.”

The Genetic Literacy Project’s website is registered to ESG Media Metrics, a PR firm operated by Jon Entine. While Entine has attempted to distance the Genetic Literacy Project from Monsanto, in 2015, he and Monsanto’s chief of global scientific affairs, Eric Sachs, discussed several topics bedeviling the company via email. Entine told Sachs that GLP had updated a web page discussing GMOs and translated it into Spanish, and asked if there was “any interest in expanding/following up on that project?”

Among the people listed on Genetic Literacy Project’s “team” webpage is Cameron English, who also put together a website to smear reporters and scientists for the American Council on Science and Health (ACSH). The website was later taken down. In a statement to HuffPost, Bayer said that the company “no longer provides financial support” to the Genetic Literacy Project.

Monsanto has sought to hide financial ties to ACSH, but internal documents make clear the company was in a discussion about funding the group to push back on critics of glyphosate. “You will not get a better value for your dollar than ACSH,” emailed Monsanto’s lead for medical science and outreach, Daniel Goldstein, in February 2015. A month later, he notified ACSH that the money had been approved. Bayer also told HuffPost that the company no longer provides financial support to ACSH.

‘There’s A Lot Of Weird Shit Going On’

In the California trial, the reporter who first identified Barak as an FTI plant said she, too, saw an uptick in Monsanto’s industry partners contacting her as she covered the trial.

Mary Mangan, a writer for Biofortified and the Genetic Literacy Project, contacted her to suggest a scoop on alleged scandalous behavior on the part of a researcher who has provided expert testimony against Monsanto. She also suggested speaking with a guy named Jay Byrne.

“The techniques we most often see in corporate espionage ― dumpster diving, physical surveillance, and false identities ― can supplement more staid documentary and informational research on a target.”

When the reporter read the documents Mangan forwarded, she found nothing worth reporting. Mangan, she felt, was “playing” her to do a hit job. Out of the blue, Byrne then contacted her on social media to discuss how GMO criticism was part of a Russian influence campaign; when she Googled Byrne, she learned he is Monsanto’s former director of communications and now runs the PR firm v-Fluence. His clients have included Monsanto, CropLife, and the American Chemistry Council, and he is the author of a section of a book, edited by Entine, that argues in support of genetically modified crops.

It was then she realized “that there’s a lot of weird shit going on.”

The full nature and extent of this “weird shit” are still unknown, but Monsanto’s emails and internal documents released during litigation have brought it into sharper focus. In a January deposition, a Monsanto representative said that in 2016 the company spent “around $16 or 17 million” on activities to defend glyphosate. A July 2019 Monsanto document released during litigation details the company’s broad plan to combat Freedom of Information Act requests that have uncovered ties between the company and third-party spokespeople in academia, noting that Byrne was tasked with working with academics to support Monsanto.

Eamon Javers is the Washington correspondent at CNBC and author of “Broker, Trader, Lawyer, Spy: The Secret World of Corporate Espionage,” which traces the history of corporate spy firms such as Hakluyt. “The techniques we most often see in corporate espionage ― dumpster diving, physical surveillance, and false identities ― can supplement more staid documentary and informational research on a target,” he said.

Javers added that the public remains unaware of how these espionage efforts can help shape the news and damage a company’s critics. “Reporters are more often interested in whether the information is true or not than where it comes from.”

This article has been updated to include additional comment from Bayer and to characterize a publication by Entine more precisely.

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