CNBC’s Washington Correspondent Eamon Javers spoke with the Opportunist’s Managing Editor Leslie Stone about his career, reporting on the secret world of corporate espionage and his appearance on “The Daily Show” with Jon Stewart.
Eamon Javers says he was born to be a journalist. “I never imagined myself doing anything else. The power of the written word, media and government has always fascinated me. I never even made a conscious choice. My dad was a reporter before me, and I was a reporter from a young age. I was editor of my high school paper growing up in Philadelphia, as well as editor of the college paper at Colgate and also on the university’s radio station.”
Previously a White House correspondent for Politico, where he reported on the financial bailouts, economic stimulus efforts and the Obama presidency and wrote trend pieces about Washington, Javers joined CNBC in 2010. He is based out of the network’s Washington, D.C. Bureau,and his work can take him all around the city in the course of a day. “Some days I am on Capitol Hill and other days I am over at the White House, which is always a thrill,” he says. “During the fiscal cliff coverage, I was standing in the hallway at Capitol Hill doing 13 to 14 hits throughout the day and explaining what was going on. For big events and exciting news stories like Election Day coverage, I am up in CNBC headquarters in New Jersey. There’s a new story to chase every day and I am always in different places. That keeps it fresh and interesting.”
Opportunist: When did you arrive in D.C.?
Javers: Right after graduating from Colgate in 1994. I started out as a young reporter for The Hill newspaper, and I have covered the nexus of Washington and Wall Street ever since. It’s a fascinating place—there is a lot here for a reporter—and one of the greatest times of my life has been trying to master the art of what is going on here. I almost feel like an honorary native at this point.
Opportunist: Is it ever a challenge to remain impartial when covering the news?
Javers: Not really. I have been doing this for a long time and, even in this age of opinion-driven news that we seem to be sliding into, I view it as my job to tell viewers what’s going on, why it’s happening and what will happen next. I am sort of a ‘just the facts, ma’am’ kind of guy. Anyone who looks back at the body of work I have produced over the years would be hard-pressed to tell what my opinions are. There are lots of opinions out there and I think what we all need more of are facts.
Opportunist: What is the biggest challenge you face in your work?
Javers: Informing the markets about what’s going on—in real time—when they have been hanging on every word out of Washington. There are hundreds of millions of dollars at stake and we have to explain what it means for people who are investing their money.
All of my stories are difficult in the sense that you know you have to get them right. There is pressure to be fast and accurate and the stakes are really high because people are making big decisions based on what we are reporting. You have a very tense few minutes to get people to call you back with accurate information while, at the same time, you want to break the story as quickly as you can. With breaking news there is always the challenge to make sure you have it nailed before you step in front of the camera.
Opportunist: Who is the most impressive person you have met?
Javers: The President of the United States was pretty compelling. I met him a couple of times and, although we had the briefest interactions, it is always interesting to meet somebody who has the weight of the world on his shoulders. He is obviously hugely powerful but deeply humbled by Washington as well. Even after his second inauguration, as a nation we are still trying to figure out who Obama is and what he wants.
I remember when I covered the White House for Politico in the early days of the Obama administration. What a shift it was for Washington. At the same time, the epic financial crisis of our generation was playing out before us on Wall Street. I was reporting on the very first meeting Obama held at the White House with major CEOs of financial institutions, in early 2009, when the outrage about Wall Street and what had gone on with the bailout and the bonuses and the lifestyle was reaching a crescendo.Speaking to a source who was giving me detailed notes, I learned that the President looked the CEOs in the eye and said, ‘Look, I am the only thing here between you and the pitchforks.’ He was politically positioning himself between populist outrage and Wall Street CEOs, warning them to get their act together in order for the country to stabilize. The CEOs took it as more of a threat and Obama meant it as more of an offering of peace; he was willing to mediate. That was the beginning of a real hard fought duel between Washington and Wall Street, from the Dodd Frank fight up until now. There was a huge concern on Wall Street about the overregulation of markets and what they felt was disdain from the White House toward Wall Street or capitalists in general. At the same time Obama had to balance imperatives and force the country to ride out the crisis. It was a fascinating and dynamic time, with the highest stakes.
Opportunist: What do you believe is in store for the debt ceiling and sequestration in the coming months?
Javers: I think we are going to lurch from cliff to cliff for a while. There is a new sequestration deadline on March 1, but both parties like to inflict the maximum political pressure so I think it will be a very tough slog.
Opportunist: Which kind of stories do you enjoy covering?
Javers: Stories that have real world consequence for real world people. People who find themselves in extreme conditions and how those people react to those conditions. As an investigative reporter, I met some fascinating characters. I interviewed Jack Abramoff, a corrupt political lobbyist, several times when he was in prison. I also interviewed Bradley Birkenfeld, the convicted banker who had been imprisoned for failing to turn over information about his American clients who were hiding money in secret Swiss bank accounts. The same government that threw him in jail was weighing whether to pay him $100 million or more in reward money for information he brought that allowed the United States to recoup billions of dollars in lost tax revenues. He didn’t know how this was going to go for him. He could get out and be a broke and destitute ex-con with no options or walk out and be stupendously wealthy. These characters who do extreme things—for good or bad—intrigue me. There is an inherent drama to that.
Opportunist: What happened to Birkenfeld?
Javers: The U.S. government wrote him a check for $104 million dollars and he walked out of prison.
Opportunist: Truth is stranger than fiction, isn’t it? Can you tell us about your book, Broker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy: The Secret World of Corporate Espionage?
Javers: There is a fascinating world of ex U.S. and Russian and British spies who are now working the private sector. When I was reporting for my book on corporate espionage, we revealed a lot of things about how private companies work with ex-intelligence operatives.
Opportunist: Was it difficult to gain the trust of people who are used to working in the shadows?
Javers: Unveiling those details was very tricky because spies are very suspicious and they make it very difficult. [Laughs] Revealing what they are doing was extremely challenging, but intriguing and a lot of fun too.
I cannot tell you the whole story, but I did a piece for Businessweek on a private spy firm called Diligence LLC, based in Washington, D.C. They were in a fight with the accounting firm KPMG, who accused them of running a spy operation against their firm in Bermuda and would not turn over documents. Diligence was a firm launched by an ex CIA operative and a British MI5 [security service] vet, who was in turn working for a D.C. lobby firm who was in turn working for a Russian oligarch cracking into offices of KPMG in Bermuda to get their documents. In the process of doing that piece for Businessweek I discovered that this firm wasn’t just a one-off. There was, in fact, a whole cottage industry of ex spies who go out and do espionage in the private sector. As a result, I carved out a little area of expertise for myself.
Opportunist: How long did it take to write your book?
Javers: It’s hard to say exactly. I spent a pretty intense year working two days a week covering news of the day at Politico, and then three days a week writing in my home office. I also took a couple reporting trips to Germany to meet with private intel people there, and to London because it’s sort of the crossroads of the global economy.
There is a chapter in my book called Nick No-Name, about a British spy who is now in corporate surveillance. He explained how he would tail CEOs on behalf of his clients and find out what they were up to.
Opportunist: That sounds like something right out of an episode of Showtime’s ‘Homeland’ TV series.
Javers: It was ‘Homeland’ before there was a ‘Homeland.’ [Laughs] These guys are doing those kinds of things but for private clients. In the case of Diligence, they were doing work for Russian oligarchs—the type of people who have enormous amounts of money to deploy people to do this kind of work. It’s not cheap.
Opportunist: Is it true that the CIA now allows its people to moonlight?
Javers: The CIA is under a lot of pressure from all these consulting firms who can hire people for triple what the CIA can pay them. They are not having a good time keeping people in the CIA when they can go out and make more money doing similar work in the private sector. So, the CIA allows some of their people to make more money on the side. That keeps them in the CIA in theory. Some were involved in a firm called BIA that was founded on the principles of deception detection and was offering deception detection services to the corporate world. Spies, for lack of a better term, would listen in to calls that companies would make to their investors to see if the CEOs were deceptive. They would use their spy intelligence techniques to listen to the tone of voice etc., to see if the CEO was being evasive and would let the hedge fund know which areas were of concern. It’s really James Bond kind of stuff but in the private sector.
Opportunist: We understand your book landed you a guest spot on the ‘Daily Show with Jon Stewart.’ What was that like?
Javers: It was really cool. Jon Stewart was extremely well informed and very smart and knowledgeable about the book. He came into the Green Room, where I was sitting with my wife and asked penetrating questions about the book and what I had covered and he was really up to speed on it. I have done tons of TV but that was my first experience with a live studio audience. And being interviewed instead of the interviewer was unusual. It was a really thrilling experience and fun to do with such a smart guy who asked such sharp questions.
Opportunist: Are any other books in the works?
Javers: Not right now. I’d love to do another book but I am occupied full time at CNBC, which is exciting and fast-paced and demanding all at the same time. When I come up with a good hook I will definitely consider writing another one, but nothing is on the drawing board right now.
Opportunist: When you’re not working, how do you like to spend your time?
Javers: I have three kids who are a big focus of my life and so I spend lots of time on sidelines at their various games. We also have a little tradition in my house, where we watch ‘Wipeout’ on TV every Friday night. I am getting a little bit long in the tooth [Laughs] but I still play recreational soccer myself.
Opportunist: Do you play in a league?
Javers: Yes, I play on a league for the elderly and infirm. [Laughs] I still enjoy soccer, and as long as my knees hold up I will keep playing.
Opportunist: Do you have a favorite pro team?
Javers: I’m a fan of D.C. United, which is the Washington, D.C. team. They got started about the same time I first moved to the area and I have followed them ever since. They aren’t as good as those in the European league—they’re just a bunch of scrappy, underpaid blue-collar workers playing their heart out—but they are right here in our back yard and we enjoy watching and cheering on our local guys.
Opportunist: Where do you see yourself in five years?
Javers: Hopefully, chasing a really good story. This is a very dynamic, fast-paced business and world that we are covering, so predictions are tough.
Leslie Stone is an award-winning writer/editor with more than two decades of experience covering business, finance and lifestyle issues for newspapers, magazines and online publications. Originally from Virginia, she currently resides in the Orlando area.
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