Reverse engineering criminal counterintelligence empire
Published on January 27, 2015
NBC's The Blacklist
features Raymond Reddington, A.K.A. Red, a master spy and criminal who has cultivated a network of criminals, politicians, hackers, spies and traffickers that has given him access to every industry and nearly every secret on the planet. The show's so-called "concierge of crime" is actually much more, he is a puppet master who pulls strings on a global level. How is this possible? How could one man rise to a position where he's not able to survive against the world's spy agencies, but to subvert them?
To answer that, it's necessary to understand that Red is a master of counterintelligence and a nearly flawless confidence man. Before becoming a criminal, Reddington was well versed in tradecraft, had graduated at the top of his class at the U.S. Naval Academy and was being groomed for the rank of Admiral. In the early '90s he vanished with an unknown number of classified documents and secrets. Four years later, Red resurfaced to sell classified secrets to foreign powers. Those four years hold the secret to how Red became who he is and even if he is the same Raymond Reddington who was in the Navy, which was brought into question by his statement that he hadn't been in a pool since his junior year of high school. When this inconsistency was pointed out to him, he simply changed the subject with a lack of fluster that's usually only seen in practiced con artists and covert operatives.
Setting aside whether he truly is Raymond Reddington or if that's merely an adopted identity, what's known as a "legend", the key is that is Red is a con artist capable not only of looking someone in the eye in lying, but of lying to them by telling them the truth in just the right way. This confidence and ability to lie is what has allowed Red to go up against people in the show like Assistant Director of National Intelligence Alan Fitch and his secret international "alliance". By convincing Fitch and the others that he is in possession of "The Fulcrum" and that it will be released if Red dies, he is generally able to operate without their direct interference so long as they remain convinced that The Fulcrum is securely in Red's possession.
So what is the Fulcrum? Aside from a possible reference to Chuck
, the Fulcrum is almost certainly a literal reference to a lever and a fulcrum - leverage. The exact form of the leverage is unimportant, whether it's proof of the secret international alliance and their apparently radical plans for 2017
or something else altogether, Red used his ability to uncover secrets and to convince people of nearly anything to intimidate some of the world's most powerful individuals into near inaction.
This still leaves the question of how someone like Red would continue to gain new intelligence twenty years after going AWOL from the Navy and emerging as a known criminal. Looking at what we know about Red, his intelligence networks can be divided into three groups:
- Criminal informants
- Controlled politicians and
- Assets within the Intelligence Community
The Blacklist is an American crime drama television series that premiered on NBC on September 23, 2013. Raymond "Red" Reddington (James Spader), a former U.S Navy officer turned high-profile criminal, who had eluded capture for decades, voluntarily surrenders to the FBI, offering to cooperate on capturing a list of elusive criminals. | Photo: NBC | The Blacklist, James Spader, Television, Crime, Drama, Gin, Fbi,
Outside of a specific chain of command or a police operation, criminal informants are rarely controlled by the individual they provide information to. When smugglers share information with each other, it's for mutual benefit or outright profit. If their buyers or receivers are arrested, for instance, it costs them money. Due to his extensive networks, Red hears almost everything that's said along the criminal grapevine.
His sponsorship and control of politicians allows him to control what contracts go to which companies, and to subvert the intelligence networks that those politicians have access to. It's revealed within the show that Red has controlling interests of various sorts in many of these companies, allowing him to profit from their activities and to tap into their secrets. While it might seem that Red's most valuable contacts within the Intelligence Community would work for agencies like the FBI, CIA or NSA. Much like in reality, however, the show demonstrates that this isn't always the case.
It's often low level or third tier employees who make the most useful as assets, due the less rigorous vetting process that is often, unfortunately, given to low profile employees who work for a contractor or sub-contractor. Within the show
, Red has been bankrolling Julian Assange's defense fund since he has been in the embassy, and their history may go back further. This gave him access to much of their raw data, and the ability to tell them to reconstruct shredded documents supplied by one of their sources. Ordinarily, documents from defense contractors would be disposed of by using a micro-cut or disintegrator shredder and ultimately burned, not using an ordinary strip-cut shredder. However, their asset was able to arrange it so that proper protocols weren't followed and the shredded documents where delivered to Assange's people so that they could be reconstructed
Between assets like that and the ability to intercept supposedly secure communications that rely on Tor
, Red is able to keep the flow of information running towards him on his quest to cross names off the Blacklist while pursuing a larger, murkier agenda.
Would Red's criminal empire work in the real world? It's hard to say, since the show's premise and background differs from the real world. If such a criminal empire did exist, it would operate the same way it does in the Blacklist and use the same tradecraft as Reddington and the sly manner seen in James Spader's performance.