The Company’s agents are constantly at work, studying foreign documents, clipping newspapers, monitoring radio broadcasts, cultivating inside sources around the globe. The Company has some of the biggest names in international politics on retainer, paying them handsomely for their expertise. At the Company, information flows like a river into the huge computer at its suburban Virginia headquarters. Sound familiar? But, no, this Company is not the Central Intelligence Agency. It is the International Reporting Information Systems (IRIS), a new and ambitious private intelligence-gathering service. “IRIS has absolutely nothing to do with spying,” insists founder Anthony Stout, 42. “It’s a serious attempt by serious people to supply better political information to the world. I don’t look like James Bond, and I don’t behave like him.”
Stout got the idea for IRIS from international businessmen who suffered heavy losses because of the failure of the West to predict the downfall of the Shah. “They were really shaken up by what happened in Iran,” says Stout. “It shocked their confidence in existing information sources.” Stout proposed filling the gap and raised $10 million from various European sources, including the London banking firm of Henry Ansbacher and the Bank in Liechtenstein. To entice multinational corporations as customers, and to underscore the seriousness of his operation, Stout hired such high-powered consultants as former World Bank President Robert McNamara and former British Prime Minister Edward Heath. The service also employs 96 foreign-based correspondents and 33 full-time analysts. Stout is not without experience in innovative information gathering. He is the founder of the National Journal, a nonpartisan weekly magazine that covers the inner workings of Washington and has become required reading for lobbyists, legislators and bureaucrats. Although the Journal costs $455 a year, it has more than 5,000 subscriptions, including 75 at the White House, 400 in Congress and two at the Soviet Embassy.
IRIS, says Stout, is an attempt to expand the National Journal and other information sources into a sort of international clearinghouse available via computer terminal. Corporations, schools, law firms and government agencies will pay fees of $25,000 to $250,000 per year. (The amount depends on the number and type of services provided.) Stout expects to sign up about 50 clients by mid-1982, when IRIS begins full-scale operation, and estimates that he can make a profit with only 300. “Intelligence agencies collect information through secret means and put it to secret purposes,” he explains. “We will collect information by open means for public purposes. Anyone who wants our information can buy it.” What subscribers will get is an analysis and forecast of trends in worldwide politics, economics, religion and the social climate, including biographies of prominent public figures.
Stout has the argyle-and-old-lace Eastern Establishment credentials that can only help in his dealings with corporate and government officials. The son of a metallurgical engineer and a housewife, he prepped at St. Paul’s School and earned degrees at Williams College and Harvard Law School before gliding into a prestigious New York law firm. His life was traditionally upwardly mobile until he quit his lucrative job in 1969 to start the National Journal. At first the Washington press corps barely blinked at this upstart competitor. “Everybody here said, ‘What does this kid know about political journalism?’ ” Stout, who was 30 at the time, remembers. But the magazine won a loyal following and a coveted National Magazine Award in 1979, when it was just beginning to make money, plus another in 1981.
For a man who puts out a journal that, he says, “is trying to be the last word on politics,” Stout is curiously apolitical. “I am not the least bit active in any party,” he swears. “I am absolutely neutral.” In fact, Stout will not reveal whom he voted for in 1980—not even to his wife, Muffy, “although,” he says, “she has tried to find out.” He and Muffy, a professional photographer, are a close couple whose social life revolves around their four children—Craig, 14, Carder, 13, Antonia, 8, and Julie, 5. It is a family that skis in France, sings in its Georgetown living room and works a 600-acre farm in Massachusetts. Although IRIS “has put a real strain on our family life,” Stout is confident he can reproduce his journalistic success story for a global audience. “IRIS is an exact replay on an international scale—except,” he says with satisfaction, “nobody calls me a kid anymore.”