Ringling Bros., Barnum & Spies

Salon reveals a three-ring-circus of intrigue

World Reports

In 1990, freelance writer Janice Potker wrote an 11,000 word profile on Irvin Feld, the flamboyant businessman who rose from poverty to become the owner of Ringling Brothers-Barnum & Bailey Circus. Feld had died six years earlier and the circus was passed on to his son, Ken. A flurry of lawsuits has since exposed a sordid plot by Ken Feld, who hired former CIA agents to spy on Potker and two leading animal rights organizations.

The story was uncovered by Jeff Stein and posted online in Salon magazine [http://www.salon.com/news/feature/2001/08/30/circus]. According to Stein, the plot began after Ken Feld read the part of Potker’s article alluding to his father’s alleged homosexual relationships. “Get dirt on her,” Feld reportedly demanded. “Spread rumors. Throw dirt.” Feld and his associates discussed hiring “a bodybuilder type” to seduce Potker and destroy her marriage.

Feld financed “Operation Preempt,” a covert campaign to prevent Potker from publishing a book that would expand on her Ringling revelations. The man hired to run the operation was none other than Clair E. George, a former CIA deputy director for operations. “I was responsible for the CIA’s covert operations worldwide,” George stated in a court deposition. He also admitted that he had been “a paid consultant to Feld Entertainment and its affiliates on international issues.”

Over the next eight years, George said, he “undertook a series of efforts to find out what Potker was doing” and reported his findings to Ken Feld. In addition, George revealed: “I was assigned to make arrangements with a publishing house to publish a book by Potker on another subject to divert her from her proposed book on [Irvin] Feld.” George also oversaw the work of another Feld spy team that was tasked with countering “the activities of various animal rights groups.”

In 1993, George dispatched Robert Eringer, a freelance author with ties to the CIA, to befriend Potker. Professing interest in furthering her career, Eringer became Potker’s mentor, confidant and “editor.” Eringer’s actual mission, as he noted in a memo to Feld, was to use his position “to monitor her work closely and… collect intelligence on her sources.”

Eringer pressured Potker to spend her time writing a different book exposing the Mars candy family. Eringer boasted to Feld that Potker’s “enthusiasm for exposing Ringling Bros. has been redirected to exposing others.” Until she discovered the information in court papers, Potker never suspected that the $25,000 advance she received for the Mars exposé had actually been paid by Ringling Bros.’ Ken Feld.

Potker wasn’t the only target of Ringling’s spooks. In 1989, Feld’s security team hired two agents, Julie Lewis and Douglas Martin, to infiltrate the Performing Animal Welfare Society (PAWS). For three years, the spies used their access to steal “thousands of pages” of internal PAWS documents, including donor lists that they forwarded to PAWS’ conservative opponent, Putting People First. Feld agent Julie Lewis became such a trusted aide that she sat at PAWS director Pat Derby’s side when Derby testified before Congress on animal rights legislation.

In June 2000, PAWS sued Feld and Ringling charging that Martin had tried to persuade PAWS secretary Edward Allen Stewart “to commit an illegal act involving the theft of Ringling Bros. animals.” Feld paid PAWS an undisclosed sum to settle out of court.

In 1999, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) publicized a government report that Ringling was mistreating elephants at its Center for Elephant Conservation in Florida.

Joel Kaplan, a wiretap artist hired by Feld’s security apparatus, testified that the team’s “major assignment… was to try to destroy People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.” Kaplan suggested that the campaign against the animal rights group involved spying, break-ins, surveillance and dirty tricks.

Kaplan also volunteered the information that circus life behind the tents was rife with drugs, sexual assaults and disease (“about half of the elephants in each of the shows had tuberculosis”).

In May 2001, PETA took action against Feld with a lawsuit that is still pending.

You Make Our Work Possible

You Make Our Work Possible

We don’t have a paywall because, as a nonprofit publication, our mission is to inform, educate and inspire action to protect our living world. Which is why we rely on readers like you for support. If you believe in the work we do, please consider making a tax-deductible year-end donation to our Green Journalism Fund.

Get the Journal in your inbox.
Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Subscribe Now

Get four issues of the magazine at the discounted rate of $20.