In just a month, Cambridge Analytica has gone from relative obscurity to international notoriety. But for me, this story isn’t new. I first interviewed senior figures in Cambridge Analytica’s lesser known parent company SCL for my 2014 book “Propaganda and Counter-terrorism – Strategies for Global Change”, and I’ve followed their work closely ever since.
It’s been frustrating to watch some of the key players manage to escape crucial questions that should be asked of them. Because this isn’t just a scandal about an obscure, unethical company. It’s a story about how a network of companies was developed which enabled wide deployment of propaganda tools – based on propaganda techniques that were researched and designed for use as weapons in warzones – on citizens in democratic elections. It’s a logical product of a poorly regulated, opaque and lucrative influence industry. There was little or nothing in place to stop them.
Cambridge Analytica’s parent company, SCL, and its founder, Nigel Oakes, have done everything they can to distance themselves from Cambridge Analytica but politics was important to SCL’s work far earlier than many thought. And SCL’s main clients – NATO and the defence departments of its member states – have managed to get away without being asked how much they knew about what one of their key contractors was up to.
Recently the UK’s parliamentary Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee Inquiry into Fake News published some of the evidence I submitted drawing on research interviews for an upcoming book, among other publications. Some of my quoted interviews with key figures suggest that SCL’s military arm and Cambridge Analytica’s engagements may have been much more closely related than Oakes or Cambridge Analytica’s former CEO Alexander Nix like to publicly admit. And if governments genuinely didn’t know how the firm was using the skills it developed in counter-terrorism in divisive elections around the world, then this was a huge failing.
SCL’s defence ‘division’
To explain this, I’ll start with a man called Steve Tatham. I first interviewed Tatham for my 2014 book, about the work he was doing for the British military, then for SCL. Steve Tatham is former Commanding Officer of Britain’s 15 (U.K.) Psyops Group and has played a lead role in SCL’s defence work, including through the company IOTA Global, which was part of the SCL Group, delivering training in counter-Russian propaganda in Eastern Europe funded by the Government of Canada, as well as conducting research on target audience analysis which has influenced counter-insurgency doctrine.
In February 2017, Carole Cadwalladr began reporting on Cambridge Analyticain the Observer. On March 2 of that year, Tatham sent an email statement to a list of his contacts. Tatham declared that ‘SCL Defence is a completely separate company to Cambridge Analytica, who were contracted to assist the Trump campaign during the election, albeit we are both part of the same group’.
On 24th March 2018 The Times reported on SCL Group’s propaganda defence work. In particular, it focussed on training carried out by Tatham for NATO’s Center of Excellence in Strategic Communication in Latvia and the UK’s Ministry of Defence. Shortly after the Times report, Tatham’s company Influence Options Ltd made another statement, this time more publicly, withdrawing from all work with SCL Group and emphasising that they have not worked on any political campaigns.
SCL Group has sought to distance SCL defence contracting from political campaign work by stressing SCL Elections and Cambridge Analytica were independent companies. I have no reason to suspect Tatham of having engaged in political work. However, his new statement begs the question of how ‘separate’ the entities were if they were too close for Tatham to sustain his longstanding relationship to the SCL defence contractor amid Cambridge Analytica allegations. His statement acknowledges he worked for the “defence division” of SCL, language which conveys a different relationship from that spelled out in his email to contacts in March 2017, which declared “completely separate company”. Divisions imply related entities in the same company, not separate companies. So which is it? And if they really are all divisions of the same organisation, surely the unethical activities of one part of the SCL Group urgently demands that real scrutiny is given to the defence ‘division’ of SCL too – and to government oversight of contracts.
SCL Ltd became SCL ‘Group’ in August 2015. There seem to have been efforts to distance the entities at least superficially; but this seems a more complex picture than “completely separate companies” would imply. My own research supports other evidence presented during the UK parliamentary ‘Fake News Inquiry’ apparently indicating important staffing overlaps, financial relationships and methods in common between apparently separate companies. Last week also, in testimony to the Canadian Parliament, Aggregate IQ, who worked with SCL on the Nigeria campaign, for Ted Cruz and who were contracted by Vote Leave in the UK’s EU Referendum said they worked with SCL, not Cambridge Analytica, on the Cruz campaign, despite Cambridge Analytica being the entity that worked on this election.
Brittany Kaiser, CA’s former Business Development Manager also told the Fake News Inquiry on April 17th that “our company tended to have a business model where we would partner with another company and that company would represent us as SCL Germany, or SCL USA. That was the model.” Kaiser added that she believed SCL Canada and Aggregate IQ were the same. Evidence such as this suggests the existence of a clearly associated network. Furthermore, Brittany Kaiser declared in 2016 that the underpinnings of Cambridge Analytica’s political methods are the same social scientific research and data science techniques as are used for defence: “This was most often actually used in defense. We work for the Department of Defense and intelligence agencies in counter-terrorism operations with this exact same similar methodology. And now we decided to start building up a database to work in politics,” Kaiser said.
SCL and CA – were they really separate companies?
Another key figure who I interviewed before this story broke is Nigel Oakes, chief executive of the SCL Group. Here he is pictured at NATO Stratcom in Riga, working with Steve Tatham. Nigel Oakes was listed as Director of IOTA Global, until the company dissolved in January 2017. Our most recent interview in November last year was very illuminating in revealing the relationship between the companies.
When Oakes set up SCL Elections and Cambridge Analytica as the new political arm of SCL’s business, the political ‘division’ worked less separately from SCL. There are reports of SCL working in elections in Indonesia in 1999. Oakes’ own expertise, which emerged in PR, developed further through counter-terrorism work and shaped the Behavioural Dynamics Institute (BDI) – a research unit underpinning SCL methods, and this expertise was being deployed in elections. We need to know which ones.
Oakes told me he had worked on politics “in the past. I set up the company [Cambridge Analytica] but now, I’m totally defence and I’ve gotta be totally defence”. He said, “the defence people can’t be seen to be getting involved in politics, and the State Department, they get very upset.” Oakes stated they imposed “strong lines” between the companies. It seems reasonable to infer that SCL have been restating their separation to ensure survival of business interests in defence and commercial contracting, motivated in part by nervousness and pressure received from the US and UK governments wanting to contract them for defence work. As Oakes said – “they get very upset”.
Yet in my interview with Oakes he referred to what “we” are doing to include Cambridge Analytica not just his defence division – “…when we explain in the two-minute lift pitch what happened with Trump…” Any lack of clarity here matters – a lot. Cambridge Analytica also stressed that they do ”no work outside of North America, although the Cambridge Analytica brand is now used worldwide”. According to whistle-blower Chris Wylie, Cambridge Analytica’s work in Nigeria included an ad with a montage of violence, including real footage of people being dismembered and burned, from recent history, seeking to create fear of Muslims and intimidate voters.
And then there’s Sam Patten. Patten was ‘senior director/campaign manager’, according to Kaiser, and oversaw the Nigeria campaign along with a second senior strategist. I interviewed him in July 2017 also about a previous job he did working for the International Republican Institute in ‘reconstruction’ era Iraq. He told me he had also worked in the US, in Oregon, during one of the trial runs of Cambridge Analytica’s early deployment of psychographics, later deployed more fully in the Cruz campaign. He talked about preparations for this, “they were training a team, I was part of that team… they […] trained me in England then they sent me to Canada for more training” then he developed messaging for the US campaigns. The Canada based company Aggregate IQ were reported in the Guardian as having links to SCL but have sought to distance themselves from that company. Patten observed of the United States, “I’ve worked for Ukraine, Iraq, I’ve worked in deeply corrupt countries, and our system, isn’t very different” (See Explanatory Essay 1).
Originally Published here in Open Democracy in May 2018