What do NATO, private military contractors, aerospace firms, wine merchants, the NSA, Trump, British property tycoons, Russian oligarchs, and Big Oil have in common? The world’s largest social network
Editorial assistance by Andrew Markell and Gunther Sonnenfeld
Imagine a world in which everybody gave away their freedom, willingly, in return for belonging to a toxic network which, rather than enriching their lives, profited from eroding civil discourse, polarizing communities, and manipulating their minds.
Wouldn’t you wonder what was wrong with these people?
You would. And yet that is the world you are about to inhabit, right now. Unless you do something about it.
* * *
* * *
Powered by PressCoin – Insurge is a new platform for Understanding News, and moving from Understanding to Action.
Facebook is on track to become more powerful than the National Security Agency – so says a senior advisor to the US military intelligence community who predicted the rise of artificial intelligence and robot warfare. In less than a decade, Facebook’s growth will mean it potentially has the ability to monitor almost everyone on the planet. This will make the firm more powerful than any other government contractor in the world.
This prospect has dangerous ramifications for democracy. Increasing evidence reveals that Facebook’s most lucrative business model is to outsource itself as a conduit for psychological warfare to any third party that wants to influence the beliefs and behaviours of citizens.
Key portions of this story have remained untold, until now. You’ve heard the story of Cambridge Analytica’s use of Facebook profiling to influence election campaigns on both sides of the Atlantic. You’ve heard how Russia has curious ties to some of these players, even as it too has gamed Facebook in its efforts to fight ‘hybrid war.’
All of which suggests an extreme right-wing cabal has used Big Data to hijack US, British and European democratic processes.
But this is not the whole story. navigates a web of connections between Cambridge Analytica’s directors, senior employees and associated companies, throwing new light on how the firm’s modus operandi has been developed in the most classified bowels of the British government’s national security system.
We reveal for the first time the firm’s sweeping interlinkages with powerful Anglo-American political and economic interests; the NATO national security complex; military intelligence agencies; private military contractors accused of illegal activity and incompetence; the global fossil fuel industry; and a pro-Tory British financial oligarchy with massive investments in British and Russian property markets. Rather than representing a grand conspiracy, these interlocking networks grant us a window into the structural alignment of power in which they operate.
Cambridge Analytica’s UK umbrella company, SCL Group, is a former UK Ministry of Defense contractor which held access to classified information. Our investigation reveals that the firm continues to have symbiotic ties with the British Foreign Office, which officially wants to exploit the firm’s success in assisting the Trump campaign for UK foreign policy goals.
Mark Turnbull, who heads up SCL Elections, the subsidiary company responsible for the firm’s elections work, is a former Bell Pottinger consultant who oversaw Pentagon influence operations in Iraq, one of which produced fake al-Qaeda videos.
The same Turnbull had founded Aethos, the ‘strategic communications’ division of Aegis Defense Services, the giant UK military contractor bought up by the even bigger Canadian corporation, GardaWorld. Together, these firms have generated significant controversy over their treatment of civilians in Iraq, recruitment of child soldiers in Sierra Leone, and ‘tactical incompetence’ in Afghanistan, to name just a few issues.
SCL Group’s directors hold direct business interests in a range of companies involved in two prominent sectors: the arms and defense trade; and the global oil and gas industry. The key mover-and-shaker here is Julian Wheatland, Chairman of SCL Group, who is a director of Hatton International, an obscure company that specializes in defense offset services to private arms and aerospace firms; and a former director of a Hatton-associated company, Phi Energy Group, which worked with some of the world’s leading oil majors.
Other SCL Group directors have business partnerships with powerful pro-Tory financial interests, some with ties to the Brexit campaign. Chief among them is Hanson Asset Management, the legacy of the late Thatcherite business tycoon, Lord Hanson. Patrick Teroerde, a co-founding director of Hanson Asset Management, was an early director – seemingly a co-founding director – of SCL Group subsidiary company SCL Elections, which reportedly assisted Vote Leave. Lord Hanson’s surrogate at his anti-EU ‘Business in Sterling’ group, Dominic Cummings, was Vote Leave’s campaign director.
Another SCL Group director, Roger Gabb, shares a property investment company with a number of British property tycoons, including billionaire Anton Bilton and Bimaljit Singh Sandhu, both of whom are invested heavily in UK and Russian property markets through the firm, Raven Russia – which explicitly articulates an interest in opening up Russia to foreign investors. Raven Russia denies knowing Gabb or anything about SCL Group.
SCL Group has not only gamed Facebook to assist the election of Donald Trump and, it seems, the Brexit campaign; but also received $1 million (CAD) to support NATO influence operations in Eastern Europe and the Ukraine, targeting Russia.
And while the firm no longer has contracts with the MoD, it has picked up several State Department contracts for global influence operations, is pursuing numerous others across the US federal government, and maintains close ties with the British Foreign Office.
In early 2017, the Foreign & Commonwealth Office (FCO) convened a closed conference on how the government could best utilize Big Data for its foreign policy goals, inviting Turnbull and his lead data scientist to speak about Cambridge Analytica’s work assisting the Trump campaign. The FCO refused to clarify how the gaming of Facebook to influence the American vote was relevant to the British government’s diplomatic agenda abroad.
Now even some of Facebook’s creators are acknowledging the platform’s toxic impacts. Venture capitalist Chamath Palihapitiya, Facebook’s former head of user growth, acknowledges his “tremendous guilt” for how the platform has “created tools that are ripping apart the social fabric of how society works.”
Former Facebook president Sean Parker expresses alarm over what the social network is “doing to our children’s brains”, based on a “social-validation feedback loop” designed to “consume as much of your time and conscious attention as possible.”
Facebook is rapidly moving to harness these techniques to manipulate the human psyche to influence everything we do – and potentially to even influence our political choices – all to maximize its own profits.
If nothing is done to disrupt Facebook’s global trajectory, its control over our lives could be unstoppable.
Yet this very trajectory reveals that Facebook is not the problem. Facebook is simply an expression of a collective societal agreement. The billions of people on Facebook are more than willing to trade our privacy, our freedom and our right to truthful information in exchange for the ‘connection’ we feel when using the platform.
Facebook is the expression of a deeper problem: that as long as people are making money from a system that not only makes the Facebooks of the world possible, but encourages them; as long as people are willing to hand over the keys to their entire lives, with nothing substantial in exchange beyond sharing photos, direct messaging and Facebook groups, nothing will change.
So what does the world look like when Zuckerberg owns your mind and models your behavior? A healthy and well-informed public sphere, upon which a democracy depends, is rendered increasingly impotent. In place of healthy dialogue, logic and facts, we are torn apart by raging divisions, ideologies, incoherent belief systems, apathy, rage and resignation.
The already slim accountability in our public institutions is gradually eroded, replaced instead by the manipulative, unaccountable reach of those that control Big Data.
Zuckerberg and his lieutenants sit atop an overarching, unelected meta-government on which nation states become irrevocably dependent for crucial information services focused on influencing our decisions.
Our children live in a world where total surveillance is completely normal; where accurate information, dialogue and dissent are replaced with targeted language, and increasingly sophisticated technologies to manipulate the human psyche.
And for what exactly? So that a few men and a few less women could become fabulously rich? So that you could enjoy intimate moments of sharing with your high school friends from 20 years ago? So that your company could squeeze ten more dollars of product out the door?
Mark Zuckerberg’s dream does not have to become everyone else’s nightmare. But it’s going to take much more than hand waving and public declarations of contrition.
So we must ask: What does the world looks like when the people win?
Facebook can be disrupted. But it cannot be disrupted unless there is something else for people to plug into. It cannot be surpassed unless we are willing to accept that the widespread apathy and resignation surrounding the apparent inevitability of Facebook’s global supremacy is Zuckerberg’s greatest, and yet most undeserved, achievement.
The only way to free ourselves from this inexplicable condition is to shake off the resignation; it is not real. Your will to be dangerously creative and free is real. Your ancient and timeless responsibility to leave a better world for your children is real.
So, the question is, how do we initiate something more powerful than guilt and strong words of caution? How do we actually build the things that will relegate everything Facebook represents – massive monopoly power, data theft, psychological manipulation and the widespread sacrifice of human freedom on the altar of money accumulation – into a footnote of history?
Drop everything, yes literally, drop everything and support the building of alternatives to the future Zuckerberg and his colleagues are busy building for you. These alternatives will ground in a fundamentally different orientation: alternatives which are about decentralizing and redistributing access to resources; enhancing the way we approach information; and encouraging generative ways of interacting with one another.
This story reveals the logic and strength of your opponent. The window for your counter-move is rapidly closing.
Bigger than the NSA
Facebook will become the “most powerful government contractor” in the world, in less than ten years.
The forecast was made by John Robb, a former counter-terrorism operative in US Special Operations Command and long-time US military intelligence advisor on the future of warfare to agencies like the NSA and CIA. In 2016, Robb was special consultant to the Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff on the future of artificial intelligence and robotics warfare.
With that many people under its radar, more than half of the 6.5 billion people living outside Russia and China, Facebook will have the capacity to effectively access information about almost the whole human population.
In Robb’s words:
“That’s a network that is large enough and deep enough to create a global census that can ‘see’ nearly everyone on the planet, even if they don’t have a Facebook account.”
In John Robb’s words:
“Facebook now has the ability to offer NSA scale services, with better data, to nations around the world.”
Facebook denied Robb’s forecast unequivocally. A spokesperson said:
“Intelligence agencies possess wholly different legal authorities and capabilities from private sector companies, so this is a false comparison. Our operations and practices are subject to specific regulatory oversight.”
Big Brother goes global: welcome to meta-government
The problem was put well by Alexis Wichowski, a former State Department official specializing in digital diplomacy. With Facebook’s user-base now encompassing literally a quarter of the global population, she , it has in effect become a ‘net-state’, due to its mass access.
In an exclusive interview with INSURGE, Robb explained that this unprecedented access to global population dynamics will make Facebook the go-to contractor for comprehensive surveillance, censorship and counter-terrorism services to governments all over the world:
“The US government realizes that Facebook has better and more data than they do and can do much more with it than they can, particularly in regards to US citizens. It simply can’t keep up so the only alternative – China is doing the same thing – is to coerce the platform to work with them.”
While private sector advertising will be a primary source of profits for the platform, Facebook’s success will depend on being able to avoid government regulation. By offering its own critical security and surveillance services to governments, Robb said, “Facebook will avoid regulations that will limit its ability to make money.”
John Robb further predicts that Facebook will provide governments the enhanced capacity to “ID anyone using facial recognition AIs… and then track their movements globally.”
The technology is already in development, with Facebook on facial recognition tools for use with cameras in high end retail stores. The tools would gauge customer emotions and behavioral profiles by crowd-scanning facial expressions, and relay the information to managers and shop assistants.
Finally, Robb added, Facebook will routinely “peer into private conversations and do the network analysis to ID potential extremists. It will also actively sabotage or intervene in terrorist and extremist recruiting networks to damage their effectiveness in securing recruits.”
One problem here is that definitions of a “potential” extremist, let alone extremism itself, are too vague be useful for meaningful threat detection. As I’ve previously reported for The Guardian, the Pentagon has an unfortunate of equating extremism with any form of political activism that is of government.
The Facebook spokesperson denied that the company could become so powerful, noting that the top US government contractor in FY2016 “was Lockheed Martin to the tune of nearly $44 billion”.
But John Robb’s point was not that Facebook would become the most profitable contractor, but the most “powerful” in terms of its capacity to influence global populations.
Third party surveillance loophole
While Facebook has claimed opposition to government surveillance, the platform’s actual conduct suggests otherwise.
John Robb described Facebook as “pretty compliant” with government data requests, and told me that the company not only has a counter-terrorism unit, but a “surveillance and censorship division” which is “growing fast.”
No wonder the company has actively fought against biometric facial recognition privacy laws across the US.
Earlier in 2017, Facebook a policy to prevent developers from using Facebook data to create applications for surveillance. The announcement came after revelations that US police departments had gained special access to social networks to track protestors.
Unnoticed at the time, Facebook’s actual provides a legal loophole that could grant government and police agencies an indirect route to Facebook surveillance, by signing a confidentiality agreement with a third-party middleman:
“Keep private your secret key and access tokens. You can share them with an agent acting to operate your app if they sign a confidentiality agreement. If you use any partner services, make them sign a contract to protect any information you obtained from us, limit their use of that information, and keep it confidential.”
According to Facebook, this is not a problem: “If companies are providing access to our APIs for surveillance, that would be against our policies. That is not a loophole. If we become aware of violating behavior, we will take the appropriate action with the developer, which can include removing access.”
The spokesperson failed to explain how Facebook would become aware of such violating behavior, when their own policy prevents it from coming to light under a confidentiality protocol.
(Cyber)War is a racket
No wonder, then, that Facebook has become an information battleground between governments.
Instead of corrupt arms dealers selling weapons to warring parties, Facebook sells information tools to governments on opposite sides of very real physical battlefields.
The Facebook spokesperson told me that this characterization of the platform is “a fundamental misunderstanding of our business. Of the six million advertisers on Facebook, the majority are small and medium-sized businesses. Political advertising represents only a small fraction of our business.”
Yet this does not take away from the fact that despite political spending not being even a top 10 advertising vertical for Facebook, the company continues to actively encourage opposing governments and political campaigns to use its platform to influence constituencies – with highly divisive consequences.
And as Pentagon insider John Robb told me, one of the biggest upsides Facebook is banking on by opening the door for government influence operations is accessing the vast national populations of those governments.
So far, a total of around $200,000 in Facebook ad spending on the US elections has been to Russian sources. This pales in comparison to the Facebook ad campaigns of the Trump and Clinton campaigns combined: a whopping $81 million according to Facebook general counsel Colin Stretch in .
Russia has rightly received criticism for using platforms like Facebook to promote ‘fake news’. But the vast scale of the US State Department’s global Facebook ad program speaks for itself.
One of federal spending records shows that American information campaigns in 2010-2011 and 2015-2016 spent $59,541 in ads targeted at Russian speakers. This was part of a $1.6 million eight year Facebook ad spending drive by the State Department, Voice of America and US Agency for International Development (USAID).
Other countries targeted by these Facebook influence campaigns included Indonesia ($136,217), Pakistan ($127,684), Iran ($87,381), Afghanistan ($61,176), as well as the former Soviet republics of Armenia ($33,187), Uzbekistan ($19,275) and Georgia ($40,100).
These ads focus on promoting US “diplomatic initiatives”, and driving readers to pro-American news outlets such as Voice of America, sponsored by Washington.
Facebook ad buyers are able to target ads with extreme precision due to the vast amount of data Facebook holds on users. Whether on your phone or computer, Facebook collects information about everything its users do online, unless they logout of the platform.
In Whelan’s words:
“[Facebook] is one of the most useful and cost-effective instruments of American power and promoting our ideas. Every American embassy in the world has an account – more likely multiple accounts. We aren’t alone… Almost every foreign government – save a handful – have a presence on Facebook and their embassies use Facebook as a primary source to communicate… Facebook was a willing partner in a way that outpaced other platforms. The Facebook team innovated in ways relevant to public diplomacy professionals and that other social media sites did not: They built trainings and developed tools that made our lives easier.”
Facebook “was built to accomplish a social mission – to make the world more open and connected,” wrote co-founder Mark Zuckerberg in the company’s S-1 filing in 2012.
“Our new mission is to bring the world closer together,” he told CNN Tech in the summer of 2017.
And yet Facebook’s willingness to profit from global information warfare has already brought the platform into direct forms of censorship for authoritarian states.
For Turkey, Facebook has – reportedly under Turkish government pressure – the Facebook accounts of people expressing solidarity with Rojava, an autonomous Kurdish province in northern Syria which plays a leading role in rolling back ISIS.
Facebook the Israeli government to censor Palestinian groups based on its moderation rule that “any organization that is primarily dedicated to intimidate a population, government, or use violence to resist occupation of an internationally recognized state” cannot be praised, supported or represented in anyway.
Facebook is even sanitizing horrendous crimes against humanity, ethnic cleansing and acts of genocide in Myanmar (Burma), by massively posts by Rohingya activists documenting the violence against their men, women and children.
Facebook denied operating in effective alliance with such repressive and autocratic states: “We evaluate reports based on our Community Standards. We also publish country-level information in our Transparency Report about content restrictions based on violations of local law.”
Psyops and Elections
The most insidious uses to which Facebook has been put emerged in relation to the data-mining firm Cambridge Analytica, the American affiliate of SCL Elections – a subsidiary of the British company, Strategic Communications Laboratory Group, now known simply as SCL Group.
Cambridge Analytica uses artificial intelligence and psychological propaganda techniques honed during US-British military interventions to influence foreign populations. These techniques assisted the Donald Trump election campaign, and is emerging of their use during the referendum on Britain’s role in the European Union.
The details are now fairly well-known. The firm boasted of having access to the psychological profiles of 220 million American citizens, based on datasets compiled from Facebook.
That data was further integrated with commercially-obtained voter data, and used to target individuals with ‘bespoke’ Facebook ads, finely calibrated to press their emotional buttons.
Data scientists disagree on how effective these techniques might be – there is no way to verify their impact, as the models used are not public, but privately held by SCL Group and its subsidiaries.
Meanwhile, some of the data firm’s extraordinary political connections have been exposed. A leading of Cambridge Analytica, for instance, was billionaire computer scientist Robert Mercer, Donald Trump’s single biggest campaign donor. Mercer held a in Breitbart News, then run by Steve Bannon – who sat on the board of Cambridge Analytica as its vice president, before becoming Trump’s chief strategist in the White House. Mercer had also, reportedly, urged Cambridge Analytica to provide support for the Brexit campaign.
Direct line to the deep state
Yet this is only a partial picture of a much wider web of establishment connections. Deleted company information and existing company records perused by INSURGE intelligence unearth a series of relationships encompassing the most secretive echelons of the British government’s national security industry, NATO, the global private military sector and arms trade, the pro-Tory financial establishment, and the global fossil fuel industry.
SCL Elections has operated since 1993 to provide what it described in a now deleted section on its website as “advanced electoral polling, audience research and behavioral analysis” in election campaigns. These techniques have been “adapted for civilian use from military applications to better understand behaviour within electorates.”
“… encouraged SCL to offer its unique capability to International Militaries for independent critical evaluation*. Following a comprehensive analysis of the methodology and thorough assessment of its effectiveness, SCL Defence now supplies the world’s leading militaries, including both the US and UK Departments of Defence.”
The asterix leads to the following paragraph:
“*Independent analysis of SCL’s TAA [Target Audience Analysis] methodology undertaken by, among others, ARAG – Advanced Research and Assessment Group (UK) Ministry of Defence and Sandia National Laboratories – US Department of Energy’s National Nuclear Security Administration. Public endorsement of SCL capabilities published by the Government Accountability Office, State Department.”
The description went on to outline how this behavioral influence methodology was applied to civilian populations:
“Over the same period, SCL also offered its TAA methodology to governments and political Parties worldwide. To undertake this work SCL established and since 1994 SCL Elections has provided the research, strategy and execution for over 23 election campaigns – WITHOUT LOSS.”
According to another now deleted description from SCL Group’s website about its SCL Defense division, the company had deep ties with the British defense ministry, and the entire British diplomatic corps:
“SCL is a UK government approved commercial body authorised to undertake military and civilian projects for foreign clients. SCL has received ‘List X’ accreditation from the British Government’s Ministry of Defence, the same equivalent to Facility Security Clearance (FSC) used in other countries, which provides us with Government endorsed clearance to handle information protectively marked as ‘confidential’ and above. We have an extensive worldwide track record and enquires can be directed through any British High Commission or Embassy.”
According to the UK government’s on security requirements for List X contractors, these “are companies operating in the UK who are working on UK government contracts which require them to hold classified information. This information is at ‘Secret’ or above or international partners’ information classified ‘Confidential’ or above, and is held at their own premises at a specific site.”
A government spokesperson confirmed that currently the SCL Group has no active contracts with the MoD, and therefore “no access to classified or confidential MoD information.” However, the spokesperson did not clarify when SCL Group was last contracted by the MoD, and for what purpose.
This Foreign Office relationship raises an awkward question: have its ongoing Facebook campaign operations to influence national elections been pursued in service to British foreign policy interests?
When I first put this question to the Foreign Office, a spokesperson replied with: “I am looking into your query however I have been advised you may wish to contact the Ministry of Defence on this matter.” Despite follow up requests, no further clarification on SCL Group’s symbiotic relationship to the FCO was forthcoming.
SCL Group, including its subsidiary Cambridge Analytica, did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
In previous public statements, SCL Group has gone out of its way to deny undertaking “disinformation” in its influence operations.
However, in 2005, at the Defense Systems and Equipment International (DSEI) expo, the UK’s largest showcase of military technology, the firm displayed a of its operations. The case study on show was of a smallpox outbreak in Britain, contained by the government through “a sophisticated campaign of mass deception” designed to convince unsuspecting Britons that the danger is not an epidemic but an accident at a chemical plant. The result, supposedly, would be that SCL’s propaganda operation reduces the projected casualties of around 10 million to just thousands.
In another case-study, SCL Group would help “a newly democratic country in South Asia as it struggles with corrupt politicians and a rising insurgency”, by assisting the monarchy to seize power, temporarily of course. “The SCL scenario also sounds a lot like using a private company to help overthrow a democratically elected government,” Sharon Weinberger.
The Anglo-American military-industrial complex
As of May 2016, the SCL Group subsidiary company – SCL Elections – has been run by managing director Mark Turnbull, a former long-time communications consultant at the giant PR firm, Bell Pottinger.
During his last stint at Bell Pottinger, in his LinkedIn profile, Turnbull claims to have “advised both UK and US governments on the role of strategic communications in the planning and implementation of national defense strategy.”
He also founded and led in 2004 a Bell Pottinger-based “strategic media and influence capability with a hand-picked team to conduct work in stabilization, counter-radicalization and democratic reform in zones of conflict and geopolitical sensitivity”.
In that capacity, he “planned and directed ‘social change’ communications campaigns in several theatres of conflict in the Middle East, Africa and South Asia” – including, he says, “a seven year nation-building effort with multiple integrated programmes addressing counter-terrorism, stabilization, ethno-sectarian conflict, and political reconciliation.”
This was the same year, 2004, that Bell Pottinger began work in Iraq, having signed a with the US-led Coalition Provisional Authority to promote ‘democracy’ in the country. As Middle East Eye , then chairman Lord Bell told PR Week magazine at the time: “There is no Arabic word for democracy – they use the word ‘democratier’, which is not Arabic. It is certainly a very big comms challenge. It is not going to be easy but it will be rewarding.”
Bell Pottinger’s Pentagon output under Turnbull’s watch included fake al-Qaeda videos in Iraq, according to a former employee of the firm. These were copied onto CDs and dropped in the streets by US soldiers on patrol.
Rules of engagement: mass shooting, recruiting child soldiers, tactical incompetence
In 2005, Aegis came into the spotlight when by a former Aegis contractor, Rod Stoner, appearing to show Aegis contractors shoot randomly at Iraqi civilians on the highway between Baghdad and the Green Zone airport.
Aegis issued a formal statement denying the clips are “in any way connected to Aegis”, and a US Army investigation concluded that no crimes had been committed as the shootings were in compliance with the ‘rules of engagement’. Despite this disavowal of a connection to the video, Aegis obtained a High Court against Stoner, forcing him to takedown the website where he had posted the videos.
Despite this, Aegis has just signed a $1.3 billion contract with Donald Trump’s State Department for increased security at US diplomatic installations around the world. That is notwithstanding among US embassy staffers about the company’s tactical incompetence and “a dangerous lack of understanding of the operational environment”.
Aethos, the strategic communications division of Aegis set-up by Turnbull, was eventually folded into the main company – which in 2015 was bought by Canadian security contractor GardaWorld, the world’s largest privately held security firm.
GardaWorld has been engulfed in over its dubious handling of operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, for defending international oil interests in Nigeria, and potentially for violating Security Council resolutions prohibiting armed mercenary personnel from operating in Libya.
Several of Turnbull’s former Aethos/Aegis colleagues are now GardaWorld directors – Oliver Westmacott (president and COO) and Major General Graham Binns (senior managing director of strategy and sales, also CEO of Aegis).
“SCL has… provided intelligence assessments for American defense contractors in Iran, Libya and Syria,” the New York Times citing company documents. Thanks to Facebook, these techniques are now being used against domestic populations to influence national elections.
SCL Group did not respond to requests for clarification on Turnbull’s work at Bell Pottinger and Aegis, and how this experience might impact on his role at SCL Elections.
Global weapons trade
While holding the position of Chairman of SCL Group, Wheatland is simultaneously the sole founding director of an obscure company called Hatton International Limited.
Hatton International was until last year listed as a member of ‘ADS’, the premier trade organization for companies in the UK aerospace, defense, security and space sectors. The now deleted listing says:
“Hatton International is an advisory, principal investment and Offset Services business. It also markets and promotes selected defence services and equipment. Hatton’s principal activity is to assist international defence and aerospace companies to help satisfy their offset obligations in customer countries. Hatton International offers unique, discrete, sophisticated and professional offset solutions, individually crafted to satisfy customers’ economic and development requirements.”
‘Defense offsets’ oblige companies exporting arms and equipment to a particular country to re-invest a portion of their contract in that country. As the British NGO, Transparency International, : “Offsets are big business, and yet they are very opaque and receive much less transparency and attention than they should, given their susceptibility to high corruption risk.”
Hatton International’s own makes no mention at all of the specialization in defense industry offsets. However, an version of the website dated back to July 2009 says, after listing a range of benign activities such as infrastructure development projects:
“We specialize in assisting international aerospace companies with their overseas offset obligations and can devise bespoke programmes, tailored to the needs of the company and the customer country.”
Clients include “international corporates, government departments and family offices.”
Wheatland did not respond to questions about the influence of this work on SCL Group operations.
Big business and Big Oil
From 2014 to 2016, Wheatland was a director of Phi Energy Limited, the London-based company for Phi Energy Group, a short-lived oil company venture “exploring opportunities” in Libya, the US, Africa and Eastern Europe, according to a about the company. The company shut down in 2016.
Wheatland is listed in the deck as Phi Energy Group’s Chief Finance Officer. The same deck identifies the companies that Phi Energy worked with as follows: Shell, Noble Group, Eni, Esso, BP, Statoil, Tamoil, Total and Saras – a veritable who’s who of international oil majors.
Phi Energy’s then Chief Commercial Officer, Tarick Kreimeia, also worked directly under Wheatland – he is described in the deck as “a Director of Hatton International”. Kreimeia’s LinkedIn profile provides further detail, identifying him as a “non-executive director” of Hatton International between September 2012 and August 2016. That profile acknowledges Hatton’s work “with defence and aerospace companies”, but also adds that Hatton “supports client companies, particularly in the energy industry, to develop financing strategies that will deliver the strategic objectives and help bring new products and propositions to market.”
Kreimeia’s Phi Energy depicts him as a key player in negotiating refining agreements in Middle East countries. He has, for instance, assisted major EU refineries in negotiations with the Libyan National Oil Company (LNOC), the Iraqi State Oil Marketing Company and the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG).
Company records obtained by INSURGE for SCL Elections Ltd show that the UK company, created in 2012, has only ever had two directors. One of them is Alexander Nix, CEO of SCL Elections-affiliate Cambridge Analytica. The other was Christian Patrick Teroerde, who joined the company during its founding just months after it was incorporated, holding a one-year director role from February 2013 to 2014.
Since 2010, Patrick Teroerde is co-founding managing director of Hanson Asset Management, originally created to formalize the management and oversight of the assets of the Hanson family.
The Hanson family’s wealth was built up through Hanson PLC under the leadership of the late Lord James Hanson, a Thatcherite industrialist whose chief strategy was buying and turning around distressed assets. Acquisitions covered a range of sectors including high street clothes, chemicals, materials, coal and tobacco.
Hanson PLC had, for instance, acquired Peabody Holding Co. in the 1990s – then the largest coal producer in the US; and Imperial Tobacco Group (now Imperial Brands), the world’s fourth largest international cigarette company.
In 1983, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher made Lord Hanson a life peer. He in turn donated millions of pounds to the Conservative Party.
Lord Hanson was a founder of the anti-European ‘Business for Sterling’ group, as well as a member of the Bruges Group, a think-tank founded by Thatcher to promote a less centralized Europe. Both organizations play key roles in anti-EU Tory politics.
From 1999 to 2002, Lord Hanson’s ‘Business for Sterling’ was run by Dominic Cummings, who went on to become Head of Strategy for the Conservatives. Cummings would later serve as special advisor to arch-Euro skeptic and then education minister Michael Gove. Eventually, Cummings himself served as Campaign Director of Vote Leave, the official campaign for Britain to exit the EU.
It is not clear what role Teroerde played at SCL Elections during his one year directorship. But the position coincided with his ongoing role at Hanson Asset Management, where he works under Lord Hanson’s son, Robert, who chairs the board. The correspondence address for Teroerde’s directorship at SCL Elections is the same address as Hanson Asset Management.
The connection is notable because Vote Leave, run by Lord Hanson’s former surrogate Dominic Cummings, an obscure Canadian firm, AggregateIQ, £3.5 million for Facebook profiling and advertising. Cummings himself is quoted on AggregateIQ’s website praising the firm’s work.
Yet the firm is directly linked to SCL Group, and at one point appears to have operated as its Canadian subsidiary.
Reports in the Canadian press that AggregateIQ had been previously contracted by SCL Group. Until February 2017, AggregateIQ’s office in Victoria was listed on SCL Group’s website as their Canadian office. The listing disappeared, but the archived version of the page included a phone number which went directly to AggregateIQ CEO, Zack Massingham.
A spokesperson for the SCL Group said that AggregateIQ had been sub-contracted for “software development and digital marketing (before we built up our own in-house capacity in these areas).” Massingham insisted that “other than the work we had done in the past, we do not have any current business with them [SCL].”
Carol Cadwalladr put paid to these denials when she a confidential, signed intellectual property licensing agreement that granted SCL Elections a binding “exclusive” “worldwide” right “in perpetuity” to use all of AggregateIQ’s intellectual property.
Neither Teroerde, nor Cummings could be reached for comment.
Tycoons of wine and property
Roger Michael Gabb, a director of SCL Group holding the largest shareholding in the company, is also a director of the subsidiary companies, SCL Insight and SCL Analytics.
Gabb made his fortunes in the wine industry through the companies Western Wines and the South African wine brand Kumala. He is a longtime Tory donor. Records of the House of Commons Register of Members Interests show that he has donated consistently for over a decade to Philip Dunne MP, who from 2012 to 2016 held a series of defense ministry positions related to defense equipment, procurement, and technology. Dunne has been health minister since 2016.
Gabb simultaneously holds a directorship in the Tal Se Land Development Partnership, where his partners include powerful British financiers with massive property investments. The major stake in that partnership is controlled by the Hamilton Portfolio Ltd, a private equity and real estate investment firm chaired by Sir John Boyle, who is also a partner director with SCL Group’s Gabb in the Tal Se company.
Also among Gabb’s partners in Tal Se are Bimaljit Singh Sandhu and Anton Bilton, both of whom belong to a company called Raven Russia.
Bilton is co-founding Executive Deputy Chairman of Raven Russia Ltd, a Moscow-based property investment firm. The company built or acquired 19 million square feet of Class A Logistics warehouses in Moscow, St Petersburg, Rostov-on-Don and Novosibirsk, along with 540,000 square feet of commercial office space in St Petersburg. The gross value of Raven Russia’s portfolio is currently $1.3 billion.
Raven Russia was built from the acquisition of Bilton’s previous outfit where he was majority shareholder, the Raven Group – a residential and commercial property developer leasing out buildings to UK government departments and major retailers including Tesco, UCI Cinemas, Royal Bank of Scotland and Toys R Us. The Raven Group was acquired by Raven Mount PLC, before being bought by Raven Russia.
Along the way, Bilton worked directly with Gabb’s other co-director, Singh Sandhu, who served as CEO of Raven Mount Group until 2009.
A spokesman for Raven Russia said that: “Mr Bilton does not know and has never heard of either Roger Gabb or SCL Group.” The spokesman at first denied that Bilton was a partner with Gabb in Tal Se, claiming: “Mr Bilton is not on the Board of Tal Se. He was an individual investor in it many years ago but did not have any operational or management involvement.”
However, Tal Se company records confirm the company is an LLP, of which both Bilton and Gabb are ‘Designated Members’ – effectively equivalent to the role of directors in a normal private limited company, who have legal and regulatory responsibility for the company’s financial and administrative affairs. Gabb was appointed a Designated Member of Tal Se on 25 February; Bilton one day later on 26 February. Appointments of new Designated Members in an LLP require the approval of the other Designated Members, implying at least that Gabb – or his legal representative – would have had to approve of Bilton’s appointment.
Pressed on this, the Raven Russia spokesperson said that Bilton does not know SCL Group or Gabb, but conceded that Bilton remains an investor in their mutual property partnership, Tal Se: “Mr Bilton is an investor in Tel Se but his involvement (which is passive) has not brought him into contact with Mr Gabb.”
Then there are more traditional Russian firms who are clients of Raven Russia, such as X5 Retail Group, the largest food retailer in Russia, whose main shareholder is the Alfa Group Consortium, one of Russia’s largest privately-held investment conglomerates – of ties to Trump and Russian president Vladimir Putin according to a controversial, largely unverified, compiled by a former MI6 officer.
There are intriguing, but inconclusive, indications of good relations between Alfa Group and Donald Trump – less compelling evidence that Alfa Group is tied strongly to Putin.
One connection goes, once again, through Julian Wheatland. Upon his SCL Group appointment in 2006, he was simultaneously chief executive of Consensus Community, the investment arm of the Consensus Business Group owned by .
Opening up Russia to Western Capitalism
In contrast, the widely-promulgated thesis that Alfa Group functions as a sort of Putin proxy is lazy journalism.
Fridman is not in Putin’s pocket, to the Financial Times. Fridman’s close associates have strong personal ties to Putin which can be leveraged, but his real interests lie in leveraging Western capital. In an insightful for Intellinews, Ben Aris observes that for Fridman, whom he first met in the mid-1990s:
“Everything is for sale at the right price, but the only people that have the sort of money Fridman is interested in are the world’s leading corporations. While he is waiting for Russia’s integration with the global economy to the point where these global players will come and make strategic investments into Russian companies, he is busy building up his business as big as he can.”
Indeed, Fridman is one of the most oligarchs in Russia. He was born in Lviv in western Ukraine, and Alfa Bank Ukraine is flourishing as it expands its market share. Alfa Group’s key members have escaped both US and European sanctions lists. Fridman has applied for permanent residency in Britain, and plans to sell his shares in oil company TNK-BP, his joint venture in Russia with BP.
BP was among the list of oil majors that SCL Group chairman Julian Wheatland’s energy holding company, Phi Energy Group, had worked with.
Wheatland did not respond to questions about Phi Energy’s work with BP.
To Russia with love
A 2009 Raven Russia document shows that two of SCL Group director Roger Gabb’s business partners, Bimaljit Singh and Anton Bilton, were majority shareholders in both Raven Mount PLC, and in its new owner, Raven Russia. The document also provides detailed insight into the risk perceptions of the company on property investments in Russia.
The approach appears to have dual ramifications: on the one hand, Raven Russia has a severe dislike of the policy of international sanctions on Russia, which has undermined the profitability of its portfolio.
On the other hand, the overriding objective is a Russian economy very much open to business – that is, with as few restrictions as possible on Western foreign capital penetration, an approach that would not be so amenable to Putin’s efforts to consolidate Russian over the economy.
The 2009 document identifies a range of factors that could undermine the company’s profitability: “political instability” or “social unrest”; the “deterioration” of Russia’s “physical infrastructure”; the declining profitability of Russia’s oil exports, which could “reduce the value of Russian assets”; the “unpredictable manner” in which Russian foreign investment regulations and tax laws evolve; and, the biggest bogeyman of all – the potential threat of a rollback of privatization:
“Russia has, since the early 1990s, undertaken a substantial programme of privatization. However, an anti-privatization lobby still exists within the Russian parliament. Re-nationalization of assets cannot be ruled out. Any such activity could materially adversely affect the value of the Company’s assets… Some government entities have tried to invalidate earlier privatizations. Expropriation or nationalization of the companies in which the Company invests, or of their assets or portions thereof, potentially with little or no compensation, would have a material adverse effect on the Company.”
The report grimly warns of a scenario in which Russia could be fundamentally isolated from Western markets, noting that one negative impact of sanctions is: “Continued isolation of Russia from international markets and exacerbation of the slow down in the Russian economy… It is difficult to mitigate against the worst case scenario if escalation were to close Russia’s borders to Western markets.”
The Raven Russia spokesperson did not answer my question on one of its tenants being the X5 Retail Group. I had asked: “One of Raven Russia’s major tenants is the X5 Retail Group, owned by the Alfa Consortium, accused of various ties to Donald Trump. I also note that various Raven Russia documents indicate a clear opposition to international sanctions on Russia, and keen desire to open up Russia to Western investors. This suggests an alignment with elements of the Trump administration being investigated for ties with and interests in Russia. I’d appreciate your firm’s comment on this.”
No comment on this matter was provided.
Did the structural alignment between these interests play any role in influencing the SCL Group’s activities in relation to anti-Russia information warfare? Raven Russia denied having anything to do with SCL Group, and SCL Group did not provide me any answer to that question.
What we do know is that in May 2015, SCL Group subsidiary SCL Defence delivered a three-month course at the National Defence Academy of the Republic of Latvia in Riga on behalf of NATO’s Strategic Communications Centre of Excellence.
In an announcement about the project at the NATO Wales Summit in September 2014, then Prime Minister Stephen Harper explained that the funding will “strengthen the ability of NATO Centres of Excellence in the region to better address regional security challenges related to energy, communications and cyber defence.”
He was alluding to the need to convince Europeans of NATO’s regional energy vision: “diversifying away from Russia”, chiefly by ramping up US gas exports to the continent, to the Atlantic Council’s David Korayni in NATO Review magazine.
SCL Group did not respond to multiple requests for comment. A spokesperson for its American subsidiary, Cambridge Analytica, did eventually get back to me, saying that the firm would be unable to comment because there were “only a few days left ahead of the Christmas holidays.”
Back to Facebook: government propaganda tool
On both sides of the Atlantic, SCL Group has been roped into official investigations into the subversion of democratic processes in the US and UK. Despite this, the company remains very much embedded in the American and British political establishments.
In the US, the company was awarded a $496,232 contract in February 2017 with the State Department’s Global Engagement Center (GEC) to work on “target audience analysis” of potential extremists.
The GEC’s remit is defined by the 2017 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), which asserts that one of its fundamental goals is to “counter foreign propaganda and disinformation directed against United States national security interests and proactively advance fact-based narratives that support United States allies and interests.”
That includes swooping up social media information that can be deemed as threatening to US national security, while leveraging that data to create new information campaigns to promote US national security policy.
According to Ken McCallion, a former US prosecutor, SCL Group is using Trump administration connections “to snag other government contracts with the Dept. of Defense, the Commerce Department, Homeland Security, and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and other agencies.”
Facebook remains a major conduit for these US government influence campaigns.
“Using Facebook ads, I can go within Facebook, I can go grab an audience, I can pick Country X, I need age group 13 to 34, I need people who have liked – whether it’s Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi or any other set – I can shoot and hit them directly with messaging,” former GEC director Michael Lumpkin, describing the State Department’s reliance on Facebook advertising.
The meeting, attended and opened by Jonathan Allen – the FCO’s Acting Director General for Defence and Intelligence – was described by a Wilton Park conference program as being designed to “explore new opportunities for the FCO to make better use of data in diplomacy, but also emerging threats that challenge the current ways of working.”
The forum’s focus was on assessing “opportunities and threats” that are “of particular application to the FCO’s role in diplomacy and making international policy.” Intended outcomes of the meeting included: “Ideas and recommendations for the FCO to consider in making better use of data in foreign policy.”
Why is the FCO interested in the SCL Group’s data work to assist the Trump campaign?
In response to this very question, an FCO spokesperson effectively refused to comment, directing me instead to speak with the MoD.
It should be clear by now, then, that Facebook has been willingly complicit in the use of its platform for behavioral profiling and audience manipulation.
According to Trump’s digital campaign director, Brad Parscale, the Trump campaign had Facebook employees “embedded inside our offices”, providing guidance on how the platform could be used to target voters. Facebook had even “set-up” divisions within the company by political affiliation to support both sides.
“Everyone had access to the same tools,” the company said. “Both campaigns approached things differently and used different amounts of support.”
Trump and Brexit notwithstanding, the biggest beneficiary of all this activity is not SCL Group, nor the military industrial complex, nor the US, Russian or British governments – but Facebook itself.
Facebook, which is on track to be more powerful than the NSA within less than 10 years, is profiting massively from all sides of the information war.
Beneath the liberal veneer of “making the world more open and connected”, Mark Zuckerberg has taken the traditional business model of corrupt arms trafficking and applied it, wholeheartedly, to cyberspace.
Facebook thus holds the one card that truly counts in the 21st century era of power through propaganda: information dominance.
When the company responded to my inquiries, they did so through a consultant at the giant PR firm Teneo Blue Rubicon (TBR). Facebook seemed somewhat nervous about its answers. At first, the TBR consultant warned that none of the comments could be “attributed to a Facebook spokesperson”, as they are for “background information only”.
Five hours later, it seemed, Facebook had changed its mind. The consultant emailed me: “Facebook is happy for you to use these as on the record comments.”
And so the circle closes as we see how even Facebook’s UK PR consultants, Teneoe Blue Rubicon, have curious ties to the very same network surrounding SCL Group.
In October 2016, Beth Armstrong, a former Special Advisor to Michael Gove who also provided ministerial support to Vote Leave, joined Teneo Blue Rubicon as a senior consultant.
In between, from 2014 to 2015, she had served as a senior consultant in Bell Pottinger’s Public Affairs division alongside Mark Turnbull, right before he went on to join SCL Elections, which oversaw Cambridge Analytica’s Facebook work to help win the Trump campaign.
This is the incestuous nexus of power that Facebook has become entwined with. Yet it is a nexus of power fundamentally enabled by our own bizarre and persistent addiction to the platform.
By 2025, holding the capacity to seamlessly monitor, analyze and model the behavior of almost the entire global population, the company will hold a global reach that is truly frightening.
Its consolidation could well signal the final subjugation of our already fragile democracies to the manipulative, unaccountable reach of Big Data.
And yet, the perversion of our democratic processes is only a fraction of the platform’s corrosive impact on civil society. Facebook’s basic business model is about centralizing profits through degrading techniques of dopamine-driven persuasion, which sow deep social divisions, stoke polarizing behaviors, and undermine psychological health.
This monocultural future is not inevitable. There is a way out, toward a polycultural future.
If we don’t, then in less than 10 years, an unaccountable Big Data behemoth will usher in a dangerous new era of global social control, like nothing we’ve ever seen.
Dr. Nafeez Ahmed is an award-winning investigative journalist and complex systems social scientist. He is co-founding CEO of PressCoinand its flagship publication, INSURGE intelligence, leveraging blockchain, crypto-currency innovations and an Open Inquiry investigative format to replace the maladaptive information ecosystem driving chaos and confusion on the planet, with a coherent public intelligence system. He is also ‘System Shift’ columnist at VICE’s Motherboard, a columnist at Middle East Eye, and previously reported on the geopolitics of the environment at The Guardian’s Earth Insight blog. His latest book, Failing States, Collapsing Systems: BioPhysical Triggers of Political Violence (Springer, 2017) is a scientific study of how climate, energy, food and economic crises are driving state failures around the world.