MintPress News can reveal the existence of a secret British intelligence network that fed top journalists and the world lies and misinformation about the Cambridge Analytica scandal, thereby amping up tensions with Russia and paving the way for World War Three.
On December 23, it was announced Facebook’s parent company Meta would pay $725 million to U.S.-based users whose personal information was harvested by Cambridge Analytica, the largest ever data privacy class action settlement in history.
The development represents the culmination of a global scandal that erupted in the initial months of 2017, led to official investigations into Cambridge Analytica and Facebook in multiple countries, triggered widespread public debates about online privacy and the malign influence of behavioral advertising and microtargeting in the democratic process, precipitated the abrupt collapse of the company and its parent, Strategic Communication Laboratories (SCL) Group, and dominated mainstream headlines for years.
Yet, for all the relentless coverage and hype over so long, there is a dimension to the farrago that has never previously been explored. Now, it must be. MintPress can reveal a secret British intelligence network fed top journalists — and the world — lies and misinformation about the Cambridge Analytica scandal, distorting perceptions, misdirecting attention and public anger, amping up tensions with Russia, and paving the way for World War Three.
A highly profitable, ignoble lie
Ironically, perhaps the most notable thing about Meta’s record-breaking settlement is that it went almost entirely unremarked upon by mainstream journalists. Even Carole Cadwalladr, the writer most prominently associated with the story – and never typically one to pass up an opportunity for nauseating self-promotion – remained silent.
In part, this may be due to the results of an investigation by Britain’s Information Commissioner’s Office (I.C.O.), the largest in its history, comprehensively incinerating her most explosive, headline-dominating claims about Cambridge Analytica, back in October 2020.
That probe was triggered in March 2018 after it was confirmed that Cambridge Analytica had effectively stolen the Facebook data of 50 million U.S. citizens by exploiting a loophole in the platform’s developer interface. This ill-gotten yield was then exploited in online propaganda campaigns that sought to manipulate voters in favor of right-wing candidates and campaigns, albeit with little success.
Having forensically examined over 700 terabytes of data seized from the company’s servers not long after the controversy erupted, the I.C.O. found no evidence that; Cambridge Analytica played any role whatsoever in the 2016 Brexit referendum; its much-vaunted psychographic techniques were at all unique or even vaguely effective at influencing target audiences’ behavior, let alone insidiously compelling people to vote a particular way; or there was any link whatsoever between the firm and Russia.
Of all the myths to arise from the Cambridge Analytica furor, the notion the company was, one way or another, linked to the Kremlin, and somehow served as its covert nucleus for destabilizing American and British democracy, is the most pervasive and enduring.
In part, this is due to the narrative’s partisan political utility. In March 2018, twice-failed presidential candidate Hillary Clinton alleged Cambridge Analytica’s “advice” on voter personality profiles could’ve helped Russia’s Internet Research Agency “target their messages so precisely” and help Trump win. This baseless conjecture, directly informed by conspiracy theorizing from Cadwalladr – who in turn leaped upon it as validation of her false reporting – did much to further the then-burgeoning Russiagate farce.
More sinisterly, though, there was a concerted, wide-ranging black propaganda campaign clandestinely run by elements of British intelligence, aggressively pushing the Cambridge Analytica-as-Russian-compromised narrative for a variety of malign purposes. We live with the noxious legacy of this malicious misdirection to this day, the effects of which have been literally fatal.
“We use the same techniques as Hitler”
Strategic Communication Laboratories began life as Behavioural Dynamics, a firm founded in 1990 by public relations impresario Nigel Oakes. From its inception until its dying day, it was a quintessentially British company in every way. The same was true of the myriad of shadowy subsidiaries to which it subsequently gave birth.
Oakes, a graduate of the upper-class private school Eton, had by its launch been romantically linked to members of the royal family and rumored to moonlight as a spy for MI5, London’s domestic intelligence service. Very quickly, Behavioural Dynamics carved a niche employing innovative strategies to give commercial clients the edge over competitors.
In 1992, an advertising industry magazine detailed how Oakes sought to “win hearts and minds” and “mould public opinion,” such as pumping particular odors into retail outlets “to influence customers” and peppering in-store radio programs with subtle references to security guards to deter shoplifters.
“We use the same techniques as Aristotle and Hitler,” he boasted. “We appeal to people on an emotional level to get them to agree on a functional level.
Quickly, Behavioural Dynamics became SCL and began deploying these methods in election campaigns for Western-backed rulers in democratizing countries. By 2013, Oakes’ firm had morphed into a nexus of theoretically separate but intimately interlinked entities, operating from the same London address, sharing staff, and all providing much the same psychological warfare services to corporate and state clients.
It was that year the consortium’s U.S. division was rebranded as Cambridge Analytica and began receiving funding from Stateside oligarchs, which eventually included the reclusive Mercer family and Trump Svengali, Steve Bannon.
Still, SCL Group remained a Western establishment to the marrow. Its staff was overwhelmingly comprised of British military and intelligence veterans, with Conservative party grandees, aristocrats, and defense contractors ensconced at its highest levels. Its roster of clients included NATO, multiple allied governments, and their respective defense departments and armies.
Reflecting this, the company officially enjoyed “List X” status for many years, a rarely-bestowed British state security accreditation meaning it was trusted to store top secret government information on its premises. Only the most sworn by contractors, staffed by individuals with the highest security clearances, can attain this distinction.
Simultaneously, SCL’s patented DARPA and Defence Science and Technology Laboratories-approved Target Audience Analysis was considered by British officials a weapons-grade resource comparable to bullets, guns, and missiles and subject to formal export controls as a result, limiting its sale overseas.
Export Target Audience Analysis – and other skulduggery, much of it honed against enemy armies and governments – SCL and its subsidiaries eagerly did, primarily in Asia, Sub-Saharan Africa, and Central and South America. One of Carole Cadwalladr’s earliest reports on Cambridge Analytica, in May 2017, cut to the core of this raison d’etre, and modus operandi.
“What’s been lost in the coverage of this ‘data analytics’ firm is the understanding of where the firm came from: deep within the military-industrial complex. A weird British corner of it populated, as the military establishment in Britain is, by old-school Tories,” Cadwalladr explained. SCL/Cambridge Analytica was not some startup created by a couple of guys with a Mac PowerBook. It’s effectively part of the British defence establishment. And, now, too, the American defence establishment.”
A nameless former Cambridge Analytica operative also characterized their time at the company as “like working for MI6, only it’s MI6 for hire”:
It was very posh, very English, run by an old Etonian and you got to do some really cool things. Fly all over the world. You were working with the president of Kenya or Ghana or wherever. It’s not like election campaigns in the West. You got to do all sorts of crazy shit.”
All consideration of this background would quickly vanish from Cadwalladr’s reporting, though, and never return.
“Tools of malign influence”
In late 2018, documents exposing the internal workings of Integrity Initiative began leaking online.
The incendiary material showed that the organization, staffed by British military and intelligence veterans and funded to the tune of millions by the Foreign Office, Ministry of Defence, Lithuanian government, NATO, and Facebook, among others, was conducting arm’s length, state-backed information warfare operations designed to tarnish Russia on London’s behalf. Domestic enemies such as then-Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn were also in its firing line.
As part of this effort, the Initiative maintained an international constellation of “clusters” – clandestine networks of journalists, academics, pundits, politicians and security officials – through which black propaganda could be spread, to influence government policy and public perceptions. All their members were formally trained in the art of online trolling.
An example of the devastating real-world effects these nexuses could achieve when corralled was provided throughout 2017, when Integrity Initiative’s Spanish chapter perpetuated the bogus narrative that the Kremlin was meddling in the Catalan independence referendum.
By covertly feeding dubious, evidence-free dossiers rife with misleading data and false claims to Spanish journalists, think tanks and politicians, and coordinating social media messaging, the cluster not only severely damaged previously warm relations between Madrid and Moscow, but framed WikiLeaks chief Julian Assange as a Russian agent leading the charge against Catalonia, prompting the Ecuadorian Embassy to cut off his contact with the outside world, which laid the foundations for his forced removal and resultant incarceration in April 2019.
Cadwalladr was openly named in the Initiative leaks, and like many other confirmed cluster members had a shameful history of smearing Assange and Corbyn as Kremlin assets. This raises the obvious prospect that she was likewise taking direct orders from British intelligence.
The Initiative files indicated Cadwalladr was a speaker at an event the Initiative convened in November 2018, “Tackling Tools of Malign Influence”, at London’s prestigious Frontline Club. There, she delivered an hour-long presentation on “The Fake News Challenge to Independent Journalism.” An accompanying internal bio stated she had “broken several exclusive stories on how Facebook allowed Cambridge Analytica to steal private data and the Vote Leave campaign to disseminate misinformation to skew the Brexit referendum.”
When grilled about the leaked files on Twitter, Cadwalladr claimed to have conducted the talk for innocent reasons. She also insisted she did not receive a fee for participating – despite crowdfunding her work at the time, a corporate media salary apparently insufficient to support her professional and personal expenses.
Cadwalladr used the opportunity to advance false allegations about WikiLeaks knowingly abetting Russian intelligence, although went quiet when further probed about her relationship with Integrity Initiative. She has remained silent on the question ever since, apart from unbelievably claiming the Initiative leaks were a Kremlin hacking operation specifically intended to discredit her journalism.
“Compiled in good faith by spies”
A witness statement Cadwalladr submitted to court while being sued for libel by Arron Banks persuasively indicates she was in close contact with Integrity Initiative, and it sought to directly influence her reporting.
Made public before her victory, a particularly revealing section of the statement references Cadwalladr “[speaking] to individuals on an off the record basis” between July 2018 and December 2019 about Banks, a pro-Brexit British oligarch with uncertain sources of wealth who she had implied in multiple articles and interviews was a Russian asset.
One such individual was an ex-Foreign Office official “who worked at an agency that was contracted to undertake work countering Russian disinformation in Europe” on behalf of the Foreign Office. This was the official cover description of Integrity Initiative.
He contacted Cadwalladr as “he was alarmed by information that he had come across that implicated [Banks] in a Russian influence operation.” She then verified his “status” by checking his LinkedIn profile before meeting him at his employer’s offices.
There, he provided her with two “intelligence files,” one detailing Banks’ “involvement in organized crime in South Africa, including money laundering and cigarette and diamond smuggling,” the other anxieties about his Russian-born wife, Katya.
Cadwalladr’s source claimed Katya “had entered Britain on a passport…sequentially numbered to the passport of Katia Zatuliveter,” a Russian woman who’d had an affair with then-Labour MP Mike Hancock many years prior. MI5 believed Zatuliveter was a honeytrap spy, sent to infiltrate British politics at its highest levels and sought to have her forcibly deported from the country.
London’s shadowy Special Immigration Appeals Commission, a court typically concerned with trials of terror suspects on British soil, begged to differ. It ruled the agency’s case against Zatuliveter was nonsensical and unsupported by anything approaching evidence. What substantiation had been provided by Britain’s domestic spying service was inversely found to directly contradict the charge she was a spook.
Moreover, as Cadwalladr noted in her statement, controversial Western government-funded investigations collective Bellingcat claimed to have identified the alleged poisoners of former double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia in March 2018 as GRU operatives on the basis they had sequential passport numbers too. While she found this convincingly suspicious, a cynic might suggest MI6 propagandists are simply not very imaginative.
According to Cadwalladr, the intelligence dossiers “were very detailed and contained a wealth of information that was not in the public domain,” based on “human intelligence sources.” There was also content, such as photographs of Katya’s “notebook” with “personal details, drawn from “non-public sources” included in the haul.
Based on “the nature and credibility of the source” alone, Cadwalladr “believed these dossiers had been compiled in good faith” by “individuals close to, if not in, the intelligence services.” She considered the content highly credible by reflex and thus worthy of further exploration.
Cadwalladr also didn’t smell a rat when her source encouraged her to investigate further on the basis that they and the organization they represented were apparently unable to do so because of their Foreign Office contract – a flagrant lure. Nonetheless, as she “could not verify the information” – which may well have been falsified – the bombshell content on Banks and his inner circle remained undivulged until her libel trial.
“If no catastrophe happens…”
A core component of the Integrity Initiative scandal was the organization’s use of its Twitter account for party political purposes, namely to attack Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour Party, which is illegal under Foreign Office funding rules.
Integrity Initiative’s Twitter output more generally pointed to the individuals and organizations in its crosshairs behind-the-scenes, and the assorted propaganda narratives it sought to perpetuate publicly. It is striking then that the account published multiple critical tweets about Arron Banks, in particular suggestions he was working for Moscow.
One leaked Integrity Initiative file confirms the hardcore Brexiteer was a specific target of the organization. In it, operative Euan Grant lists mainstream journalists with whom he secretly coordinates and on what topics, mentioning that he had recently briefed a reporter at The Financial Times on the “African activities of Russia and, especially, the Israeli links,” which “lead into things which are not unconnected to Arron Banks.”
On Twitter, Integrity Initiative took a keen interest in allegations of Russian meddling in Brexit. Fittingly, the first mainstream voice to level this charge, in December 2016, was British Labour MP Ben Bradshaw – a member of the organization’s U.K. cluster.
The account was also used to regularly promote flamboyant self-styled Cambridge Analytica “whistleblower” Chris Wylie, a key source for the most lurid (and almost universally since discredited) claims about Cambridge Analytica’s operations, and psychological warfare wizardry. Curiously, most of these tweets were deleted after its internal files began leaking.
Thus, it is almost inconceivable the organization Cadwalladr described in her witness statement was not Integrity Initiative. The ex-Foreign Office official who briefed her is therefore almost certain to have been Guy Spindler, a veteran MI6 operative with a public LinkedIn profile, who was posted to the British Embassy in Moscow at the same time as Christopher Steele, author of the dodgy Trump-Russia dossier.
Integrity Initiative may have had a cynical self-interest in sabotaging the Cambridge Analytica scandal. British Army psyops specialist Steve Tatham, former head of SCL’s defense wing, who personally taught NATO personnel “techniques to counter Russia’s propaganda,” is part of its U.K. cluster.
Gaby van den Berg, a longtime SCL luminary who created many of the company’s methods of manipulation, was, according to the leaked files, invited to join the Initiative’s Dutch cluster in June 2018. Reportedly “very interested” and expressing a desire “to come to meetings and be involved,” she was duly summoned to the cluster’s first formal summit in September that year. As MintPress has revealed, van den Berg subsequently founded a firm offering the same services as Cambridge Analytica.
British intelligence would, by definition, also wish to ensure Cambridge Analytica’s high-level connections to Western governments, spying services and militaries, and meddling throughout the Global South on their behalf, were not subject to public scrutiny. Today, London relies on an incestuous network of private contractors staffed by former soldiers and spies to do its dirty work abroad. This is never discussed in the mainstream media, and the full scale of these operations is not known – and likely never will be.
However, there was a much darker agenda behind Integrity Initiative’s intervention in the scandal. The organization’s founders, such as longtime NATO and British Army defense advisor Chris Donnelly, were all fervent anti-Russia hawks of some standing, who subscribed to the hazardous notion that the West was already at war with Moscow, but the governments and citizens of Europe and North America did not know it yet.
As such, as an October 2016 Integrity Initiative memo on “how Russia can be managed and deterred…by doing things that are serious” put it, “if no catastrophe happens to wake people up and demand a response,” it was necessary to manufacture such a catastrophe – or several.
By fraudulently linking Cambridge Analytica to Russia, and the firm to the victory of Brexit and the election of Trump, those events were effectively transformed into direct, deliberate attacks by the Kremlin on the U.S. and Britain. In response, significant proportions of their respective populations felt violated and angry, and clamored for something to be done. Integrity Initiative was heavily involved in seeding similar malign narratives the world over.
The result in every case was widespread public and political hostility to Russia, and refusal by governments to engage constructively with Moscow. Were it not for the organization’s machinations, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine may well have been avoided. It is surely no coincidence that both Chris Donnelly and Guy Spindler are leading Britain’s contribution to the proxy war, their explicit strategy one of endless escalation and provocation.
Feature photo | Illustration by MintPress news
Kit Klarenberg is an investigative journalist and MintPresss News contributor exploring the role of intelligence services in shaping politics and perceptions. His work has previously appeared in The Cradle, Declassified UK, and Grayzone. Follow him on Twitter @KitKlarenberg.