May 7, 2017 – Ken McCallion
According to highly reliable sources, the FBI’s Counterintelligence Division is increasingly focusing its attention on the connection between Russia’s cyber-disinformation efforts to disrupt the 2016 Presidential election and the parallel cyber-campaign efforts by the Trump Campaign’s own consultants, including Cambridge Analytica. Cambridge Analytica, which is largely owned by reclusive billionaire and Trump-backer Robert Mercer, had – until recently – boasted that it had Steve Bannon and other key members of the Trump team on its Board of Directors or Advisory Board. Financial documents released by the White House disclosed that Bannon, Trump’s “strategic advisor,” had received a six-figure consulting fee from Cambridge Analytica during the 2016 campaign.
Now that Trump and Bannon have moved into the White House, Bannon has taken a lower-profile role in Cambridge Analytica’s efforts to win a strategically important contract with the U.S. State Department and to market its services to other federal agencies. Meanwhile, the acting Chief Technology Officer (“CTO”) at the Republican National Convention, Darren Bolding, has become Analytica’s CTO after Trump’s election.
Disgraced former Trump National Security Advisor Michael Flynn also has been taking an active role in marketing CA’s services to the Pentagon and other U.S. agencies. However, increasingly loud rumors that the investigation of Flynn is rapidly headed towards an indictment has undercut his marketing usefulness to CA.
The London-based SCL Group Ltd, which is the parent company for Cambridge Analytica, recently won the contract with a branch of the U.S. State Department known as the “Global Engagement Center.” SCL Group’s purported mission under this contract is to use its psychological profiling and data manipulation techniques as part of a “counter-radicalization” campaign directed at young men in other countries who may be thinking of joining ISIS. However, since Congress has largely eliminated the barriers between access to data profiles of foreign nationals and U.S. citizens, it is likely that Cambridge Analytica and the SCL Group will have access to personal data relating to millions of Americans, along with the data on non-Americans. This factor, combined with the fact that the Voice of America, Radio Free Europe, and other U.S.-government information outlets are no longer restricted by U.S. statutes to broadcasting their message only outside the U.S., the Trump Administration – through the SCL Group, Cambridge Analytica, and both government-controlled and “friendly” privately held news outlets — will be in a position to mount a robust propaganda and psychological manipulation campaign targeting Americans. As presently planned, this permanent and continuous campaign will use social media platforms and cyberspace, as well as more traditional “news” and information outlets, to get the Administration’s “message” out.
In addition to the State Department, the SCL Group is pursuing contracts with at least a dozen other federal agencies, including the Commerce Department, Homeland Security, and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. As part of its “pitch,” SCL holds itself out as having access to thousands of “data points” about every American man, woman, and child, as well as a massive database on foreign nationals. SCL then explains tothe potential clients that it can use these data points to formulate a “psychographic” profile of every American (as well as every potential domestic or foreign terrorist). The profile can then be used to craft an individually-designed “message,” to influence (read “manipulate”) that person into acting (or voting) in the desired matter.
SCL and Cambridge Analytica also correctly claim that they had a significant impact on the successful Brexit campaign, although this credential has been somewhat tarnished as of late since British authorities are continuing to investigate whether SCL violated British and EU privacy laws in their rush to use personal psychological data to influence voters there.
The FBI’s ongoing investigation of the role that CA and SCL played in coordinating the Russian/Trump Campaign’s cyber and disinformation efforts does not appear to have had any “chilling effect” on the marketing campaigns by these two companies to secure additional federal government contracts. To be sure, CA and SCL have powerful allies within the White House, and with the main Mercer-backed operatives in position throughout the Trump Administration, these two companies are extremely “bullish” on their prospects to win additional federal contracts, despite the persistent questioning by FBI investigators.
It has been reported that Nigel Oakes of the SCL Group, along with Kristen Fonternrose, a former State Department official who recently joined the company, have been actively expoiting their many contacts in Washington as part of their aggressive marketing efforts. For example, these two recently paid a visit to the Pentagon to meet with Dr. Hriar Cabayan, head of the Department of Defense’s Strategic Multilayer Assessment branch, which is the “psych-ops” center providing “behavioral research and cultural analysis” for U.S. military operations. When asked about the meeting, Dr. Cabayan reported that “they were in town and just dropped in to say hello.”
The SCL Group landed its first major deal in 1999, with the goal of enhancing the reputation of then-Indonesian president Abdurrahman Wahid. SCL set out to influence behavior by identifying key audiences within Indonesia and then developing strategies to give them a more favorable view of the Indonesian President. SCL’s Jakarta “ops center” spared no expense, looking more like a NASA space launch control room than a psych-ops center. It contained a 12-screen media feed; a 4/3m LED presenter video wall, 62 computer screens, a large 6.4 rear-projected screen, plus a large 10x4m operations overview screen.
SCL soon developed the dubious reputation for its expertise in influencing voting patterns by appealing to voter prejudice. In 2006, SCL ran a campaign in Latvia intended to exploit the fears and prejudices that many Latvians had for ethnic Russians living in Latvia, who were blamed – mostly unfairly — for unemployment and other economic problems that ordinary Latvians were experiencing.
According to Bloomberg News, SCL, which promoted itself as a high-tech, cutting-edge solution provider in election campaigns worldwide, was not above using low-tech and dirty tricks campaigns to give their political clients an advantage. For example, it was reported that SCL used a “street media” graffiti campaign in the Caribbean country of Trinidad, making it look like young locals had spontaneously expressed their support for the favored client, the United National Congress.
SCL also helped the St. Lucian government in the Caribbean, and participated in Nigeria’s notoriously corrupt 2007 election, which international observers found was marred by ballot stuffing, falsified votes, and censorship of opposition viewpoints. SCL’s website also represented that it had helped the ruling People’s Democratic Party discourage opposition supporters from voting by organizing “anti-poll rallies” on the day of the election, although SCL later re-worded this description of its election day efforts without explanation. SCL also later issued a statement denying that it had ever participated in voter suppression or other efforts “to undermine the democratic processes.”
Cambridge Analytica was formed in 2013 as a small U.S. offshoot of the SCL Group. CA personnel initially worked on Senator Ted Cruz’s campaign, but after Cruz folded his tent, they moved over to the Trump Campaign, thanks in large measure to the support CA received from Jared Kushner and Paul Manafort. At the time, Manafort was Trump’s Campaign Chairman and close associate of SCL part-owner Dmitry Firtash, a Ukrainian oligarch and billionaire with close ties to Vladimir Putin and Russia’s natural gas giant, Gazprom. Firtash is under indictment on various federal charges by the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Northern District of Illinois (Chicago). Tthe efforts to extradite him to the U.S. from Vienna seem to have stalled since Trump’s election, despite the fact that an Austrian appeals court recently reversed a lower court and ruled in favor of the U.S.’s extradition request.
Firtash, who has extensive ties with Russian intelligence operatives, is believed to have critical information on the coordination between Russian intelligence and the Trump Campaign at several levels, including the parallel Russian/CA cyber attacks. But it does not appear that Attorney General Jeff Sessions or anyone else in the Trump Administration is anxious to make a deal with Firtash on the criminal charges pending against him in return for information on Russia’s meddling in the 2016 Presidential election. Sessions has “recused” himself from the investigation; however, all indications are that he and his political operatives within the Justice Department are now trying their best to assure that Firtash remains in Vienna and remains silent.
Mercer, CA’s majority shareholder, invested at least $10 million in the Company after he was impressed with the work that CA had done for his friend, L. Brent Bozell III, a Tea Party sympathizer and founder of the Media Research Center, which goal was “to neutralize leftwing bias in the news media and popular culture.” Mercer was also on friendly terms with British leader Nigel Farage, one of the leading architects of the Leave.EU and its Brexit campaign. Trump chief strategist Steve Bannon, formerly of a Mercer-owned media outlet — Breitbart News — also joined the Board of CA. Trump Advisor Kelly Ann Conway (and author of the “alternative facts” doctrine) also has close Mercer ties.
Even before CA linked up with the Trump Campaign’s cyber-campaign efforts, Russian cyber operatives — who were being directed by the GRU, FSB and other Russian intelligence units — were starting to flood U.S. social media with computer-generated commands, known as “bots.” These bots were linked to pro-Trump or anti-Clinton stories. Most of these links were to “fake news” stories gleaned from Breitbart News, InfoWars or other U.S. right-wing media, or these links were derived from RT (Russia Today), Sputnik News or other Russian “news” sources that are churned out by Russia’s huge propaganda apparatus.
One of the most persistent and favored stories used by Russian operatives to mount their electronic attack on Facebook and other social media platforms was about the mythical bevy of underage women that Hillary Clinton and John Podesta kept in a basement of a Democratic-favored pizzeria in Washington, D.C. In fact, while working for the Trump Campaign, General Flynn and his son persisted in giving credence to this nonsensical story. Tragically, the story ended when an impressionable young man from North Carolina drove to Washington to “self-investigate” this story and accidently discharged a round from his rifle at the Comet Ping Pong pizza parlor in the process. Such are the dangers when fake news meets reality.
Another popular disinformation story widely circulated by Russian-triggered “trolls” (computer operators) and their bots targeted the Facebook pages of African Americans, spreading a fake news story quoting Hillary Clinton as referring to black men as “predators.”
Through a combination of dirty cyber tricks and high-tech psychological profiling, Cambridge Analytic had an extraordinary run of success during the 2015-2016 Presidential primaries and general election. It first helped Ted Cruz surge to the front of the crowded field of Republican candidates during the primary season. CA’s hyper-targeted messages seemed to make a difference for Cruz in the Iowa Republican primary. In previous elections, two rural voters in Western Iowa would likely see the same or a similar piece of direct mail. Using Cambridge Analytica’s data and messaging strategies, the Cruz campaign was able to send different messages to similar—but not the same—voters. For example, one rural neighbor might be targeted thirty percent religious-tinted messages, twenty percent gun rights messages, and thirty percent of economic ads.
During the 2016 U. S. Presidential campaign, CA’s CEO Alexander Nix claimed to have used “psychographic data models” to target messages to undecided voters on social media. Cambridge Analytica also claimed to have developed and used psychological profiles based on 5,000 separate pieces of data on 220 million American voters, based in large part on Facebook “likes,” which the company uses to target the deepest emotions of voters, in effect turning social media into a formidable propaganda machine. “Our targeted methods change depending on who you are as an individual,” explained Nix, “not a model representation of an individual.”
CA marketed itself as using “data modeling and psychographic profiling [i.e., classifying people into personality types] to …connect with people in ways that move them to action.” CA’s website also boasted that it used “more than 100 data variables to model target audience groups and predict the behavior of like-minded people.”
Once Cambridge Analytica joined up with the Trump Campaign, the Trump efforts at data manipulation in the social media field started looking remarkably similar to the Russian-backed disinformation campaign targeting American voters in key precincts in battleground states around the country. Professor Jonathan Albright of Elon University described Cambridge Analytica’s data manipulation, analytics and “behavioral communications” during the 2016 Campaign as follows:
This is a propaganda machine. It’s targeting people individually to recruit them to an idea. It’s a level of social engineering that I’ve never seen before. They’re capturing people and then keeping them on an emotional leash and never letting them go.
Although Cambridge Analytica did not have enough time to fully implement its cyber-strategy prior to the November 8, 2016 election, its planned and partially implemented voter manipulation efforts on behalf of Trump were far more sophisticated than Russia’s cyber warfare campaign to influence and destabilize the election. To be sure, like the Russians, CA collected data from millions of Facebook and Twitter accounts and then overwhelmed those accounts with links and individually-tailored “issue” messaging that was either highly favorable to Trump or highly critical of Hillary Clinton.
However, Cambridge Analytica added to this “data mining” and messaging mix what its CEO, Alexander Nix, likes to describe as its “secret sauce,” namely, CA’s ability to “weaponize” the dissemination of alt-right and “fake news” by swarms of bots through the use of emotional and psychological manipulation techniques. CA applies certain psychological research techniques developed by academic researchers at the Cambridge University Psychometrics Center to the rough and tumble world of political campaigning. By closely monitoring the Russian cyber campaign directed at key American voters, Cambridge Analytica and its parent company, SCL Group, were able to successfully create noticeable shifts in public opinions in the major battleground states by preying on the emotional and psychological components of tens of thousands of individual voters. While CA’s efforts – while impressive – were probably not enough to swing the election in Trump’s favor by themselves, the lethal combination of CA’s efforts and the parallel cyber and data dumping campaigns by the Russians and Wikileaks may well have tipped the scales decisively in the last few weeks of the 2016 election campaign. The unwitting (to be charitable) efforts of FBI Director James Comey through the release of his October 28, 2016 letter about a “reopening” of the closed Clinton email investigation was just the unexpected icing on the cake.
One area of the FBI’s investigation into possible collusion between Cambridge Analytica and the Russian disinformation campaign targeting American voters is that both the Russians and Cambridge Analytica had an uncanny ability to precisely micro-target Facebook users. They could reach into the exact zip codes and precincts where the Trump Campaign (and apparently also the Russians) knew that Trump could get his biggest bang for the buck. Here was where he would be most likely to pick up undecided voters or to energize voters that were leaning his way to get out, go to the polls and vote.
As we now know, the Russians successfully hacked into U.S. state databases and obtained detailed demographic profiles of voters in key states and key precincts within those states. Initially, it was feared that the Russians were planning to try to falsify the vote counts in those states. However, the more likely motivation was for the Russian hackers to use this voter data to tailor even more targeted messaging as part of their disinformation campaign. It may well be the Russians passed this data onto the Trump Campaign – via Cambridge Analytica or some other conduit – so that Cambridge Analytica could develop a more targeted social and mass media campaign message.
The federal investigation of Russian/Trump Campaign collusion is also looking into the curious question of how the Trump Campaign was able to so quickly exploit WikiLeaks’ data dump of the tens of thousands of pages hacked from the DNC, Clinton Campaign, and John Podesta databases. Literally within hours of some of these public releases by WikiLeaks, starting on July 22, 2016 on the eve of the Democratic National Convention and continuing periodically thereafter, the Trump Campaign was sending micro-targeted bots and messaging to the Facebook, Twitter and other social media accounts of key voters battleground states and precincts. How could Cambridge Analytica and the Trump Campaign be able to digest such a huge mass of data, analyze it, and pick out key “smoking gun” segments of that data for transmission to potential Trump voters so quickly?
The answer to that puzzle is that, as government investigators were first postulating and now concluding, there was a high degree of coordination between Trump campaign operatives and Russia/WikiLeaks before the public disclosure of the hacked documents by WikiLeaks. Roger Stone, a key Trump operative, bragged publicly that he was in touch with Julian Assange of WikiLeaks and the Russian cyber operatives using the name “Guccifer 2.0,” and Stone also correctly predicted back in August 2016 that it would soon be Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta’s “turn in the barrel” in connection with the release of his hacked emails.
The working hypothesis by investigators is that either key documents from the WikiLeaks treasure trove were leaked to the Trump campaign in advance, or that Trump Campaign operatives were given notice of the keyword searches that would immediately identify the documents that were most damaging to the Clinton campaign.
In fact, the evidence is now emerging that one of the biggest fears of the Trump Campaign at the time was that someone would “jump the gun” and release some of the key WikiLeaks material even before WikiLeaks publicly released it. If that had happened, it would have created a huge problem for Trump and his campaign since such an error would have constituted a virtual admission that the campaign had been given advance notice of at least some to the WikiLeaks material.
Paul Manafort played a central role as Trump’s campaign chairman during the critical March through August 2016 time-frame, when the groundwork was being laid for the intricate network of contacts that bound the Trump campaign, Russian intelligence operatives, Cambridge Analytica and WikiLeaks’ Julian Assange into formidable propaganda and disinformation machine. This was the international network that sufficiently threw the 2016 Presidential election campaign of Hillary Clinton into disarray and ultimately contributed significantly to Trump’s election win.
One of the key conduits between the Russians/WikiLeaks and the Trump Campaign/Cambridge Analytica was through Russia’s Alfa Bank. This bank is widely known among intelligence organizations to be a front for Russian intelligence, making “loans” and moving money around the globe in order to facilitate Russian operations abroad. The FBI is running down allegations that Cambridge Analytica and SCL have financial ties to Alfa Bank, and it is also focusing on the role played by Richard Burt, a top Trump advisor who sat on Alfa’s “senior advisory board.”
As you may recall, Alfa Bank and SVB Bank were the two named targets of the FISA warrant that was granted by the FISA court on October 15, 2016, one week after U.S. intelligence issues a public statement disclosing evidence of Russian voter database hacking. Part of the basis for this warrant was there was a high degree of suspicious database traffic between Russia and the Alfa Bank server located in Trump Towers. The suspicion is that Russian intelligence and WikiLeaks were using the Alfa Bank server to transmit hacked voting records and key hacked DNC/Clinton Campaign emails and documents to the Trump Campaign/Cambridge Analytica so that the Clinton Campaign could move swiftly to capitalize on this hacked data once WikiLeaks “officially” released it.
As part of the FISA warrant surveillance of Trump Tower, the conversations that Jared Kushner and Michael Flynn had with Sberbank, the sanctioned parent company of SVB Bank, were intercepted. This was only one of the many contacts that Flynn had with the Russians during and after the 2016 election that he “forgot” about. Flynn, to put it mildly, is a “dead man walking,” with only question of when (not whether) he will be indicted.
In early 2017, during the transition period and after Trump’s inauguration, Cambridge Analytica had a series of “talks” with Trump and his team. Included in these discussions where Bannon, Kelly Ann Conway, and other strategically-placed Mercer operatives in the White House. The subject was how CA would go about “managing public opinion” regarding Trump and his Administration’s policies. At the same time, since CA was expanding its operations into the U.S. commercial markets, it also entered into simultaneous discussions with the Trump Organization as to how it could best promote its real estate “products.”
Following the Trump election, CA also began intensive talks with right-wing parties and governments in Europe, Latin America, and Asia as to how its data manipulation services can be deployed so as to establish a world-wide hegemony of right-wing and authoritarian regimes. In a world of political polarization – driven in large part by “bots,” “trolls,” fake news, microtargeting and “dark” posts, Cambridge Analytica is now well on its way to becoming the darling of virtually every kleptocracy and authoritarian, anti-democratic regime.
CA’s pitch is simple but effective: In this brave new world order, CA is the right company at the right time for strong leaders that want to hold onto power or wrest control of the government back from the democratic, popularly-elected opposition forces. Russia is the prime example of how an efficient propaganda machine, combined with psychological profiling and manipulation of an entire electorate could keep one strongman – Vladimir Putin – in power for 17 years. Billions of dollars in sorely-needed cash has been allowed to Russia, as oligarchs and Putin’s own inner circle have moved money abroad to safer havens. Billions more have been lost to the Russian people and its economy through systematic graft and corruption. Political opposition leaders and journalists have been jailed and/or killed by the dozens, with complete impunity. The remnants of a free press have been largely driven into extinction or cowed into silence. The economy has stagnated for at least several years, and fewer and fewer jobs and career opportunities are open to young Russians. Meanwhile, the Russia’s state-sponsored propaganda machine has been able to keep Putin’s political support at about 80% by convincing them that he and only he can Make Russia Great Again and that all of the economic problems the country is experiencing is due to politically-motivated sanctions imposed on Mother Russia by the West.
Back in the dark ages of political “messaging” – 20 to 30 years ago — political campaigns spent much of their money and energy trying to get their candidate’s favorable narrative out to the voters through all available media outlets. These traditional media vehicles included direct mail, radio, TV, and even print (remember printed newspapers that you could hold and read, and wrap fish with after you were done?).
Then the internet and social media burst onto the scene, which exponentially increased a political campaign’s ability to manipulate voters on an intellectual, psychological and emotional level for a candidate or policy. Techies in Silicon Valley and elsewhere spent years building “platforms” for the purpose of large data collection and analysis, to predict people’s behavior. Cambridge Analytics added a psychological profiling dimension to this analysis, in order to not only predict a person’s behavior but to ultimately manipulate and change that person’s behavior to achieve the desired result, whether it be the act of voting for the preferred candidate or something else.
Taken to its logical conclusion, the ideal result was that the end user would develop a “digital addiction” to the data and information that was being fed into that person’s Facebook, Twitter or other social media account. Just as cigarette companies sold cigarettes for the purpose of hooking the user on the nicotine, so that the user would have to smoke more and more just to satisfy that nicotine addiction, most end users of an intensive internet propaganda campaign almost inevitably became hooked on the data that they were being bombarded with. This “information” was so ideally suited to their psychological, emotional and other preferences, that a psychological craving developed, requiring more and more of this kind of data messaging each day.
Over time, it became apparent that the only difference between a digital addiction and an addiction to nicotine, crystal meth or opioids is that the digital addiction is psychological and emotional, not physical, but it can create the same kind of intense craving, and the withdrawal symptoms were virtually identical. Within a relatively short period, millions of Americans became digital addicts, needing their daily fix of personally-designed “news” to confirm and validate their preconceptions and beliefs, no matter how far removed from objective reality.
With the election of the grand master of disinformation himself – Donald J. Trump – Cambridge Analytica and the SCL Group are ideally poised to support the Trump Administration’s ambitious plan to implement a Russian-type model of a state-controlled propaganda machine in this country. With its powerful “psychometric” components, Cambridge Analytica and SCL are well situated to use the personal and psychological information on private and government databases to immunize the Trump faithful. CA can keep any “bad” or “fake news” that might try to intrude into their awareness, from these “low information” voters. They can block and discredit mainstream media stories about how, for example, the repeal of the Affordable Care Act and the replacement with TrumpCare will be a disaster for countless millions of Americans.
Such “mainstream” stories will never reach the conscious or unconscious minds of the Trump voters because it will be drowned out by a steady stream of disinformation on social media and Trump-friendly news outlets that will continually reinforce those Trump voters’ preconceived biases for Trump and everything he does (or doesn’t do).
Meanwhile, Cambridge Analytica and SCL — energized and funded with virtually unlimited taxpayer-financed government contracts — will be able to target non-Trump voters with individually tailored and nearly irresistible messaging. A constant barrage of social media messaging will sufficiently confuse the target audience into acquiescing and withdrawing support from the democratic resistance movement, or actively converting “undecideds” or even anti-Trump Americans into admitting the error of their ways and converting to Trumpism.
We are headed for a Brave New World, based upon the currently formulated Trump/Mercer/SCL agenda. What could stop – or at least slow — this attack on the U.S.’s democratic institutions is the FBI and Justice Department. If these agencies are allowed to complete their investigation of the cyber-collusion between the Russians and the Trump Campaign without political interference, then the relevant federal grand juries will begin issuing criminal indictments against those responsible. One factor favoring a positive outcome of this ongoing investigation is that FBI Director James Comey – despite his Congressional testimony to the contrary – must deeply regret sending his “October Surprise” letter to Congress about the “reopening” of the Hillary Clinton email investigation. It is hard to explain how he did that without even mentioning one word about the fact that the FBI had a much more significant ongoing investigation at the time into possible collusion between the Russians and the Trump Team. Viewing it in the most charitable light, Comey must have thought what virtually every other person on the planet thought as of October 28, 2016, which was that Clinton – albiet bruised and battered by a brutal campaign – would stumble into the White House come election day. Obviously, hindsight is 20/20, and Comey would probably have taken a more even handed approach in his disclosures at the time if he had known what damage he was causing, or he would have just kept his mouth shut (which is what the FBI is supposed to do anyway).
By pursuing the Russian/Trump investigation to its logical and inevitable conclusion, Director Comey will finally be able clear his conscience and right some of the wrong he inflicted on the American body politic 11 days before the Presidential election.
Oh, and by the way, the release by the Justice Department and the FBI of a Grand Jury Report and accompanying federal indictments against those responsible for collaborating with the Russian/WikiLeaks meddling with our democratic and electoral processes will help repair some of the damage done to America’s frayed democratic and social fabric. Hopefully, such developments will also disrupt the Trump Administration’s plans to unleash its planned Russian-style permanent disinfo