SCL Group Joins the US State Dept.
Robert Mercer-funded Cambridge Analytica’s foreign parent company signs a deal to do propaganda work for State’s Global Engagement Center
SCL Group, the shadowy psychological marketing data conglomerate involved in both the Donald Trump and Brexit victories, has recently been awarded a defense contract with the US State Department’s newest propaganda unit, aided by the recent lobbying and advisement of the disgraced former National Security Adviser and now-registered foreign agent Michael Flynn.
Reams of information abound across the internet if you require a primer on the involvement of SCL Group subsidiary Cambridge Analytica as part of Steve Bannon errr Donald Trump’s presidential campaign powerhouse data team (alongside Brad Parscale, Gary Coby, and the RNC tech squad) and Brexit’s Leave media operations teams.
In a nutshell, things like your credit report, voting record & address, purchasing habits, harvested internet interactions, and stolen social media histories are compiled into highly personalized, actionable demographic & psychometric profiles detailing how your specific brain works, which become very useful to advertisers or electioneers should they desire to guide your opinion or intent.
This “behavioral microtargeting” has been becoming relatively standard for advertisers, as it is a direct extension of the essential underpinning of all marketing theory, but the viciously cynical hyperexploitation of this data via existing advertising and media dissemination infrastructure is exactly how Trump & Brexit scraped out victories.
CambAnal is also under investigation for UK election violation and UK data protection violation (possibly also in context of the US election), and has had official complaints filed against it in the US for potential electoral impropriety.
Importantly, it seems apparent that bot account networks & hashtags, cookie-cutter websites/blogs, and secret social media “dark posts” visible only to curated individual citizens were deployed — often based around disinformation aka “fake news” — in order to alter opinions but also to manufacture trending topics, commandeer political narratives, and manipulate the larger sociocultural dialogue of the entire populace.
If these tools — intrinsically linked as they are to the social media providers that near-exclusively inform the opinions of the entire world — were to be honed & deployed as part of a military-grade campaign using systems designed to identify, track, and suppress individual dissenters around the globe, we could be looking at a nightmare scenario en route to dystopia.
SCL Group, which shares personnel with CA, has a history of involvement across the globe in military operations, training NATO forces, marketing databases, and election rigging. Based in the UK, SCL carries a Secret clearance as a ‘List X’ contractor for the British Ministry of Defence; has worked for private contractors in Iran, Libya, and Syria; and though they had conducted surveys in Iran and Yemen for the Pentagon in the past, they’re now legit bigly players.
One might think it would be a difficult time for defense contractors, as existing intelligence agencies have come under attack since Trump’s first day in office. There is certainly ample reason to criticize even the basic concept of strategic intelligence gathering and operations, but there is a school of thought that suggests his administration is merely attempting to manipulate the intel agencies in order to control them, or else weaken them to the point where they can be replaced with preferred private vendors.
To that end, career intel officer and rabid Trump supporter Michael Flynn would have been the perfect person to have on your side if you were looking to secure intelligence contracts in this political climate.
Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn resigned as US National Security Advisor to President Donald Trump on 13 February 2017, by his own admission due to Flynn’s nondisclosure of his repeated meetings with Russian Ambassador Sergei Kislyak, though we now know he was also paid $530,000 by a Netherlands-based, pro-Erdogan lobbying firm to advocate for repressive Turkish policies while on Trump’s campaign & transition teams. For that reason, he has recently registered himself as a foreign agent.
Since that time, evidence has emerged detailing potentially illicit payments made to Flynn by Russian state-linked companies RT (fka Russia Today) and cybersecurity provider Kaspersky Labs. Kaspersky Labs’ history of publicizing their discoveries regarding internet operations run by US intelligence services is tangentially significant, and Flynn’s history of questionable interactions with dangerous regimes and religious conspiracy theories are also well-documented and relevant to this story.
Three days after Flynn’s resignation, a Washington Post article about SCL (fka Strategic Communication Laboratories Ltd) emerged which contained a buried item of enormously timely interest: Michael Flynn has served as an advisor to SCL Group in its quest for Pentagon contracts.
Unfortunately, no further information has been released regarding Flynn’s specific involvement with SCL, which is par for the course as we know FOIA requests regarding SCL are denied. Therefore, we’re left wondering about the timeframe and extent to which Flynn helped SCL pursue defense contracts. In any other administration — an enormous caveat in Year Of Our Trump #1 (they’ll all officially be known as #1)— a clear conflict of interest would exist were Flynn to be paid for advising SCL while actively serving as a presidential Cabinet member… but we digress.
According to the Post, SCL has successfully secured a contract with the US State Department’s Global Engagement Center (GEC). Formerly known as the Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications (CSCC) — first established via President Obama’s Executive Order 13584 in 2011 — it was rechristened as the GEC by President Obama in 2016, first via Executive Order 13721 on 14 March and then as part of the Congress-passed 2017 NDAA (National Defense Authorization Act) on 23 December. Obama’s executive order also merged with the Countering Foreign Propaganda and Disinformation Act on the way into the NDAA’s final version.
The CSCC was “focused on countering the actions and ideology of al-Qa’ida, its affiliates and adherents, and other international terrorist organizations and violent extremists overseas, and directed to audiences outside the United States.”
Essentially, the CSCC was the State Dept’s social media & meme squad. It’s no surprise the CSCC was quietly renamed, as it received a fair amount of press attention for producing a range of online content aimed at “actively trolling terrorists,” most of which seems to have failed miserably.
The GEC has retained the ‘company line’ of the CSCC upon its predecessor’s deprecation, while focusing on four core areas: building and empowering foreign partnerships; acquiring and using data analytics; developing, procuring, and distributing unbranded content (to hide its origin); and building a network of US gov’t interagency actors involved in the counterterrorism/countering violent extremism information space. It also seeks to develop a global network of voices from foreign governments, NGOs, and civil society organizations.
Basically, it acts as a clearing house for US gov’t info dispersal, drawing its techniques from the private sector and its staff from the Departments of Defense, Treasury, Justice, Homeland Security, State, the Intelligence Community, and USAID. It leverages harvested data into advertising campaigns targeted at citizens and “terrorists” (it seems important to mention how seemingly all internal defense literature says “terrorists” but exclusively means “Islamic terrorists”), and attempts to cultivate local mouthpieces willing to repeat the approved messaging.
Despite only mentioning “al-Qai’da” by name in its charter, the establishment of the GEC was eventually hyped as a needed tool to fight Russian disinformation aimed at weakening the US. Hillary Clinton vouched for the concept in her first post-election speech — coincidentally falling on 8 December, the same day as the NDAA vote — citing its potential “to boost the government’s response to foreign propaganda”; e.g., misleading news stories planted by Russia or ‘non-state actors’ during the election cycle with the intent of driving widespread conversation and belief.
At press time, it was unclear if Sec. Clinton realized the domestic beneficiary of the planted news stories was Donald Trump, whose administration would assume control of the GEC one month later.
Also at press time, GEC’s leadership role of Special Envoy and Coordinator is vacant and has been so since 20 January 2017, when Michael Lumpkin resigned from the position. He had worked to design and implement the GEC since before its inception, so he was one of the Trump administration’s hated “Obama holdovers”.
In fact, there are currently dozens of newly vacant positions in the State Department, for as Trump has recently explained, he believes the government doesn’t “need all those jobs.” Trump’s new budget proposal blueprint also calls for a 29% drop in State Dept funding.
Through the NDAA, and despite a leadership vacuum, the various shared government agents working with the GEC have been granted US$160,000,000 to be spent on “grants or contracts of financial support to civil society groups, media content providers, nongovernmental organizations, federally funded research and development centers, private companies, or academic institutions.”
These non-state actors will be expected to “collect and store examples in print, online, and social media, disinformation, misinformation, and propaganda directed at the United States and its allies and partners.” That is some pretty serious meme collection there, folks.
As a bit of an aside, this overt spy-speak puts the GEC in some degree of contrast to its neighbors at the BBG (Broadcasting Board of Governors), which also ultimately falls under Rex Tillerson’s completely unstaffed State Department purview, and which also has seen major reorganization over the last 4–18 months.
The BBG oversees a number of international news firms, such as Voice of America and Radio Free Europe, which supporters laud as crucially impartial global journalists and critics claim are glossy proponents of American capitalism. In the very same NDAA mentioned above — in fact the very next item in that NDAA — the Board was effectively disbanded, replaced by a CEO that can be now ‘hired & fired’ by the President.
Changes to laws since 2013 have allowed BBG orgs’ news content to be made available on demand to American citizens for the first time, for this was previously considered to be akin to homeland propaganda and meddling in domestic politics.
As the creative content is increasingly geared toward consumption on a borderless internet, it is increasingly driven by analytics. Despite assurances by the BBG CEO, unqualified Trump staffers have been visiting BBG’s offices recently, so it is concerning to think what messages these agencies will be sending the world under the new administration.
In a department meant for diplomacy, the rules have been rewritten to prepare it for war. In an agency meant for information sharing, the focus has turned to data collection. In a field based around human discussion in search of mutual understanding, the people have been replaced by opaque algorithms. This does not bode well.
It’s eminently reasonable to assume SCL will be fulfilling some of their contracted work by providing the same techniques Cambridge Analytica claims to have employed in recent elections. We can also infer the $160M is still in play despite no GEC leadership, what with SCL receiving a contract in mid-February, so the Department of State brass must be directly involved in the contracting.
To get a better idea of SCL’s workload, however, we refer to another buried item in a Buzzfeed article, which mentioned SCL executives’ appearance inside the Pentagon:
SCL Group recently won a contract with the Global Engagement Center, a branch of the State Department, to work on “target audience analysis” of young men in other countries who may be thinking of joining ISIS, a State Department spokesperson confirmed.
Hriar Cabayan, the Pentagon official who confirmed the SCL Group meeting, said that the executives in attendance were Nigel Oakes and Kirsten Fontenrose, a former State Department employee who recently joined the company.
Target Audience Analysis. This is a rather common term in the realm of marketing, advertising, and information warfare. There is an entire white paper dedicated to defining the term, however, which can be found here on the Behavioural Dynamics Institute (BDi) website. Essentially, it’s research of the mindsets of whatever population of humans in whom you might be interested.
Why point to the Behavioural Dynamics Institute site, if it’s so self-explanatory? Because BDi is the research arm of SCL, with Nigel Oakes being the founder of both firms. BDi’s stated goal is “to assemble and assimilate the full extent of creative and scientific knowledge on group behaviour and the dynamics of change, and package it into a unified and workable methodological approach to conducting successful and measurable behaviour change campaigns.”
Behavior change campaigns? That is precisely the definition of psychological warfare a/k/a psychological operations a/k/a PSYOPS. Alongside military mechanisms of Information Operations, Media Operations, and Electronic Warfare, PSYOPS are “designed to alter the ‘behaviour’, ‘perception’ and ‘attitudes’ of the target individuals and groups.” Also known as Military Information Support Operations (MISO), this typically happens through either ‘Influence Activities’ which influence the will of targets or ‘Counter Command Activities’ which affect the capability of targets.
Chronic huckster and serial entrepreneur Nigel Oakes started BDi around 1990, repackaging the work of several academics to hawk his wares (as an aside, CambAnal has been accused of stealing its methods from Cambridge University’s Psychometrics Centre, though that explanation would be a convenient saving of face for CUni). One of the most important researchers involved was the late Leeds Prof. Phil Taylor, who wrote many books, manuals, and published papers about the art of propaganda warfare.
Oakes went on to found SCL a few years later, putting BDi’s expertise to use in the field, though SCL’s relaunch in 2005 led The Guardian to pronounce it “the first private company to provide psychological warfare services, or ‘psyops’, to the military.”
SCL’s four major divisions are: Elections, Defence, Social, and Commercial. This is another reminder of the similarities between psyops and advertising. Each seeks to modify the future behavior of the consumer/audience/target using persuasion techniques that become far more effective if the target’s personality markers are known. For more specific detail on SCL/BDi’s Target Audience Analysis methodology, take a peek at researcher Paul-Olivier Dehaye’s dissection here.
Marketing professionals use psychological workups to cater to different audiences, but a consumer’s purchasing habits alone can predict with reasonable accuracy what they might buy in the future. In the case of political psyops, however, the emotional response mechanisms are of enormous interest. Analyzing the entire history of your Facebook likes, when compared against the AI-enhanced sentiment analysis and natural language processing of the Facebook items you’re interacting with, would grant a much clearer picture of your various personality quirks.
Looking at the executive summary of a white paper published in 2013 by the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the US Department of Defense, edited by the aforementioned Dr. Hriar Cabayan of DDGO and featuring a foreword by our own then-Director of the Defense Intelligence Agency Michael Flynn (before he was relieved of duty by the Obama administration, which makes 2 ‘firings’, for those counting at home), we can see this overlap illustrated:
As terrorism adapts to the market place, we need to move from “terrorist” towards an understanding of market entry and risk mitigation. The “cost” of terror and of counterterror activities is an increasingly important perspective. Turning the lens on ourselves, we need to ask what it will take to compete, to grow, and to expand our own market share, and re-establish our national identity as a global consumer brand of choice.
Re-establish our national identity as a global consumer brand of choice. The neuropolitical implications of that statement are astounding. That American identity has been de-established? How? That there is a marketplace of global consumers who haven’t yet been offered the right identity product to fit their needs? Where? That nationalism is both quantifiable and for sale? Why?
Former head of the GEC Michael Lumpkin explained one highly classified method of nationalistic brand exportation:
“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 for … in some places, pennies a click.”
Oh. Uh. Maybe that was the wrong quote… uh hang on.
So the government buys Facebook ads using standard/enhanced Facebook-provided demographic targeting options, just like Trump’s Project Alamo platoon did when they partnered with Cambridge Analytica, to the point where a Facebook employee was cited as the campaign’s “MVP” by the RNC’s data team lead. Gotcha. Well, at least when Lumpkin spoke in November 2016, he wasn’t wishing for the ability to match online profiles to geolocated humans on foreign and domestic soil:
“By definition the World Wide Web is worldwide. There is no passport that goes with it. If it’s a Tunisian citizen in the United States or a U.S. citizen in Tunisia, I don’t have the ability to discern that. Therefore, I have trouble grabbing that personally identifiable information,” Lumpkin said. “If I had more ability to work with that [personally identifiable information] and had access…I could do more targeting, more definitively, to make sure I could hit the right message to the right audience at the right time.”
OK. Crap. Well at least they didn’t add on a secret 10th item to the GEC charter in the NDAA — after the bill was released for public viewing but before finalizing it into law — making it strangely ambiguous as to whether or not it is suddenly legal to compile data on and propagandize to American citizens on American soil! Thank goodness for small favors!
(10) Maintain, collect, use, and disseminate records (as such term is defined in section 552a(a)(4) of title 5, United States Code) for research and data analysis of foreign state and non-state propaganda and disinformation efforts and communications related to public diplomacy efforts intended for foreign audiences. Such research and data analysis shall be reasonably tailored to meet the purposes of this paragraph and shall be carried out with due regard for privacy and civil liberties guidance and oversight.
wait no stop talking
(a) Definitions. — For purposes of this section —
(1) the term “agency” means agency as defined in section 552(e)  of this title;
(2) the term “individual” means a citizen of the United States or an alien lawfully admitted for permanent residence;
(3) the term “maintain” includes maintain, collect, use, or disseminate;
(4) the term “record” means any item, collection, or grouping of information about an individual that is maintained by an agency, including, but not limited to, his education, financial transactions, medical history, and criminal or employment history and that contains his name, or the identifying number, symbol, or other identifying particular assigned to the individual, such as a finger or voice print or a photograph.
So thanks to Mike “Turk-182” Flynn, now UK’s SCL Group will partner with “Rushin’” Rex Tillerson’s GEC as they “collect and store examples in print, online, and social media, disinformation, misinformation, and propaganda directed at the United States and its allies and partners,” in order to “maintain, collect, use, and disseminate records for research and data analysis,” wherein “the term ‘record’ means any item, collection, or grouping of information about an individual,” and where “the term ‘individual’ means a citizen of the United States”?
It can’t be as bad as it sounds, but it sounds pretty bad. Either way, maybe it is time to detail a few more tidbits about SCL Group and Cambridge Analytica.
Carole Cadwalladr of The Guardian UK smoothly summed up a great deal of recent intrigue in her latest column, so instead of trying to outdo her, we’ll gratefully and liberally quote her:
“We know that Trump, his campaign strategist [and now-Cabinet member] Steve Bannon, and the billionaire who funded his campaign, Robert Mercer, all have long-standing, close ties to Nigel Farage, Arron Banks and last year’s Leave.eu campaign. We know that the data company Cambridge Analytica[…] undertook work for Leave.eu.
We know that Cambridge Analytica’s parent company, SCL, employed a Canadian individual — Zackary Massingham — to undertake work for it [and serve as its contact listed under SCL Canada on the SCL website]. We know Massingham is a director of a company called AggregateIQ, and that Vote Leave — the official leave campaign — paid AggregateIQ £3.5m to do its profiling and Facebook advertising. We know it paid AggregateIQ a further £725,000 on behalf of two other organisations — one of which was a 23-year-old student who worked in Vote Leave’s office. And we know Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist party paid AggregateIQ £32,750 for similar work. […]
This is what we know: the Electoral Commission is still assessing claims that potentially illegal donations were made; the information commissioner is investigating “possible illegal” use of data; the heads of MI6 and GCHQ have both voiced unprecedented warnings about foreign interference in our democratic systems; the government has refused to elaborate on what these are; one of the leave campaigns has admitted the undeclared support and help of the American hedge fund billionaire who backed Trump; the Crown Prosecution Service is being asked to mount a criminal investigation; and questions have been raised about possible unlawful collaboration between different elements of the leave campaign.”
There’s an enormous amount to unpack there, but we’ll keep piling on.
CambAnal also worked for many Robert Mercer-funded campaigns and PACs over the last few years, as Mercer first invested US$5M in SCL Group back in 2012. Coming from a background of high frequency trading algorithms and natural language processing, it’s no surprise Mercer would be enticed by SCL’s promises. SCL’s existing connections may have precluded it from being directly involved in US political campaigns, however, which perhaps precipitated Mercer’s funding of CA’s establishment in 2013.
Included in that list of campaigns & PACs are those of Ted Cruz, John Bolton, ForAmerica (run by Brent Bozell, extreme conservative activist and founder of Media Research Council), and Arizona senatorial candidate Kelli Ward. Running against John McCain in the AZ GOP primary — as legend has it, because of Mercer’s personal grudge against McCain — Ward was also strongly recommended by Alex Jones of the religious conspiracy propaganda unit/thinktank Infowars, as well as the Mercer/Bannon site Breitbart (and Ron Paul and Laura Ingraham, too).
Speaking of Breitbart’s Bannon, according to formal complaints filed with the Federal Election Committee by the Campaign Legal Center, while he was Trump Campaign CEO Steve Bannon was receiving payments written to Cambridge Analytica by Make America Number 1, the Mercer-funded PAC which supported Trump [after originally supporting Ted Cruz]. This bombshell filing pries open the question of whether or not he is a significant shareholder or owner [UPDATE: Answer = Yes.], which has been a mystery apart from company filings claiming his roles as VP and secretary. While detailing Bannon’s network of companies, Media Matters summarizes the events thusly:
Importantly, before the October CLC complaint was filed, Make America Number 1’s July monthly and August monthly FEC filings showed that payments to Cambridge Analytica were sent to the Wilshire Boulevard address [of Steve Bannon]. Then, after the CLC filed its initial complaint, the super PAC’s payments to Cambridge Analytica (and Glittering Steel) in its September monthly, October monthly, and pre-general election filings started going to new addresses in Virginia. But when the Make America Number 1 super PAC lateramended those reports after the presidential election, it changed the Virginia addresses back to the Wilshire Boulevard address.
This is immeasurably significant, what with Bannon’s media presence (as CEO and long-time radio talk show host for Breitbart), Trump campaign CEO status, and now his role as presidential chief strategist. Breitbart’s total domination of the online conversation sphere and the rippling effects across the news landscape during the election cycle, partially due to exploitation of intensive user tracking, has also been carefully catalogued.
Plowing forward, though, the government-CA-SCL connections continue, as CA hired Darren Bolding away from the Republican National Committee in January, with him going from RNC CTO to CA CTO. As previously mentioned, Kirsten Fontenrose, formerly of the State Department, has also joined SCL.
America First Policies, a new Pro-Trump PAC — which, as an actively collusive third-party mouthpiece for a sitting president, is nearly unprecedented since the days of Reaganomics — is having CambAnal pains of its own. After an apparent power struggle regarding CA’s involvement that included a yelling match inside Trump Tower between Brad Parscale, digital director for the Trump campaign & its Project Alamo, and Rebekah Mercer, the “most powerful woman in GOP politics” & daughter of Robert, Parscale ended up at the head of America First Policies.
This did not sit well with at least the Mercers, who had been expecting to set up an NGO/PAC with CA at its core to evangelize for Trump policies. In recent weeks, as it turns out, Parscale has been demoted to a smaller role within AFP. As it stands now, the Mercers may yet form a separate organization or possibly take over AFP [UPDATE: They formed “Making America Great”], but it is likely CA will be a part of either one of those final iterations.
If that happens, CA and SCL will be applying their “magic sauce” to a huge swath of pro-Trump/Bannon/Mercer/Pence/Flynn/[insert oligarch here] active measure information operations and strategic communications, both inside the USA and around the world.
So we got that to look forward to.
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