Cambridge Analytica's Psy-Ops Warriors

Behind Trump's stolen Facebook data lurks a team of spooks and right-wing generals

Alexander Nix (center), CEO of Cambridge Analytica, arrives at the offices of Cambridge Analytica in central London, Britain, March 20th, 2018. Credit: Henry Nicholls/Reuters

In the ongoing furor over the pilfered data on 50 million Americans taken from Facebook by Cambridge Analytica and weaponized during the 2016 election campaign on behalf of Donald Trump, attention has focused primarily on CA's slick and fast-talking CEO, Alexander Nix, who's been suspended from his job over the scandal, amid investigations in at least four countries.

Less noticed, however, is the fact that behind CA and its parent, the London-based SCL Group – for Strategic Communications Laboratories – stands a shadowy clique of former spooks, military intelligence specialists in psychological warfare operations ("psy-ops"), and right-wing military officers, at least two of whom have close ties to General Stanley McChrystal, the disgraced "runaway general" who lost his job as commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan in 2010 after a exposé by Michael Hastings in Rolling Stone

One of those generals, Michael T. Flynn, was Trump's national security adviser during the campaign and, for a few weeks, in the White House, and who, in 2016, served as an adviser to Cambridge Analytica. And, before being fired as head of the Defense Intelligence Agency in 2014 by President Obama, Flynn served as McChrystal's top intelligence adviser in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The other senior officer, much lesser known, is Steve Tatham, a British psy-ops specialist and a former commander in Britain's Royal Navy, who served as head of SCL Group's defense-related business. His official bio calls him "the U.K.'s longest continuously serving officer in information operations," and it notes that he served in Afghanistan during McChrystal's tenure there and then, later, as "Commanding Officer of 15 (U.K.) Psyops Group." Tatham, along with McChrystal and Andrew Mackay, a British general who served with McChrystal in Afghanistan, is the author of a 2011 book, Behavioural Conflict, whose subtitle is: "Why Understanding People and Their Motives Will Prove Decisive in Future Conflict." It applies what Tatham learned during counterinsurgency wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, Lebanon, the Balkans, and Northern Ireland as lessons in how to get people do what you want them to do.

During those wars, many generals, and their counterinsurgency experts, were operating according to the precepts of General David Petraeus' famous book, The Petraeus Doctrine: The Field Manual on Counterinsurgency Operations, written for the Joint Chiefs of Staff with General James Mattis, now serving as Trump's secretary of defense. Its central belief that winning a war means winning "hearts and minds" and adapting counterinsurgency to the culture of the target population appealed mightily to Steve Bannon, who readily applied it to political electoral strategy.

During the 2016 campaign, Cambridge Analytica served as Team Trump's chief source of voter-related targeting data and as a developer of the campaign's overall messaging, helping to develop the Crooked Hillary theme and other tropes of the Trump effort. From 2014 until August 2016, Steve Bannon, the hard-right Breitbart News chief, served as CA's vice president, member of the board, and investor, alongside Bannon's chief financial backer, Robert Mercer, the right-wing billionaire and Wall Street data guru who helped launch CA. The whole operation, including CA, was overseen by Jared Kushner, Trump's son-in-law.

In an interview with the Guardian, Christopher Wylie, former Cambridge Analytica data specialist who oversaw the compilation and weaponization of the stolen Facebook data, and who's now a whistleblower, explained why CA's military-derived counterinsurgency ideas were was so attractive to Steve Bannon. "The reason why [Bannon] was interested in this, because he followed this idea of the Breitbart doctrine, which is that if you want to change politics, you first have to change culture, because politics flows from culture," said Wylie. "If you to fight a battle, if you want to win a war, you need weapons for that. You need cultural weapons, and we could build them for him."

According to a new lawsuit filed by the Campaign Legal Center in Washington, Cambridge Analytica had at least 10 data analysts embedded in the Trump campaign's own voter-targeting data machine, led by Brad Parscale, and it charges that the Trump campaign, CA, and the Make America Number 1 PAC coordinated improperly, in violation of federal election regulations. It was that machine, which worked in concert with the Republican National Committee in 2016, that reportedly made use of the improperly obtained Facebook data.

It's bad enough that CA and the Trump campaign would use psychological profiles of American voters developed from Facebook profiles, unbeknownst to those Facebook users. But it's even scarier that these profiles were cooked up and manipulated by a firm using the techniques of military intelligence and psy-ops specialists. Even scarier, perhaps, is the fact that Cambridge Analytica may have links to Russia and to those Russians involved in using bots and trolls – via Facebook, Twitter and other social media platforms – to run an influence campaign in the United States. In February, Robert Mueller, the Russiagate special counsel who's investigating possible collusion between Trump and Russia, indicted 13 Russians and the St. Petersburg-based Internet Research Agency over that illegal effort. (On February 16, Rolling Stone reported on the indictment of the Russians and the IRA.)

There's no doubt that Cambridge Analytica has long been under Mueller's microscope. According to the Wall Street Journal, Mueller has asked CA to turn over all documents and emails possibly related to Russian interference in the 2016 election, based in part on reports that CA's CEO Nix contacted Julian Assange of WikiLeaks during the campaign. And, according to a former Cambridge Analytica data specialist, Christopher Wylie, who oversaw the compilation and weaponization of the stolen Facebook data, as long ago as 2014 CA was contacted by Lukoil, Russia's second largest energy firm, which repeatedly asked Nix and other CA executives about its techniques for contacting, persuading and mobilizing U.S. voters. And that worried Wylie. Nix's description of his discussions with Lukoil "didn't make any sense" to Wylie, he told the Guardian. "If this was a commercial deal, why were they so interested in our political targeting?"

In the Guardian, Cadwalladr reported: "[SCL's] defence arm was a contractor to the UK's Ministry of Defence and the US's Department of Defense, among others. Its expertise was in 'psychological operations' – or psyops – changing people's minds not through persuasion but through 'informational dominance,' a set of techniques that includes rumour, disinformation and fake news."

In an investigative series by Britain's Channel 4 news, reported in three parts, reporters went undercover to interview top SCL officials, including Nix, who made outlandish statements about their past use of spook-like methods, including using sex workers as "honey traps," and about the company's work with former British military and intelligence officials in far-flung electoral campaigns from Kenya to eastern Europe. And Nix bragged about SCL's role as the brains behind the Trump campaign's development of electoral themes.

But in Washington, there's great interest in potential ties to Russia. When the Republicans who lead the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence suddenly shut down its own investigation of Russiagate earlier this month, angry Democrats on the committee issued a 21-page memo describing dozens of unexplored leads, witnesses unheard, and entities yet to be investigated. Highlighted was the need to explore in depth the relations between CA, Russia and the Trump campaign. Said the Democratic memo:

"The Committee ought to interview all relevant persons involved or associated with the Trump campaign's digital operation to determine whether the campaign coordinated in any way with Russia in its digital program. The Committee will not be able to fully evaluate the campaign's digital operation without speaking to a broader cross- section of individuals who can provide greater insight into the digital operation's day-to-day activities or its relationship with Cambridge Analytica."

Many Democrats, including Hillary Clinton, suspect that the Russian use of social media during the campaign – especially its allegedly precise voter targeting ability and its uncanny use of fake American social media profiles – may have had CA's help in deciding where and when to strike. If so, it would especially ironic if the Russians made use of CA's military-honed psychological warfare skills.

The website of the SCL Group, CA's parent company, highlights its "customers" in the defense and intelligence world. In its section of defense, presumably the section overseen in 2016 by Steve Tatham, it says:

"We have provided data analytics to Global Combatant Commands (GCC), Theatre Special Operations Commands (TSOC) and partner nations since 2009. Our methodology has been executed in programs commissioned by NATO and Sandia National Labs, and we have developed a complete assessment model for the UK MOD in Information Operations and strategic communication projects. This model has been taught at the NATO StratCom Centre of Excellence."

And it adds:

"Data analytics has made significant advances in using 'big data' to provide insight into human behavior. However, the behavioral models are limited by the type of data recorded. SCL adds another dimension to big data analytics by incorporating social and psychological models to the analysis process."

And in its section on intelligence, SCL emphasizes its work on Target Audience Analysis, or TAA. It says that SCL has "built its reputation" on a "portfolio of non-invasive tools for collecting precise field data and psychological parameters."

Of course, it was precisely these skills that were utilized by CA, Nix, and SCL in their work for the Trump campaign.

A curious and potentially interesting additional Russian connection comes in to the story in the person of Aleksandr Borisovich Kogan. Kogan, who claims that he's being scapegoated in the CA-Facebook scandal, is a Cambridge University data scientist and researcher who developed the scheme to harvest millions of profiles from Facebook. He was born in Moldova, formerly part of the Soviet Union, and is now being investigated by Cambridge University over his use or misuse of Facebook data. According to a March 20th CNN report, the very same year, 2014, that Kogan started working with Cambridge Analytica, he also "teamed up with students and researchers from St. Petersburg State University, one of the top schools in Russia, to pursue a data-harvesting project similar to the one that produced the data he sold to Cambridge Analytica.," and he traveled back and forth between Cambridge and St. Petersburg.

From 2014 through 2016, Kogan delivered a series of lectures in Russia about big data, social media, and predicting human behavior. In a May 2014 speech, he told his Russian audience, "The level of what can be predicted about you based on what you like on Facebook is higher than what your wife would say about you, what your parents or friends can say about you. Even if we take your 10 best friends and they all give a description of who you are as a person and we combine it all together – this analysis method is still better. Your Facebook knows more about you than any other person in your life."

Kogan, who'll no doubt now be of interest to Russiagate investigators, ridicules the idea that he's a "Russian spy," "the last one to have any real links to espionage," he told the Guardian. But it's certainly possible, even likely, that inside the small community of data specialists and Internet gurus in St. Petersburg, Russia – which is where the Russian "troll farm" is based – Kogan may have had contact with some of the same people involved in the 2016 Internet Research Agency-led efforts to intervene in the American election. If so, it's fair to ask: did they learn anything?

Meanwhile, as CA/SCL's close involvement with military and intelligence psywar operatives reveals, investigators – including Mueller – ought to be interested in the extent to which the work by military folks such as Tatham, Mackay, and others was utilized by CA in its work for Trump.

In a paper published by NATO, Tatham – the former British Navy commander who headed up SCL's defense work – described in some detail the theory behind how big data and profiling can be used to shape political views of an audience – in this case, drawn from his military experience, but which was likely adapted and used by SCL in its own electoral work, including during the Trump campaign. The paper, called "Target Audience Analysis," describes the successes and failures of NATO's Strategic Communications efforts and the parallel work in Afghanistan by ISAF, the International Security Assistance Force, that formally shut down four years ago and which handled U.S., British and other NATO operations there from 2009 until 2014, including during Gen. McChrystal's leadership.

"TAA, therefore, aims to fill this Population Intelligence gap by constructing a robust profile of the audience and how it can be influenced by an appropriately conceived and deployed message campaign," wrote Tatham, who was serving as a NATO strategic communications expert in Riga, Latvia. "One key feature of this approach is that messages are developed in a bottom-up fashion, with them being constructed from a process of measurement and research, and subsequently derived from reliable knowledge of the audience."

That, despite its origin in use as a tool of warfare in Afghanistan, sounds exactly like what Bannon, Kushner, and Parscale developed Cambridge Analytica to do in 2016. And, as we know now from Mueller's February indictment of the St. Petersburg troll farm, it increasingly appears as if they had covert Russian assistance.