Journalist Max Blumenthal published documents showing how Cambridge Analytica’s parent company SCL Group ran a secret counter-insurgency operation in Yemen on behalf of a US-based military contractor, called Project Titania. The UK government likely contracted it, exploiting NGOs and spying on populations in the Middle East
BEN NORTON: It’s The Real News. I’m Ben Norton.
An explosive new investigative report by the journalist Max Blumenthal exposes how Cambridge Analytica’s parent company SCL Group ran a counterinsurgency program in Yemen on behalf of a U.S.-based military contractor. Cambridge Analytica was a political data company that dissolved this year after it was exposed that the firm had been hired by the Donald Trump campaign to manipulate the 2016 presidential election. Blumenthal obtained exclusive documents revealing that Cambridge Analytica’s parent company, which is called SCL Group, honed the deceptive tactics that it later used in the 2016 U.S. election first in Yemen, as part of a secret surveillance operation called Project Titania. Max published these leaked documents at his independent investigative journalism website The Grayzone Project, which you can find at GrayzoneProject.com.
The surveillance operation run by SCL involved infiltrating local groups and spying on the domestic population using deliberately deceptive tactics. The operatives were instructed to use a, quote, “cover story,” unquote, to gather information. The foreign operatives in Yemen were also told to communicate with the British Embassy and register with the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office, which suggests that the UK government contracted SCL for the surveillance work. The documents furthermore show how SCL exploited local NGOs inside Yemen as part of its surveillant operation. An anonymous source also explained to Max how SCL tried to recruit them to pose as a journalist to infiltrate Iran, another country in the Middle East, in order to spy on the country and collect data. SCL Group specialize in what it openly called, quote, “psychological warfare,” end quote, influence operations, and did contract work with the UK government.
Joining us to discuss this is Max Blumenthal. Max is an award-winning investigative journalist and the author of several books. He is also the editor of the independent news website The Grayzone Project. Max published his new report in two parts. You can find both at GrayzoneProject.com. With Max I also cohost the podcast Moderate Rebels, and I contribute to his website The Grayzone Project. Thanks for joining us, Max.
MAX BLUMENTHAL: Thanks for having me on.
BEN NORTON: So there’s a lot to unpack here. There are a lot of different names that viewers might not be familiar with. Some people might know of Cambridge Analytica because in the past several months there was a big media scandal over its role in infiltrating and influencing the 2016 U.S. presidential election. Before we get to discuss this Yemen operation, this counterinsurgency operation that you exposed, let’s just talk a bit about Cambridge Analytica and its parent company, the SCL Group. Can you explain to the audience what Cambridge Analytica and SCL are?
MAX BLUMENTHAL: I would basically describe SCL as a private intelligence operation, or private intelligence agency. They call themselves a data firm, but I think that kind of undersells their ability to conduct not just surveillance, even kind of counterinsurgency operations, as I showed in Project Titania, but also influencing elections. And it’s something that they up until recently were pretty proud of doing. So proud that they boasted of, for example, cultivating anti-Russian sentiment among the Ukrainian population in the contested areas of eastern Ukraine on behalf of the Ukrainian government, and participating in the Ukrainian Color Revolution in 2004, which removed a Russian-oriented government and replaced it in basically, you know, in basically a Western-backed de facto coup with a Western-oriented government. SCL Group was front and center as part, in part of that, in that operation, and they bragged about it on their website. They’ve been active in Kenyan elections.
And it was only a matter of time before they-. And you know, they’ve been active in elections around the world, as well as counterinsurgency-style operations, where they collect data on local populations in conflict areas. And they freely acknowledged, I mean, I wouldn’t say this investigation was necessarily explosive. I think it’s really valuable to have these documents. I don’t know if anyone has produced original documents like these that really lay out the plans for what SCL and its other private intelligence partners were doing in conflict zones like Yemen. But SCL has freely acknowledged its work in Syria and Libya and Iran on its website, as well. We just didn’t know what the nature of it was.
So what I was able to do is kind of fill in some of the blanks, dot some of the Is and the Ts that were already on the webs-. That were already on the website, and kind of really highlight the use of deception that SCL had perfected in order to insinuate itself into areas that were difficult for its Western clients to, its Western patrons to reach. SCL is the British parent company of Cambridge Analytica, which more Americans would be familiar with. Cambridge Analytica obtained the data through Facebook of 87 million Americans as part of an influence operation that it carried out partly on behalf of the Donald Trump campaign. It was also working with Ted Cruz, and it worked in several campaigns in 2014 in the U.S., and basically was owned by Stephen Bannon and the Mercer operation of reclusive billionaire Robert Mercer, who until recently was the patron of Stephen Bannon and one of the major backers of the whole kind of apparatus that made up the Trump 2016 campaign. Robert Mercer’s daughter Rebecca was a co-owner of Cambridge Analytica, and was involved with SCL Group, and Bannon was also co-owner.
So this scandal, naturally, was going to erupt in the Trump era, when Democrats in Congress are really angry about the fact that Donald Trump won it all and were looking into how he did it, and seeking to frame it as this kind of nefarious operation and to paint Trump as a figure without popular support. Well, first they look to Russia. And you know, as we’ve done in interview after interview here, shown that there really wasn’t a whole lot there to demonstrate collusion. So they finally turned to something we have been talking about for over a year, for a while, Cambridge Analytica. Cambridge Analytica was also involved in Brexit. The oligarchs who started the Brexit campaign hired Cambridge Analytica, and Bannon learned a lot of lessons there. So finally, the Democrats started looking at it. An insider from Cambridge Analytica emerged and detailed a lot of the deceptive practices they used. And then Channel 4 in the UK conducted a sting on Cambridge Analytica. One of their executives was boasting of honey traps, and all kinds of, you know, James Bond villain-style tactics that they pledge to use.
And you know, I think what I’ve done with this investigation is show that a lot of the tactics it uses are just good old-fashioned counterinsurgency. I interviewed Yasha Levine, who’s the author of Surveillance Valley, which is a great book on how the Internet grew out of counterinsurgency programs and is used to surveil us. And Yasha said, yeah, this is, a lot of these tactics that are laid out in the documents for Project Titania in Yemen, they look like Vietnam-era counterinsurgency stuff. Nothing particularly significant, but it’s still, you know, pretty sinister. And so when you kind of put all of these different pieces together, and you consider the fact that one organization working with this web of other private intelligence groups is carrying out counterinsurgency, kind of surveillance-style operations, to collect data on people in conflict areas in the Middle East. As one of my sources told me, they’re also posing as journalists to go into areas like Iran, and posing as students, either foreign exchange students or Arabic language students, to collect data in Syria.
They’re doing that, and then they’re starting to hone their craft in the West, particularly in the UK and the U.S., through this cutout company, Cambridge Analytica. It really starts to look like a case of blowback, where the tactics that the West is applying against the populations it’s targeting in the third world are coming back to its own elections. And they’re being used to elect, in some cases, extreme right-wing candidates, and to carry out influence operations and covert propaganda against a public that believes that, you know, it’s acting democratically.
BEN NORTON: Yeah, so you raise a lot of important points there. And one of the things I want to try to do is help unpack some of these details for viewers. There are a lot of different companies and names and people involved in this. We’ve been talking about SCL, which stands for Strategic Communication Laboratories. That’s the parent company of Cambridge Analytica, which you mentioned is, it was co-owned by Steve Bannon and Robert Mercer, who backed Donald Trump, also involved in Project Titania, which is this counterinsurgency operation in Yemen. Also involved is a U.S.-based military contractor Archimedes. This is the company that, that, that the SCL Goup was in fact operating on behalf of. And then finally, of course, you mention in your article, and it’s been documented elsewhere, that SCL frequently had contracts with the U.K. government. So we see a web of different operatives here, and we see multiple governments, including the UK and the U.S. involved in some ways. Maybe if not the U.S. government is directly involved, at least the UK government is involved. Can you speak a little bit more about the the kind of web of, or the revolving door, rather, between governments and private interests here, and how companies like SCL, as you mentioned Yasha Levine has documented how these these tech companies often serve as contractors for governments, and they advance those governments’ interests through soft power.
MAX BLUMENTHAL: Basically, I obtained the documents that were given to, I suppose, I assume the employees of these two private intelligence firms, SCL, which is the parent company of Cambridge Analytica, and Archimedes. Archimedes appeared to be, SCL appeared to be contracted through Archimedes, and Archimedes was based, I think, in the Bay Area. It’s a U.S.-based company. And the mission, as laid out in these documents which I published in full at GrayzoneProject.com, were instructions for entering Yemen in 2009, which was really the height of the Obama drone assassination program, into the two provinces where the skies were shadowed by U.S. drones and the ground was substantially occupied, or, or featured massive mobilization and organization by al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. And what SCL seek to do was to gather data on young males, and what attracted them to jihadist activity and then they were going to develop a, what they called, I think, I think they openly said counterpropaganda campaign. But an influencing operation to turn the young males somehow against jihadist recruitment.
And this meant that they had to first find local researchers, Yemenis to conduct research on the young males, basically getting them into schools and different community centers to answer questionnaires which SCL and Archimedes had drawn up. And they were specifically ordered, the SCL operatives were specifically ordered to develop a cover story with the local Yemeni researchers, and various cover stories were proposed so that the researchers on the ground, the Yemeni population, would not know that they were carrying out an actual counterinsurgency operation, possibly on behalf of the UK government. All of these operatives from SCL were told to gather at the British embassy in Sana’a, the Yemeni capital.
So it’s pretty clear that something that the, either the British government or whoever hired SCL was going on, that they sought to conceal-. And this has had really negative ramifications in the past when the element of concealment fell apart. For example, the polio eradication campaign in Pakistan, which was being carried out by the CIA in order to extract the DNA of Osama bin Laden’s family. When the rural population of Pakistan discovered that they, this wasn’t, in fact, a polio eradication program, and that the local Pakistanis were acting as a front for the CIA, jihadist groups declared a boycott, and polio began to spread massively spread all the way into Afghanistan. So you can, you know, you really have a kind of precedent for, for, you know, a critical, for a critical look at a program like this. I mean, there’s a precedent for programs like this doing deep damage to local populations, is what I’m saying.
And so, you know, it all goes back to a web of private intelligence operatives. I’ve talked about SCL before, but there’s also Archimedes. I don’t know if this firm still exists, but I found one character in a communication I obtained who was sort of the contact between SCL and Archimedes. His name was Tim Reason. He’s now at another firm I never heard of before called Madison Springfield. Character, you know, there’s there’s very little on this character. I’ve seen him participate in some programs for AFRICOM, which is the U.S. military kind of archipelago of U.S. military bases in Africa. But I know very little about him. I did find him, however, in the HBGary leaks, which were published by WikiLeaks in 2011. And HBGary is another private intelligence firm. And basically, if you go into these leaks, I don’t know any normal people who have time to do this, but I kind of had to do it to produce this investigation, you’re just going to find a bunch of private spies talking to each other about designing competing mass surveillance programs at the dawn of the Arab Spring to spy on Arab youth, gobble up their personal information, and then design influence operations based on what they’ve learned about Arab youth, who are considered sort of a restive population engaged in this revolutionary process that’s overturning governments across the Arab world.
So Tim Reason turns up in all of these email threads with different characters from private intelligence firms I’d never heard of before, along with staffers from Apple, who are from the Homeland Security division of Apple. I didn’t know Apple had a Homeland Security division before, or that they were this involved, Google is also involved here, this involved in mass surveillance. And it really it’s just that kind of just scratching the surface. But it’s really a disturbing portrait of this private intelligence web which is carried out, carrying out influence operations, covert propaganda, and mass surveillance completely out of the sight of most of the world’s population by design. And they’re being contracted by governments to do so so the governments don’t have to take any responsibility. I learned about this all thanks to the work of Barrett Brown. And Barrett Brown went to prison for 56 months because he received all of these hacked e-mails from the Anonymous collective, and reported on them. For reporting on them. He went to prison under Obama. And it’s thanks to Barrett Brown, and to WikiLeaks, Julian Assange is now, you know, undergoing horrible conditions at the Ecuadorian embassy in London thanks to pressure from the U.S. and UK government. It’s really thanks to these two that we know about these programs, and that we know about the ROMAS/COIN mass surveillance program that I wrote about that Tim Reason was involved in.
So really just by starting this investigation, looking at these SCL documents, I learned about this entire wider web of covert influence operations. And we really have to see Cambridge Analytica as just the tip of the massive iceberg that might represent the greatest threat to whatever’s left of democracy.
BEN NORTON: Well, we’ll have to end our conversation there. We were joined by Max Blumenthal. He is an award-winning journalist and the author of several books. He is also the editor of the website The Grayzone Project, which you can find at GrayzoneProject.com. He just published a two-part exposé on the SCL Group, which is the parent company of Cambridge Analytica, exposing how it led a counterinsurgency and surveillance operation in Yemen. Max also mentioned Yasha Levine, and we at The Real News have an interview with Aaron Maté in which Aaron Maté and Yasha Levine discuss Yasha’s new book Surveillance Vally, which is more about all of these issues we discussed today, big tech companies and their relations to governments. But thanks for joining us here at The Real News, Max.
MAX BLUMENTHAL: Thanks for having me.
BEN NORTON: Reporting for The Real News. I’m Ben Norton.