Print Friendly and PDF
only search openDemocracy.net

As Cambridge Analytica and SCL Elections shut down, SCL Group's defence work needs real scrutiny

We can’t understand the significance of Cambridge Analytica without looking at the network it sits in, and how inadequate controls nurtured aspects of this networks’ development.

Image: Cambridge Analytica's offices in central London. Credit: Yui Mok/PA Images, all rights reserved.

In just a month, Cambridge Analytica has gone from relative obscurity to international notoriety. But for me, this story isn’t new. I first interviewed senior figures in Cambridge Analytica’s lesser known parent company SCL for my 2014 book “Propaganda and Counter-terrorism - Strategies for Global Change”, and I’ve followed their work closely ever since.

It’s been frustrating to watch some of the key players manage to escape crucial questions that should be asked of them. Because this isn’t just a scandal about an obscure, unethical company. It’s a story about how a network of companies was developed which enabled wide deployment of propaganda tools - based on propaganda techniques that were researched and designed for use as weapons in warzones - on citizens in democratic elections. It’s a logical product of a poorly regulated, opaque and lucrative influence industry. There was little or nothing in place to stop them.

Cambridge Analytica’s parent company, SCL, and its founder, Nigel Oakes, have done everything they can to distance themselves from Cambridge Analytica but politics was important to SCL’s work far earlier than many thought. And SCL’s main clients - NATO and the defence departments of its member states - have managed to get away without being asked how much they knew about what one of their key contractors was up to.

Recently the UK’s parliamentary Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee Inquiry into Fake News published some of the evidence I submitted drawing on research interviews for an upcoming book, among other publications. Some of my quoted interviews with key figures suggest that SCL’s military arm and Cambridge Analytica’s engagements may have been much more closely related than Oakes or Cambridge Analytica’s former CEO Alexander Nix like to publicly admit. And if governments genuinely didn’t know how the firm was using the skills it developed in counter-terrorism in divisive elections around the world, then this was a huge failing.

SCL’s defence ‘division’

To explain this, I’ll start with a man called Steve Tatham. I first interviewed Tatham for my 2014 book, about the work he was doing for the British military, then for SCL. Steve Tatham is former Commanding Officer of Britain's 15 (U.K.) Psyops Group and has played a lead role in SCL's defence work, including through the company IOTA Global, which was part of the SCL Group, delivering training in counter-Russian propaganda in Eastern Europe funded by the Government of Canada, as well as conducting research on target audience analysis which has influenced counter-insurgency doctrine.

In February 2017, Carole Cadwalladr began reporting on Cambridge Analytica in the Observer. On March 2 of that year, Tatham sent an email statement to a list of his contacts. Tatham declared that 'SCL Defence is a completely separate company to Cambridge Analytica, who were contracted to assist the Trump campaign during the election, albeit we are both part of the same group'.

On 24th March 2018 The Times reported on SCL Group's propaganda defence work. In particular, it focussed on training carried out by Tatham for NATO's Center of Excellence in Strategic Communication in Latvia and the UK's Ministry of Defence. Shortly after the Times report, Tatham's company Influence Options Ltd made another statement, this time more publicly, withdrawing from all work with SCL Group and emphasising that they have not worked on any political campaigns.

SCL Group has sought to distance SCL defence contracting from political campaign work by stressing SCL Elections and Cambridge Analytica were independent companies. I have no reason to suspect Tatham of having engaged in political work. However, his new statement begs the question of how 'separate' the entities were if they were too close for Tatham to sustain his longstanding relationship to the SCL defence contractor amid Cambridge Analytica allegations. His statement acknowledges he worked for the “defence division” of SCL, language which conveys a different relationship from that spelled out in his email to contacts in March 2017, which declared “completely separate company”. Divisions imply related entities in the same company, not separate companies. So which is it? And if they really are all divisions of the same organisation, surely the unethical activities of one part of the SCL Group urgently demands that real scrutiny is given to the defence 'division' of SCL too – and to government oversight of contracts.

SCL Ltd became SCL ‘Group’ in August 2015. There seem to have been efforts to distance the entities at least superficially; but this seems a more complex picture than “completely separate companies” would imply. My own research supports other evidence presented during the UK parliamentary ‘Fake News Inquiry’ apparently indicating important staffing overlaps, financial relationships and methods in common between apparently separate companies. Last week also, in testimony to the Canadian Parliament, Aggregate IQ, who worked with SCL on the Nigeria campaign, for Ted Cruz and who were contracted by Vote Leave in the UK’s EU Referendum said they worked with SCL, not Cambridge Analytica, on the Cruz campaign, despite Cambridge Analytica being the entity that worked on this election.

Brittany Kaiser, CA’s former Business Development Manager also told the Fake News Inquiry on April 17th that “our company tended to have a business model where we would partner with another company and that company would represent us as SCL Germany, or SCL USA. That was the model.” Kaiser added that she believed SCL Canada and Aggregate IQ were the same. Evidence such as this suggests the existence of a clearly associated network. Furthermore, Brittany Kaiser declared in 2016 that the underpinnings of Cambridge Analytica’s political methods are the same social scientific research and data science techniques as are used for defence: “This was most often actually used in defense. We work for the Department of Defense and intelligence agencies in counter-terrorism operations with this exact same similar methodology. And now we decided to start building up a database to work in politics,” Kaiser said.

SCL and CA - were they really separate companies?

Another key figure who I interviewed before this story broke is Nigel Oakes, chief executive of the SCL Group. Here he is pictured at NATO Stratcom in Riga, working with Steve Tatham. Nigel Oakes was listed as Director of IOTA Global, until the company dissolved in January 2017. Our most recent interview in November last year was very illuminating in revealing the relationship between the companies.

When Oakes set up SCL Elections and Cambridge Analytica as the new political arm of SCL's business, the political ‘division’ worked less separately from SCL. There are reports of SCL working in elections in Indonesia in 1999. Oakes’ own expertise, which emerged in PR, developed further through counter-terrorism work and shaped the Behavioural Dynamics Institute (BDI) - a research unit underpinning SCL methods, and this expertise was being deployed in elections. We need to know which ones.

Oakes told me he had worked on politics “in the past. I set up the company [Cambridge Analytica] but now, I'm totally defence and I've gotta be totally defence”. He said, “the defence people can't be seen to be getting involved in politics, and the State Department, they get very upset.” Oakes stated they imposed “strong lines” between the companies. It seems reasonable to infer that SCL have been restating their separation to ensure survival of business interests in defence and commercial contracting, motivated in part by nervousness and pressure received from the US and UK governments wanting to contract them for defence work. As Oakes said – “they get very upset”.

Yet in my interview with Oakes he referred to what “we” are doing to include Cambridge Analytica not just his defence division - “…when we explain in the two-minute lift pitch what happened with Trump…” Any lack of clarity here matters – a lot. Cambridge Analytica also stressed that they do ”no work outside of North America, although the Cambridge Analytica brand is now used worldwide”. According to whistle-blower Chris Wylie, Cambridge Analytica’s work in Nigeria included an ad with a montage of violence, including real footage of people being dismembered and burned, from recent history, seeking to create fear of Muslims and intimidate voters.

And then there’s Sam Patten. Patten was ‘senior director/campaign manager’, according to Kaiser, and oversaw the Nigeria campaign along with a second senior strategist. I interviewed him in July 2017 also about a previous job he did working for the International Republican Institute in ‘reconstruction’ era Iraq. He told me he had also worked in the US, in Oregon, during one of the trial runs of Cambridge Analytica’s early deployment of psychographics, later deployed more fully in the Cruz campaign. He talked about preparations for this, “they were training a team, I was part of that team… they [...] trained me in England then they sent me to Canada for more training” then he developed messaging for the US campaigns. The Canada based company Aggregate IQ were reported in the Guardian as having links to SCL but have sought to distance themselves from that company. Patten observed of the United States, “I’ve worked for Ukraine, Iraq, I’ve worked in deeply corrupt countries, and our system, isn’t very different” (See Explanatory Essay 1).

 "I’ve worked for Ukraine, Iraq, I’ve worked in deeply corrupt countries, and our system, isn’t very different’"

An open secret in Washington

SCL Group’s reputation seemed something of an open secret among some of my contacts in Washington DC information warfare and political campaign circles. This is conveyed in Patten’s flippant comments about a job with SCL: “Anyway, the irony was… because it was SCL I assumed it was the bad guys, but it wasn’t!”.

Siloing activities or divisions off can be helpful when a company grows rapidly into new areas, for many reasons. Staff, like Tatham, in the original company, and the Behavioural Dynamics Institute, SCL Group’s ‘research institute’, are not homogenous, and there are some distinctions culturally between those with careers originating in defence and those without. Not all of these individuals wished to work with Cambridge Analytica, not all shared the political motivations represented in the lucrative new contracts.

Siloing in companies engaged in nefarious or secretive activities of the kind Channel 4 revealed at Cambridge Analytica can also help manage the potential for leaks and exposure. Regardless of how or why Oakes and his business partners may have ultimately organised the companies or 'divisions' to perpetuate their activities (somewhat) separately, the point is that there is a network of companies, with SCL Group central to it, which is responsible for a collection of worrying activities and pitching defence-derived methods to shady international actors. I would argue that, given the above evidence, particularly Oakes’ interview and Kaiser’s reporting and testimony, in order to understand and evaluate these activities we must at least consider the related yet somewhat-autonomous companies’ activities alongside each other, rather than in isolation, including:

  • - Assisting the campaigns of politicians using racist and violent video content designed to drive fear and intimidate voters in fragile states (Cambridge Analytica and Aggregate IQ)
  • - Spreading Islamophobic and false narratives in the West including the 2016 US election and which was copied for the EU Referendum by Leave.EU (Cambridge Analytica - see my Explanatory Essay 1). These narratives drive fear of Muslims which is used to justify calls for more spending on ‘counter-terrorism’ (Briant, 2015).
  • - Profiting from Western governments interventions ostensibly to resolve conflicts (often religious and ethnic) for counter-terrorism and counter-extremism (see my last book)
  • - Also (not mentioned in my submission to parliament), an archived version of their website appears to indicate that SCL have been involved in three elections in the UK. Though Nix has said “we don't involve ourselves in the UK as a rule of thumb” he lists the UK’s Conservative Party in this letter among parties they have helped.

These are not unrelated activities.

When we consider the work of the overall group, these activities might variously be considered to drive instability in precarious democracies, drive fear of Muslims in the West and internationally, then profit from both wars against Muslim countries and Muslims’ marginalisation in the West, while claiming to ‘counter’ extremism.

Controlling the propaganda industries

Damian Collins MP as Chair of the Fake News Inquiry should now consider the extent to which Nigel Oakes, as SCL Group CEO and founder of SCL, should share responsibility along with Cambridge Analytica’s former chief executive Alexander Nix. A number of senior Cambridge Analytica figures are now involved with Emerdata, a new Mercer-backed data analytics company.

Oakes and his colleagues have spent many years studying extremism and terrorism including interviewing terrorists themselves. All of this social science and human intelligence work has been fed into BDI’s research core, which can be drawn on by all the companies. Steve Tatham has claimed that:

“The BDI methodology uses the most advanced social science research to measure populations and determine, to a high degree of accuracy, how population groups may respond under certain conditions. The methodology is the only one of its type and has been verified and validated by the US Defence Advanced Research Project Agency (DARPA), the Sandia National Laboratories (USA) and the UK’s Defence Science and Technology Laboratories (DSTL).”

Oakes said to me, of this social science research core – “without this [Alexander Nix] couldn’t do any of that!” (See Explanatory Essay 3). The companies were well equipped to understand what might drive extremism from their shared research base, and to understand the impact of the 'othering' or violent and terrifying ads deployed in domestic and international campaigns. My evidence shows Oakes is not naïve to the kind of campaigns Cambridge Analytica and his SCL Group deployed in the US.

This case has further deeply important implications for our government’s defence contracting. In shocking new testimony Brittany Kaiser, former Development Manager for Cambridge Analytica revealed that:

“I found documents from Nigel Oakes, the co-founder of the SCL Group, who was in charge of our defence division, stating that the target audience analysis methodology, TAA, used to be export controlled by the British Government. That would mean that the methodology was considered a weapon—weapons grade communications tactics—which means that we had to tell the British Government if that was going to be deployed in another country outside the United Kingdom. I understand that designation was removed in 2015.”

Interestingly, August 2015 is when SCL stopped being SCL Ltd and started being SCL ‘Group’. Again, Kaiser too refers to “our defence division” - not a separate company. And regarding other aspects, the US government’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) worked with BDI during the ‘War on Terror’, developing methods together (see Explanatory Essay 3). If the methodologies BDI developed might have informed tactics deployed in democratic elections this is very serious, whether or not the tools were ‘effective’ or what specifically they were used for. It is vital that our governments, including research entities like DARPA, build into contracts more control over tools and weapons they help to create. They must not escape responsibility when private organisations extend these, to be developed beyond the original defence work. This must also apply when they are unofficially working together, but not contracted.

Furthermore, it seems highly improbable that our intelligence agencies would not have been monitoring destabilising activities in Kenya, Nigeria, Indonesia and other countries with a precarious state of peace and with vulnerable democratic systems. It is their job to anticipate developing conflicts and instability in countries such as these. They also often maintain awareness of any potential security weaknesses, liabilities and conflicts of interest in the background and businesses of individuals working in national security. We should therefore ask how much they, and the State Department and the Pentagon in the US, and the FCO and MoD in the UK, and indeed NATO, might have known about other companies in this ‘Group’. It is vital that anyone with additional evidence that illuminates these questions further comes forward as a priority.

My evidence shows that SCL Group had experienced some pressure from Western governments to make the ‘political’ companies more separate from the government contractor, concern that implies at least some knowledge that there may be something to be worried about. If so, to what extent did the policy of pushing them for separation, rather than dropping them as a defence contractor, allow SCL to continue their unethical practices? It would be extremely serious if our governments turned a blind eye to unethical work with the potential to destabilise vulnerable nations and potentially trigger future conflicts in which our military might be deployed. At the very least there was poor evaluation of risk and weak oversight, particularly in determining whether the actions of the SCL Group might undermine British and American interests abroad.

Importantly, my evidence shows that Leave.EU copied and were able to deploy an effective campaign based on Cambridge Analytica’s methods following the pitch that Kaiser gave them. This raises questions of whether other entities who received a similar pitch could also have replicated the methodology - this is of particular important in relation to Lukoil for example, a Russian state-owned company that Cambridge Analytica pitched their methods to around the time SCL were delivering training in methods to Eastern European countries to ‘counter Russian threat’.

Actions in response to this evidence must include a review of the current processes for removal of the ‘export control’ restrictions along with the process where companies bid for a UK Government ‘Framework’ for privileged access to contracts over four years. A lot has changed in the last four years for SCL. Cambridge Analytica has been shut down. Now there must be proper inquiry into the process of procurement and oversight of government contracts as the implications of all this are very serious. Most importantly the actions of a ‘group’ of related but apparently autonomous companies must be treated as relevant, not just considering the contracted company in isolation. The group must be continuously monitored. We cannot allow this to happen again.

About the author

Dr Emma L Briant is a Senior Lecturer from the University of Essex. She is presently working on a new book “What’s wrong with the Democrats? Media bias, inequality and the rise of Donald Trump” with Robert M Entman. Her last book was ‘Propaganda and Counter-terrorism: Strategy for Global Change’ (Manchester University Press, 2015). Dr Briant is also on the editorial board of Defence Strategic Communication, a journal of NATO StratCom COE, Steve Tatham is a former editor of the journal and its present editor is Neville Bolt.

Who is bankrolling Britain's democracy? Which groups shape the stories we see in the press; which voices are silenced, and why? Sign up here to find out.


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the
oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.