SCL and the Phantom Contract
22nd March 2018
In the second of our explosive expose of the SCL Group we ask: what is the phantom contract with the MOD from 2010/11 and what did the ‘external training’ a previous FOI revealed involve? The MOD is now contradicting previous information it has given out under Freedom of Information laws. As a senior SCL executive admits to us that the company’s future is in doubt, Liam O’Hare argues that the government has critical questions to answer.
Theresa May was yesterday forced into addressing the issue of links between the UK Government, the Conservative Party and a company at the centre of a scandal over data harvesting and dirty tricks.
However, instead of clearing up the issue – the response has raised urgent questions about the nature of SCL Group’s (formerly Strategic Communications Laboratories) relationship to the highest echelons of state power in Britain.
SCL Group is the parent company of Cambridge Analytica. They share directors and practise and are for all intents and purposes part of the same organisation. Between them they claim to have influenced more than 200 elections across the world.
In an article for this website, I revealed the extent of the links between SCL Group and the British establishment – in particular the Conservative Party. Directors include an array of Etonian educated Tory donors, former government ministers, and high-ranking officers in the British army.
These revelations led to the SNP’s Westminster leader Ian Blackford questioning May about these links at Prime Minister’s Questions yesterday.
Her response sidestepped the issue of connections between her own party and the organisation and emphasised that the government has no “current contracts” with SCL Group.
A Downing Street spokesperson later clarified that the government previously had three contracts with SCL Group. One was with the Ministry of Defence between 2014-2015, one with the Home Office in 2009 and one with the Foreign Office in 2008-2009. Here lies a glaring inconsistency.
Last year, the MOD responded to a freedom of information request on its links with SCL Group. In its response it detailed TWO contracts it had with the firm. One of these was in 2014-15, worth £150,000 and involving the “procurement of targeted audience analysis”. However, it also notes a second contract (not mentioned by the No 10 spokesperson) , in 2010/11 involving the “provision of external training” and worth £40,000.
I put this major discrepancy to Downing St who insisted that there were only ever three government contracts with the group and suggested I speak to the Ministry of Defence.
Then when I questioned the MOD about the 2010/11 deal, it told me it had “one contract with SCL Group in 2014/15” and are “unable to provide any further information on this.”
The response is quite remarkable. The MOD is now contradicting previous information it has given out under Freedom of Information laws. That leaves two options. The first is that the initial information was incorrect and someone imagined a deal with SLC group for external training in 2010/11.
The second is that the MOD and Downing St are providing false information to journalists regarding their dealings with SCL Group. This possibility would open a pandora’s box of questions over what the government is seeking to hide and why?
It was revealed yesterday that Mark Turnbull of SCL Group and CA advised the Foreign Office on lessons from Donald Trump’s election campaign. The title of his lecture was listed as “examining the application of data in the recent US Presidential election”. That raises questions over whether the British government was already aware of the mass harvesting of Facebook data which sparked this scandal.
Details are emerging about the worldwide activities of SCL Group and CA, touching almost every corner of the globe stretching from Brazil, to Nigeria, to Mexico and to India. But it has now emerged that in at least some of these these projects, CA coordinated with the UK MOD.
In Ukraine, SCL were hired to implement a data driven strategy designed to “erode and weaken” anti-government opposition in the country and “win back control of Donetsk”. On their website the CA says it produced a project report to the President of Ukraine and intriguingly also “shared with the UK MOD”. It begs the questions, why is a private contractor involved in shadowy psyops working hand in glove with the UK MOD on foreign projects?
With a spotlight on the organisation, the group seems to be quickly trying to batten down the hatches. The website for the Behaviour Dynamic Institute (BDI), the behavioural research arm of SCL group has mysteriously gone down.
Remarkably (although perhaps less so regarding how close SCL is to the British establishment) the institute is based at the home of British science and research, the Royal Institute. According to a paper by the SCL director of defence Dr Steve Tatham, this makes it “almost unique in the international contractor community”. Quite.
Tatham is another interesting case. He was former head of psyops for British forces in Afghanistan as well as Special Information Operations project officer in the UK Ministry of Defence Operations Directorate.
Tatham went on to set up the training arm of SCL Group called IOTA-Global alongside SCL founder Nigel Oakes and delivered a $1m NATO training course in Latvia aimed at “countering Russian propaganda”.
I contacted Tatham to ask if he would continue working with SCL group in light of the revelations, and he responded by saying “I suspect your question is academic as I can’t see SCL surviving this”.
In further messages, Tatham distanced himself from Cambridge Analytica, the offshoot from SCL Group, and insisted his activities were “ethical” and “truthful”.
“I have worked with SCL Defence on defence projects which is well documented, for example the NATO counter propaganda course in Latvia in 2015,” Tatham told me.
“In UK and NATO doctrine Psyops is ‘truthful and attributable comms with specific target audiences’ not the the appalling stuff CA (Cambridge Analytica) appears to have undertaken,”
“A point about what and who we train. Only NATO and friendly governments. And we only train truthful and attributable techniques. Why? Because our clients work with NATO and that is UK and NATO doctrine… as ex UK military senior officer I have strong personal ethics and that is why we are all so appalled at the revelations about CA”.
With founder Alexander Nix being suspended from Cambridge Analytica, a pattern seems to be developing that shifts all blame for the recent scandals onto the subsidiary as opposed to the parent company SCL Group.
However, with the links between the two organisations evident and further revelations emerging every day, it seems clear that this will not wash.
It’s now time for the UK government to come completely clean on exactly what ties it had with SCL Group and answer the following questions:
Was it aware of the data harvesting used in the US election?
What is the phantom contract with the MOD in 2010/11 and what did the ‘external training’ involve?
What did the other contracts that the government had with SCL Group involve and did it make any other payments to the group, outside of the contracts?
Was there coordination between SCL Group and the MOD in other countries as existed in Ukraine?
Why is taking so long for the Information Commissioner to get a warrant to search databases and servers of Cambridge Analytica?
Until these are answered, we can expect this scandal, which reaches the heart of unaccountable British power, to rumble on and on.