Tag Archives: Institute for Statecraft

‘The Russian Interference Report, Without Laughing’ | Craig Murray

Now the madding crowd has moved on, I take a mature look at the report by the Intelligence and Security Committee on Russia. It is so flawed it is tempting simply to mock it. But in fact, it is extremely dangerous.

It calls expressly and repeatedly for the security services to be actively involved in “policing the democratic space” and castigates the security services for their unwillingness to interfere in democratic process. It calls for tough government action against social media companies who refuse to censor and remove from the internet material it believes to be inspired by foreign states. It specifically accepts the Integrity Initiative’s Christopher Donnelly and Ben Nimmo as examples of good identifiers of the material which should be banned – even though Nimmo is the man who stated that use of the phrase “Cui bono” is indicative of a Russian troll, and who accused scores of ordinary Scottish Independence supporters of being Russian trolls.

In order for you to assess the threat of a report which specifically calls on the social media companies to ban those individuals the British government identifies as Russian trolls, and which calls on the security services to act against those people, remember Ian.

Ian was identified by the British government as a Russian troll, on the word of Nimmo and Donnelly – exactly the “experts” on which this report relies. This report proposes Ian, and people like him, be banned from social media and subject to security service surveillance.

Listen to Ian:

In short the report is a real threat to democracy. Its evidence base is appalling, and that is what I shall look at first.

The ISC took evidence from just five “experts” outside the intelligence services. They were Anne Applebaum, Bill Browder, Christopher Donnelly, Edward Lucas and Christopher Steele. I do not quite know how to get over to you the full significance of this. It would be impossible to assemble a group of five witnesses with any pretence whatsoever to respectability (and some of them have an extremely tenuous link to respectability) that would be more far out, right wing and Russophobic. They are the extreme fringe of anti-Russian thinking. They are nowhere near the consensus among the academic, diplomatic and other genuinely expert communities on Russia.

There is simply no attempt at balance whatsoever. The best I can try to get over the extent of this would be to compare it to a hypothetical parliamentary inquiry into Old Firm rivalry where the only witnesses are Scott Brown, Neil Lennon, John Hartson, the Green Brigade, and a Cardinal. There is not any attempt from the ISC to interview any witness who is even remotely balanced or can give the view from the other side. Some might feel that a report entitled simply “Russia” which called zero actual Russians as witnesses is somewhat flawed.

To go through those witnesses.

Anne Applebaum is the most respectable of them. I should state that I know both Anne (whom I know as Ania) and her husband, Radek Sikorski MEP, slightly from my time as First Secretary at the British Embassy in Poland (1994-8). Anne is a right wing journalist who has worked at both the Spectator and the American Enterprise Institute, a Randian think tank. She identifies as Polish and shares the understandable visceral distrust of Russia felt by the Polish right. Her husband Radek Sikorski is a long term friend of Boris Johnson, member of the Bullingdon Club, also worked at the American Enterprise Institute and is a former Defence Minister of Poland. Radek’s persona as a politician is very much based around his hawkish stance on Russia. Both Anne and Radek have consistently argued for the aggressive eastward expansion of NATO and forward stationing of US troops and missiles towards Russia.

Bill Browder is a billionaire who made his money out of the Russian people from the fallout of Russia’s chaotic privatisation process. He achieved fame by portraying his highly corrupt accountant, Sergei Magnitskiy, as a human rights campaigner murdered by the Russian authorities. Browder’s account of events was found to be fundamentally false by the European Court of Human Rights, in a judgement which received zero truthful reporting in Western media. Here is an extract from the judgement of the ECHR:

The applicants argued that Mr Magnitskiy’s arrest had not been based on a reasonable suspicion of a crime and that the authorities had lacked impartiality as they had actually wanted to force him to retract his allegations of corruption by State officials. The Government argued that there had been ample evidence of tax evasion and that Mr Magnitskiy had been a flight risk.

The Court reiterated the general principles on arbitrary detention, which could arise if the
authorities had complied with the letter of the law but had acted with bad faith or deception. It found no such elements in this case: the enquiry into alleged tax evasion which had led to
Mr Magnitskiy’s arrest had begun long before he had complained of fraud by officials. The decision to arrest him had only been made after investigators had learned that he had previously applied for a UK visa, had booked tickets to Kyiv, and had not been residing at his registered address.

Furthermore, the evidence against him, including witness testimony, had been enough to satisfy an objective observer that he might have committed the offence in question. The list of reasons given by the domestic court to justify his subsequent detention had been specific and sufficiently detailed.

The Court thus rejected the applicants’ complaint about Mr Magnitskiy’s arrest and subsequent detention as being manifestly ill-founded.

The ECJ found that Magnitskiy indeed died as a result of the shortcomings of Russia’s brutal prison regime – very similar to that of the United States in this regard – but that he was properly in prison on viable criminal charges. The western media may ignore the fact that Browder’s activism is motivated entirely by a desire to hold on to his own vast ill-gotten wealth, and that the highest of courts has found his campaigning is based on a false narrative, but it is deeply, deeply shocking that the members of the Intelligence and Security Committee, who must know the truth, still give Browder credibility. There is no sense in which Browder is a respectable witness.

Christopher Donnelly was forced to step down as a person with significant control of fake charity “The Institute for Statecraft” after the Scottish Charity Regulator found that:

“There was no clear explanation as to why the salaries being paid to charity trustees were considered reasonable and necessary, and we had concern about the charity trustees’ decision-making process around these payments. We do not consider that this private benefit was incidental to the organisation’s activities that advanced its purposes”.

In other words, making money for its trustees, principally Christopher Donnelly, was a purpose of the Institute for Statecraft, not an incidental benefit. This is what the Charity Regulator also found about this fake charity:

The Charity Regulator also found that the Integrity Initiative, run by the Institute for Statecraft, was sending out party political tweets. All of this activity was of course carried out with taxpayers money, the Integrity Initiative being funded by the FCO, the MOD, and the security services.

The Integrity Initiative is a covert propaganda organisation designed to do precisely what the ISC report accuses Russia of doing – covertly influencing politics in both the UK and numerous other countries by state sponsored propaganda disguised as independent journalism or social media posts. Christopher Donnelly heads the Integrity Initiative. Its basic method of operation is secretly to pay mainstream media journalists around the world to pump out disguised British government propaganda, and to run hidden social media campaigns doing the same thing.

All of the “expert witnesses” before the committee feature in the leaked Integrity Initiative documents as part of Integrity Initiative activites. They are all engaged in doing precisely what they here accuse the Russians of doing. The best exposition, to the highest academic standards, of the fascinating leaked documents of the Integrity Initiative operation is by the Working Group on Syria, Propaganda and the Media. You can very happily spend an hour looking through their report.

So the UK UK was asking its own paid propagandists what they thought of the Russian propagandists. Every one of the witnesses makes their living from postulating the Russian threat. They therefore said the Russian threat is very big indeed.

Edward Lucas is a hilarious professional Russophobe. He is the go-to anti-Russia expert of the BBC, and can be guaranteed to say something stimulating, such as this:

Lucas actually uses #newcoldwar in his twitter profile, and is jolly keen on the idea.

Christopher Steele is a charlatan and con-man. He is by no means unique in trading on the glamour and reputation of MI6 to build up a consultancy business after an undistinguished career as a middle ranking MI6 officer.

When Steele produced, for a large sum of money, his famous “Pee dossier” on Donald Trump’s “collusion” with Russia, it was obvious to anyone with any professional background in intelligence analysis that it simply could not be genuine. It claimed to have a level of access into Russian security circles which is greater than the penetration ever secured by MI6 or the CIA. I immediately pointed out its deficiencies, but these were ignored by an establishment media desperate to explain away the Trump insurgency into their political space.

Since then the dossier has simply fallen apart. Steele has been successfully sued by people named in the dossier. The lawyer Michael Cohen has shown that he was definitively not in Prague on the date Steele claimed he was meeting Russian hackers there, and indeed has never been to Prague. Most telling of all, it turns out that most of the content of the dossier was simply a compilation of the gossip of the Russian emigre community in Washington by Igor Danchenko, formerly a junior staff member at the Brookings Institute, a liberal foreign policy thinktank.

The silence of the media on the unravelling of the Steele Dossier has been so remarkable it has drawn comment in unexpected quarters:

Having seen the quality of the input, it is unsurprising that the report is a case of “rubbish in, rubbish out”. So let us now, with rubber gloves and a peg on the nose, pick through the rubbish.

To start at para 1, the tone is immediately set of paranoid antagonism to Russia. There is no attempt at balance whatsoever; anti-Russian statement is built on anti-Russian statement until we are supposed to be carried away by the stream of rhetoric to accept each succeeding proposition as it is piled up. Like this one:

The murder of Alexander Litvinenko in 2006 demonstrated that Russia under President Putin had moved from potential partner to established threat.

Did it really? Accepting for the sake of argument that the official British explanation of Litvinenko’s death is true and it was a murder by the Russian state, does that show that Russia is an “established threat”? It would certainly be an appalling abuse of human rights and show Russia is a threat to Russian dissidents, but would it really show Russia is an “established threat” to you and me? Plenty of other countries murder their opponents abroad, notably the USA, Saudi Arabia, Israel and Uzbekistan, countries the UK government is proud to call allies. The UK kills opponents abroad continually, in drone strikes, including deliberately by drone killing its own citizens and even killing young British children. I can condemn all such murders equally. But why should we be carried away by the anti-Russian rhetoric into finding it uniquely reprehensible, only when Russia does it?

I could go through every single para of the report, but life is too short. I will however pick out places where the logic is far less convincing than the rhetoric is impressive. From Para 3:

its lack of strong independent public bodies and the fusion of government and business allow it to leverage all its intelligence, military and economic power at the same time to pose an all-encompassing security threat.

Really? Is Russia really that unified? In fact, this is a startling over-simplification. The extreme oligarchic structure which resulted from the wholesale looting of assets in the western-inspired and western-overseen chaos of Russian privatisation has resulted in a state which is indeed not a healthy democracy. But neither is it a monolith with no dissent and no conflicting interests, and Putin has continually to balance the desires and goals of different oligarchs and factions. Not many Russians would recognise the portrayal here of a super efficient and coherent state and business machine.

Besides, even if it were true, Russia would still only have one fifth of the population of the European Union and an economy the size of Spain. The attempt to pump up Russia as a massive threatening superpower is simply nonsense. What Russia does have is the ability to take decisive politico-military action, on a small scale in limited theatres, such as Crimea or Syria. It does so with success because it has a leader who is better at the game of international realpolitik that his western contemporaries. That is not a value judgement: I personally believe Putin is right in Syria and wrong in Crimea. But to blame Russia for the decrepit state of current western diplomacy is a stretch.

By para 4 the report is surfing along on a surreal wave of nonsense:

The security threat posed by Russia is difficult for the West to manage as, in our view and that of many others, it appears fundamentally nihilistic.

Really? Nihilistic? Now the report has already stated that Russia is a remarkably monolithic and unified state apparatus, controlled presumably by President Putin. I can think of many adjectives to describe Putin, some of them not very pleasant – calculating, machiavellian and devious would be amongst them. But he is the absolute opposite of nihilist. He has a clearly defined view of Russia’s interests – and that view identifies Russian interests far too closely with himself and other oligarchs – and sets out diligently and consistently to advance those interests.

So you can define clear Russian policy goals in the international sphere. These include the consolidation of Russian influence in the former Soviet Union and, where possible, the re-integration of contiguous Russian majority speaking territory into Russia, as seen in Georgia and Ukraine. They include the reduction of democratic space for political dissent at home. They include the countering of American influence abroad, particularly in the Middle East and Central Asia. These are serious, hard-headed policies. The very last word I would use to describe them is nihilistic. The Russian oligarch class are as unquestioningly materialist as any class in any society, ever. They are not nihilists.

I can only imagine that the committee picked up on the word “nihilist” from one of the crazed flights of fancy of Edward Lucas.

Para 4 then blunders on into still stranger territory:

It is also seemingly fed by paranoia, believing that Western institutions such as NATO and the EU have a far more aggressive posture towards it than they do in reality.

What could give them that idea?

But what is really strange is the lack of self awareness; a report built entirely upon paranoia about the Russian threat accuses Russia of paranoia about the western threat.

The next few paragraphs make repeated reference to the “Salisbury attacks” and simply take for granted the narrative that Russia was responsible for these. This I am not prepared to do. Clearly some kind of spy subterfuge took place in Salisbury involving both the UK and Russia, but there are too many obvious lies in the official UK government account. I still have seen no answers to my ten outstanding questions, while the attribution of the poison gets ever shakier, with new revelations from that cesspool of corruption, the bureaucracy of the OPCW.

Paras 13 to 20, on cyber warfare, again show that complete lack of self-awareness. They attribute a number of cyber hacks to Russia and the GRU, as though we did not know from Wikileaks Vault 7 leaks that the CIA specifically has a programme, “Umbrage” for leaving behind fake evidence of a Russian hack. But more tellingly, they quote GCHQ as their source of information.

Now it is a simple truth that hacking Russian communications, including military, political, security, research and commercial communications, has been a core part of GCHQ tasking from its establishment. Assuming at least some of the attributions to Russia on cyber warfare are correct, the synthetic outrage at Russia doing what we have been doing to Russia on a far, far larger scale for decades, is laughable. Even more so when paras 20 to 24 talk of the need for the MOD and GCHQ to expand their offensive cyber warfare as though this were a retaliatory measure.

From para 27 onwards the committee is talking about broadcast and new media disinformation campaigns. Here it stops pretending it knows any secret intelligence and states its information is open source, as at footnote 24 where the sources are frothing mad Edward Lucas and fake charity purveyor Christopher Donnelly, telling us how terrible Russian troll campaigns are.

Yet again, there is a total lack of self awareness. The committee fails to note that Donnelly himself has been spending millions of UK taxpayers’ money (at least that which did not go into his own pocket) running absolutely, precisely the same kind of covert campaign of hidden influence propaganda that they are accusing Russia of running. They accuse Russia Today of bias as though the BBC did not have its own state propaganda bias. Yet again, the lack of self-awareness is stunning.

Now we start to reach the stage where all this sanctimonious hypocrisy become really dangerous. Before you read this next few paras of the report, I would remind you that the repression of every bad regime everywhere has always been, in the eyes of the repressive security service, defensive. It is always to protect the truth, to prevent the spread of the lies and disaffection of evil foreign influence. That was the justification of the Cheka, the Gestapo, the Stasi and every South American dictator. They were all protecting the people from foreign lies. Now read this from the committee, and consider what it really means:

33. Whilst we understand the nervousness around any suggestion that the intelligence and security Agencies might be involved in democratic processes – certainly a fear that is writ large in other countries – that cannot apply when it comes to the protection of those processes. And without seeking in any way to imply that DCMS is not capable, or that the Electoral Commission is not a staunch defender of democracy, it is a question of scale and access. DCMS is a small Whitehall policy department and the Electoral Commission is an arm’s length body; neither is in the central position required to tackle a major hostile state threat to our democracy. Protecting our democratic discourse and processes from hostile foreign interference is a central responsibility of Government, and should be a ministerial priority.

34. In our opinion, the operational role must sit primarily with MI5, in line with its statutory responsibility for “the protection of national security and, in particular, its protection against threats from espionage, terrorism and sabotage, from the activities of agents of foreign powers and from actions intended to overthrow or undermine parliamentary democracy … ”.38 The policy role should sit with the Office for Security and Counter-Terrorism (OSCT) – primarily due to its ten years of experience in countering the terrorist threat and its position working closely with MI5 within the central Government machinery. This would also have the advantage that the relationship built with social media companies to encourage them to co-operate in dealing with terrorist use of social media could be brought to bear against the hostile state threat; indeed, it is not clear to us why the
Government is not already doing this.

35. With that said, we note that – as with so many other issues currently – it is the social media companies which hold the key and yet are failing to play their part. The Government must now seek to establish a protocol with the social media companies to ensure that they take covert hostile state use of their platforms seriously, and have clear timescales within which they commit to removing such material. Government should ‘name and shame’ those which fail to act. Such a protocol could, usefully, be expanded to encompass the other areas in which action is required from the social media companies, since this issue is not unique to Hostile State Activity. This matter is, in our view, urgent and we expect the Government to report on progress in this area as soon as possible.

The government endorsed Donnelly/Nimmo operation identified Ian above as a Russian agent. I have no doubt they would count this article as Russian disinformation. They would set MI5 on Ian and I, and ensure our posts would be banned from social media. Only such a corrupt mainstream media as we have in the UK would fail entirely to note – and they have failed entirely to note – the extreme and illiberal aspects of this report.

There is a real danger identified by the report. But it is not Russia, it is the McCarthyite witch-hunt the report seeks to promote, ironically based upon an entire sea of disinformation.

By paragraph 42 the committee has left reality entirely behind in favour of a tour of Clintonland.

42. It was only when Russia completed a ‘hack and leak’ operation against the Democratic National Committee in the US – with the stolen emails being made public a month after the EU referendum – that it appears that the Government belatedly realised the level of threat which Russia could pose in this area, given that the risk thresholds in the Kremlin had clearly shifted, describing the US ‘hack and leak’ as a “game changer”, 46 and admitting that “prior to what we saw in the States, [Russian interference] wasn’t generally understood as a big threat to [electoral] processes”.

Contrary to the committee’s bland assertion, it is now well established that there never was any Russian hack of the DNC. Mueller failed entirely, after spending US $32million, to establish either a hack or Russian “collusion” with the Trump campaign. The only “evidence” there ever was for the Russian hack was an affirmation by the DNC’s security consultants, Crowdstrike, and this summer we learnt that Crowdstrike had never had any evidence of a Russian hack either. While those of us close to Wikileaks have been explaining for years it was a leak, not a hack. We were ignored by the media as it did not fit with the official disinformation campaign.

The committee query why the UK security services were not alerted by the DNC hack to take additional measures against Russia. The answer to that is very simple. The UK and US security services share all intelligence, so the UK security services were well aware from the US intelligence information that there was in fact no Russian hack. Unlike their US counterparts, they were not led by Clinton appointed loyalists prepared to perpetuate and act upon the lie to try to serve their political masters. On the other hand, the UK security services evidently did not feel it necessary to dampen the ardour of the committee on this point when it was about to propose a large increase in their powers and their budgets.

I had already blogged on paragraph 41 of the report and its accusation of Russian interference in the election campaign, founded entirely on a published article on Medium by witch-finder general, the Livingston unionist Ben Nimmo. That article states, among other things, that many Independence supporters on social media also support Russia on Ukraine, and therefore must be agents of Russian influence – as opposed to Scots who happen to support Russia over Ukraine. It notes that a number of people who support Scottish Independence appear not to have English as their first language, and some have trouble with definite and indefinite articles; therefore, Nimmo concludes they must be Russian trolls. As though we have no migrants who support Scottish Independence – and ignoring the fact Polish, Lithuanian, indeed the majority of languages in the world, also do not use definite and indefinite articles.

Let us remind ourselves of Ben Nimmo’s brilliant identification of top Russian trolls, nine out of ten of which turned out to be ordinary Scottish Independence supporters who simply tweeted things Nimmo does not like, while the tenth is a news aggregation bot which actually has the word “bot” in its name. That the committee takes this stuff seriously is a fact so eloquent in itself, I need hardly say more.

When we arrive at section 49 we finally reach material with which I can wholeheartedly agree. The UK, and the City of London in particular, was absolutely wrong to have welcomed in with open arms the Russian billionaires whose fortunes had been looted from the Russian people in the chaotic privatisation process, where assets were seized often by brute force, sometimes by bribery. There is no decent society in which the Deripaskas, the Usmanovs, the Lebvedevs, the Abramovics, should be accorded respect. Dirty money corrupts financial and political institutions. The committee is absolutely correct about that.

But have these people been living under a rock? UK politics and society have been a stinking morass of corruption for generations. Saudi money has worked in exactly the same way as Russian, and has had a bigger political influence, leading to a quite disgusting blind eye being turned to appalling human rights violations and military aggression against civilians. The same is true of all the Gulf states. London has been awash for over 40 years with Nigerian plutocrats, every single one of whose wealth has been corruptly looted. When I worked at the British High Commission in Lagos, the snobs’ estate agent Knight Frank and Rutley had an office there, staffed by expatriates, which did nothing but sell Surrey mansions and Docklands penthouses to crooks.

Malaysia, Brunei, the Philippines, Angola, Sierra Leone, there is not a blood diamond or corruptly acquired oil barrel whose proceeds do not wash up in London. Four of the world’s top ten tax evasion bases are British colonies. The committee was right to describe the City of London as a “laundromat” for looted money, but wrong to ascribe that mainly to Russia. That is without considering the disgusting activities of our own UK and US billionaires, who control our media and ultimately our politics.

I can join in the committee’s condemnation of Russian oligarchs influence in British society, and especially their influence as donors on the Tory party. But remember Mandelson/Deripaska. The corruption has no ideological basis except selfishness. The financial interests of British, American, Russian, Saudi, French, Malaysian or any other billionaires are entirely intertwined, as is their political influence. It is the billionaires against the people. The nationality of the particular billionaire is irrelevant. I strongly recommend this report by Transparency International on the massive involvement of “respectable” British institutions in facilitating obviously corrupt transactions.

Does anybody seriously believe the influence of Russian billionaires is somehow more pernicious in the UK than the Saudis or any of the others I have mentioned? Of course nobody believes that; this report only achieves its aim by a blinkered focus on a singular anti-Russian racism. I am not going to expound on any more of the report, because there is a limit to how much racism I am prepared to wade through.

But before closing, I want to consider how enthusiasm for the new Cold War has swept up pretty well the entire political and media class. There are of course those who were enthusiasts for the last Cold War, the military and security services, the arms industry and bottom feeders like Christopher Steele and Christopher Donnelly, who make a surprisingly fat living from peddling the disinformation the state wishes to hear.

But the “Russia is the enemy” narrative has been taken up not just by the traditional right, but by those who would probably self-describe as liberal or social democrat, by supporters of Blair and Hillary.

Most of the explanation for this lies in the success of Blair and Clinton in diverting the “left” into the neo-con foreign policy agenda, through the doctrine of “liberal intervention”, which was the excuse for much Victorian imperialism. The notion is that if you only bomb and maim people in developing countries enough, they will develop democratic forms of government.

This thesis is at best unproven. But once you persuade people to accept one form of war, they seem to become enthusiasts for more of it, particularly those who work in media. It remains the most important single fact in British politics that, despite the fact almost everybody now acknowledges that it was a disaster, nobody ever lost their job for supporting the Iraq war. Quite a few lost their job for opposing it, Greg Dyke, Carne Ross, Elizabeth Wilmshurst and Piers Morgan being among the examples. It is a simple matter of fact that the Iraq War’s biggest cheerleaders dominate the London political and media landscape, whereas there is no critic of the Iraq War in an important position of power.

But apart from the argument that we must oppose Russia because it is not a democracy (but not oppose Saudi Arabia because… well, because), something else is in play. The cosy liberal worldview has been shattered by a populist surge, as represented by Brexit and the election of Donald Trump. Both events are cataclysmic to the liberal mind and need to be explained.

For some reason, many mainstream liberals, especially the well-heeled ones who control the media and are columnists therein, are unable to acknowledge the truth. The truth is that our apparently comfortable modern society left a large number of people behind, who suffered loss of status from the ever-growing wealth gap and believed their opinions were not valued by an urban establishment they despised. These people revolted and had a right to revolt. That their discontent was seized upon and diverted by charlatans to unworthy political causes did not nullify the just causes of discontent. Loss of wages, job security and social status has bedeviled the disenfranchised at the same time that the plutocrats have been piling up personal wealth.

The upsurge of populism is a direct consequence of the vicious inequality of late stage capitalism, seasoned with racist attitudes to migrants which were themselves triggered by large waves of immigration the “liberal left” in fact caused with their obsessive pursuit of foreign invasion and destruction. That analysis, that the capitalist system they so wholeheartedly espouse and the wars for “freedom” they so ardently promote are the cause of the political setbacks they have encountered – is unpalatable to the media and political classes.

They therefore look for another cause for the raw political wounds of Trump and Brexit. Incredibly, they attempt to blame Putin for both. The notion that Russia, rather than deep disaffection of the less privileged classes, “caused” Trump, Brexit and even support for Scottish Independence is completely risible, yet uncritical acceptance of that analysis is fundamental to this report. It fits the mindset of the entire political and media establishment which is why it has been lauded, when it should be condemned as a real threat to the very political freedoms which it claims differentiate us from Russia.

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Click here to read the same article as it was originally published on Craig Murray’s official website on Wednesday August 12th.

Craig Murray is an author, broadcaster and human rights activist. He was British Ambassador to Uzbekistan from August 2002 to October 2004 and Rector of the University of Dundee from 2007 to 2010.

I would like to thank Craig Murray for permission to share and republish this article. Not all of the views expressed are necessarily ones shared by wall of controversy.

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‘Integrity Initiative’ c/o Institute for Statecraft — the UK government’s own troll farm

Update: Inside the Integrity Initiative

On Boxing Day, independent journalists Max Blumenthal and Ben Norton invited propaganda expert Professor David Miller from the University of Bristol to discuss the scandal surrounding UK government-funded think tank The Institute for Statecraft and its ‘Integrity Initiative’ on their podcast Moderate Rebels (E32).

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Last week I received a response to a parliamentary question I’d tabled asking the government if the ‘Integrity Initiative’, a so-called think tank dealing in disinformation, had received government funding. The response was stunning. I was met with the admission that in the last 18 months or so, some 2.2 million has been awarded by the Foreign Office to this organisation.

Staffed by former security and military personnel, its agenda seems to include the denigration of the Labour Party and Jeremy Corbyn. Their approach is to connect media with academia and politicians to influence policy in certain countries.

Leaked documents revealed numerous examples such as Pedro Baños, an army reserve colonel and author, who the Spanish Socialist Party wanted to make the country’s Director of National Security. That was before the Integrity Initiative’s Spanish cluster for involved, putting a stop to the appointment altogether.

That’s right a Foreign Office-funded British think tank stopped the appointment of a public official in a fellow European democracy. And these are the people defending freedom?

Now it seems similar tricks are being played here at home. Ben Nimmo, a core member of the Integrity Initiative’s UK cluster was even quoted in The Sun newspaper saying Russia was supporting Corbyn against his opponents both in the Labour Party and outside it. The newspaper used this to support its assertion, which had no other evidence, that “a twisted Russian cyber campaign which has back Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn is aiming to sow division across the UK”.

How many other stories like this have been entirely fabricated, and with government funding too? Well we don’t know, because after I submitted a follow-up question, Minister of State Alan Duncan refused to provide any further information claiming it could “disrupt and undermine the programme’s effectiveness”.

Effectiveness at what? Interfering in the politics of other countries while undermining the leader of Britain’s opposition? Because that’s precisely what it’s doing. That’s why I’m calling for a public enquiry into the Integrity Initiative and similar information war efforts being funded by our government.

Their approach of silencing and suppressing aspects of public debate doesn’t strengthen democracy, it debases it. — Chris Williamson MP

Click here to watch a video presentation of the statement on Chris Williamson’s facebook page uploaded on December 11th.

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Even the mainstream media has been forced to give a few paragraphs to the outrageous Integrity Initiative, under which the MOD-sponsored Institute for Statecraft has been given millions of pounds of taxpayers’ money by the FCO to spread covert disinformation and propaganda, particularly against Russia and the anti-war movement. Activities include twitter and facebook trolling and secretly paying journalists in “clusters of influence” around Europe. Anonymous helpfully leaked the Institute’s internal documents. Some of the Integrity Initiative’s thus exposed alleged covert agents, like David Aaronovitch, have denied any involvement despite their appearance in the documents, and others like Dan Kaszeta the US “novichok expert”, have cheerfully admitted it.  — Craig Murray

Click here to read Craig Murray’s full article entitled “British Security Service Infiltration, the Integrity Initiative and the Institute for Statecraft” published on December 13th.

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Did Jeremy Corbyn mutter words to the effect that Theresa May is a “stupid woman”? I don’t know because I’m not a lip-reader. Neither do I care.

May is a woman and she was (as is increasingly her manner) behaving stupidly. As for the buffoons behind her, ‘stupid’ fails to do justice to their infantile efforts to divert attention from the irremediable divisions within their own ranks and the shambolic failures of this callous and inept Tory government. Given the seriousness of the current political situation, Wednesday’s Commons pantomime was more than a national embarrassment, it was an unspeakable disgrace, and ought to have been reported on as such. But what we got instead were the feeble rumblings of another smear campaign against Jeremy Corbyn.

The BBC led the way as they so often do. Thus sham allegations of misogyny against Corbyn made during the Commons debacle became headlines to every news bulletin and in the 24 hours since featured in no less than three articles. So today if you google “stupid woman BBC” you will find a full page of hits:

On the other hand, if you search for “integrity initiative BBC” a mere four of google’s hits are actually linked to the BBC and just one of those links reaches an actual article:

The reason for this disparity is straightforward. Since the release of the leaks at the beginning of November and the ensuing ‘Integrity Initiative’ scandal, the BBC has only ever published one article on the matter. An article it has since revised on no less than four occasions.

The article in question published back on December 10th is headlined “Russia hack ‘bid to discredit’ UK anti-disinformation campaign – Foreign Office” and credited to Diplomatic Correspondent James Landale, however, an earlier version was in fact released four hours prior and entitled “Foreign Office probes Russia campaign over ‘anti-Labour tweets’”. The difference between these twin versions is striking:

The original piece centres attention on the FCO’s investigation into the Institute and quotes Sir Alan Duncan saying “he would ‘totally condemn’ any UK-backed organisation ‘involved in domestic politics in that way’”.  This is strong language for a government minister. The updated version opens instead with a strident assault on “Russia state media” and asserts that it is “trying to discredit a government-funded body that works to counter Kremlin disinformation”. In this new telling the serious charges levelled against the IfS are neatly brushed over and an organisation that in different circumstances would be decried as a troll farm is instead recast as the more or less innocent victim of Kremlin villainy!

Click here to compare versions at News Sniffer.

So the Institute for Statecraft (IfS) is what precisely? It declares itself “independent” and somehow holds Scottish charity status (this is finally under investigation too). If it were not for the current scandal it would have surely remained just one of a burgeoning multitude of so-called “political charities”. But as its “Integrity Initiative” has suddenly been exposed (by whoever was behind the hack – Anonymous have claimed credit) what we discover with each fresh tranche of leaked documents is how UK government money is being diverted for nefarious purposes: not only to smear the Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, but to meddle in democracies abroad. We learn in fact that “clusters” of its agents are embedded throughout Europe and beyond:

One such cluster operates in Spain, where the II [Integrity Initiative] successfully obstructed the appointment of a reservist colonel, Pedro Baños, who was preferred by the socialist government as the country’s next head of national security. Despite his strong resume – Baños was once head of counterintelligence and security for the European army – his admission on Twitter that Spain ‘would not gain anything from provoking Russia’ was apparently a stretch too far.

writes Aaron Bastani in an excellent piece for Novara Media. He continues:

The operation itself was named ‘Operation Moncloa and proved successful in less than 24 hours. Around midday on 7 June 2018, the Spanish cluster learned that Baños would soon be appointed to the role. […]

By 19.45 the Spanish cluster noted the campaign had raised significant noise on Twitter, with contacts in the Socialist party confirming the matter had been brought to the attention of prime minister Pedro Sanchez. Not long after the Partido Popular and Ciudadanos asked the prime minister to halt the appointment. They were successful.

Listed as the operatives working within its UK “cluster” we find Ben Nimmo, a fellow at the Atlantic Council – home also to Eliot Higgins of Bellingcat notoriety – and usual suspects including Edward Lucas and Anne Applebaum. Another name on the list is that of Labour MP, Ben Bradshaw:

Alongside military personnel the bedrock of the cluster are individuals working in think tanks, with Demos, RUSI, Chatham House, and the Henry Jackson Society all represented. Among the military names are high ranking officials including a captain in the Royal Navy and a colonel. On Twitter the II is followed by some interesting names, including Tom Watson, Luke Akehurst and Mary Creagh.

writes Bastani in the same piece for Novara Media, continuing:

Among the organisation’s top three ‘deliverables’ to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the first is to develop and prove ‘the cluster concept and methodology, setting up clusters in a range of countries with different circumstances’. The II is essentially a proof-of-concept in how to exert influence in an era of hybrid war where information can be a critical variable. Subsequently, its model should be viewed as mirroring that of Russia, the morphology of influencers, narrativistic ‘poles of attraction’ and the leveraging of backchannels (WhatsApp groups, text messages and email) to coordinate a front-facing response: this being composed of a ‘swarm’ on social media which synergises with legacy formats in broadcast and print.

That such an approach is being applied by a British organisation to the politics of a European neighbour is cause for grave concern – and by itself merits an enquiry. What’s worse, however, is the possibility that the same approach has been used against Corbyn’s Labour. One only need look on the II’s Twitter feed to see the low regard it holds Corbyn and his leading advisers in. Intriguingly, the organisation was founded in the autumn of 2015 – the same time Corbyn became Labour leader.

Click here to read Aaron Bastini’s full article entitled “Undermining Democracy, Not Defending It: The ‘Integrity Initiative’ is Everything That’s Wrong With British Foreign Policy” also published on December 10th.

The list of individuals associated with the UK-based cluster also includes the names of seven journalists (see update below for further information on this):

Deborah Haynes, David Aaronovitch and Dominic Kennedy all from The Times.

Natalie Nougayrède from the Guardian.

Neil Buckley from the FT.

And (like the final piece of a jigsaw fitting inevitably into place) Jonathan Marcus who is a Diplomatic Correspondent at the BBC…

As Craig Murray writes:

[But] One of the activities the Integrity Initiative sponsors happens to be the use of online trolls to ridicule the idea that the British security services ever carry out any kind of infiltration, false flag or agent provocateur operations, despite the fact that we even have repeated court judgements against undercover infiltration officers getting female activists pregnant. The Integrity Initiative offers us a glimpse into the very dirty world of surveillance and official disinformation. If we actually had a free media, it would be the biggest story of the day.

Click here to read Craig Murray’s full article entitled “British Security Service Infiltration, the Integrity Initiative and the Institute for Statecraft”.

And here to read Tim Hayward’s article “Integrity: Grasping the Initiative”.

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Update: on UK journalists named in documents

The following is republished from the “Briefing note on the Integrity Initiative” published by the Working Group on Syria, Propaganda and Media on December 21st.

7.1 UK journalists named in documents

  • The Times – Deborah Haynes (now with Sky News), David Aaronovitch, Dominic Kennedy
  • The Guardian – Natalie Nougayrede, Carole Cadwalladr
  • The Economist – Edward Lucas
  • FT – Neil Buckley
  • BBC – Jonathan Marcus
  • Paul Canning – blogger with a focus on Ukraine, who has contributed to The Guardian
  • David Leask – Chief Reporter, Herald Scotland
  • Borzhou Daragahi – The Independent – appears as the only individual listed under ‘Turkey’ in the document xcountry.pdf that tabulates countries and election dates.

We have asked journalists listed in the documents whether they have had any contact with the Integrity Initiative. It may be relevant that the Integrity Initiative Handbook states that members of clusters are ‘to sign code of conduct & non-disclosure’.

Their responses can be grouped into four categories

7.1.1 I know nothing

  • David Aaronovitch – When asked over Twitter whether he knew of or had had contact with Integrity Initiative, Institute for Statecraft or the UK Cluster, Aaronovitch replied

I have never heard of any of these three exotic entities. I think you have been hoaxed.

  • Jonathan Marcus (BBC) – the BBC provided a statement to the Scottish Sunday Mail (print edition 16 December 2018) that

neither Marcus nor the BBC knew of the list of journalists, nor did he or the BBC consent to be part of any so-called cluster.

7.1.2 I attended a meeting or was on an email list, but was not involved

  • Borzou Daragahi:

I do receive their emails’

it goes to my junk email account’

I systematically subscribe to think tank email newsletters’

7.1.3 I am proud to be associated with them, there was nothing improper

I have not been paid by the institute. But I applaud their work in dealing with the Chekist regime’s pernicious information and influence operations.

He did not confirm or deny the existence of a network, responding to questions on Twitter with:

I don’t see why one lot of people have to explain being on lists compiled by another lot of people

  • David Leask – has been open about working with the Integrity Initiative. He has published two articles quoting “a spokesman for the Integrity Initiative”, one on the visit of Andriy Parubiy and one on Russian media coverage of the Salisbury poisonings. He has endorsed the output of the twitter account @initintegrity and others associated with the Integrity Initiative such as Nimmo. He responded to the release of documents with a 12 tweet thread on Twitter., acknowledging contact with the Integrity Initiative but denouncing Sputnik for ‘insinuation that I work for for or with a Nato/UK black ops’.

Leask’s description of the Integrity Initiative as ‘a network of researchers and journalists seeking to counter Russian propaganda and boost media literacy” confirms the existence of a network. In response to further questions, Leask asserted that government funding of the Integrity Initiative was ‘hardly a secret’. On this he was mistaken. The official summary of the Russian Language Programme does not list the recipient ‘implementing organizations’ stating that ‘Information has been withheld from publication on security grounds’. Although the government funding of £1.96 million for the Integrity Initiative in the current financial year is now a matter of public record following a parliamentary question, this information was not in the public domain until the documents were released on 5 November 2018. The source of funding for the Integrity Initiative was not mentioned on its public website. It would have been possible for a diligent researcher to infer the total FCO spending on the Institute for Statecraft by going through the monthly expenditure tables for the FCO, but this would not have revealed the specific funding for the Integrity Initiative programme. The accounts filed at Companies House show FCO funding of £124,567 for the year ending 23 November 2017, but not the £1.96 million awarded for the current financial year.

The Integrity Initiative documents include notes of a meeting with Leask on 27 March 2018, allegedly taken by Guy Spindler, Chief Operating Officer of the Institute for Statecraft. The main focus of the interview is on Leask’s assessment of the prospects for the Scottish independence movement. The meeting finishes with a briefing on the misuse of Scottish Limited Partnerships as vehicles for money-laundering, which Leask’s own investigative reporting has helped to expose. It is not clear whether he is aware of the unusual use of this business structure by the founders of the Institute for Statecraft.

7.1.4 No response or refusal to answer

  • Deborah Haynes – no response.
    Three of Haynes’ stories between 2016 and 2018 can be linked to internal documents of the Integrity Initiative:

    • For the visit of Ukrainian special forces officers organised by the Institute of Statecraft, a one-hour meeting with Haynes was scheduled at the Institute of Statecraft’s office in 2 Temple Place on 11 July 2016. Haynes wrote a story based on this meeting that appeared in The Times on 11 August 2016. Haynes was the only journalist scheduled for a meeting with the Ukrainian officers: all their other meetings were with military officers except for one with the House of Commons Defence Committee.
    • The draft application for MoD funding dated 20 March 2017 lists under ‘Success so far’ (for the Integrity Initiative) the lead front-page story by Haynes in The Times on 17 December 2016 with title ‘Russia waging cyberwar against Britain’.
    • A document entitled ‘Representative selection of Integrity Initiative staff 2018 presentations and media interviews on Russian disinformation and malign influence’ lists under the outputs of Victor Madeira a report in the Times on 9 March 2018 by Fiona Hamilton, David Brown and Deborah Haynes with the title “Spy mystery: Sergei Skripal’s contact with MI6 in Spain suggests links to Litvinenko case’. Victor Madeira is briefly quoted:

Victor Madeira, a senior fellow at the Institute for Statecraft in London, said yesterday that links with organised crime were entirely possible. Russia was a mafia state where organised crime and the authorities overlap, he said.

It may be relevant that Haynes is listed as an honorary member of the Pen & Sword club, whose main mission is “the promotion of media operations as a necessary and valued military skill in the 21st century.” This may be an appropriate aspiration for military officers, but not for journalists. The club has 334 members, including Steve Tatham (listed in the UK cluster), Paul Tilley and the former BBC correspondent Mark Laity. Almost all other members have a military background or are NATO officials.

  • Dominic Kennedy – In response to an email asking whether he had heard of or was involved with the Integrity Initiative, Kennedy stated that he had not read the leaked documents, but did not answer the question.

On 14 April 2018 Haynes and Kennedy launched an attack on members of the Working Group on Syria Propaganda and Media in the Times, including a front-page article, a two-page spread and an anonymous editorial. Two members of the Working Group hold posts at the University of Edinburgh. Unable to find anything tying them to Russia, Kennedy attempted to suggest that the university was under Russian influence (based on a grant from the Russian cultural institute Russkiy Mir), and even that the city of Edinburgh was a base for Russian influence (based on the presence of Sputnik’s office).

  • Neil Buckley (FT) – No response when asked over Twitter whether he had had contact with the Integrity Initiative.
  • Carole Cadwalladr – Identified in the third tranche of leaked documents as scheduled to talk at an event at the Frontline Club in early November 2018, co-organised by the Integrity Initiative and Foreign Desk Ltd. She confirmed that she had spoken at the event and did not receive a fee, but did not answer a question on whether she had been involved with the Integrity Initiative or its parent the Institute for Statecraft.
  • Natalie Nougayrede – No response when asked over Twitter if she was involved with the Integrity Initiative. She appears also in the French cluster list. In the same list, with a note that he is Nougayrede’s partner, is Nicholas Roche, whose current post is Director of Strategy at the Directorate of Military Applications of the French Atomic Energy Commission. It may be relevant that in May 2013, when she was editor of Le Monde, Natalie Nougayrede had a role in information operations in Syria. Under her direction, two Le Monde journalists acted as couriers to transfer samples provided by the opposition, allegedly from chemical attacks, to French intelligence agents in Jordan. Le Monde was then given the scoop of reporting that these samples had tested positive for sarin at the French chemical weapon detection lab at Le Bouchet.

Click here to read the full briefing note at the Working Group on Syria, Propaganda and Media website.

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Additional:

On December 22nd Afshin Rattansi interviewed John Pilger for a special end of year Going Underground episode. In the first half they discuss the Integrity Initiative and what it reveals about the lack of true integrity in journalism. In part two topics range from the genocide taking place in Yemen, the “canonisation” of George Bush Sr., and Donald Trump:

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