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The Oligarch Threat

Netflix
A still from The Great Hack, 2019

On July 24, 2019, a buoyant Boris Johnson swept past crowds shouting “Bollocks to Brexit! Bollocks to Boris!” and was ushered into the hushed splendor of Buckingham Palace. There, he shook hands with the antique, bejeweled Queen Elizabeth II, and became the prime minister of Great Britain, elected not by popular mandate but by members of his Conservative Party. That same day, on the other side of the Atlantic, a frail and reluctant Robert Mueller took his oath before giving public testimony to the House Judiciary Committee, and later the House Intelligence Committee, on a controversial and difficult twenty-two-month-long investigation—made more challenging by multiple witnesses’ lying under oath—in which he had painstakingly examined Russian interference in the 2016 election of Donald Trump. 

That day was also chosen by Netflix for the worldwide release of the documentary by filmmakers Karim Amer and Jehane Noujaim, The Great Hack. Within a week, millions of viewers had watched it. For many, this was their first exposure to the links between the political upheavals on both sides of the Atlantic. The documentary almost certainly alarmed many more people than Mueller’s testimony did. July 24 was as close as we have got so far to a day of reckoning with the nefarious activity designed to manipulate voters in both the UK and the US in 2016.

The primary focus of The Great Hack is the infamous and now insolvent data analytics firm Cambridge Analytica, which worked for the Trump campaign as well as the Leave.EU campaign promoting Brexit. Among various legally questionable activities was the company’s harvesting of huge quantities of data from Facebook in ways unknown to that platform’s millions of users. This data, used to target voters with specific “messages”—in many cases, a euphemism for outright lies—was a powerful propaganda tool, although the precise extent of its influence on electoral outcomes in Britain or the US is incalculable. 

The hero of The Great Hack is Carole Cadwalladr, a British journalist for The Observer and The Guardian who broke the Cambridge Analytica story, and in so doing, has had to brave waves of misogynistic abuse, hate campaigns on social media, and numerous bullying legal threats (some still current). Together with colleagues at The New York Times, Cadwalladr was a Pulitzer Prize finalist for their joint reporting. 

I know Carole personally, and in the months leading up to the publication of her big Cambridge Analytica–Facebook scoop, I spoke to her often. Initially, she wasn’t writing a story about Facebook and didn’t expect the social network to be a main focus. But executives made Facebook the story’s headline when, two days before publication on March 18, 2018, they sent her a threat of legal action. This was such a bizarrely aggressive move that it drew a great deal of public attention; Facebook later admitted that it had been a mistake and apologized. But by the time an alabaster-faced Mark Zuckerberg appeared before the US Congress, barely a month later, propped like a mildly indignant dauphin upon extra seat cushions and reciting scripted answers to committee members’ questions, the Cambridge Analytica story had wiped $134 billion off his company’s share value.

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British journalist Carole Cadwalladr in The Great Hack, 2019

It was somewhat surprising that Facebook succeeded in hogging the limelight in a field so rich with villains. The bigger picture, which Carole and I had been discussing during those preceding months, was the way in which the Cambridge Analytica story opened a window onto a new constellation of international billionaires, corrupt politicians, and war profiteers who were apparently amassing enormous power. That story isn’t only about technology, data, and psychographic profiling; it’s also, at root, a story about the consequences of entrenched economic inequality, the privatization of essential public assets and government functions, including even national security, and the challenge to conventional foreign policy posed by the bargains being struck between international kleptocrats. And it tells us why, beyond being manipulated on social media, we should care about businesses like Cambridge Analytica—and why we should be concerned about what the Mueller investigation failed to expose.

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In both Britain and America, there exists a class of billionaires who seek to become oligarchs and a corresponding class of government officials who want to become billionaires. Since 2008, when the financial markets’ development of complex and ill-regulated derivatives led to a credit crisis and crash that erased huge sums from the fortunes of the global ultra-rich—with Western tycoons like Rupert Murdoch and Sheldon Adelson, and Russian oligarchs like Oleg Deripaska among the biggest losers—the world’s billionaires have been moving away from a commitment to free markets. Learning from the banking bailouts and the socialization of moral hazard, they have instead embraced an ambition to build lasting monopolies that enjoy both official and unofficial forms of state support. 

Russia has pioneered this new form of “state capitalism,” in which the state absorbs risk for the companies of certain loyal oligarchs, allowing them to reap enormous profits. In exchange, these billionaires advance strategic objectives, not just through energy deals but also by investing in foreign companies that own sensitive technology or valuable data, or which provide important forms of economic leverage abroad. One recent example is the huge investment Oleg Deripaska’s Rusal made in a Kentucky aluminum plant, funding the economic revival of the area. Shortly before the announcement of the investment, Kentucky Senator Mitch McConnell had backed the successful effort to lift sanctions on Deripaska and his businesses. The investment increases Russia’s political leverage in the US, since if sanctions were to be reimposed on Deripaska now under another administration they would directly harm the people of Kentucky. Putin is happy for his oligarchs to invest outside Russia so long as they are serving Russian strategic interests. None of the accumulated profit is distributed back to the Russian people: it is generally held off-shore. 

The United States has its own versions of the oligarchs, albeit ones who made their money legally rather than through the criminal enterprises for which many Russians have been indicted by American prosecutors or sanctioned by the federal government. As I’ve previously written, the oligarchs of Silicon Valley managed to establish their extraordinary monopolies—viewed by the state as a form of soft power as well as an essential national security asset in a world of cyber-conflict—only because that entire sector received huge injections of venture-capital funding from the military and intelligence agencies. In this case, too, the astronomical profits are largely untaxed and held off-shore. Other national security–related industries have sought a similar status under the Trump administration.

This international billionaire class is also establishing and using private intelligence and influence agencies like Cambridge Analytica to help them manipulate national and international politics. It’s well known that the Koch brothers have their own such agency (called i360), but other billionaires have firms whose names we don’t even know. That’s not to say there’s a grand conspiracy of global elites or coordinated centralization of power for mutual advantage. But what these messy conflicting interests do have in common is that they are all working against liberal-democratic institutions. The free-market dream of being liberated from government authority, once an article of faith for the billionaire class, has turned into the oligarchs’ dream of coopting, or even usurping, government authority in pursuit of profit.

At one time, it seemed inevitable that Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation would expose much of this underworld to public scrutiny. It didn’t—though we do get glimpses of it in his report. Mueller tells us, for instance, that in January 2017, Kirill Dmitriev, the Stanford- and Harvard-educated head of Russia’s sovereign wealth fund, set up a phone call between Putin and Trump. He sent Putin in advance an optimistic report on negotiations with representatives of Trump’s transition team, indicating that business and investment opportunities had been discussed, as well as possibilities for joint counter-terrorism initiatives and other strategic objectives. 

If these negotiations followed the usual Russian modus operandi, the business opportunities and strategic objectives would have been closely aligned. Russian and American oligarchs, supported by their respective states, would make billions of dollars in exchange for advancing an agenda that had been negotiated in secret. It’s striking that the ingenues on the Trump team—some of whom, such as Jared Kushner and Donald Trump Jr., had never been involved in politics before—seemed to approach negotiations viewing their skills and strategic insight as equal to those of the Russians. Back-door foreign policy, uninformed by government intelligence services, the State Department, or foreign service officers, can easily create national security vulnerabilities—if a Kentucky aluminum deal could compromise US interests we can only imagine the unintended consequences of deals involving cyber-powers, nuclear power, or other sensitive areas—yet these actors did not lack confidence. 

Despite this account in the Mueller Report, we still don’t know many details of what was discussed ahead of the Trump–Putin phone call. But we do know the details of one joint Russian and American plan intended to supply power plants to Middle Eastern countries, to be funded by Saudi Arabia on the understanding that the venture would ultimately lead to the Saudis’ acquiring nuclear technology as a safeguard against a nuclear Iran. In his brief tenure as national security adviser, Lt. General Michael Flynn was the point man inside the Trump administration, aiming to negotiate an end to Russian sanctions so the Saudi project could proceed, but many other senior military and intelligence figures were on the masthead of the group, known as IP3/Ironbridge, that was pitching to the Saudis. A recent congressional report found that the plan, still alive though without the Russian partners, “virtually obliterated the lines normally separating government policymaking from corporate and foreign interests.” 

Dmitriev’s own negotiations were with one of the most ambitious of America’s would-be oligarchs, Erik Prince. He is a private military contractor, formerly of Blackwater; his present company, the Frontier Services Group, has backing from the Chinese government and a Hong Kong billionaire named Johnson Ko, the company’s executive director. Prince’s meetings on behalf of the Trump team were arranged by a former Blackwater colleague who is now an adviser to Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan of the United Arab Emirates, George Nader. Nader, who is currently in federal custody in Virginia as an accused child sex trafficker, claims that Prince was sent as an emissary for Trump’s chief strategist, Steve Bannon, to the notorious Seychelles meeting with Dmitriev and Bin Zayed. The accounts given by Bannon and Prince, to Mueller’s team and in congressional hearings, have conflicted, but we know that Prince met with Bannon frequently during the transition period, and Bannon acted as Prince’s advocate in the White House when Prince was lobbying for his Frontier Services Group to take over military operations in Afghanistan (a scheme Prince was still promoting in a New York Times op-ed months later).

The special counsel’s investigation acknowledged the existence of these back-channel negotiations but failed to shed light on them, in part because vital elements of the testimony Mueller’s investigators heard were false, and various encrypted communications had been erased. But Mueller also interpreted his remit in the narrowest possible way: his principal areas of investigation were the Russian social media campaign during the election, and the DNC hackings and release of materials. There had been some expectation that a further area of inquiry would take on financial entanglements, and even potential RICO crimes. Some hoped that if Mueller’s investigation implicated Trump and Russian entities in racketeering, possibly even providing evidence that Trump was compromised by Russia, then the cooption of government by private actors, foreign and domestic, would be exposed.

In the event, Mueller’s main finding, a “sweeping and systematic” campaign of interference by Russia in the 2016 election, has simply reinforced the idea that the United States and Russia are combatants in a fairly traditional form of political warfare. Mueller’s report and testimony had no impact in exposing the multilateral business deals—here involving American, Russian, Saudi, Israeli, Qatari, and Emirati actors—that bypass national interests, official foreign policy, international regulations, electoral laws, and even ordinary market pressures.

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By telling the story of Cambridge Analytica, The Great Hack takes us just a little further into this world. The company wasn’t set up by smart fashion students with pink hair or young crypto-grifters in bikinis, yet the film focuses disproportionate attention on the morally ambiguous, countercultural characters that moviemakers and audiences love to imagine at the heart of the cyber-world. It follows, in particular, a young former Cambridge Analytica employee named Brittany Kaiser. In the film, she claims to have been a human rights activist until she was drawn into the world of covert influence campaigns by the apparently seductive Etonian, Alexander Nix. Just how this former social-justice warrior managed to overlook the fact that her new employment was in part funded by corrupt leaders to sway elections in developing countries is not explained. 

But Ann Marlowe, an expert on Libya who first met Kaiser in 2015, has pointed out that Kaiser’s self-presentation is distorted. At one point in the film, Kaiser is pictured standing in front of a poster board advertising a conference on foreign investment in Libya, in 2012, wearing a red cloche hat and red lace dress, smiling politely next to three men in suits. In her voiceover, Kaiser says that after working on Obama’s Facebook team in 2008, she “spent several years working on human rights and international relations.” Marlowe looked into that claim and discovered that Kaiser had been working with the then prime minister of Libya, Ali Zeidan, who was at the time “presiding over its looting and political collapse.” The world Kaiser comes from is darker than she’s prepared to admit. 

But Kaiser, and even Nix, were always the show-people for Cambridge Analytica, the circus-masters who distract us—with their eccentricities, their preposterous entitlement, and their moral insouciance—from the real powers that placed them in the public eye. The less TV-friendly conservative donors, hedge-fund managers, kleptocrats, and mercenaries who made people like Kaiser and Nix agents of the far right’s assault on liberal democracy are able to remain in the shadows. 

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Brittany Kaiser in The Great Hack, 2019

The pertinent information, though, is that Cambridge Analytica was set up by Steve Bannon—who boasts on camera of devising the name—in 2015, with funding from his right-wing billionaire friend, Robert Mercer. The new firm was carved out of a larger company called SCL Group, which had held government contracts around the world for influence operations and unorthodox and covert election campaigns. From 2005 to 2015, the biggest investor in the SCL Group was a major donor to Britain’s Tory Party, Vincent Tchenguiz. Tchenguiz made an employee at his Consensus Business Group named Julian Wheatland a director of SCL. Wheatland appears in the movie plaintively lamenting the demise of Cambridge Analytica with all its talented young people. But he needn’t be too disconsolate. His boss continues to be a powerful and extremely connected figure in this sector. 

Tchenguiz has invested in State of Mind Ventures, a venture capital fund headed by Pinchas Buchris, a former commander of Israeli military intelligence’s Unit 8200, which has been described as equivalent of the NSA. Tchenguiz also has stakes in Terrogence (part of the Verint Group, which describes itself as a world leader in “actionable intelligence,”), an Israeli agency known as Businesscope Business Intelligence, and the British company Quintel intelligence.

Among the big investors in this shady netherworld of intelligence-gathering and influence operations, there are naturally many overlaps. Tchenguiz’s interests and investments connect with those of Erik Prince, as the freelance journalist Wendy Siegelman has shown in her fine-grained mapping of the field on Medium. Both men have links to one of the best-known private intelligence companies, Black Cube, founded in Israel by another former military intelligence officer. Tchenguiz was involved in setting up Black Cube and was its first major client. (Black Cube first came to widespread public attention when The New Yorker reported that its operatives were working for the former movie mogul Harvey Weinstein in an apparent effort to frustrate the newspaper’s reporting of allegations of sexual assault made against him.) Though Black Cube denies it, the Cambridge Analytica whistleblower Chris Wiley has claimed the two companies did work together. The Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz has reported that Prince also considered investing in a joint venture with Tchenguiz and the Israeli financier Dorian Barak.

Siegelman has also tracked the development of a new company named Emerdata, since its emergence in the wake of the Cambridge Analytica bankruptcy. Julian Wheatland and Alexander Nix were both initially directors, though since they’re now under investigation for their Cambridge Analytica activities, they’ve both had to resign. Robert Mercer’s daughters, Rebekah (who has worked closely with Steve Bannon) and the less high-profile Jennifer, are the major investors, alongside Prince’s billionaire business partner, Johnson Ko. (The Mercer sisters have also acquired their father’s stake in Breitbart, the far-right media outlet Bannon built up.) Emerdata is thus essentially a reincarnation of Cambridge Analytica, possibly with even more funding.

From time to time, a scandal emerges that gives us a glimpse of this deeply interconnected, secretive realm of power wielded by the ultra-rich. The Miami Herald’s recent investigation of Jeffrey Epstein by Julie K. Brown revealed the existence of a company he was involved in named Carbyne. Ostensibly, Carbyne supplies tools for use by emergency services, such as geolocation devices and equipment for live video feeds, but much of this material doubles very effectively as surveillance technologies. The company was founded by the former Israeli general and politician Ehud Barak; its investors and board members are a who’s who of the private security world, and include Peter Thiel and his Palantir co-founder, Trae Stephens, Pinchas Buchris, Michael Chertoff, and, of course, Erik Prince.

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The Great Hack is an important film, one that people need to see, but its account of the Cambridge Analytica operation scarcely touches the shady world of the billionaire oligarchs who are the real financial and political forces behind the scenes. Perhaps it’s too much to expect a Netflix documentary to accomplish what the special counsel, with all the resources of federal prosecutors and FBI investigators at his disposal, also failed to account for. Although Robert Mueller succeeded in indicting Michael Flynn, Paul Manafort, and others, he framed his investigation in such a way that the most significant aspects of what happened in 2016 were judged to be classified counterintelligence threats, about which the public may never learn. The erosion of norms of governance in Washington now means that, according to chairman Adam Schiff, even the House Intelligence Committee has had no counterintelligence briefings in a year and a half.

The public needs to ask questions about these violations of democratic accountability before government intelligence services are completely prevented from finding the answers. President Trump has repeatedly vilified the US intelligence community, and may still appoint a loyalist as Director of National Intelligence who would close down counterintelligence operations related to Trump family foreign involvements. 

In Britain, in spite of election law violations by all three organizations supporting Brexit in the 2016 EU referendum and after extraordinarily large donations of money with questionable origins, there has been no public inquiry into the finances and incentives that lay behind this criminal activity. Although many senior civil servants, members of Parliament, and other public figures have called for an inquiry, Britain has had no Mueller. It does have Carole Cadwalladr and a handful of other investigative journalists looking into the peculiar trans-Atlantic alliances that are corroding from within a once-robust parliamentary democracy.

As for Boris Johnson, the wayward Etonian princeling, he was reportedly denied access to sensitive intelligence when he was foreign secretary, even though the two main agencies, MI6 and GCHQ, ordinarily report directly to that officeholder. In April 2018, Johnson was photographed at an airport without the foreign secretary’s customary security detail, in a hungover and disheveled state after partying all weekend in Italy with the British-based Russian oligarch Evgeny Lebedev. Since July 24, when Johnson became prime minister, the prospects of protecting liberal-democratic institutions on either side of the Atlantic have dimmed still further. For both Britons and Americans, the only hope of halting the stealthy advance of oligarchic power is in upcoming elections. But one thing The Great Hack and the Mueller report show is that this path is narrowing all the time.


The Great Hack is streaming on Netflix