With wall to wall Trump coverage in most English language media, important stories, especially ongoing ones, often fall by the wayside. This is especially true if the story is complicated, just look at the sensationalist and simplistic coverage of the recent ‘Yellow Vest’ protests in France.
Having said this, there are those stories, usually embarrassing to powerful interests, that probably wouldn’t get too much coverage, even without this distraction (and in the British context, the added diversion of the endless Brexit debate).
Starting on November 5th, a group claiming to be the hacktivist collective Anonymous dumped several troves of documents it claimed were stolen from a group in the UK called the Integrity Initiative. That this Anonymous faction could be a cut out for a Russian or other intelligence service that had pilfered the documents is a definite possibility.
Still, there was no official claim made by the Integrity Initiative that the documents were fake and the British Foreign Office, named as a funder of the group, has admitted that the amount of money claimed to have been coming from them int the organization’s coffers is accurate.
The ‘About’ page on the Integrity Initiative’s website explains the group and its goals thus, “We are a network of people and organizations from across Europe dedicated to revealing and combating propaganda and disinformation. Our broader aim is also to educate on how to spot disinformation and verify sources. This kind of work attracts the extremely hostile and aggressive attention of disinformation actors, like the Kremlin and its various proxies, so we hope you understand that our members mostly prefer to remain anonymous.”
The latter sentence about maintaining anonymity might remind some readers of another group based in the U.S. called Prop or Not, which was most active shortly after the 2016 presidential election. This group of mostly anonymous contributors also claimed the need to hide the identities of its members to fight Russian ‘disinformation’ (at its simplest, misinformation is accidental, while disinformation is intentional) and released a very mixed list of alternative media outlets it accused of either being dupes of Russian intelligence or active proxies for it.
The first mainstream notice given to the Integrity Initiative documents appears to have been in the U.K. Sunday Mail more than a month later, which reported on the group after the Initiative’s Twitter feed was shown attacking opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn and his aide Seamus Milne as serving Kremlin interests.
The Initiative called Corbyn a ‘useful idiot’ for the Kremlin. The same tweet went on to slander him in no uncertain terms, comparing his long history of anti-imperialism with taking money from a foreign government, saying, “His open visceral anti-Westernism helped the Kremlin cause, as surely as if he had been secretly peddling Westminster tittle-tattle for money.”
After the Initiative attacked the leader of the Her Majesty’s opposition using similar tactics to those the Kremlin is repeatedly accused of using to interfere in British politics, U.K. Foreign Office Minister Alan Duncan insisted that the group’s social media feeds were not being paid for from the more than $2.5 million USD in funding being disbursed by his office to the organization.
Anecdotally, as someone who regularly watches the BBC and Channel 4 news shows, I saw no reference at all to the the leaked documents and what they revealed about the Integrity Initiative or even the problem exposed by the tweets about Corbyn, which it’s important to reiterate could be seen as interference in U.K. politics by a group funded by its own Conservative government.
The Integrity Initiative is itself a subsidiary of a think tank, the rather self importantly named Institute for Statecraft, which seems to revel in obscurity and gives as its official address what appears to be an abandoned mill in Scotland. The leaks do reveal however, that some of those associated with the Initiative are connected to the British military or military intelligence.
The group plays at being a ‘private’ actor concerned about the efforts of the Russian Federation to engage in information warfare. That it received funds from the British Foreign Office, NATO, the U.S. State Department and other government agencies in the West puts the lie to this claim of independence. That it seems to almost exclusively attack people on the left, mainly within Europe and North America, as working in Russia’s interests should be of even more concern.
Far from being limited in its power by all the seeming secrecy surrounding it, as we shall see, the Initiative has shown that it has the power to stop the appointment of a minister in a foreign government, just not in Russia or one of that country’s handful of allies.
The group’s work involves creating ‘clusters’ of individuals, mainly journalists, in a whole host of countries who will react to perceived propaganda or interference from Russia within their individual countries and then take the battle wider, using clusters in other countries and through social media. In and of itself, this kind of campaign is nothing new; as many commentators noted, there are similarities to a Cold War initiative of the CIA called ‘Operation Mockingbird’. It’s just made more nimble by the internet.
While it may not seem like to huge a problem to have the British Foreign Office giving funding to a group that claims to be working to counter the disinformation efforts of a rival nation, as Mohamed Elmaazi and Max Blumenthal reported in The Grayzone Project, in the UK this ministry isn’t just responsible for diplomacy like the U.S. State Department, but is also in charge of the U.K.’s version of the NSA, the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) and the country’s foreign intelligence service, MI6.
The reporting cited above is in-depth and their investigation reveals several things unrelated to the stolen documents, including the fact that a man with ties to the Integrity Initiative, Simon Bracey-Lane, also spent time working on Bernie Sander’s 2016 campaign in the United States (where the Initiative says he studied Russian interference in that election that same year) and claimed to want to work with Jeremy Corbyn and his Labor Party upon returning to the U.K. Odd, considering the fact that the Intiative has used social media to denigrate the latter on more than one occasion.
This appears to be part of a pattern. One example among the stolen documents that shows the Initiative’s methods more clearly was in Spain, where they successfully engaged in a rapid influence operation called ‘Operation Moncloa’ in order to prevent Spain’s Socialist government from making Pedro Banos the country’s Director of National Security.
The leaked ‘Operation Moncloa’ document reveals the names of members of the Spanish cluster and the II U.K. cluster, who worked together to discredit Colonel Banos, as well as how the operation was undertaken in broad terms.
As reported by the Russian government sponsored Sputnik site: “Members of the Integrity Initiative’s Spanish ‘cluster’ – including Gonzalez Ponz, spokesperson of the Partido Popular in the European parliament, and Nacho Torreblanco, director of the European Council for Foreign Relations Office in Madrid – colluding via a WhatsApp group to flood Twitter with anti-Banos messages, and provide the Spanish media with a ‘dossier’ of negative material… Their efforts were supported by members of the Initiative’s U.K. cluster, and within 24-hours the appointment had been blocked.”
Banos may have been a sometime contributor to Moscow backed network RT’s Spanish bureau but this hardly makes the military reservist and writer a Kremlin stooge. As they have been for at least two years, accusations of involvement or even ‘sympathy’ with Russia are a gift that keeps on giving to the corporatist center and right who, tn the United States alone, have leveled it against everyone from Jill Stein to anti-DAPL protesters in North Dakota.
Expect these evidence free smears to continue and for more well funded groups like the Integrity Initiative to appear in the future, claiming to be fighting disinformation while engaging in it themselves, often against their own citizens or those of allied countries.