by Matea Gold and Frances Stead Sellers
February 17, 2017
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During last year’s race, President Trump’s campaign paid millions of dollars to a data science firm, Cambridge Analytica, that touted its ability to target voters through psychological profiling.
Now, with Trump in office, Cambridge’s British parent company is ramping up its U.S. government business by pursuing contracts that could be driven by the new president’s policy agenda, according to multiple people with knowledge of the firm’s activities who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe private interactions.
The company, SCL Group, has hired additional staffers who are working out of a new office down the street from the White House. It has in recent weeks pitched officials in key national security agencies on how its technology could be used to deter terrorism, bolster the military’s capacities as it prepares for a possible buildup and help assess attitudes about immigrants.
SCL Group has ties to people in Trump’s inner circle, including White House chief strategist Stephen K. Bannon, who until recently was on the board of Cambridge Analytica.
In addition, one of Cambridge’s main financiers is hedge fund magnate Robert L. Mercer, whose daughter Rebekah is one of the most influential donors in Trump’s orbit, according to people with knowledge of Mercer’s investment.
Alexander Nix, chief executive of Cambridge Analytica, confirmed recent outreach to federal agencies and acknowledged that the company was stepping up its efforts to secure U.S. government business. (Joshua Bright/For The Washington Post)
Company executives say they are not exploiting their ties to the White House and are simply building on government work they have done in the past. But SCL’s move to expand its government business reflects how corporate interests connected to the administration see new opportunities in Trump’s Washington, even as the president vows to “drain the swamp.” And it shows how contractors are viewing the new administration’s spending priorities as potentially lucrative opportunities.
SCL’s effort is being driven by a former aide to now-departed national security adviser Michael Flynn, who served as an adviser to the company in the past.
As part of its outreach to U.S. officials, SCL is touting more than 20 years of experience in shaping voter perceptions and advising militaries and governments around the world on how to conduct effective psychological operations. In materials obtained by The Washington Post, the company suggests it could help the Pentagon and other government agencies with “counter radicalization” programs. At the State Department, SCL is offering to assess the impact of foreign propaganda campaigns, while the company says it could provide intelligence agencies with predictions and insight on emerging threats, among other services.
Government officials familiar with the company said that SCL just finalized a $500,000 contract with the State Department in the works before the election and that its executives recently met with procurement officials at the Department of Homeland Security.
Alexander Nix, a senior SCL executive who has overseen its U.S. expansion, confirmed the recent outreach to federal agencies and acknowledged that the company was stepping up its efforts to secure U.S. government business. He said that the push is an extension of the work the company has done as a subcontractor on a variety of government projects during the last 14 years — and that SCL would have sought the new work no matter who had won the election.
“We’re clearly seeking to augment our existing client services and products with some of the new technologies we’ve been developing in our other sectors, such as the political field,” he said in a phone interview. “But this is not a radical shake-up or anything new.”
“I’d like to think that regardless of the outcome of the election, we’d be working in this space,” Nix added and said he has not communicated with Bannon about the company’s work. “We’ve survived different administrations from left and right of the aisle, with different policy agendas.”
Cambridge Analytica collected at least $6 million from the Trump campaign for its data-analytics work, federal filings show. Bannon was a key driver of the company’s push into the U.S. political market in 2014, according to multiple people familiar with his role.
Company officials declined to comment on Bannon’s relationship with Cambridge.
Nix said that any involvement Bannon “may have had with the company is being discussed” with federal ethics officials. Bannon, like other top White House staff, is required to file a personal financial disclosure form that will become public later this year.
“They will be, I’m sure, making all that information available in due course,” Nix said.
White House officials did not respond to requests for comment. A spokeswoman for the Mercers said they could not be reached for comment.
Trump’s surprise win has meant boom times for Cambridge, which is now in hot demand by political campaigns and corporate clients across the globe.
“It’s like drinking from a fire hose,” Matt Oczkowski, Cambridge’s head of product, said in an interview at the company’s new Pennsylvania Avenue offices. “Besides Antarctica, we’ve gotten interest from every continent.”
Much of the curiosity is driven by Cambridge’s emphasis on psychographics, the study of personality traits. By measuring qualities such as openness, conscientiousness and neuroticism, officials say they can craft more effective appeals and drive people to take action.
The Mercers were early investors in the company, dismayed that the Republican Party had lost the data war in the 2012 elections.
Bannon, who was then operating as the family’s political adviser, was a participant in strategy meetings as the company worked to sign up American campaign clients. “He was instrumental in the rollout of Cambridge Analytica in the United States,” said one person familiar with his role.
The company first garnered attention in 2015 when it was tapped by the presidential campaign of Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.). In the end, Cambridge’s work proved uneven, according to campaign officials, who said that while its data scientists were impressive, its psychographic analysis did not bear fruit. Company officials said they were still learning how to apply the approach in a tightly compressed primary environment.
Cambridge then moved on to serve as the Trump campaign’s data-science provider. While company officials said they did not have sufficient time to employ psychographics in that campaign, they did data modeling and polling that showed Trump’s strength in the industrial Midwest, shaping a homestretch strategy that led to his upset wins in Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania.
Headquartered in a nondescript building on New Oxford Street in central London, SCL Group has the look of a staid insurance agency, with employees working at rows of computer screens. But along with project managers, IT specialists and “creatives” who design websites are psychologists and a team of data-scientists, many of whom hold doctorates in physics, quantum mechanics and astrophysics.
SCL’s main offering, first developed by its affiliated London think tank in 1989, involves gathering vast quantities of data about an audience’s values, attitudes and beliefs, identifying groups of “persuadables” and then targeting them with tailored messages. SCL began testing the technique on health and development campaigns in Britain in the early 1990s, then branched out into international political consulting and later defense contracting.
Emma Briant, who wrote about SCL’s work in her 2015 book “Propaganda and Counter-Terrorism: Strategies for Global Change,” said its approach can be used to manipulate the public, which is largely unaware how much of their personal information is available.
“They are using similar methodologies to those the intelligence agencies use with openly available data in order to create a commercial advantage for themselves,” said Briant, a journalism studies lecturer at the University of Sheffield in Britain, who is on leave to conduct research at George Washington University. “They are exploiting our dependence on social media.”
Nix, who serves as Cambridge’s chief executive, said that none of the information the company collects is “particularly intrusive,” adding that SCL’s data-science techniques were predominantly developed in the political space, not for military clients.
“This is not medical data or health data or financial data,” he said of the U.S. data that Cambridge collects. “It’s what cereal you eat for breakfast and what car you drive.”
SCL, which says it has worked in 100 countries, offers military clients techniques in “soft power.” Nix described it as a modern-day upgrade of early efforts to win over a foreign population by dropping propaganda leaflets from the air.
In a 2015 article for a NATO publication, Steve Tatham, a British military psyops expert who leads SCL’s defense business outside of the United States, explained that one of the benefits of using the company’s techniques is that it “can be undertaken covertly.”
“Audience groups are not necessarily aware that they are the research subjects and government’s role and/or third parties can be invisible,” he wrote.
In the United States, the company’s efforts to win new government contracts are being led by Josh Weerasinghe, a former vice president of global market development at defense giant BAE Systems who previously worked with Flynn at the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. Flynn served as an adviser to SCL on its efforts to expand its contracting work, according to two people familiar with his role.
Weerasinghe declined to comment. Flynn, ousted this week as Trump’s national security adviser amid questions about his conversations with Russian officials, could not be reached for comment.
In early February, Weerasinghe met with several procurement officials at the Department of Homeland Security. A DHS official said the gathering was focused on “whether their data analytics services could benefit the department.”
The company also just finalized a contract with the State Department’s Global Engagement Center to provide audience analysis for the center’s efforts to dissuade military-age males from joining the Islamic State, according to people familiar with the details. A State Department spokesman declined to comment on why SCL was selected.
SCL’s efforts to land new government contracts come as Trump has vowed to vastly expand the military. In late January, he signed an executive order to launch the “great rebuilding of the Armed Forces,” pledging support for more troops, weapons, ships and planes.
Nix said that while an increase in defense spending could “help” the company’s business, SCL’s government division sees potential beyond the Pentagon and Homeland Security. “We see the applications for these technologies as much in tourism and health care and treasury,” he said.
He rejected the idea that SCL’s intensifying pursuit of government contracts could be viewed as a conflict of interest because of its role in helping elect the president.
“Look, clearly the decision-makers on the campaign are very different people than the decision-makers in government,” he said, noting that the responsibility for contracts falls with procurement officials. “There is a code of ethics in order to make sure that is the case, and we adhere to that.”
Cambridge now has a database of 230 million American adults, with up to 5,000 pieces of demographic, consumer and lifestyle information about each individual, as well as psychological information people have shared with the company through quizzes on social media and extensive surveys, Nix has said.
“By having hundreds and hundreds of thousands of Americans undertake this survey, we were able to form a model to predict the personality of every single adult in the United States of America,” Nix declared in a speech at a New York conference in September 2016.
The company has its share of skeptics who question whether its data-driven messaging can actually change behavior.
“They walked me through the entire formula, and something just didn’t add up,” said a consultant who worked briefly for SCL and spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe private interactions with the company. “All of a sudden it spits out analysis and data. There was a leap in logic.”
Nix shrugged off such doubters.
“We have been doing this for nearly 30 years,” he said. “I suppose if it didn’t work, we wouldn’t still be in business and we wouldn’t still be growing.”
Sellers reported from London. Tom Hamburger in Washington contributed to this report.