This article appears in the March 12, 2021 issue of Executive Intelligence Review.
On Great Power Cooperation
Instead of War: British Exposed
March 5—In a Schiller Institute online roundtable discussion Feb. 27, Mike Robinson, a journalist and radio talk show host in the United Kingdom, presented a compelling overview of how the U.K. Foreign Office and British intelligence services have been using leading British media to target Russia and other countries for regime change. What is shocking is how successful the sponsors of these programs have been in keeping the story out of the press. The British government media’s goal has been to remain camouflaged while building an “enemy image” of Russia as an aggressive, authoritarian “malign” actor, to justify a continuing policy of imperial geopolitical confrontation and military buildup, which threatens to break out into a general war.
Robinson points to a 2018 article in the Daily Express which reported that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) set up a Department of Counter Disinformation and Media Development, to serve as a “counterstrike against Russian propaganda.” The Daily Express and other sources of leaks exposed the “Institute for Statecraft” as an FCO umbrella for an operation called the Integrity Initiative (II).
Robinson reports that the initial exposure of this operation, including that done by himself and some colleagues, resulted in shutting down the II. Yet, the FCO—newly renamed the Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office—has not only continued such operations, but has been expanding them, contracting with British media giants Reuters and the British Broadcast Company (BBC). Former Member of Parliament Chris Williamson who is attempting to force the release of additional documents related to these anti-Russian operations, highlighted the double standard: When “MPs were railing about Russia,” he said, “British agents were using the BBC and Reuters to deploy precisely the same tactics that politicians and media commentators were accusing Russia of using.”
BBC, Reuters Exposed as British Regime-Change Operations
What I’d like to talk about is a little bit about the mechanism the U.K. uses to pursue regime change, and how they manage narratives and so on.
I’m going to start with a little bit of history here, and go back to early 2018, when the British press had headlines such as this from the Daily Express:
U.K. Using Graphic Videos in War of Words with Putin. The Foreign Office is using sophisticated graphic videos in a counterstrike against Russian propaganda.
What struck me at the time about this was one sentence: “They’re said to be the brainchild of Andy Pryce, the Foreign Office’s head of counter-disinformation and media development.” We had been following this idea of media development—I’ll explain this a little bit more a little later—for a while. The idea of the Foreign Office actually having a Department of Counter Disinformation and Media Development was a new admission.
The Express didn’t go into any particular details about what that meant, and they never have. As a result, we didn’t know who Andy Pryce was, we didn’t know anything about him. But there had been advertisements for jobs:
Work with us.… The U.K. Foreign, Commonwealth Office is looking for talented, committed, and capable individuals to join us on a 6- to 18-month project basis to counter disinformation and assess hybrid threats.
Of course, this was all happening around the time of the alleged poisoning of Sergei Skripal, which is very much a narrative being built that Russia was pumping large amounts of disinformation into the U.K., and we were also getting suggestions that Russia was interfering in U.K. elections. We’ll come on to that in a second.
A Classified Video
The question was, who is Andy Pryce? He was to be found at StratCom [the Atlantic Council’s annual Global Forum on Strategic Communications] in October 2018, giving a presentation. He was in workshop 3B, which is all about “Addressing Disinformation: Options Available to Government, Civil Society, and the Private Sector.” What was interesting about this was that StratCom published on YouTube all the videos from that event, for all the workshops except for this one. For some reason, this one they didn’t want to publish. Andy Pryce was also found with the Ministry of Information of Ukraine, all about countering cyber threats; this was an event held in London. He popped up again—this is all in 2018—at the European Endowment for Democracy. Nobody really knows what was discussed at this, because none of this was made public. Again, at Euractiv, he was talking about, Disinformation—the Playbook, and How to Fight It: 2018, DisinfoLab, Brussels.
We wanted to know what was this man doing? What was the Foreign Office doing? We put a Freedom of Information request in, and it said:
I would like to get some background on the role currently held by Andy Pryce (Head of Counter Disinformation). Could you tell me the scope of the role, the size of the team Andy Pryce has working with him, and when the role was created?
Quick as a flash, we got a response:
I can confirm that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) holds some information relevant to your request. However, this information is exempt under Section 24(1) (National Security) of the Freedom of Information Act. Section 24 is a qualified exemption which means that it is subject to a public interest test. We acknowledged the public interest in openness and transparency, but we consider that there’s also a public interest in the FCO protecting national security….
Having considered the request we’re concerned the release would undermine the effective operation of his [Andy Pryce’s] duties, and consequently adversely impact the U.K.’s security.
The thing to note here is that this get-out clause for Freedom of Information in the U.K., can only be used when the intelligence services are involved in some way. So, this gave us a little bit more information. But nonetheless, we did eventually track him down. He had spent some time in the United States, as a Deputy Consul General in Houston in February 2009. Prior to that, he’d been the U.K.’s Head of Public Affairs in Washington from 2007 until 2009, and has had a career in the Diplomatic Service and the Foreign Office the whole time.
I decided I wasn’t prepared to accept this answer from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, so I asked them to review their response to me. They said they initially could claim that the person who was handling my review had been moved to a new job, so they couldn’t possibly answer in the time. So, they’re “looking for someone else to continue the review and provide a response.” Well, I wasn’t prepared to accept that, so I went to the Information Commissioner, who is the regulator for Freedom of Information requests and information transparency. They didn’t have much luck either, because they have “received a response” from the Foreign Office, is what they said to me, and basically the Foreign Office, although they’re prepared “to disclose some information,” they certainly weren’t going to disclose very much. But the representative from the Information Commissioner’s office at least did go and meet with the Foreign Office and try to encourage them to be forthcoming.
Let’s just briefly have a look at what they actually said:
The Government takes the issue of disinformation, as well as wider online manipulation very seriously. Disinformation is the deliberate creation and dissemination of false and/or manipulated information that is intended to deceive and mislead audiences. The Russian government persistently uses disinformation as a tool to destabilize perceived enemies. This was evident in the sustained Russian disinformation campaign following the attack in Salisbury, Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea, and remains so with Russia’s destabilization of east Ukraine and beyond. We will continue to work with the UN and international partners to continue to constrain the Russian government’s ability to use disinformation and propaganda.
The Prime Minister announced at the Eastern Partnership Summit last year that the U.K. would be spending around £100 million over five years in the Eastern Neighborhood to counter disinformation. It is as important as ever that Russian speakers wherever they are, have a choice of media they can consume, and are able to access reliable and objective information. It is therefore vital that local, public, and independent media serving Russian-speaking audiences can flourish.
They ended up by saying:
This financial year, we’re investing approximately £8 million supporting public service and independent media. This includes projects in the Baltic states, Ukraine, as well as pan-regional initiatives. In addition, we’re working with the governments in Baltic states alongside the British Council and other partners, to address issues such as media literacy and societal integration.
The Connection to Russiagate
So, this seemed to be all about countering Russian narratives abroad; that’s how it seemed to be. But then, Anonymous, the hacking group, decided that they were going to expose an organization called the Institute for Statecraft. This was their website in 2018:
All content has been temporarily removed from this site, pending an investigation into the theft of data from the Institute for Statecraft and its program, the Integrity Initiative.
So, basically what had happened was, Anonymous had hacked this website and grabbed a lot of data which they then made publicly available. It was extremely embarrassing for the Institute for Statecraft, because what it showed was that the Counter Disinformation and Media Development program wasn’t just about countering what the Foreign Office were describing as countering disinformation in foreign countries. It was actually for domestic, European, and U.S. audiences as well.
So, the Integrity Initiative was headed up by this man, Chris Donnelly, and they issued a statement which I’m not going to read, on the “Russian Media Publication of Hacked II Documents.” Of course, the allegation was always that the Russians were pushing this. This was never the case; it wasn’t a Russian hack, and certainly the people who were presenting the information to the public weren’t Russian. Nonetheless, we saw plenty of headlines, like “Revealed: Ex-KGB Agent Met Boris Johnson at Italian Party” (Guardian), from the likes of Carol Cadwallader, who was on the list of U.K.-based journalists who were working with the Integrity Initiative to provide opposition to so-called “Russian disinformation narratives.”
So where does that take us? To a tweet from Carol Cadwallader, and she’s very much suggesting that Boris Johnson—current Prime Minister, he was Foreign Secretary at the time—was
At NATO summit on Russia’s “reckless and destabilizing” activity as foreign secretary in the midst of Skripal crisis, incredibly, he then slipped his security detail & then flew to Russian’s house to meet ex-KGB agent. This man is now our PM. [April 27, 2019]
There is this constant narrative of Russian involvement in British politics, Russia destabilizing British politics, Russian disinformation. We have more from her. “The recklessness of this is off the charts….” and so on.
But if we go back to the Integrity Initiative for a second and have a look at this: “West Is Once Again Failing Test Set by Russian Aggression.” This was the kind of narrative we were getting:
The right response would have combined kinetic, symbolic and financial measures. A NATO naval flotilla in the Black Sea would pay a friendly visit to Mariupol. Bilateral military assistance to Ukraine would be stepped up.… Countries like Britain would announce forthcoming legislations to restrict the rights of anonymously-owned “shell” companies….
And so on. This is the kind of thing that we saw. That was Edward Lucas, of course, I should mention, who writes for The Economist, and other outlets; The Times, as well. And he, again, was on the list of Integrity Initiative.
At the same time that this was all going on, of course, in the United States we had Russiagate, and we had these types of people involved in Russiagate: Christopher Steele, of course the former MI6 agent who was the author of the Trump dossier; Stefan Halper; Alexander Downer; Joseph Mifsud; Richard Dearlove, former head of MI6; and so on. But these were the same people who were to some degree involved in the Skripal affair, as well—Richard Dearlove and Christopher Steele in particular, through Pablo Miller, and Pablo Miller was the controller of Sergei Skripal, while he was in the U.K.
So, we saw the same names coming up, pursuing this notion of Russian disinformation and creating and building narratives about the Russian influence in U.K. politics, Russian attacks on U.K. shores; the same kinds of narratives that you were seeing with respect to Russian allegations of interference in the United States as well.
Ghosts at the Institute for Statecraft
But the Integrity Initiative it turned out had a bit of a problem, because they were registered as a “charity,” and they gave their address on the Scottish Charity Commission website as a particular venue, Gateside Mills, in Fife, in Scotland. And so my colleague David Scott thought he would—since he lived just a few miles away—would go and have a look. And unfortunately, what he discovered, was that Gateside Mills, in fact, was a derelict building. It was in the process of being demolished, and so it couldn’t possibly have been hosting a charity, countering Russian disinformation. So what was this all about? Something not quite right there.
We wrote to the Scottish Charity Commission, and I said:
Could I get media statement, please, detailing penalties for any charity registered with you which has apparently submitted false information? For example, The Institute for Statecraft, registered charity number … has listed Gateside Mills, Gateside Cupar, Fife, as its “Principal Office,” yet this address is semi-derelict, empty, and is undergoing partial demolition. Could you also tell me what processes and procedures you follow to confirm that data files are valid?
As a result, the Scottish Charity Regulator said that this is an offense, and that they were going to start an inquiry into the Integrity Initiative. That was a step forward because they really could not be allowed to continue to do what they were doing.
Eventually the Scottish Charity Regulator published its findings for its inquiry into The Institute for Statecraft, and that said:
We wrote to the charity in August 2019 setting out our interim findings and seeking a response from the trustees.
Concerning the charity’s failure to meet the charity test, we indicated that we might find it necessary to direct the charity to take steps to address the issues, failing which we would remove it from the Scottish Charity Register.
Ultimately The Institute for Statecraft “ceased to undertake any activity related to the Integrity Initiative, and this is now undertaken by a non-charitable entity having no legal connection to the charity.” So, this was a positive development: Integrity Initiative effectively ceased to exist at that point.
But in the meantime, the British government itself was busy establishing a whole network of infrastructure to handle this situation. At the head of it at the time was Mark Sedwill, who actually was the first person in British history to ever be at the same time the head of the British civil service, the head of the British Cabinet Office, and the National Security Advisor, so effectively in control of the Foreign Office.
Foreign Office Control of Social Media
Some history, which EIR has mentioned in the past: The former British counter-disinformation organization within the Foreign Office was called the “Information Research Department.” That was replaced by the “Counter Disinformation and Media Development Program,” with perhaps 30 years in between. That outfit set up the Integrity Initiative, now known as the “Open Information Partnership.” And this is it, and so they work with “NGOs, charities, academics, thinktanks, journalists, fact-checkers, and activists,” and they “joined together in response to the rising ride of manipulated information,” this constant Russian narrative.
But let’s look again further at the U.K.’s infrastructure, because Mark Sedwill [is] in charge of the various intelligence services [GCHQ; Security Service MI5; Secret Intelligence Service MI6; Joint Biosecurity Centre], but they started setting up counter disinformation units inside the Cabinet Office—the Rapid Response Unit is there, for example—to counter any narratives appearing on social media that are contrary to the U.K. government narratives. They also reinvigorated the 77th Brigade to actually monitor what’s going on in social media. But when you look at the people involved in 77th Brigade, you find it links back to Integrity Initiative. So, all along, although the organization itself is gone, some of the people involved with it, absolutely are still active, of course [Tobias Ellwood, Chris Bell, Diane Allen, Rupert Burridge]. Headlines continuing, here’s the BBC: “Russian Spies ‘Target’.”
The National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC) is pushing out more disinformation on this. Under the headline, “APT29 Targets COVID-19 Vaccine Development”:
The NCSC assesses that APT29, also named “the Dukes” or “Cozy Bear” almost certainly operate as part of Russian intelligence services. [They’re running a] campaign of malicious activity … against government, diplomatic, think tank, healthcare and energy targets…. [They] warned that APT groups are targetting organizations involved in both national and international COVID-19 responses. [And, that they were targeting] U.K., U.S. and Canadian vaccine research and development organizations. We are 95 per cent confident that the attacks we investigated came from Russia!
Didn’t end there, because here was the head of the National Cyber Security Centre [Paul Chichester] saying, “We condemn these despicable attacks….” The Foreign Secretary [Dominic Raab] was saying, “It is completely unacceptable that the Russian Intelligence Services are targeting those working to combat the coronavirus pandemic.” So, that narrative was continuing to be presented.
But there was more work going on by the British government against Russia and that was coming from the Intelligence and Security Committee of Parliament. And they had initially intended to present their report, “Russia,” back in October 2019; in fact, they didn’t do that. It was finally released in July 2020. And well, here is some of the commentary from the Intelligence Committee:
[We] found it astonishing that no-one in government had sought beforehand to protect the referendum….
Well, which referendum are they talking about? Well, of course, that’s the Brexit referendum, because apparently Russia interfered in that. And as a result, we saw things like this from British media, key paragraphs of the “Russia” report, paragraphs 39-45:
[The] U.K. government of Theresa May and Boris Johnson did not “seek evidence” of Russian interference in British politics including during the 2016 EU referendum; MI6 sent cursory “six-line” note when asked about it.
The “Russia” report then said:
There has been credible open source commentary suggesting that Russia undertook influence campaigns in relation to the Scottish independence referendum in 2014.
So, it wasn’t just the U.S. general election, it was also the U.K. Brexit referendum, the Scottish independence referendum—it seems that Russia is interfering in every election on the planet:
The written evidence provided to us, appeared to suggest that HMG [Her Majesty’s Government] had not seen or sought evidence of successful interference in U.K. democratic processes or any activity that has had a material impact on an election, for example, influencing results. We understand that HMG viewed this as being primarily aimed at discrediting the U.K. in the eyes of a domestic Russian audience.
They mention a study from Ben Nimmo. But not just Ben Nimmo because he gave evidence for this report. Who else were giving evidence for this report, were Carol Cadwallader and Edward Lucas from Integrity Initiative. Bill Browder, of course, Chris Donnelly, and Christopher Steele—they all gave evidence to that, to the “Russia” report, so this was Integrity Initiative still at work, behind the scenes.
And we had reports, this Press Gazette is sort of an industry journal for the media in the U.K. “Russia Report: Social Media Firms ‘Failing to Play Part’ in Tackling Covert Hostile State Action.” And this was all about social media activity, the Russians, and making sure that online harms becomes an issue, and legislation is needed to protect the British public from Russian disinformation.
Putting the Media on Trial
So where does that take us? In parallel with what we’ve seen with respect to dealing with Russian narratives, we then had a much broader network being developed for propaganda, and they built more institutions under the Cabinet Office, so we have the Rapid Response Unit; they then set up a National Security Communications Team; the 77th Brigade, which we already mentioned; and then they added 13th Signals, another British Army section, to this.
So the propaganda network was starting to be built out, within the U.K. at least. So, questions from the mainstream press, again from people linked to the same groups, after the Russia report criticism, should there be a new investigation into the Brexit vote? This was largely, possibly unreported outside the U.K., but the narrative that Russia was interfering in our elections was very, very clear.
Myself and some colleagues decided to run some events putting the media on trial, and some of those individuals included academics from some of the universities in the U.K. A guy called Prof. Piers Robinson was speaking; Peter Ford, the former ambassador to Syria was speaking at that, and various reports subsequently came out from what we set up: the Working Group on Syria Propaganda and Media, this was a group of academics, who were pushing very, very hard to try to counter this narrative in the U.K. that Russia was destabilizing the planet, and they, in fact, ended up on the front page of The Times, because, although they were countering Integrity Initiative and so on, they were also countering the narrative on Syria, and so they became labeled as “Apologists for Assad Working in Universities.” And they came under sustained pressure and are still under sustained pressure for pursuing these investigations.
Now, coming up to date, then, let’s just put this on screen for a second. This is an email I received, again from Anonymous, because they were continuing to leak documents, but this time, it wasn’t from an organization that put files on a public website that they really shouldn’t have had. This was from within the Foreign Office itself. And the files were released on February 13. The allegation from Anonymous here was that these files demonstrated that the U.K. was working toward regime change in Russia, and that they were showing how that was happening. Now, the files that were released were then covered just a few days ago [https://consortiumnews.com/2021/02/22/reuters-bbc-in-covert-uk-program-to-push-western-agenda/] by Max Blumenthal in Consortium News. And Max Blumenthal quoted Chris Williamson, who’s a former Labour MP, saying
Revelations show that when MPs were railing about Russia, British agents were using the BBC and Reuters to deploy precisely the same tactics that politicians and media commentators were accusing Russia of using.
And this, of course, is one of the themes of all the work we’ve done over the last number of years. We see the British government, time and again, accusing Russia, and China, of the types of tactics that they use.
Now, I’m just very briefly going to put this on screen, but I’m not going to read it all, because Chris Williamson did put some parliamentary questions in about the Counter Disinformation and Media Development Program (CDMD) to the British government in Parliament, while he was still an MP; and he basically couldn’t get any more information from Alan Duncan, who was the Foreign Office minister responsible at the time, than I was able to do through Freedom of Information. So it was pretty clear that the British government did not want to give any serious information out about what they were up to with this organization.
But if we go back to the Consortium News article for a second, the quote here is:
The new leaks illustrate in alarming detail how Reuters and the BBC—two of the largest and most distinguished news organizations in the world—attempted to answer the British Foreign Ministry’s call for help in improving its “ability to respond and to promote our message across Russia,” and to “counter the Russian government’s narrative.” Among the FCO’s stated goals, according to the director of the CDMD, was to “weaken the Russian State’s influence on its near neighbors.”
How the Government Media Worked
Well, Reuters and the BBC are mentioned there, but in fact, it’s not Reuters, the organization itself, and the BBC, the organization itself, as corporations; it’s two sub-organizations which have charitable status: In the case of Reuters, it’s the Thomson Reuters Foundation, and in the case of the BBC, it’s BBC Media Action. And just to give an impression of how this works, here’s a quote from a former employee of BBC Media Action, Juliette Harkin, and she said this in 2012, for the BBC Media Action’s Syria Report:
We [BBC Media Action] worked in 2004 with individuals within the [Syrian] ministry who wanted change, and tried to get them to be the drivers of that. All media development work that has been done in Syria has, in my opinion, been predicated upon this idea there can be change from within. You have an authoritarian regime and you find who the reformers are within that and you work with them.
That seemed pretty clear. This is what they did in Syria, they’ve done the same thing in other countries, and they have clearly attempted to do the same in Russia, and countries that they view have Russian influence.
But we should bring another case on here, because here’s Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe. She’s actually not still in prison in Iran; she’s in house arrest at the moment, so whether she goes back into prison, we have to wait and see. She was accused by Iran of attempting to destabilize the state. Thomson Reuters Foundation said:
Absolutely not. These charges are linked to her work at BBC Media Action and at the Thomson Reuters Foundation, but this is a complete invention, as Thomson Reuters Foundation doesn’t work in Iran, and has no program or dealings with Iran.
Unfortunately, Boris Johnson, who was Foreign Secretary at the time, said:
When we look at what Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe was doing, she was simply teaching people journalism, as I understand it, at the very limit.
Now, the way this works, is that BBC Media Action and Thomson Reuters Foundation go into countries and they attempt to change cultures. So for example, in Kazakhstan BBC Media Action went in and they brought in the idea of soap operas and let’s pursue certain cultural change through popular culture in soap opera form. In Syria, as we’ve already mentioned, they went in and they attempted to find the “reformers” and they attempted to encourage them to bring about change from within, so they were encouraging change agents. But one of the other things they did in Syria, and they do in other countries as well, is they went in, they trained journalists and those journalists became the representatives of the British narrative in those countries. So, for example, when Channel 4 News in the U.K. was trying to generate a desire in the U.K., or a willingness in the U.K. public to see Syria bombed, they used journalists in Syria that had been trained by the likes of BBC Media Action, because they were effectively feeding those people the U.K. Foreign Office narrative that they wanted to see being fed back into British and European and United States media.
As time went on, we saw the likes of Oliver Dowden, who’s the Digital Secretary, saying,
Defending this country from misinformation and digital interference is a top priority.
Freedom of Information—Not for Some
I’ve shown you the infrastructure that the U.K. government has built to do that; it’s actually extended that somewhat in the past year. We now have not only a Rapid Response Unit, which is all about monitoring social media and countering the narratives on social media; we have National Security Communications Team at 77th Brigade doing largely the same thing; 13th Signals is the same. We now have the Department of Digital Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) fake news unit, which is doing much the same. We have a Freedom of Information Clearing House, which has been established to monitor some key journalists, activists and others, who are putting in Freedom of Information requests. It doesn’t matter which government department, or which government agency receives that Freedom of Information request: If it’s come from somebody on the list, they will send that to the Cabinet Office, and the Cabinet Office will respond to those. And finally, we have, what is now being described as the @HutEighteen, and this is another U.K. Army group that is running an information war against Russia and China, in particular.
And I’ll just end with this, because this is Theresa May, who at the G7 leaders’ meeting in 2018 got agreement to establish a Rapid Response Mechanism, and the idea of this Rapid Response Mechanism was that there would be a common narrative among all the G7 countries, particularly with respect to Russia and China, that there would be agreement and the pursuit of a common narrative; and that that common narrative would be pushed out by governments and pushed through the media to the public in all the G7 countries. This is sort of the mechanism that they’ve built to force regime change in countries, or attempt to force regime changes in countries that seem to be coming under, they perceive are coming under, Russian influence; and it seems with the latest leaks, Russia itself.
I would just say, if I came across as being overly pessimistic a few minutes ago, it’s not as bad as maybe I implied. I was talking about the political system, that doesn’t mean we as individuals can’t—and as groups and as movements can’t actually make a difference. With respect to Integrity Initiative, the tools were there, through the Freedom of Information Act, through the various regulators actually challenging what they were doing, and holding them to account meant they couldn’t do it again, certainly not under that umbrella. So, there are plenty of opportunities for people to get involved in stopping much of this policy agenda that we’re seeing, and as you and Helga have said, in promoting a more positive way forward.