Things started promisingly, as Simon Bracey-Lane — a research fellow at the Institute — welcomed me in the foyer with a warm hello and handshake. His demeanour shifted seismically mere seconds later when I revealed I was a journalist.
"You need to leave right now!" he intoned urgently, eyes wide and face rapidly growing pale, "you haven't arranged to see us! Go! Right now! Please leave immediately! Leave!"
Stopping short of physically expelling me from the building but invading my personal space to such a degree he may as well have done, I made for the exit, Simon shadowing me every step of the way and relentlessly repeating his menacing entreaties to depart until I was safely outside and the office's heavy oak front door slammed firmly shut.
I wasn't overly surprised by his response — despite receiving millions from taxpayers, the Institute plainly doesn't like outsiders and goes to enormous efforts to conceal its true location from public view. Still, the organization may perhaps need to become comfortable with prying eyes in short order — for it's now at the epicenter of a international political scandal of potentially historic proportions.
It's a Secret
On November 5, international hacking syndicate Anonymous published a series of internal files it'd appropriated from Integrity Initiative, an off-shoot of the Institute for Statecraft. The material was explosive, revealing the organization — which claims to be concerned with defending democratic institutions from Russian "destabilization campaigns" — to be an international "information war effort" run by British military intelligence specialists, which has disrupted the domestic politics of other countries.
As part of this enterprise, the organization has amassed 'clusters' the world over — lists of politicians, businesspeople, military officials, academics and journalists — who "understand the threat posed to Western nations" by Russian "disinformation" and can be mobilized to influence policy. The files suggest clusters are operational in France, Germany, Greece, Italy, Lithuania, Montenegro, the Netherlands, Norway, Serbia, Spain and the UK — and there are plans to extend the scheme to every corner of the globe.
They also offer numerous examples of cluster mobilization in action — one boasts of the success of 'Operation Moncloa', an effort to block the appointment of Pedro Banos, an army reservist and author the Spanish Socialist party wanted to make the country's Director of National Security.
When Banos' candidacy was announced, 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 — colluded via a WhatsApp group to flood social networks with anti-Banos messages, and provide the Spanish media with a 'dossier' of negative material on the former head of counterintelligence and security for the European army. The Initiative's UK cluster supported their work — within 24-hours, the planned appointment was dropped.
While the files don't offer an example of any similar plot in the UK, its cluster there includes Ben Nimmo, a fellow at the Atlantic Council, who has repeatedly claimed Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn is being supported by the Russian state through various means, including a "twisted cyber campaign", without any supporting evidence whatsoever. The Integrity Initiative's official Twitter account has also posted numerous tweets and links to articles attacking Labour, Corbyn — one post said he was a "useful idiot" in service of the Kremlin — and other prominent party figures.
Searching for Answers
Learning anything about the Institute for Statecraft — let alone contacting the organization — isn't easy. Its minimalist website provides no contact information or address — a webform being the sole means of getting in touch — and likewise offers little clue as to its raison d'etre or services, a section titled 'activities' being entirely comprised of laconic and virtually impenetrable bursts of corporate jargon.
Visitors are told the Institute; "promotes peace and security through the skilful use of state power"; "seeks to grow the capacity for strategic thinking and developing a national competitive advantage,"; "combines its experience and capabilities to enable its people to devise and implement solutions to challenges which [it] has been commissioned to address,"; "is distinguished from 'Think Tanks' in that its research is primarily focused on enabling it to deliver effective projects and programs."
Moreover, the organization is registered as a charity in Scotland, listing its principal office address as Gateside Mills in the small Scottish town of Cupar, Fife — the same is true of its Companies House records — but when Sputnik reporters visited the location, they found Gateside Mills to be a crumbling, derelict building, with no indication the Institute had ever operated there. Providing false information to the Scottish Charity Regulator is illegal, and a spokesperson for the body has confirmed to Sputnik an inquiry into the Institute has been launched.
The location of the Institute's actual headquarters was provided to Sputnik by former British Ambassador Craig Murray — there's nothing directly linking any of the think tank's named directors to the address, and it's not clear who or what is paying the office's presumably sizeable rental fees or even utility bills. Murray tells me, based on his diplomatic experience, these are strong indications the building may have been provided to the Institute by British intelligence — a suggestion not particularly shocking given the individuals connected to the effort.
Such experience almost certainly involved cultivating citizens of other countries for intelligence purposes, a discipline that surely comes in very handy when recruiting new 'cluster' members. A leaked briefing note prepared by Simon Bracey-Lane — the Institute for Statecraft research fellow who so truculently ejected me from their offices — documents how new Integrity Initiative associates were enlisted in the Balkans.
Kremlin critics in numerous countries in the region were courted — sometimes over food and/or drinks — and often offered funding. Bullet-points list the target individual's spheres of interest and expertise, and how they can be used to undermine the Russian government and its national and international interests, and on more than one occasion Simon offers a "personal observation" on the target in question, for example noting 'Sissy and Elias' "looked scared…certain topics caused voices to drop, and eyes watched the people who walked passed table" — a sentence that wouldn't look out of place in an MI5 HUMINT report.
There's no indication Simon has a background in the intelligence services, but his professional resume is nonetheless somewhat puzzling. He's been in the media spotlight before, in 2016 appearing in several articles tracking Bernie Sanders' presidential campaigning efforts. For example, in a BuzzFeed piece published in February that year, he's referred to as a "recent university graduate", who was "inspired" to join the Labour party in September 2015 after Corbyn was elected leader — at that point he was holidaying in the US, "so he joined the Sanders campaign, and never left".
"I had two weeks left and some money left, so I thought, f*** it, I'll make some calls for Bernie Sanders. I just sort of knew Des Moines was the place, so I turned up at their HQ, started making phone calls, and then became a fully-fledged field organizer," he told BuzzFeed.
In May the next year, evidently having returned to the UK, Simon established Campaign Together, an organization offering training to door-to-door political activists supporting progressive candidates during the 2017 General Election, and facilitated 'vote swaps' — a role which would've potentially granted him significant insight into the internal workings, strategy and tactics of the election campaigns of several political parties, as well as personal voting intentions. Once the effort ended, he seems to have swiftly moved on to the Institute for Statecraft, in October hosting an event for the organization — 'Cold War Then and Now' — at which a panel comprised of Ukrainian nationalists, British military staff and NATO officials discussed, among other things, the "threat posed to European values and security" by Russia.
It's extremely curious an avowedly impassioned Corbyn supporter of extremely progressive ideological sympathies became so quickly and intimately involved with an organization that has disseminated anti-Corbyn material, sought to enlist harsh critics of Corbyn to its efforts, and worked to discredit left-leaning political figures abroad. Requests for clarity on this seeming incongruity submitted to Simon via the Institute for Statecraft's webform have gone unanswered as of December 13 — likewise, neither the Institute nor Integrity Initiative have responded to any of the vast number of questions I and other Sputnik journalists have put to them over the past few weeks.
Truth Will Out
The wall of silence may not be able endure much longer. Foreign Office minister Alan Duncan has ordered an official investigation into the Institute, and Shadow Foreign Secretary Emily Thornberry — a target of the Initiative's critical tweets — has seized the issue with some gusto.
In a parliamentary debate December 12, she noted the Integrity Initiative's use of Twitter as a tool for disseminating information had "not been a fringe activity", but "an integral part of its applications for Foreign Office funding over the past two years" — a period in which it has been funded to the tune of US$2.76 million (£2.2 million) by the British state.
"The budget for its agreed objectives of increasing reporting in the media and expanding the impact of its website and Twitter account amounted to £275,000 in this financial year. In the list of key deliverables it promised the Foreign Office this year, it stated explicitly that one of its instruments of delivery will be ‘600-plus Twitter followers, including influential players'," Thornberry said.
In the Commons earlier, I asked Alan Duncan why taxpayers money had been used by the so-called 'Integrity Initiative' to disseminate political attacks from its Twitter site (1/2). pic.twitter.com/zQNOPeQOMn— Emily Thornberry (@EmilyThornberry) December 12, 2018
She went on to ask several questions — first, whether Foreign Office officials were monitoring the Initiative's Twitter output, and if so why they didn't flag concerns to ministers about the dissemination of personal attacks.
"If not, why was this misuse of public funds going unchecked? Secondly, does the funding agreement governing the integrity initiative make clear that its use of funds and its public statements must comply with Cabinet Office rules? Finally, if the Government intend to renew that funding for the next financial year, what arrangements and agreements will be put in place to ensure that nothing of this sort ever happens again?" she said.
It's shocking the efforts of the Integrity Initiative have been barely mentioned — much less criticized — by the mainstream media since the document trove was released over a month ago, and extremely troubling that after so long, it's still not even clear what the Institute of Statecraft actually is or does, and who or what funds and supports it. With such vast sums flowing from the Treasury straight into its shadowy coffers, British citizens — and those of all countries in the organization's cluster crosshairs — must be told.