The War We’re In. Part Two.
Exclusive. Erik Prince was building a weapon of mass disinformation intended to attack Iran over social media in 2015. His former business partner believes he deployed the WMD targeting the U.S. instead. Zev Shalev searches for the invisible weapon and wonders if it’s still operational today.
Every day for the last four years, I’ve woken up, poured a cup of coffee, typed several keystrokes on my laptop, hit enter, and headed into combat in the most surreal of battlegrounds: Twitter.
There is no comparison between Twitter and actual physical war, but that doesn’t mean the stakes are not the same. In fact, as we’ve been discovering, the consequences of an information war may be far greater than conventional warfare.
For decades, global anti-Democratic forces have been waging war against the US: A battle for the hearts and minds, a clash of ideologies and narratives, fought by hacks and lies, fueled by data, and existential consequences.
I began writing this blog a month after Donald Trump was elected president in November 2016. I’d been on Twitter since 2009 but only casually. People began appearing in ever-growing numbers after the election searching for answers, and they found each other.
Suburban moms by day transformed into narrative warriors by night. Activists, screenwriters, lawyers, and academics researched until their eyes hurt. They shared data nodes within groups and organized them in threads until complex factual narratives came into focus. It was by far the most significant crowdsourced investigation ever conducted. And it was spontaneous.
That’s how we learned how Russia helped win the election for Trump: with cash laundered through the NRA, and a Facebook manipulation tool called Cambridge Analytica. It’s also how we discovered Russia’s alliance with a group of Middle East nations, domestic white supremacists, and Christian fundamentalists.
Something else had slipped unnoticed into Twitter at around the same time. A formidable stealth weapon of mass disinformation.
No one knows what this WMD looks like, what makes it so powerful, and where it’s based. But the weapon’s ability to project messages and ideology across social media with such volume and presence is inexplicable. No matter how definitively the volunteer squadron of social media researchers and journalists proved something, the other side could swamp it with a counter-narrative. It’s almost like they had a perception-shifting machine pointed directly at us, which turned whatever we proved into a dull, far-away voice.
In The Wizard of OZ, it’s hard to see the wizard hiding behind the curtain, but if you look carefully enough, you can make out his outline. That’s what this story is about, so let’s go see The Wizard.
A WAR BY ANY OTHER NAME…
Once Trump was elected, many of us assumed the volume and ferocity of the social media attacks would die down, but the exact opposite happened,
While the media covered him like any other president, Trump plundered our democratic institutions. The intelligence community was insulted, the state department gutted, the FBI questioned, and the media decried as fake. His tweets about former president Barrack Obama seethed with contempt.
Trump’s assault on democracy accompanied a Wagnerian-like flood of pro-Kremlin and anti-American propaganda.
It was all designed to stoke our primal instincts and drown out reason.
A few may have felt a stirring they hadn’t felt before, of belonging to something bigger than themselves, but for most, it was fear—each tweet triggering a binary emotion.
Every morning, Trump launched an incendiary tweet about an already red-hot situation, then retreated to his private office in the Oval to watch the ensuing hysteria engulf the nation. Cable anchors were happy to comply, secretly flattered the most powerful man in the world was watching them. The bot networks amplified all of it.
No one had ever witnessed the weaponization of social media on this scale, and as far as I could tell, American agencies were not responding.
It was an impossible fight of David and Goliath’s proportions. The Twitter crowd of investigators was small. We’d duke it out with the other side’s formidable machine and their army of real-life digital soldiers in what I can only describe as a whack-a-mole of narratives.
Nothing in my twenty-five years as a journalist (which included a baptism by fire in the dying days of Apartheid) had prepared me for the onslaught of propaganda, agents provocateur, intelligence assets, double-agents, swarms of digital bots, and the complexity of organization that we confronted.
I wrote my stories in long-form posts on this blog. 100+ chapters are all told, like a novel unraveling in real time. Russia House, Confirming the Kompromat, Dial C for Collusion, Facebook the Nation, Meet Me at The Mayflower, Facebook’s Dirty Little Secret, and For Guns and Country, to name a few.
There were no guides or rules. I thought about walking away but just couldn’t.
STATE DEPARTMENT WARNING
When Russian troops crossed the border into Ukraine in April 2014, a forward-thinking diplomat typed a memo to his superiors at the State Department:
[The Russians] unleashed an unprecedented social media propaganda campaign to shore up domestic support for President Vladimir Putin’s policy and to support anti-Kyiv protest activity on the streets of Southern and Eastern Ukraine. Official and allegedly unofficial social media accounts have spewed forth an unceasing stream of disinformation and gained more and more online followers. Russia may be swaying people through sheer volume or at least discouraging people from participating. Unknown diplomat in State Department memo, Dec 2014
The diplomatic cable mentioned two social media accounts, Artem Klyushin and Konstantin Rykov – two Billionaire loyalists of Vladimir Putin. Considering their outsized role in the social media campaign of Ukraine in 2014 and their proximity to Putin, they should have been on the radar of US officials investigating 2016, yet we’ve heard very little about them.
Rykov is a Kremlin propagandist.
Klyushin and his now ex-wife owned a bot development company, The Agency for Development of Innovative Technologies (APRIT), which was under contract for the Russian government in 2015 when many Kremlin-sanctioned campaigns to support Trump began.
Both men have ties to the Internet Research Agency – a social media content factory in St. Petersburg quixotically helmed by Putin’s former chef, Yevgeny Prigozhin, which carried out disinformation assaults on the Us in late 2016.
Another close connection to Vladimir Putin is another oligarch who shares the lasts name of Prigozhin. Iossif Prigozhin is a well-known Russian music producer. He is regularly on Klyushin’s Instagram feed, as is Emin Agalarov. That’s how the 50-year-old bot-maker met Trump at the 2013 Miss Universe contest in Moscow. Agalarov introduced them, and reporters spotted them regularly that week.
Klyushin boasts of an ability to “alter emotional and logical perceptions of situations” and claims his company could produce and amplify content through 1,000 accounts and millions of subscribers.
He doesn’t claim an ability to see into the future, yet somehow Klyushin’s wife knew enough to tweet this in January 2015, months before the world learned Trump was running, and yes, while under contract to the Kremlin.
“I’m sure @realDonaldTrump will be a great president. We’ll support you from Russia! America needs an ambitious leader”.
Klyushin celebrated Trump’s victory at an election night party in Moscow for Trump supporters. He bragged on Instagram that Trump would not have won without his help. Still, it’s hard to know where the bravado ends and the hubris begins.
Klyushin often tweets advice to Trump, which days later often became presidential policy while Trump was in office.
The Senate Intelligence Committee said it believes Klyushin and Rykov were involved in manipulating social media perceptions in the 2014 Ukraine and the 2016 US elections.
Of course, achieving mass dissonance in the US is on a very different scale than in Ukraine.
This may explain why Klyushin spends so much time in Dubai. That location shows up most on his Twitter posts, perhaps intentionally, but more likely because he forgot to turn off his geolocation.
Saudi Arabia’s crown prince, Mohamed bin Salman, gets the bulk of attention regarding Trump’s sordid relationship with Middle East countries, but it was the UAE’s crown prince Mohamed bin Zayed who was the power broker between the Trump campaign and the Gulf countries.
MBZ flew to New York City in Dec 2016 without informing the State Department, which is standard protocol. Obama officials were even more surprised when MBZ arrived at Trump Tower to meet Steve Bannon, Jared Kushner, and Michael Flynn.
A month later, MBZ hosted a meeting in Seychelles – this time with Erik Prince and Russian envoy Kiril Dmitriev. Also present was George Nader, a senior advisor to the crown prince and a regular fixture on the Trump campaign (and current convict for human trafficking).
Prince represented the Trump Administration in the Seychelles talks, although he’s been on MBZ’s payroll for over a decade. Prince’s company Reflex Response (R2) was headquartered in Abu Dhabi and 51% owned by the Emiratis. Abu Dhabi is Prince’s official place of residence.
In 2015, The CEO of another of Prince’s companies was in Abu Dhabi and said he heard Prince discussing a psy-op that would weaponize social media to effect regime change in Iran.
Gregg Smith was the CEO of Frontier Services Group between 2014-16 and has a long history with Prince. Smith says he overheard a conversation between Prince and two former CIA agents working for him.
“Prince had a couple of former CIA officers that he employed, and they would sit there and talk about that psy-op running against the Iranians to try to get them to overthrow the regime there,” Smith told me on a recent Narativ podcast, “He just took the same psy-op and brought it to America.”
How could they target the US with a psy-op and evade detection? The answer is both macro and micro. Let’s begin with the macro. The CIA does not physically spy on the UAE, meaning there’s no human intelligence, which, as one former official told Reuters, amounts to a “dereliction of duty”.
While MBZ has been close to American presidents (notably Republican ones), he’s also maintained a close working relationship with Vladimir Putin, and his head of intelligence services, Sheikh Tahnoun Bin Zayed, maintains close ties with both the Russians and Israelis. The UAE has expanded its regional ambitions greatly in recent years operating militarily in Yemen and Syria and running covert military ops in Libya, notably under Prince.
In a sign of how sour the US-UAE relationship has become, President Joe Biden is yet even to call the crown prince almost two months into his administration. A significant diplomatic slight for what was until recently a major Middle East ally.
The micro answer to the above question is even more surprising.
The US used UAE as a base for covert operations since the 1970s. The relationship was so close the US helped the Emiratis launch their own version of the National Security Agency. Today it’s called the Signals Intelligence Agency (SIA).
Dubbed “Project Raven” by the Americans, the NSA contracted out former NSA staffers to the Emirati agency beginning in 2008. They spied on thousands of people on behalf of the Emiratis, including some enemies of the crown prince.
“Raven” was based in an Abu Dhabi villa. The ex-NSA contractors trained SIA officials on top-secret technology and used protocols very similar to those used by the NSA.
“The incentive was to help in the fight against al-Qaeda. The UAE is a very good counterterrorism partner. You need to remember the timing back then, post 9-11,” Richard A. Clarke, a former US counterterrorism czar who helped build SIA told al-Jazeera. “The NSA wanted it to happen.”
That may have been the intention, but in 2016, one former NSA contractor discovered SIA was hacking the smartphones of American journalists.
The Ex-NSA staffers built the Emiratis an extraordinarily valuable resource. A network of remote servers allowed the Emiratis untraceable internet access to the world.
“Using fake identities and Bitcoin, the Infrastructure department anonymously rented servers worldwide. Those remote servers allowed Raven to launch attacks from a network of machines that cannot be traced back to the project.”
This seems to me to be something of extraordinary consequence. The only way to sustain a continuing social media manipulation psy-op like the one Prince was overheard describing would be to use a distributed network that would be untraceable to Twitter or any other bot detectors. For clarity, there’s no evidence to suggest the UAE used this facility for this purpose, but it strikes me as something you would need to run an operation like that and warrants further analysis.
One final note. One of Artem Klyushin’s ‘advice’ tweets to Donald Trump was a fawning endorsement of Erik Prince’s plan to privatize the war in Afghanistan, suggesting the two men know each other well enough to discuss military strategy.
In May 2018, Chris Wylie exposed Cambridge Analytica’s use of 50 million Facebook profiles to build what Wylie called Stephen Bannon’s “mindf*ck machine. Days later, Channel 4 revealed CA’s use of honey traps to interfere in elections. Cambridge Analytica and its parent company quickly disbanded.
CA’s owners transferred the company’s data and technology to Emerdata, co-owned by CA’s original owners, the Mercers, a Chinese associate of Erik Prince and Ahmed al-Khatib, who has close ties to the Emirati Crown Prince. The existence of Emerdata was discovered by fellow Twitter investigator Wendy Siegelman. The name was Emerdata derives from the Emirates.
Siegelman also reported another SCL alum Nigel Oakes, calls UAE home
It’s hard to imagine the Crown Prince, who was the first and only foreign leader to meet directly with the Trump transition team in December 2016, was collecting all these assets and gathering operatives like Klyushin, Prince, Nader, and Oakes, all while hacking the phones of US journalists, for any other reason other than some sort of political operation.
So let’s imagine you had the mind-fucking instincts of the Russians, A highly functional distributed server network purpose-built by the NSA. And access to the raw data of 50 million Facebook users. Would that be enough to launch a psy-op in the US?
To manipulate the entire Twitter population individually, you would need Artificial Intelligence. Only A.I. could process such a vast amount of data accurately and quickly. The search for a firm able and willing to undertake such a task led me to Israel’s Fifth Dimension.
Fifth Dimension was another one of these private spyware companies that spawned from Israel’s famed 8200 division. The company’s chairman Benny Gantz was until recently considered the likely successor to Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu.
Russian oligarch Viktor Vekselberg – another Putin acolyte – was the principal investor in Fifth Dimension until he received US sanctions for meddling in the 2016 elections and other malign activity. The April 2018 sanctions effectively froze the oligarch’s assets in the Russian gas sector, but they also surprisingly caused Fifth Dimension to shut down.
It’s unusual for a company specializing in the very sought-after space of machine learning to shut down, especially one with the backing of the Israeli Defense Force – even if their biggest investor backed out. Any private equity firm would jump at the chance to invest in a tech start-up like that, but not Fifth Dimension.
Fifth Dimension’s closure coincided with the shuttering of another Israeli spy firm with ties to the Trump campaign and Erik Prince. PSY Group worked on social media manipulation for the campaign for over a year and was shut down in December 2018. Prince first approached PSY-Group for a project in 2015.
Fifth Dimension transferred its residual technology to yet another Israeli tech firm, NSO, that specialized in the hacking of smartphones – the same hacking firm involved in Jamal Khashoggi’s assassination.
Was Fifth Dimension playing a more significant role in the 2016 election, which has somehow evaded the law? Or was the company’s technology used by others after it shut down? Or might we never know because we don’t spy on our allies?
It appears that many Israeli private spy tech firms like PSY-Group, Black Cube, NSO, and more recently, Carbyne and Cellebrite are fronts for Israeli and Russian stakeholders to surveil citizens of other countries or interfere in their domestic affairs without damaging official Israeli-American relations. Whether Fifth Dimension was, too, is impossible to say but worth assessing.
That’s as far as I can take you on our journey to see the Wizard, but hopefully, I’ve provided you with enough to see his outline, so keep an eye out for him the next time you wade on to Twitter.
We battled that monstrous machine for four years, fighting a war for the heart and minds of Americans. A race against the clock to avoid a second Trump term. A war most Americans didn’t even know existed. And a war we won, for now.
You can read part one of ‘The War We’re In‘ here.