A formidable and secret UK government-funded anti-Russian StratCom (strategic communication) enterprise, its cover having recently been embarrassingly blown, now presents itself as a bumbling Dad’s Army outfit. But don’t be fooled: this pussycat is a tiger.
This published-sources-based story has been around for a few weeks but has so far gone completely unreported in Australian media: which is odd, because it is in my opinion quite an important foreign affairs story for Australia.
A lengthy set of files, made up of downloaded (or hacked) Integrity Initiative and Institute for Statecraft papers, was published online in late November by British contrarian writer Tim Hayward, as a ‘working file in progress’, under the title ‘Briefing note on the Integrity Initiative’, with authors Paul McKeigue, David Miller, Jake Mason, and Piers Robinson (who call themselves the ‘Working Group on Syria Propaganda and Media’). The URL is here.
The authors introduce their set of papers as follows:
A close examination of past and present posts held by individuals associated with the Integrity Initiative indicates that [TK- British] specialists in military intelligence and other senior military personnel with responsibility for StratCom (strategic communication) operations are closely involved in the programme.
The activities of the Integrity Initiative include:
- setting up covert networks (“clusters”) of journalists, academics and military/foreign service StratCom practitioners in each country including the UK: “The programme has begun to create a critical mass of individuals from across society (think tanks, academia, politics, the media, government and the military) whose work is proving to be mutually reinforcing.”
- covert manipulation of the public sphere, including campaigns to smear and suppress dissenters and block their appointment to public office. The “silencing of pro-Kremlin voices on Serbian TV” is listed as an “achievement”.
- overt attacks on British politicians, academics and other critics of UK government policies, most notably on the Leader of the Opposition [TK – Jeremy Corbyn] and his staff.
- in the Baltic states and Ukraine, working closely with organizations and governments that foment hatred of ethnic Russian minorities and encourage Holocaust revisionism.
- promotion of a hate campaign against the Russian Orthodox Church in the Balkans.’
In response to these published leaked documents, Chris Donnelly, a senior staffer in the Institute for Statecraft, produced in December a fascinating seven-minute Youtube video, professionally filmed in a cosy kitchen in a house or flat (possibly his own) in London. Here is the URL
I have transcribed Mr Donnelly’s talk and will send this by following email. Here are the sections that were of most interest to me:
We have across Europe ‘networks’ – we call them ‘clusters’ – of people who understand the issue, and have agreed voluntarily to band themselves together in order to tackle the issue in their own country, and to share information between each country, on the problems, on how to tackle them, and on how to improve their own governmental capacity to deal with them. The Integrity Initiative program is really important right at this moment, because the threat from disinformation and malign influence is increasing, whether that comes from Russia, or from jihadist organisations, like Daesh, targeting specific elements of the population in different European countries.
To understand why disinformation is such a big issue nowadays, we have to understand that the whole nature of conflict in the 21st century is changing. Whereas if you think of the 20th century, the main form of combat, of conflict, that we are aware of, was world war. During the current situation, it’s a new kind of warfare, a new kind of conflict, a new kind of competition, in which everything becomes a weapon: information, energy supplies, cyber-attack which everyone is aware of, corruption itself, financial investment – all of these things are now weapons in modern conflict between states, and between states and sub-state actors like Daesh. And disinformation is the issue which unites all the other weapons of this conflict and which gives them a third dimension.
Over the last month or so, we have had a serious problem. We have been hacked, attacked, by organisations which have exposed a lot of our emails and papers onto the Web. And we have been wondering of course why this is, and the answer seems to me to be clear. It is because we have been being so effective with our Integrity Initiative program, exposing disinformation, so we have become a threat to someone’s operation against democracy, and they are trying to take us down. And we have simply not got to let that happen. We have got to fight back. We have to win this one, because if we don’t, democracy will be undermined. And we can win this by upping our game, by strengthening our efforts, by getting more support, to tackle the problem in all those countries of Europe where disinformation is a growing threat to democracy. This is not a problem that’s going to go away. This is an issue which is going to become more and more important, more and more of a threat, as the 21st century moves on, and it’s for that reason that we have to develop what we are doing, we have to grow it, we have to educate people to understand it, to understand the significance of disinformation and of the attack on our democratic institutions, the efforts to undermine our very concept of democracy, to undermine the very understanding of truth, to undermine our values. Only if we can educate people in this, only if we can expose the attacks on us, can we enable our societies, our democracies, to fight back, to defend themselves, and to prevail.
As NATO Honorary Colonel Donnelly, a retired senior intelligence officer, bumbles around in his little kitchen, a modest wine rack on the wall behind him, he offers to viewers a mild, cuddly George Smiley sort of image. But the fierce glint in his eye and the passion of his words I have selected above shows he is anything but mild. He is a dedicated ideological crusader with a keen professional expertise in strategic communication tradecraft (Stratcom). The Institute’s and the Initiative’s cover having been blown, it is the best possible defence to try to de-fang them: to make them look as familiar and unthreatening as possible, a sort of quaint Dad’s Army operation. But it would be a mistake to underestimate their dedication, expertise or influence, as a reading of the contents of the ‘Briefing Note on the Integrity Initiative’ will show. This is a big story.
The authors of the ‘Briefing Note’ estimate an overt 2018/19 budget of about £2.6 million, of which £1.96 million comes from the UK Foreign Office and the rest from other NATO government agencies and commercial donors like Facebook. Most of the Foreign Office funding comes from the Conflict Security and Stability Fund’s ‘Russian Language Programme’, now merged with a secret ‘Counter Disinformation and Media Programme’. Office space in central London (undeclared) and most of the staff salaries appear to be provided as covert benefits in kind. I would estimate these separately budgeted items to be worth an additional £2 million, making a total 2018/19 annual budget in the vicinity of £4 to £5 million.
The key point which makes this newsworthy – or it should, if we still had serious investigative journalism in Australia – is that we now know that there is a concerted international effort by large numbers of experienced former British StratCom intelligence professionals, and their many and diverse contacts in the Foreign Office and in British media and abroad, that is putting out a steadily directed and prioritised flow of anti-Russian disinformation. All the time. And they do it well, as we have seen on the Skripals, on Ukraine, and on Syria. These men and women are professionals in the manipulation of disinformation online, using networks and clusters of key people strategically to drive desired discussion themes in major public fora, in mainstream media, and even in online comment sites. It is no accident that various Anglosphere disinformation offensives sometimes look disciplined and centrally guided. Because they are.
Chris Donnelly may think of these activities as countering Russian disinformation: to me, they are simply in themselves expert disinformation practice. We need to know this as we read Anglosphere foreign affairs published content or listen to talks. We need to ask ourselves critical questions like: Where is this originating? With what objectives?
I think this is all disturbing and newsworthy, but I have yet to persuade anybody in Australian media that it is.
Tony Kevin, a former Australian senior diplomat, is an independent non-fiction author. His most recent book is ‘Return to Moscow’, a literary travel memoir published by UWA Publishing in 2017.
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