At the end of January 2017, days after Donald Trump’s inauguration, I sat in a busy Pret a Manger sandwich bar in central London, a stone’s throw from the mother of parliaments, and flicked through snapshots of Donald Trump on a mobile phone.
The phone belonged to Andy Wigmore, an associate of Nigel Farage’s, the long-time leader of Britain’s insurgent anti-Europe campaign and latterly a friend and supporter of the man he refers to on his frequent appearances on Fox TV as “The Donald.” Wigmore, a businessman who has a sideline as a trade envoy to Belize, a Central American country known, among other things, for its sugar cane and money-laundering, had taken a photo of Farage and Trump standing in front of Trump’s golden elevator a month earlier. The photo went viral almost instantly.
This was Trump’s first meeting with a foreign politician, the man he called “Mr. Brexit,” and Wigmore was there for the ride alongside his business partner, a previously unremarkable insurance entrepreneur from Bristol in the west of England named Arron Banks. In the run-up to the 2016 Brexit referendum, Banks had given upward of £8 million to Nigel Farage’s successful Leave.EU campaign, an act that overnight had made him Britain’s biggest ever political donor.
Collectively, Farage, Banks, and Wigmore refer to themselves as “the Bad Boys of Brexit,” the title of Arron Banks’s memoir and a nod to Britain’s habit of celebrating the buffoonish provocateur (see also, Boris Johnson). The book makes clear that Nigel Farage, Arron Banks, and Andy Wigmore were the clueless outsiders who somehow triumphed over both the establishment and the odds to take Britain outside the European Union.
As French and Japanese tourists ebbed and flowed around us, Wigmore swiped through the photos. There was The Donald in his suite at Trump Tower. There was Raheem Kassam, a polemicist who had bounced between stints working for Farage and editing the British outpost of Breitbart News and who has now graduated to a position as handmaid-in-chief to Trump’s former chief strategist Steve Bannon. Another image was of Kellyanne Conway—“a very old and dear friend,” according to Wigmore. And then he sat back and told me about all the clever things they’d done with data during the Brexit campaign, and how it was a business named Cambridge Analytica that taught them how.
It was because of Cambridge Analytica that I’d asked to meet Wigmore, though I knew very little about the company at that stage, or indeed him. Neither he nor Banks were widely known then—though, nearly two years on, they’ve gone on to achieve something like notoriety. At the time, Wigmore was a friendly, convivial figure who’d said he’d be happy to talk to me about how Leave.EU had leveraged technology in revolutionary ways.
My interest was accidental. I had mentioned Cambridge Analytica’s work for both Trump and the Leave campaign in an article about Google in December 2016. And I’d been increasingly baffled by a series of letters from the firm vociferously claiming it had done no such work, despite the ample evidence for it all across the Internet. Why the denials? It made no sense. I’d asked Wigmore if he would meet. And he was happy to set the record straight.
“Cambridge Analytica did work for us, yes,” he said. “We just didn’t pay them. They were happy to help.” Help? They had “the same goals. We were part of the same family.” Farage and Bannon—a vice president at the firm—were close, he explained. Why wouldn’t they help?
In 2014, Steve Bannon set up Breitbart News in London with the specific intention of helping and supporting Farage’s campaign to take Britain out of the EU. The money came from Robert Mercer, the hedge-fund billionaire who would go on to become the single biggest donor to the Trump campaign. And Cambridge Analytica was another star in their firmament. Of course, they would help. Brexit, Wigmore explained, was the “petri dish” for Trump.
Fast forward twenty-one months and the story that was set in motion that day keeps spinning on. It was Wigmore’s words that led me to hunt down Christopher Wylie, the Cambridge Analytica employee-turned-whistleblower with whom I worked for a year to get on record for The Observer in the UK and The New York Times in the US. Cambridge Analytica is no more. Since then, Mark Zuckerberg has been dragged before Congress to account for Facebook’s actions. And in Britain, over the course of two years, the story has spawned a laundry list of official inquiries and investigations in Britain: into illegal use of data, into illegal electoral spending, into the source of Banks’s donation, into illegal campaign co-ordination—investigations whose final results we are unlikely to know until after Britain has exited the European Union at the end of March 2019.
But the most vital questions have not yet even started to be answered. What is Nigel Farage’s relationship to Donald Trump? How might that connect to Russian interference in Anglo-American politics and elections? And, crucially, why is the British government silent on these matters? Why has it refused to answer parliamentary questions on these issues? Why is it ignoring senior politicians’ calls for a wider public inquiry?
Britain and America, Brexit and Trump, are inextricably entwined. By Nigel Farage. By Cambridge Analytica. By Steve Bannon. By the Russian ambassador to London, Alexander Yakovenko, who has been identified by Special Counsel Robert Mueller as a conduit between the Trump campaign and the Kremlin. The same questions that dog the US election dog ours, too.
There is one vital difference on this between the US and the UK. America has the Mueller investigation. And Britain does not. With only months to go before Britain exits the European Union, there’s a rotten stench coming off this story. As Mueller painstakingly investigates Russian involvement in Trump’s campaign, compiling detail after detail about Russia’s deployment of information warfare and subversion of social media platforms—the same social media platforms at the center of British lives—this remains something apart from Britain’s Brexit trauma.
At the time of writing, our government is in meltdown. The Brexit deal is a national emergency. It takes all the heat and light. Our political journalists have, for months, reported every spit and cough, oblivious to what is happening in the world beyond and how it connects to Britain.
Only once, in November 2017, has Theresa May made a speech that accused Russia of trying to interfere in British democracy. Otherwise, the government has maintained silence. In this, it has been aided and abetted by Facebook.
Arron Banks is married to, now separated from, a Russian woman named Katya. Around 2000, Katya (née Paderina) was close to an MP named Mike Hancock, who reportedly helped resolve her immigration status and find an apartment after her first marriage broke up. A member of Parliament’s defense select committee and chair of a parliamentary Russia group, Hancock was warned by Britain’s security service MI5 that he was a target for Russian intelligence operatives. In a nugget of information that came to light during an immigration tribunal in 2011, the Home Office had attempted to remove permission to stay in Britain of a young Russian woman, Katia Zatuliveter, who’d had a four-year affair with Hancock and had been identified by the intelligence services as a Russian agent and national security threat.
It is a testimony to the British way of doing things that due process was followed so impeccably. The Home Office made a case that Zatuliveter, then twenty-six, who’d previously had a relationship with a senior NATO official, had set out to seduce Hancock, sixty-five. Oleg Gordievksy, a former KGB colonel, described her to one newspaper as the “most useful KGB agent for thirty years,” but a judge found the relationship to be “enduring and genuine.” In his ruling, Justice Mitting wrote: “We cannot exclude the possibility that we have been gulled—but if we have been, it has been by a supremely competent and rigorously trained operative.”
In a long interview I conducted with Arron Banks back in March 2017, it was he who brought the subject up, joking about Katya being “a spy.” Did you know about her past, I asked him. He shook his head. “First I knew was a front-page story in the Mail!” he said. It was during the Zatuliveter trial, before Banks became a figure on the national stage; a business associate had rung him up, he told me, and said, “You’d better sit down.”
After the Zatuliveter business, Banks bought Katya a personalized plate for her car, X MI5 SPY, a classic Banksian ploy. He is a jovial figure, with a fondness for a drink, and, like Nigel Farage, trades on an image of himself as what Britons call a “good bloke.”
It was at the same interview Banks told me about his “boozy” lunch with the Russian ambassador in the months before the referendum. In The Bad Boys of Brexit, he noted that it was a rip-roaring affair in which they put away bottle after bottle, first of vodka and then of brandy. In our interview, it was two lunches, not one. And then he added, a minute later, “Not a single penny of Russian money went into Brexit.” In the resulting piece, I noted this was “a perfectly reasonable answer, if he had been asked if Russia had put money into Brexit. But he hadn’t. He asked and answered his own question.
There was something else he said to me. Banks’s business interests, besides insurance, included diamond mines in Lesotho and South Africa, as well as a jewelry shop in Bristol, and again, this was something Banks brought up, unprompted. Lefties are always “triggered” by diamonds, he claimed. This is from my transcript of the interview:
CC: Well, the argument is that diamond mines are the perfect vehicle for money-laundering because you own the entire flipping supply chain! So you own it from mine to shop, and you just throw some extra diamonds in.
AB: But that’s pure speculation.
CC: Yeah, it is pure speculation.
AB: (Laughs) You haven’t got a clue if that’s true or not.
It’s true. I didn’t. And still don’t. And Banks denies any allegations. All his wealth, he says, was generated in Britain, and it was his company, Rock Services, that made the Leave.EU donation.
For two years, a tiny group of journalists has pursued the trail of crumbs over the financing of the Leave.EU campaign. The question of where the money came from that paid for Brexit did not add up. The independent website Open Democracy has plugged away at Banks’s business interests. Cynthia O’Murchu on the Financial Times has examined his insurance company. A former Metropolitan Police officer turned crowdfunded journalist, James Patrick, and Wendy Siegelman, a citizen journalist in the US, have tried to untangle the Lesotho connection.
And I wrote articles and columns, and sparred with Banks on Twitter, often late at night. About the number of lunches he’d had with the Russian ambassador. About his diamonds. About why, if he’s so rich, he lets out the manor house in which he claims to reside for weddings and lives in a cottage down the road. About why he and Nigel Farage had gotten involved with “Calexit,” a plan for California to secede from the union. About Farage’s relationship with Dana Rohrabacher, the representative from California who, until he just lost re-election, was known as “Putin’s favorite congressman.” About what Farage was doing when he visited Julian Assange in Ecuador’s London embassy in early 2017.
In November 2017, the story took a darker turn. The Russian embassy wrote to call me a “bad journalist,” and Banks’s and Wigmore’s tone changed from laddish banter to a coarse threat of violence. They posted a spoof video that had my face Photoshopped into a scene from the film Airplane. A queue of people lined up to belt me over the head. The last passenger had a gun.
The new hostility was perhaps not only the result of our reporting. The timing may have been coincidental but what had also changed were the first indictments from Robert Mueller’s prosecutors, revealing a web of ties that ran through London, including the identification of the Russian ambassador as a contact between the Trump campaign and Moscow. It was via the London connection that Mueller claimed its first scalp, thanks to George Papadopoulos meeting with an Australian diplomat in a Kensington wine bar.
London: the city that Bill Browder, the US-born British businessman who has been pursuing a global Magnitsky Act, says is irredeemably polluted by Russian money. Among London’s Russian “residents” is the sanctioned Russian businessman Oleg Deripaska—just one of a whole class of oligarchs who’ve mixed with British politicians and donated to British politics and who are now in Robert Mueller’s sights as an associate of Paul Manafort, the Special Counsel’s leading conviction so far; just last week, Deripaska was revealed to have been shuttling Konstantin Kliminik, a suspected Russian intelligence agent, also charged by Mueller, around the world in his jet.
It was in London, too, that the voter data of some 230 million US citizens was processed by Cambridge Analytica. In March, its servers were seized in a high-profile raid by the Information Commissioner’s Office, which is now co-operating with the FBI. And in London that “Organisation 1” is based—the name the Mueller investigation has apparently given Wikileaks in its explanation of the Russian military intelligence operation to subvert the US presidential election.
We know that the release of the Clinton campaign’s emails was a defining moment in changing the course of the election. We know Mueller is following the data trail for evidence of coordination between the Trump campaign and Russian disinformation. And we know he’s circling Assange’s contacts: Roger Stone, Jerome Corsi, and Ted Malloch, another friend and associate of Nigel Farage, are all pieces of the puzzle. We know that American intelligence must be working with British intelligence on this. On the movements in and out of the Ecuadoran embassy. On the movements in and out of the Russian embassy, as detailed in the first indictment. We know that Mueller has talked, repeatedly, to Bannon. We know that he is asking questions about Farage.
Yet the implications for Britain of Mueller’s indictments have barely been reported, let alone understood, in the UK. Theresa May must have been briefed on all this. She knows. She’s just not telling.
Then, four months ago, a new door swung open. The journalist Peter Jukes and I were handed a stash of Arron Banks’s emails. The contents were jaw-dropping. There wasn’t one boozy lunch with the Russian ambassador. There weren’t even two. Banks had multiple meetings with the Russian ambassador and Russian officials in the run-up to the 2016 referendum. And then there were more meetings afterwards, during the US presidential campaign, when Banks and Wigmore also joined Farage in America as he campaigned for Trump.
The leaked emails revealed that on the very day Leave.EU held its press launch (with a panel that included a Cambridge Analytica employee), Banks and Wigmore visited the Russian embassy where the ambassador introduced them to a businessman, Siman Povarenkin. There, inside the embassy, Povarenkin delivered a presentation: he had not one but two potentially lucrative deals he wanted to pitch to them. The first was an offer to buy and consolidate a group of gold mines; the other was to participate in the privatization of a state diamond company. We know from the emails that Banks and Wigmore pursued the deals for months: there were further meetings and evidence of a trip to Moscow to meet Sberbank officials, who were providing the financing. This was months before Putin publicly announced the first major privatization of state firms for years, including of Alrosa, the diamond firm Povarenkin had first pitched to Banks. Later that year, Rosneft was also privatized—the state oil company that the Steele dossier claimed was part of a sweetheart deal offered to Donald Trump.
Both privatizations went ahead. Days after the EU referendum, 11 percent of Alrosa was sold; days after the US presidential election, 19.5 percent of Rosneft went private. Banks denies that he was went ahead with any deal or that he profited from any introductions the Russian ambassador made. He has also denied that “a penny of Russian money” went into the Brexit campaign. One difficulty for him is that a recent parliamentary report on Russian influence in British politics described him as misleading and evasive, and called his spokesman Wigmore “unreliable” and a “self-confessed liar.”
Banks even invited Yakovenko to Leave.EU’s headquarters for a party on the night of the Brexit referendum, together with the embassy’s third political secretary, a diplomat who was expelled from the UK in March this year in the wake of the attack on Sergei Skripal. And Banks and Wigmore were back inside the Russian embassy on the day that it was announced that Bannon was taking over from Manafort as Trump’s campaign manager. Shortly after that, they travelled with Farage to Mississippi, where Trump introduced Farage at a rally as “Mr. Brexit.”
Nigel Farage is the central figure in all this—close to Bannon, close to Banks and Wigmore, close to Trump, linked to Assange. But Britain does not see this. Farage, the former head of the now-defunct UK Independence Party, is still the BBC’s leading go-to for Brexit comment. It took a German journalist to ask him about his Russian ties. He has reported me and Jukes to the police and has called me a criminal, a lunatic, a conspiracy theorist, a loony, a blackmailer, a thief, a hacker, a mad cat lady. The attempted demonization is a distraction story that has worked. The BBC has still not reported on his relationship to Russia, an omission compounded this week by its star politics presenter’s echoing of Banks’s abuse by tweeting that I was the “mad cat lady from the Simpson’s [sic], Karol Kodswallop.”
And that was that, until two weeks ago when Britain’s Electoral Commission announced it had referred a year-long investigation to the National Crime Agency, which deals with serious and organized crime. The Electoral Commission noted that it was unclear where Banks’s £8 million donation had come from or was “permissible” under election rules that do not allow funding from non-UK sources.
The trouble keeps coming for Banks. There’s already an investigation by the Met Police into Leave.EU’s spending returns. Last week, he was found guilty of data crimes in a continuing investigation. The Financial Conduct Authority is looking into his insurance business. BBC and Channel 4 News reports into his business dealings in Africa have led to referrals to the Serious Fraud Office. All told there are currently nine criminal or serious investigations into possible misconduct during the referendum (at least four of which involve Banks).
Critically, it’s what happened on Facebook that remains the biggest question of all. The control of money spent during elections is the very basis of our electoral laws. But they no longer work. Facebook has become a giant funnel not just for dark ads, but for dark money that evades election finance laws. It is now not in doubt that Facebook facilitated data crimes, what we’ve failed to reckon with is how it has broken our democracy, too.
Five times, a parliamentary committee has asked Mark Zuckerberg to answer its questions. And five times, Zuckerberg has refused. In the last instance, he said no to five national assemblies, when, in an unprecedented act, the British Parliament joined forces with counterparts in Canada, Australia, Argentina, and Ireland to invite Facebook’s chief executive to an extraordinary joint international committee on November 27. It’s often said that Facebook is more powerful than a nation-state. It’s not; it’s more powerful than five nation-states.
Facebook’s lack of co-operation has been assisted by Theresa May’s government, which won’t co-operate with Parliament either. It has refused to answer the committee’s questions, refused to back its calls on Zuckerberg, refused its demand for a Mueller-style public inquiry. That demand has support from senior politicians from both main parties, including Damian Collins, the Conservative chair of the parliamentary committee, and Tom Watson, the deputy leader of the Labour Party, as well as from Hillary Clinton, who raised the issue in a speech in Oxford last month—and for whom the implications of crossovers between Brexit and Trump are abundantly clear.
Just this week, May refused to deny a Daily Mail report that she had prevented the intelligence services from investigating Banks in 2016 when she was still Home Secretary. Earlier this year, the prime minister’s political secretary used her office to smear a whistleblower who exposed what has now been proven to be electoral fraud by the official Vote Leave campaign.
Britain sees none of this. All eyes are transfixed on the EU exit sign. Yet the skulduggery, mayhem, and amateur dramatics of the Brexit negotiations have become perfect cover for something far more chilling. From the corridors of Whitehall and Westminster to the studios of the BBC, Britain’s establishment has buried its head in the sand while democracy and the rule of law have been subverted in plain sight. The government is colluding with an omniscient surveillance superpower. A hostile foreign power has deployed a chemical weapon on our streets.
However bleak and dark and troubled America seems right now, it’s not as bleak and dark and troubled as Britain. You have Robert S. Mueller. We don’t.
This article was published by The New York Review of Books.
Carole Cadwalladr is a journalist at The Observer. Her reporting on Facebook and Cambridge Analytica helped earn her a British Journalism Award for technology journalism in 2017; in June 2018, she was also awarded the Orwell Prize for political journalism. (November 2018)