A leading executive at the controversial data firm Cambridge Analytica advised the Foreign Office on lessons from Donald Trump’s election campaign, HuffPost has learned.
Mark Turnbull, who was filmed by undercover reporters describing himself as “a master of disguise”, was one of two experts from the company’s SCL parent group who attended a special event hosted by the FCO last year.
The ‘Diplomacy in the Information Age’ conference featured Turnbull and colleague David Wilkinson making a presentation on how to use data in political campaigns, citing Trump’s 2016 Presidential run.
The pair gave their expertise to officials and others at Foreign Office’s prestigious Wilton Park conference centre in Sussex in February 2017.
The title of their lecture was listed as “examining the application of data in the recent US Presidential election”.
A Labour party source told HuffPost that Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson had “real questions to answer” on Turnbull’s advice session and whether he was paid by the taxpayer.
On the same day, the FCO’s European Union and International Data chief Paul Gaskell summed up the conclusions of the event.
The three-day forum was opened by Jonathan Allen, then acting director general of Defence and Intelligence at the Foreign Office. He is now the UK Deputy Permanent Representative to the United Nations, based in New York.
The revelation came as Downing Street revealed that the Foreign Office had had communications contract with SCL Group since 2008. The Home Office and the Ministry of Defence had also signed contracts with the firm, but both have since expired.
Turnbull, managing director of CA Political Global, was caught on camera by Channel 4 News this week boasting alongside fellow boss Alexander Nix about tactics they could deploy to help clients win political campaigns.
Nix suggested one possible scenario, in which Turnbull would pose as a wealthy developer looking to exchange campaign finance for land. “I’m a master of disguise,” Turnbull said.
Nix has since been suspended following claims the firm advocated bribery, entrapment and the use of sex workers.
Cambridge Analytica is accused of secretly harvesting up to 50 million Facebook users’ personal data to better identify individuals who could be targeted and influenced by specific political ad campaigns.
The firm, which boasts it has influenced 200 political campaigns worldwide, was hired by Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign, but has denied that data acquired through Facebook was used to assist his efforts to win the election.
Theresa May told the Commons on Wednesday that the Government had no “current” contracts with SCL, as the Scottish National Party raised several links between it and the Tory party.
Wilton Park is an executive agency of the Foreign Office and provides a global forum for strategic discussion.
At its three-day conference in February 2017, the FCO aimed to “explore new opportunities for the FCO to make better use of data in diplomacy, but also emerging threats that challenge the current ways of working”.
Its aims included gaining new “ideas and recommendations for the FCO to consider in making better use of data in foreign policy” and “sharing of experiences among likeminded international partners and to encourage further collaboration between experts and the FCO through the development of a community of thought leaders on Diplomacy in the Information Age”.
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Turnbull, who has worked for the Bell Pottinger PR firm, was listed for the event as Managing Director of ‘SCL Elections’.
Whistleblowers have claimed that SCL and Cambridge Analytica are “one and the same”. SCL Elections created Cambridge Analytica.
Turnbull was caught on camera by Channel 4 News saying the company could create “proxy organizations” to feed negative material about opposition candidates onto the internet and social media.
Turnball said “charities or activist groups” were useful for such a purpose. The unflattering material could be spread through the internet, but without branding or other identifiers that could be traced back Cambridge Analytica.
Johnson was asked by Foreign Affairs Committee chairman Tom Tughendhat about No.10′s revelation that the FCO had a communications contract with SCL. But the Foreign Secretary suggested he was unaware of the financial link.
The Foreign Office and Cambridge Analytica have been asked to comment.