The Amazing Talking Computers, Part 2: The Cambridge Analytica Connection

(AP Photo/Mark Lennihan, File)

Alfa bank denied any involvement whatsoever and said they have no ties to Trump or his business.  Leaders from Russia’s largest banking operation have never met Trump or any of his campaign people, other than the Burt meeting.  The whole purported reason- fear of sanctions- is silly.  Unlike other Russian businesses, Alfa has a great reputation in the West.  They were never slapped with sanctions and have built up a reputation as philanthropists funding fellowships.   

As for the founders of the company, they never met Trump, but during Obama’s first term, according to White House visitors logs, they had at least two such visits/meetings with Obama.  One of their creations- LetterOne- has sunk $3 billion into healthcare initiatives in the United States alone and another $200 million into Uber.  Some claim this all a Russian ruse to throw people off their trail that they are a Russian intelligence front.  If so, they have fooled a lot of people over the years.

One of Alfa’s three leaders, German Khan, whose son-in-law is Alexander Van Der Zwaan, acted as the off-the-books contact between Alfa and the Trump campaign communicating with Paul Manafort, it is alleged.  The relationship is not to Manafort, but his business partner, Rick Gates.  The key figure here is a former associate of Manafort’s lobbying business- Konstantin Kilimnik.  The Mueller report states that he was an agent of the Russian intelligence services, but there are facts the report left out. Kilimnik was a key source of information for the State Department who would report directly to the legal counsel at the US embassy in Kiev on happenings in the Ukrainian government circles.  Could Kilimnik have played both sides of the coin?  That is a possibility, but if true, the State Department was duped.  If he was a Russian agent, he could have fed the embassy disinformation which would help explain some Obama era miscalculations in that country.

Only after Alfa bank sued Steele in a British court for defamation did we find out that Steele’s source for the bank connection to the Trump campaign was Michael Sussman.  That Steele memo was dated September 14, 2016 meaning the information was given to Steele at some point prior to that date.  Sussman likely came upon the information through one of two sources: the Indiana University professor’s study, or someone in the Justice Department or FBI.  

In July 2016, the FISA court rejected two applications for warrants against the bank.  A warrant was issued in October 2016 in conjunction with the warrant on Carter Page.  The only thing that changed between July and October was the mention of Alfa bank in the Steele dossier.   

A week after the September 14, 2016 Steele memo mentioning Alfa bank, Steele met with Marc Elias, a lawyer for the Clinton campaign.  It is also known that Sussman took the Alfa bank information to James Baker at the DOJ, some contacts in the intelligence community, and three journalists.  We can surmise these journalists: the Washington Post which refused to run the story and rejected it, the New York Times which tried to corroborate it, and Slate which published the story on October 31st.  

The original complaints to the FBI came from the group of computer nerds, led by Camp.  This begs the question of how Sussman knew about it, but it is most likely from Camp.  The fact remains, even though Crossfire Hurricane was launched in late July, the FBI never suspected or looked into the alleged Alfa bank connection.  Even after they did, they and eventually the Mueller probe determined that there was nothing there.  Plus there is another line of evidence to prove the connection was bogus from the start.  Camp and her colleagues claimed the domestic server belonged to the Trump Organization whereas it was really controlled by Cendyn.  

Instead, we know that Glenn Simpson of Fusion GPS brought the Alfa connections directly to the number four person at the DOJ, Bruce Ohr.  In his notes of the meeting, he wrote that a New York Times article dismissing ties between the Trump campaign and Russia was wrong and that their reporting, again dismissing the Alfa bank connection, was “incorrect.”  Unlike the Clinton email situation, Alfa bank took the unusual step of coming to the United States and allowing the FBI access to their servers and DNS logs.

One fact often missing from media accounts of this escapade are the political leanings of Jean Camp.  She is a well-respected person in computer science circles, but she is also a very huge Hillary Clinton supporter.  Camp was later upset that the FBI reopened the investigation of the Clinton emails.  Also, the DNS logs that Camp and others relied upon were in a different format than the one Alfa bank used.  One well-respected computer analysis firm concluded: “The format of the data does not match the format of actual logs at Alfa Bank.  If the DNS log data posted by Professor Camp is actual DNS log data from Alfa Bank, it has been edited and placed into a different format.”  

Now if the Right has Alex Jones as a conspiracy theorist, then the Left has Louise Mensch who has made a major accusation which brings us to another controversy.  Still believing the Camp data, Mensch believes that the servers were sharing stolen voter information which the Trump campaign then turned over to a digital marketing company called Cambridge Analytica.  The argument goes that the Trump campaign then used this pilfered data to micro-target voters in swing states and bombard them with pro-Trump campaign messages.  She makes the preposterous claim that Alfa bank actually owns Cambridge Analytica.  Then going further, she claims that a Russian spy working for the company stole Facebook data.  

The company actually did illegally access Facebook data, but it was not a Russian spy who did so.  She erroneously states that the server “talking to” the Alfa bank server was located in Trump Tower when we know, for a fact, the server was maintained by Cendyn through another subcontractor operating from a data center in Philadelphia which actually physically placed the server in a small town in Pennsylvania.  

The Mensch story goes like this: Cambridge Analytica steals Facebook information through a Russian mole who then gives the information to Alfa which then transmits the information to Russia which then, through Alfa, transmits the information to the Trump campaign, again through the Alfa server.  As proof, she states that Trump held a last-minute rally in Michigan, a key state.  

It sounds interesting but for two facts.  The first is why send the information to Russia first then reroute it to the Trump campaign?  Second, Paul Manafort was nowhere near the Trump campaign when Trump visited Michigan right before the election.  There is a third nail in the Mensch narrative coffin.  She says that voter databases were breached by Russian spies, but there is no evidence of any such database being breached.   

So what do we know about this company and the Trump campaign?  In June 2016, the company sent staffers to the San Antonio office of the Trump campaign.  The three original staffers eventually grew to 13 under the direction of Trump’s digital campaign manager, Brad Parscale.  Parscale noted that the company provided useful data on American voters, but not raw data like demographics, contact information, or how voters felt about an issue.  Instead, the Trump campaign maintained that it relied on the RNC voter database for that information.

Cambridge Analytica, besides being used by the Trump campaign, has another connection that might help explain something: one of their former board members was Steve Bannon, who became a co-campaign manager for Trump.  In 2015, the company claimed to have developed a profile of every American using over 5,000 data points.  They claimed a campaign can use this information to conduct “psychographic targeting” of voters.  Some worry about the notion since it can be weaponized to conduct psychological warfare.  

Parscale and people from Cambridge Analytica, however, are quick to point out that the Trump campaign never used this “psychographic targeting” technique.  Parscale said that they were tasked with daily poll tracking in key swing states and that part of their job was also to help with persuasive online media messages.

As Trump was ramping up his general election campaign in June 2016, their digital efforts were lacking.  They turned to Cambridge Analytica, but one person who had their doubts about the company was Paul Manafort who described the company and their product as “full of shit.”  In fact, Manafort tried to get a read on the company and reached out to the Ben Carson campaign, which also contracted with them, and his contacts were unimpressed with Cambridge.  

Besides these issues, the flow of information between the company and the campaign is not a one-way street and Manafort did not trust Cambridge with sharing Trump’s political data information.  So why was the company eventually hired?  

When their analysis was pitted against analysis from the RNC database, it was the latter that performed better.  There are likely two reasons.  First, the Trump digital efforts were in their beginning phases and Cambridge likely was a bridge until Parscale could develop an internal digital campaign infrastructure.  Second, when Steve Bannon came on board of the campaign, it is likely he held some sway in hiring the company.  But, there is also a third reason.  Robert Mercer is a large donor to the RNC and Mercer invested more than $5 million into Cambridge Analytica.  It is understandable if the Trump campaign feared rejecting Mercer’s brainchild and alienating a key donor in the process.

If Cambridge Analytica is a Russian front as Mensch contends, then Russian tentacles extend further than Trump since both the Ben Carson and Ted Cruz campaigns contracted with them.  All told, the Trump campaign paid the company $6 million with $5 million coming within weeks of Bannon joining the campaign.  That $5 million was dedicated to digital campaign ads.  Even then, Cambridge botched the job and the Trump campaign realized they may have bought a bad product when the ads started popping up in liberal enclaves.  

In effect, Cambridge Analytica was inconsequential.  When the Carson campaign contracted with them, they pitched their product as tapping into a grassroots network of donors.  When the Carson campaign compared those efforts with other donor networks, that of Cambridge failed miserably.  The same thing was discovered by the Cruz campaign.

Whether psychographic targeting is beneficial or not, there is nothing inherently sinister about it.  It is nothing more than what most companies do online- mine data to target a customer.  In this case, it is a political customer, or voter.  Despite evidence to the contrary, Alexander Nix has touted his product and used Trump’s election victory as a selling point.  But above all else, Nix is a salesman.  Parscale has dismissed his claims since the campaign did not use his top selling point and further screwed up the digital ad campaign.

The whole episode involving the Alfa bank server illustrates how partial truths and biased interpretations of innocent actions- in this case, computer servers- can lead the FBI down investigative rabbit holes costing money and manpower.  It is almost as bad as relying upon so-called “reliable” former British intelligence sources.

Next: The Crossfire Hurricane investigation