Dark arts of politics: How ‘Team Jorge’ and Cambridge Analytica meddled in Nigerian election
Stephanie Kirchgaessner, Carole Cadwalladr, Paul Lewis and Jason Burke
February 16, 2023 at 3:58 PM GMT+1
Four weeks before a pivotal presidential election in Nigeria, an Israeli private operative specialising in political “black ops” was preparing his trip to the country. On 17 January 2015 the man, who used the alias “Jorge”, emailed Cambridge Analytica, the political consultancy he was coordinating with on a covert plan to manipulate Africa’s largest democracy.
“Friends, hi, I will be on the ground tomorrow for couple days … Who is best to meet there[?]” he asked. “Low profile as we came in on a special visa and we are watched closely (which is part of our plan 🙂 anyway we need better understanding of the current status, improve communication and coordinate plans, we want to run by you a couple things that we might execute if the stars align. so plz, in very limited circulation, who is best to meet, and whats his/her position, and contact info.”
Jorge, or “J”, as he signed off many of his emails, was operating separately to Cambridge Analytica. But his group was coordinating with, and working alongside, the British political consultancy, which shared a secret mission to help re-elect Nigeria’s then president, Goodluck Jonathan.
On Wednesday, Jorge was unmasked by the Guardian and its media partners as Tal Hanan, a hacking and disinformation specialist operating from an industrial park 20 miles outside Tel Aviv. He calls his group “Team Jorge”, and claims it has worked covertly on more than 33 “presidential-level” election campaigns on behalf of clients.
The reply to Hanan’s email asking who to meet in Nigeria was sent by Brittany Kaiser, a young Cambridge Analytica employee who later featured prominently in the Netflix documentary The Great Hack, about the company’s Facebook data scandal.
She copied in the firm’s chief executive, Alexander Nix, and several other internal and external partners who would be coordinating with one another on the covert campaign to re-elect Jonathan and discredit his rival, the then opposition leader Muhammadu Buhari. “If you are on the ground please meet with SCL [Cambridge Analytica] Nigeria team,” she told Hanan.
Kaiser, who was 26 and based in London, was far from the only person at Cambridge Analytica involved in email exchanges with Team Jorge over the Nigeria campaign. She told the Guardian that her “sales” role at the company meant that she was not involved in any “operational matters with Jorge” in Nigeria in 2015.
Cambridge Analytica and Team Jorge were, she said, working “separately but in parallel” in Nigeria for the same client. “I sent some emails to put everyone in contact with each other and sort out who was doing what as time was short.”
The exchange was one of dozens of emails leaked to the Guardian and Observer that shed light on the covert coordination between Cambridge Analytica and Team Jorge in Nigeria. There is no suggestion that Jonathan knew of either Cambridge Analytica or Team Jorge’s ultimately failed attempts to get him re-elected.
But the emails reveal the covert methods that were used to boost his electoral fortunes and the ways in which two teams specialising in the dark arts of political persuasion liaised with one another, with meetings in London, the Swiss resort of Davos and the Nigerian capital, Abuja. Communications appear to have occurred on encrypted Hushmail accounts, or special devices used for secure phone calls.
Perhaps most significantly, they provide the answer to a mystery that has endured since 2018, when the Guardian and Observer first reported how an “Israeli contractor” had supplied Cambridge Analytica staff working on the Nigerian election with confidential material apparently stolen from the Buhari campaign.
The report was subsequently discussed at length during a UK parliamentary inquiry. The identity of the unnamed Israeli contractor who purloined Buhari’s confidential data has – until now – remained unknown.
Dark arts of political persuasion
Hanan appears to have been involved in the dark arts of political persuasion since 1999 without being detected. That changed on Wednesday, when the Guardian and other media outlets published undercover footage filmed by three reporters who met Hanan while posing as potential clients.
The trio captured Hanan as he gave presentations, slideshows and pitches about the election-influencing services that Team Jorge could deliver to people wealthy enough to afford them. The undercover footage records Hanan demonstrating hacking techniques to access Gmail and Telegram accounts to gain intelligence that could be used against a political adversary.
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Hanan did not respond to detailed requests for comment but told the Guardian: “To be clear, I deny any wrongdoing.”
The undercover footage recorded him talking about having worked extensively in Africa, and his presentations included brief references to the 2015 Nigerian election.
In a slideshow called “What we do” he showed a slide with the heading “Wrecking havoc during African election day”, followed by a screengrab from a newspaper article that appeared in Vanguard, a reputable media outlet, which reported how, on election day, leaders in Buhari’s All Progressives Congress party (APC) discovered their phones were rendered useless because they were bombarded with calls.
Lai Mohammed, who was the opposition APC chief spokesperson during the 2015 election, appears to have been a target. Now a minister for information in the Nigerian government, his aide recalled the incident.
“We were at the party’s situation room in the morning of the presidential election, only to discover that his phone line had been blocked,” the aide said. “He could neither receive nor make calls, and that was very serious because he was the live wire of the opposition.”
During his presentation, Hanan showed the undercover reporters another slide featuring an image of women in Muslim attire who were sitting outside a Nigerian polling station. Suggesting Team Jorge had secured the publication of a story about women being excluded from the polling station, Hanan told the reporters he had “created a big scandal”, adding: “They extended the election, which was our objective.”
The Nigerian presidential election, which had been due to be held on 14 February, was indeed postponed. The six-week delay was linked to alleged security concerns over the Boko Haram insurgency. The announcement about the delay was made by Nigeria’s Independent National Electoral Commission on 8 February.
One of the leaked emails between Hanan and Cambridge Analytica suggests he had advance information about that postponement.
“I have received strong indication that the elections will not take place on the 14th, and that plans are made to postponed them in few weeks,” Jorge wrote on 7 February, the day before the official announcement, saying the information came from “a top source” and adding: “Plz be carful circulating it.”
Other emails suggest Team Jorge produced YouTube video content to support Jonathan’s campaign and shared it with Cambridge Analytica, which in turn asked the Israeli outfit to help promote its videos on the platform.
However, it is the elliptical references to Team Jorge sourcing “information” for use by Cambridge Analytica that raise most questions.
‘Our clients must see results’
The different roles for Cambridge Analytica and Team Jorge in Nigeria are laid out in the emails. The British consultancy was tasked with securing coverage by international media during the election that would benefit Jonathan’s election campaign, and discredit Buhari.
Team Jorge was responsible for “opposition research”, or finding the material that could be leveraged to undermine Buhari. When one staffer met “Joel”, another Team Jorge operative, in Switzerland in January, the imminent poll in the west Africa country was apparently on the agenda.
They emailed Joel: “We can meet in our apartment or a restaurant here to discuss what we can accomplish for Nigeria in the short term.”
In another exchange, Joel said he would be the main point of contact to Cambridge Analytica and suggested the two sides “synchronise on a regular basis”, adding: “There will be a lot of info which we’ll have to share.” Cambridge Analytica provided Joel with a Hushmail account – email@example.com – and introduced him to the consultancy’s staff in Abuja.
Cambridge Analytica, which worked on Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign for the White House, would later be forced to close amid the fallout over revelations it had harvested 87m Facebook user profiles to help target political advertising. But in 2015, the company was much more low-profile – one of many western political consultancies that sought to monetise its services on developing world elections.
Team Jorge and Cambridge Analytica were not the only forces seeking to help get Jonathan re-elected. One leaked email lists “Jorge’s Team” among four entities working in partnership on the Nigeria project: “We are working separately but must collaborate together in order to maximise our effectiveness. Our clients must see results.”
Two days later, some at Cambridge Analytica appeared to harbour concerns about whether Hanan’s team was pulling its weight.
One staffer asked: “What are Jorge and Joel doing? Now is the time to deliver, I am now led to believe by Jorge that we would not get anything from them until a few days before the election. This is too late for our client … As you are aware they are being paid to do opposition research, and as of yet we have received nothing of substance.”
The same staffer added: “The two secure phones that we are to purchase from Jorge (have not seen invoice) do not work and we spoke to them about this last week, these are very expensive and so far we have had no use from them at all.”
It is not clear from the emails what exactly Cambridge Analytica expected Team Jorge to do on the campaign or how the Israelis would do it. What is clear is that staff at the British consultancy anticipated the Israelis would be providing a package of information.
In another email, a staffer working on the campaign asked a colleague for “an email address for Jorge”, whom she wanted to contact “for some assistance in sourcing information for the campaign”. The reply copied “Jorge and Joel for coordination” and added: “I believe the package will arrive this coming week for you.”
In the end, it appears that Team Jorge’s information was transferred to Cambridge Analytica at a meeting at the London office.
Clandestine footage of election rival
An account of what happened next was given by Kaiser to a parliamentary committee three years later. She told MPs that the Israeli contractor – now known to be Team Jorge – visited Cambridge Analytica’s offices in Mayfair.
“They came to the office for maybe an hour one day, and plugged something into a computer to show some pieces of information that they had obtained from the opposing campaign,” she said.
That included, she added, a video from inside Buhari’s campaign meetings, apparently filmed by a mole planted by the Israeli team. She recalled being “shocked” and “surprised”, “because they were actually sitting there with the candidate campaign manager and other high-level individuals on the campaign. I had never seen that before from campaign consultants.”
The Israeli contractors had also obtained documents, some of which Kaiser told the MPs were then leaked to the press. She told the parliamentary committee that she had found the activities of the Israeli contractor “concerning” but stressed: “I did not know what they were up to until it had already been done.” When asked for the name of the Israeli team behind the black ops campaign, she replied: “I don’t remember, to be honest.”Interactive
Two months after Jonathan lost the presidential election in Nigeria, Cambridge Analytica was again considering working with its Israeli partners.
Nix, the Cambridge Analytica chief, emailed Kaiser a question. “What is Jorge’s (from Israel black ops co) surname please and also the name of his company[?],” he asked. Kaiser replied: “Tal Hanan is CEO of Demoman International.”
Nix did not respond to questions from the Guardian, other than to say the newspaper’s “purported understanding is disputed”.
Kaiser told the Guardian that her parliamentary testimony had been a “daunting experience”, adding: “I didn’t remember the name of the Demoman company when asked.” She said that she had no prior knowledge of the methods Team Jorge would end up using in Nigeria.
“Clearly, the making of a political sausage is not pretty in many of its aspects, and I understand how those who have not seen and experienced it at close quarters could look at what are regarded as ordinary political behaviours in democracies around the world and hold a position of moral criticism,” Kaiser added. “But I do not believe that criminality (with some notorious exceptions) is rampant.”