NEW YORK—The man who bankrolled the campaign for Britain to quit the European Union boasted about a backchannel to WikiLeaks after Brexit leader Nigel Farage’s secret meeting with Julian Assange at the Ecuadorean embassy in London, according to private Twitter messages that have been leaked online.
The messages hacked from Farage’s biggest financial backer, Arron Banks, also raise legal questions over the involvement of Cambridge Analytica in the Brexit referendum, undeclared lobbying efforts in the U.S. on behalf of a foreign power, and a breach of data-protection law by pro-Brexit campaigners.
Banks also joked about being a “full agent” of the Russian state a couple of weeks after Trump was elected president.
Brexit campaigners and Trump staffers became close in 2016 as the two upstart campaigns shocked mainstream politicians and won unexpected victories at the ballot box.
The House Intelligence Committee heard in 2018 that Farage may have been used as a conduit between the White House and WikiLeaks, which the CIA has described as a “hostile intelligence service” aided by Russia. Two weeks after meeting Trump in Washington, D.C. in February 2017, Farage was spotted leaving Ecuador’s embassy in central London.
The Brexit Party leader, who previously led the anti-European Union UK Independence Party (UKIP), later claimed he was only there to set up an interview with Assange for a British radio network. According to the hacked Twitter messages, which have been posted online by New York-based website Cryptome, Banks claimed his colleague emerged from the meeting in March 2017 confident that a new WikiLeaks data dump was on the horizon.
The day after the meeting, Banks sent a private Twitter message to a friend. “I had a drink with nigel,” he wrote. “He had an interesting time with wiki leaks.”
On the same day, Banks wrote to a Guardian columnist: “You will have plenty of new material soon ! Wiki leaks specialise.”
Farage has previously denied to The Daily Beast the allegation that he provided data to WikiLeaks, which published damaging messages hacked from Hillary Clinton’s private email account during the 2016 presidential election. A spokesperson for Farage did not respond to a request for comment for this report.
Glenn Simpson, whose company, Fusion GPS, came to prominence after the controversial Steele dossier on Trump’s alleged relationship with Russia, told the House Intel committee he had been informed that Farage delivered material to the embassy via a thumb drive.
“Nigel Farage and Arron Banks had a number of trips to the U.S.… there’s been a misrepresentation of the length of that relationship and the extent of it,” Simpson told the committee. “There was a somewhat unacknowledged relationship between the Trump people and the UKIP people and that the path to WikiLeaks ran through that.”
It turns out Banks has been making the same point about the depth of the relationship with Team Trump in his private Twitter messages for years.
“Nigel and Donald love each other,” he wrote in one message soon after the November 2016 election. “The media don’t really get how deep the links go.”
“We are in daily contact with the Trump campaign—Brexit playbook!” he wrote to another in the days before the vote.
Britain finally left the European Union on Friday—the same day the Senate voted to block new witnesses in Trump’s impeachment inquiry, setting the wheels in motion for his all-but-certain acquittal.
Banks’ social-media account was compromised in November 2019, and a link to download the hacked messages was posted on his Twitter account, but the contents were not reported in the U.K. media after a series of threatening messages from Banks’ lawyers and his spokesman Andy Wigmore, who said he would “come after” anyone who downloaded the data. Wigmore also accused Twitter of breaching European Union data-protection rules.
Legal threats were issued to the British media and a number of sites that tried to publish messages from a section of the leak were shut down. Cryptome has published the messages in full, including previously undisclosed group messages.
“We won’t comment on Twitter hacked messages. It’s become clear that fabricated messages have been inserted into the batch,” Banks told The Daily Beast in an email. “The whole world has had a go with this wild conspiracy theories… Good try though.”
Fabricated messages did go viral on Twitter on the day of the leak, but The Daily Beast accessed—via Cryptome—the original JSON file, which is a common format for transmitting data in web applications.
John Young, who runs the anti-secrecy website, explained that the files had been provided anonymously and said no lawyers from the U.K. had tried to force Cryptome to take the messages down from the site, which is protected by U.S. freedom of speech laws. “Providing information banned elsewhere is the primary purpose of our website (since 1996). Much good material has come from nations with limitations on publication,” he told The Daily Beast in an email. “It would be best for more countries to provide this service to citizenry, especially now that authoritarian regimes are increasing in U.S. and globally.”
The leak includes messages in which Banks says Leave.EU used the disgraced Cambridge Analytica during the Brexit campaign, a claim campaign officials now deny and did not declare in official election filings. He says former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon—a former vice president of the controversial political consultancy—personally demanded payment during a visit to Trump Tower in November 2016.
In a conversation with former UKIP spokesman Gawain Towler, Banks wrote, “Steve Bannon actually chased us at trump tower and we said duck off.”
“Bannon was shilling for CA,” Towler wrote. “oh how codswallop would love that.”
“Indeed he was,” Banks replied.
“Codswallop” is the derogatory nickname the self-proclaimed Bad Boys of Brexit have given to Carole Cadwalladr, the British journalist who has won numerous awards for her work exposing Cambridge Analytica and its links to Brexit and the Trump campaign. She was a finalist for the 2019 Pulitzer Prize for her part in uncovering Cambridge Analytica’s use of Facebook data stolen from 50 million people and used in Trump’s 2016 campaign.
Cambridge Analytica was shut down in 2018 after Cadwalladr’s reporting and after the CEO, Alexander Nix, was caught on camera offering an undercover reporter an extraordinary package of election black ops. The Daily Beast previously reported Nix had reached out to Assange to try to get hold of Hillary Clinton’s stolen emails during the Trump campaign.
Banks is currently suing Cadwalladr for libel after she alleged that he had lied about his contacts with the Russian state.
“Carole has to provide her defence shortly and will be going down in flames!” Banks told The Daily Beast. “I understand we get Carole’s defence Monday, which should be an interesting read—as Trump would say… Very Fake news!”
Banks has periodically enjoyed playing up his links to Russia, and in one jocular leaked Twitter message he even claimed to be a “full agent.”
Britain’s National Crime Agency (NCA) launched an investigation into Banks’ funding of Leave.EU after claims that money may have been funneled to him from Russia. The NCA found no evidence that Banks or his companies had received funding from third parties.
In a leaked Twitter message written during the investigation, Wigmore expressed confidence that the NCA would find in their favor. “You forget that throughout the investigation into us we were privy to who said what etc and why… the NCA were very willing to cooperate with us and gave us everything we needed to know.”
The extent to which Cambridge Analytica worked on the Brexit campaign has been hotly contested. Banks’ organization Leave.EU did not declare any expenditure on the data campaigners, or any in-kind donations that would still have to be declared to Britain’s Electoral Commission, which enforces much stricter election laws and spending limits than the U.S.
When Banks and Wigmore gave evidence to a parliamentary select committee in June 2018, it was pointed out to them that they had at least three stated positions on the work done by Cambridge Analytica.
We then move on with the relationship with Cambridge Analytica. Again, I think this is you, Mr Wigmore, “Cambridge Analytica did no work for us formally and, if they had, it would have been way before you had to report expenditure.” I think that is what you were getting at before, “We never employed Cambridge Analytica and they never gave us anything in kind.” Then we have, “Cambridge Analytica provided initial help and guidance to the Leave.EU campaign, which then went on to develop its own artificial intelligence analysis methodology. The AI machine learning was developed in Bristol by 20 mathematicians and actuaries with input from Cambridge Analytica at the very beginning and then executed by Goddard Gunster.” Now we have come to the point where Cambridge Analytica is simply an ad agency.
Banks responded that Cambridge Analytica was simply an ad agency. Wigmore told the committee that Cambridge Analytica had done some work on the pitch for Leave.EU to be designated as the official Brexit campaign, but that ended when the rival group Vote Leave secured designation.
After an investigation into Leave.EU’s spending in the campaign, the Electoral Commission issued a fine for failing to declare all of its expenditures but ruled that “based on the evidence it has seen, the Commission is satisfied that Leave.EU did not receive donations or paid-for services from Cambridge Analytica.”
The leaked messages raise further questions, however. In February 2016, Banks wrote approvingly of Cambridge Analytica’s work for Texas Sen. Ted Cruz—before the company switched sides and joined the Trump campaign. He suggested that Leave.EU was already using Cambridge Analytica’s psychological profiling techniques. “I see ted cruz beat trump with the same online election people we use Cambridge analytica. Social profiling and targeted ads work,” he wrote. “We can message clinically to labour , Tory UKIP and all Sorts… We have 20 different messages targeted by psychology profiling SM [social media].”
After Trump was elected president that November, he wrote to another contact: “it’s interesting that the SM campaign we ran used the same AI [artificial intelligence] technology they did via Cambridge analytica. This result came as no surprise to us.”
If what Banks wrote was true, it might suggest Cambridge Analytica lent its data to Leave.EU; ran psychological profiling to be used in the referendum; or helped it to replicate its online targeting throughout the campaign. You would expect that to be declared to the Electoral Commission.
Banks and Wigmore have said publicly that Leave.EU did not pay Cambridge Analytica for any work. They said UKIP had sent data to Cambridge Analytica, but insisted that had nothing to do with Leave.EU or the Brexit campaign. Banks did eventually admit at the select committee hearing that he had donated £42,000 ($55,000) to UKIP in order to pay Cambridge Analytica for work he claims not to have benefited from.
To Banks’ annoyance, UKIP decided to keep the money rather than pay the bill. According to the leaked messages, Bannon was demanding that money from Banks, Farage, and Wigmore at Trump Tower in the days after the presidential victory—that was the trip where the Brexit campaigners posed with Trump in front of a golden elevator.
In the Twitter direct messages, Banks also claimed he used close ties to Team Trump to lobby on behalf of the Belizean banking sector. Banks discussed a plan to work with then-Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant to restore support for transactions in U.S. dollars to Belize Bank. The institution lost its partnerships with Bank of America and Commerzbank after an Obama-era American crackdown on offshore tax evasion raised the costs of offering correspondent banking facilities to Belize’s biggest bank. The bank, which is owned by Conservative Party donor Lord Ashcroft, reportedly saw the value of its deposits fall 75 percent in the six months after.
Ashcroft messaged Banks in November 2016 to say: “The corespondent bank for US dollars?”
Banks replied: “We have asked about corresponding banking for Belize ( and it's been taken up ) call andy for an update !”
As well as being a spokesman for Banks and Leave.EU, Andy Wigmore was a trade and investment envoy to Britain for Belize.
The following month, Banks, who was an honorary consul to Wales for Belize, sketched out more of the plan to Ashcroft.
“Don’t know if you’ve caught up with andy but we intend to tackle the bank correspondent issue -the team we know & Bannon all headed off to the White House so fab access. We will be having a party at the inauguration with nigel and hopefully you can make it. Our plan is to get the governor of Mississippi out to Belize on a trade mission and explain the banking issue and get him to take it up directly with WH. I’ve been thinking about the banking issue and sure we can get a change of view,” he wrote.
It is unclear from the messages whether Gov. Bryant, who introduced Farage and Banks to Trump, according to Banks’ book The Bad Boys of Brexit, did help to push the Belizean case in Washington, but he has not registered under the Foreign Agents Registration Act as he would be required to do if he were operating on behalf of a Belizean principal.
Joseph D. Songy, a lawyer representing Gov. Bryant, told The Daily Beast: “Governor Bryant has never had any association of any kind with a bank or financial institution in Belize nor has he ever made any effort to do so.”
Neither Banks nor Wigmore registered as foreign agents either, although they may have been exempted if they were “properly recognized by the U.S. State Department” as officials acting on behalf of Belize. At the time of publication, the State Department has not been able to ascertain whether Banks and Wigmore, who were supposed to represent Belize in the U.K., were properly recognized in the U.S. at the time. Neither of them were on the U.S. diplomatic list in the summer of 2016, which is the latest information available before the Trump administration stopped making it public.
Another set of Twitter messages suggests there may have been a breach of UKIP’s data security in October 2017, when a disgruntled regional organizer quit the party and may have used UKIP’s email database to try to recruit them to a new party. A whistleblower messaged Banks and newly elected UKIP leader Henry Bolton to say: “If I were you I’d said emails to all branches that any UKIP info being passed to For Britain is a breach they are already emailing ukipers.”
Bolton had defeated Anne Marie Waters, a former colleague of Tommy Robinson, to become leader. Waters quit the party in response to set up the radical, anti-Islamic For Britain party. The misuse of UKIP emails by an unnamed organizer who quit the party with Waters may have been an offense under the data protection act.
Bolton told The Daily Beast that he had tried but failed to improve the party’s safeguarding. “When I took over the leadership of the party I had serious concerns regarding party governance, including finance, data and management generally. Furthermore, I received no cooperation from the NEC (the party’s National Executive Committee) in addressing these things. I found it impossible to get full transparency because of NEC incompetence and obfuscation,” he said. UKIP did not respond.