GCHQ, the government listening post in Cheltenham, Glos, worked with MI5 and MI6 to monitor any communications that differed from the official Covid narrative.
The Daily Telegraph.co.uk – Sept 1, 2023
A government unit accused of seeking to suppress free speech during the pandemic worked with Britain’s intelligence agencies, senior civil servants have confirmed.
Documents submitted to the Covid inquiry and marked “official sensitive” reveal that the “UK intelligence community” has been involved in the Counter-Disinformation Unit (CDU) since it was founded in 2019.
The unit was set up by ministers to tackle disinformation – false information that is deliberately spread – and initially focused on foreign interference in the European elections.
The intelligence community – which includes MI6, MI5 and GCHQ – continued “working closely” with the CDU “where appropriate” during this time, documents show.
The disclosures were made in witness statements by two senior civil servants, and come amid growing concerns that the CDU was monitoring the activities of British citizens during the pandemic.
Earlier this year, The Telegraph revealed that the secretive unit had paid an external AI firm to trawl the web for so-called disinformation – but that the firm’s reports had also included legitimate posts criticising lockdown policies.
They included posts by leading scientists such as Dr Alexandre de Figueiredo, a research fellow at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, who opposed a blanket policy of vaccinating all children against Covid.
Documents revealed under data protection laws showed that he was one of several leading researchers and campaigners whose online activities had been collected by the CDU or the AI firm it instructed.
‘UK intelligence community’
There is no suggestion that the UK intelligence agencies were involved in or knew about this practice, or that they should not be involved in any other of the CDU’s activities. The witness statements repeatedly refer to the “UK intelligence community”, but do not specify which or how many of these agencies were involved.
However, the community’s involvement sheds new light on the workings of the CDU – formerly known as the Counter-Disinformation Cell (CDC).
In one of the disclosures to the Covid inquiry, Susannah Storey, director general for digital, technology and telecoms at the Department for Science, Innovation and Technology, in which the CDU now sits, said that the Government has a “disinformation board” of around 12 people, which includes members from the “UK intelligence community”.
This board is responsible for “senior level governance of counter-disinformation policy and operational action relating to UK audiences”, her 19-page witness statements state.
It was chaired by Sarah Connolly, the director of security and online harms, whom The Telegraph has previously identified as the head of the CDU.
‘Passing information over’
Ms Connolly has not submitted a public statement to the inquiry, but has previously set out to Parliament how one of the main functions of the CDU is “passing information over” to companies such as Facebook and Twitter to “encourage… the swift takedown of posts”.
The other statement to the inquiry was by Sam Lister, a former Times journalist who is now director general of strategy and operations at the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS).
The submissions to the Covid inquiry mark the first time that the Government has publicly acknowledged that the intelligence agencies have been involved in the CDU.
Ms Storey’s statement also sheds new light on the scale of the controversial unit.
As many as 50 staff
The Government has previously refused to disclose the size of the CDU’s operations, on the basis that it would be “prejudicial to the effective conduct of public affairs” but Ms Storey confirmed that during the pandemic, as many as 50 staff were working for the unit.
Between six and 25 of these were “core” staff in the DCMS, which had responsibility for the CDU at that point, while others would be drafted in from elsewhere in government.
“The CDC was virtual and flexible in nature, with DCMS and other departments pulling on their wider resources… as needed.”
A government spokesman said: “The unit operates under ministerial authority and uses publicly available information to tackle the most severe safety, security and disinformation threats, from suggestions that ingesting bleach can cure Covid-19 to Russia’s denial of massacres in Ukraine.
“It does not, and has never, tracked the activity of individuals, and no dossiers exist.”
Martin comments: Better late than never, the UK MSM catches on. The infamous “Nudge Unit” at work.
Uncensored were onto this three years ago when restrictions were in place, but hey, we’re just a bunch of conspiracy theorists…
And YES, this does go on in NZ too, with fake accounts on networking site Neighbourly (Stuff/The Press) hosting “influencers” on subjects such as Covid and Climate Change.