Another big Betsy Woodruff/Erin Blanco piece at The Daily Beast today profiles Joel Zamel, the former Israeli intelligence officer who gamed out back in 2015 how social media manipulation by a foreign power could affect US politics, how Zamel shopped that idea to a very eager Trump campaign, and how Robert Mueller has the receipts for all of it.
Days after Donald Trump rode down an escalator at Trump Tower and announced he’d run for president, a little-known consulting firm with links to Israeli intelligence started gaming out how a foreign government could meddle in the U.S. political process. Internal communications, which The Daily Beast reviewed, show that the firm conducted an analysis of how illicit efforts might shape American politics. Months later, the Trump campaign reviewed a pitch from a company owned by that firm’s founder—a pitch to carry out similar efforts.
The founder of the firm, called Wikistrat, has been questioned by Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s team as they investigate efforts by foreign governments to shape American politics during the 2016 presidential campaign. Joel Zamel, a low-profile Israeli-Australian who started the firm, has deep contacts in Middle Eastern intelligence circles. There are no known publicly available pictures of him. But he met people in the upper echelons of the Trump campaign.
In April 2016, senior Trump campaign official Rick Gates reviewed a pitch produced by a company called Psy Group, which Zamel reportedly owns. The pitch laid out a three-pronged election influence campaign that included creating thousands of fake social media accounts to support then-candidate Trump and disparage his opponents, according to The New York Times.
After Trump became the party’s official nominee, Zamel met with Donald Trump Jr. and discussed the plan, which echoed both the real election interference already underway by the Kremlin and the scenario Wikistrat gamed out the year before.
Zamel took part in at least two meetings in Washington in 2016 and 2017. And his staff at Psy Group made several connections about their social media manipulation plan with individuals who represented themselves as close to the Trump team.
It’s unclear if the Psy Group plans ever went forward. Some former employees of the firm who previously spoke to The Daily Beast said Gates never pursued the campaign. Others said part of the plan was carried out.
To be clear, Wikistrat’s manipulation sim was just one of hundreds the firm has conducted. And at the time, many firms in the private intelligence sector were looking for ways to explore the ramifications of the growing threat of online propaganda and political interference.
Trying to dismiss this as realpolitik game theory doesn't hold water, either.
Peter Marino, one of the Wikistrat analysts who helped create the report in 2015, told The Daily Beast that, looking back, he finds the firm’s prescience quite strange.
“At the time we were discussing the subject of cyber-interference in democratic processes, it seemed and felt like just another idle intellectual exercise and scenario planning project for political scientists,” said Marino, who is currently pursuing a PhD in Chinese politics and history. “But retrospectively, it feels a bit too on-the-nose not to be disturbing.”
Wikistrat is essentially a think tank for rent. The firm, which only has a few full-time employees, contracts with foreign policy and national security experts to produce reports for corporate and government clients about specific geopolitical issues. The firm’s analysts also sometimes produce reports that aren’t for clients, according to people close to the firm; the firm then displays those reports on its website to demonstrate the quality of its work, or markets them to potential buyers.
Zamel had a product, he tried to sell it to Rick Gates. Most of all, Zamel provided cover for the Russians actually doing the heavy lifting.
And let's not forget, Gates has been cooperating with Robert Mueller for nearly a year now. Mueller knows exactly what went on here.
Count on it.