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Cambridge Analytica sent foreigners to advise US campaigns, former workers say

Cambridge Analytica CEO Alexander Nix has been suspended over the firm’s practices.
Cambridge Analytica CEO Alexander Nix has been suspended over the firm’s practices.ANTONIO COTRIM/EPA/Shutterstock/File 2017

LONDON — Cambridge Analytica assigned dozens of non-US citizens to provide campaign strategy and messaging advice to Republican candidates in 2014, according to three former workers for the data firm, even as an attorney warned executives to abide by US laws limiting foreign involvement in elections.

The effort was designed to present the newly created company, whose parent, SCL Group, was based in London, as ‘‘an American brand’’ that would appeal to US political clients, according to former Cambridge Analytica research director Christopher Wylie.

Wylie, who emerged this month as a whistle-blower, provided The Washington Post with documents that describe a program across several US states to win campaigns for Republicans using psychological profiling to reach voters with individually tailored messages. The documents include previously unreported details about the program, which was called ‘‘Project Ripon’’ for the Wisconsin town where the Republican Party was born in 1854.

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US election regulations say foreign nationals must not ‘‘directly or indirectly participate in the decision-making process’’ of a political campaign, although they can play lesser roles.

Those restrictions were explained in a 10-page memo prepared in July 2014 by a New York attorney, Laurence Levy, for the heads of Cambridge Analytica, including company president Rebekah Mercer, vice president Steve Bannon, and chief executive Alexander Nix. The memo said that foreign nationals could serve in minor roles — for example as ‘‘functionaries’’ handling data — but could not involve themselves in significant campaign decisions or provide high-level analysis or strategy.

Cambridge Analytica and SCL Group were overwhelmingly staffed by non-US citizens — mainly Canadians, Britons, and other Europeans — at least 20 of whom fanned out across the United States in 2014 to work on congressional and legislative campaigns, the three former Cambridge workers said.

Many of those employees and contractors were involved in helping to decide what voters to target with political messages and what messages to deliver to them, the former workers said. Their tasks ran the gamut of campaign work, including ‘‘managing media relations’’ as well as fund-raising, planning events, and providing ‘‘communications strategy’’ and ‘‘talking points, speeches [and] debate prep,’’ according to a document touting the firm’s 2014 work.

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‘‘It’s dirty little secret was that there was no one American involved in it, that it was a de facto foreign agent, working on an American election,’’ Wylie said.

Two other former Cambridge Analytica workers, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of fear that they may have violated US law in their campaign work, said concerns about the legality of Cambridge Analytica’s work in the United States were a regular subject of employee conversations at the company, especially after the 2014 vote.

The two former workers, who, like Wylie, were interviewed in London, said employees worried the company was giving its foreign employees potentially inaccurate immigration documents to provide upon entering the United States, showing that they were not there to work when they had arrived for the purpose of advising campaigns.

‘‘We knew that everything was not above board, but we weren’t too concerned about it,’’ said one of the former Cambridge Analytica workers, who spent several months in the United States working on Republican campaigns. ‘‘It was the Wild West. That’s certainly how they carried on in 2014.’’

Company officials did not respond to multiple queries from The Washington Post, nor did Bannon, Mercer, or Nix.

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The former workers’ claims represent the latest in a series of complications for Cambridge Analytica, which was founded in 2013 by the wealthy Mercer family and Bannon, the conservative strategist who was executive chairman of Breitbart News and later became a top adviser to President Donald Trump.

The former workers’ allegations center on the 2014 campaign, two years before Cambridge Analytica was hired by the presidential campaigns of Senator Ted Cruz, a Republican from Texas, and, later, Trump.

Bannon left his job as a senior White House strategist in August and in January stepped down from Breitbart News. Cambridge Analytica suspended Nix last week after a series of allegations about unethical practices at the company.

Cambridge Analytica, whose offices were raided over the weekend by British authorities, has repeatedly denied any wrongdoing but did not reply to requests for comment from The Washington Post for this story.