The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Brittany Kaiser’s work with Cambridge Analytica helped elect Donald Trump. She’s hoping the world will forgive her.

She’d like to be remembered as a whistleblower and a human rights advocate. You decide.

Brittany Kaiser, a former employee of Cambridge Analytica, near the Capitol building in D.C. (Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)

Brittany Kaiser first emerged in last year’s Cambridge Analytica scandal as a seemingly nefarious figure, an insider steeped in the dark secrets of a new kind of voter manipulation powered by Facebook data. To make matters worse, news reports also raised questions about Kaiser’s mysterious dealings with WikiLeaks mastermind Julian Assange at a time when he remained holed up in the Ecuadoran embassy in London.

For Kaiser — at the time a 30-year-old Democrat from Texas who’d become business development director for Cambridge Analytica, a firm created to elect Republicans — the massive wave of critical news reports about the company threatened to deliver catastrophic damage to her reputation and even made her fear possible arrest.

So she did something drastic: Kaiser fled to Thailand, and she let a crew of filmmakers tag along.

What followed was a highly public — and still unfinished — quest for moral redemption that has played out across the globe and, now, in a Netflix documentary called “The Great Hack,” released July 24. It includes images of Kaiser up to her shoulders in a giant pool under an impossibly blue sky in Thailand, uncertain what to do. And it later depicts Kaiser, in a far more determined frame of mind, testifying before the British Parliament about the many unsavory deeds of her former employer and warning of the ongoing privacy threats posed by Facebook, whose dealings with Cambridge Analytica resulted in July in more than $5 billion in U.S. fines.

But two important elements are missing from the film. The first is Kaiser’s private meetings with British and U.S. prosecutors, including those from then-special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s office, which she recently detailed in interviews with The Washington Post. In these she also explained her visit with Assange in 2017 and how close she came during the hottest days of the Cambridge Analytica scandal to turning over the entirety of her hard drive to WikiLeaks for publication online.

The second missing element is a decisive moment of reckoning for Kaiser, during which she fully acknowledges her role in matters she now regards as wrong and possibly illegal. She repeatedly calls herself a “whistleblower” but viewers of the film may wonder: Why didn’t she blow the whistle a little sooner — ideally before Cambridge Analytica’s misdeeds had become front-page news worldwide?

On June 6, Alexander Nix, former head of Cambridge Analytica, denied deliberately misleading British lawmakers, even as he contradicted previous testimony. (Video: Reuters)

It’s a question, Kaiser told The Post, that she still struggles with herself.

“I used to make so many excuses to myself,” she said. “I used to make excuses to my friends and family on why I was there and that it was okay to be working with these people and that what they were doing wasn't all that bad, and I was just doing my job. I look back at some of it, and it's shocking.”

Kaiser’s efforts to wrestle with this legacy in such a profoundly public way shoots a charge of emotional electricity through a film otherwise devoted to distinct heroes and villains. She occupies a middle ground of moral complexity while she seeks to emerge from what she now depicts as a fever that consumed more than three years of her life.

“She knew before the story blew up that the rights of Americans had been violated,” said David Carroll, an associate professor of media design at the New School in New York and a hero in the film for his dogged legal battle to gain access to the data Cambridge Analytica had collected on him. He is among those who would think better of Kaiser had she spoken up about her qualms with Cambridge Analytica before the scandal erupted.

“Once that’s out, it’s hard to be a whistleblower,” Carroll said. “You’ve missed your chance.”

But whistleblower or not, Kaiser’s story is a compelling one for the insights it offers into the dark heart of Cambridge Analytica, the unregulated market for our personal data and also — and perhaps most importantly — what happens when questionable decisions get thrust to the center of the world’s white-hot gaze.

A job offer in the U.K.

Kaiser was a graduate student in international human-rights law at Middlesex University in London when she met Alexander Nix, the now-disgraced chief executive of Cambridge Analytica. The company had been created by Republican strategist Stephen K. Bannon, who served as the company’s vice president, with money donated by conservative financier Robert Mercer. And while the parent company, called SCL Group, meddled in elections across the world, Cambridge Analytica had a more specific brief — to use the emerging science of Big Data to help Republicans win U.S. elections.

Like the company’s well-known whistleblower, Christopher Wylie, who helped British journalist Carole Cadwalladr of the Observer expose Cambridge Analytica’s misdeeds, Kaiser was no conservative. She had dabbled in Democratic politics and at one point had aspired to work for Hillary Clinton’s campaign in 2016.

Nix, who appears in the film and in much of the news coverage as a particularly skilled manipulator of his fellow humans, lures Kaiser to join his company with the unforgettable line: “Let me get you drunk and steal your secrets.”

Kaiser, whose parents suffered serious financial troubles that led to the loss of their home the same year she started working at Cambridge Analytica, appears to fall hard for the unmistakable scent of money and power that wafts through the conservative political world Kaiser soon inhabits. The film shows her in a series of exotic locations, dressed in pearls with a champagne glass in hand and on shooting weekends with her new associates. During this phase, she even joined the National Rifle Association, a group seemingly at odds with her traditional political views.

“The Great Hack” also details how Cambridge Analytica gathered up data on a massive scale, using an online app to collect information on tens of millions of Facebook users — everyone who used the app and all of their friends — and also from data brokers. The goal was targeting them with messages designed to work on voters’ underlying psychologies. Perhaps the most appalling moment in the film comes as SCL Group orchestrates a voter suppression campaign in the Caribbean nation of Trinidad and Tobago that succeeds in helping a candidate of South Asian descent triumph when poorer, darker-skinned supporters mysteriously fail to cast ballots.

SCL Group reportedly also had a role in an operation in Nigeria in which an Israeli firm obtained private emails from that nation’s president, Muhammadu Buhari, when he was a candidate for office in 2015, according to Cadwalladr’s reporting that also tied Kaiser to the effort. (The article appeared in the Guardian, the sister paper of the Observer.) Those emails, like those of Democrats working to elect Clinton in 2016, mysteriously emerged online during the election season, hurting Buhari’s candidacy. Kaiser told The Post that she won the account for SCL but did not have a direct hand in the collecting or deploying of the emails.

But these events have kept Cadwalladr from regarding Kaiser’s efforts to redeem herself as entirely convincing, especially given that Kaiser decided to flee to Thailand shortly after the article about SCL’s meddling in Nigeria appeared, naming her. “I think it’s hard to know if she’s sincere or not because of the circumstances in which she chose to blow the whistle: the day after we revealed her role at center of particularly problematic election,” Cadwalladr said in an interview.

Kaiser has repeatedly portrayed her actions after leaving Cambridge Analytica as well-intentioned, driven by rising revulsion at the things she’d witnessed and a determination to speak out — classic whistleblower motives. Now that some official investigations are wrapping up, Kaiser says she’s eager to tell the full story. On Tuesday, Parliament released new documents that she had furnished on Cambridge Analytica’s role in the early days of the Brexit campaign, underscoring the importance of her cooperation.

That all of this coincides with the release of a largely sympathetic film and a Kaiser memoir, to be published by HarperCollins in October, only makes Cadwalladr warier — though she also praised Kaiser for providing evidence to authorities and said she wished others from Cambridge Analytica would follow Kaiser’s example.

“The problematic thing for me is her monetizing and exploiting this role, essentially,” Cadwalladr said. “There is this sort of hero-ization of her as a character, and that’s tricky given the many important still-unanswered questions.”

A moment of clarity

Kaiser said she began turning away from Cambridge Analytica and its sharply conservative, Fox News-driven world the night of Trump’s victory, which came as both a surprise and a shock to her political and moral sensibilities. For all of Cambridge Analytica’s claims about the power of its precise voter targeting, nobody knew how well it would work in the U.S. presidential election.

“I was then, like, ‘Wow, I was part of something that I shouldn't have been part of. I never thought that the campaign is actually going to win. Oh my God.’ He actually won through this, you know, racist, sexist rhetoric that has divided a country that was actually doing quite well,” Kaiser said.

Soon after, she found herself in a conflict with her bosses over her role in the company. A promotion she sought to Cambridge Analytica’s executive ranks didn’t come through. A hoped-for job in opening the company’s offices in Mexico City went to somebody else — a man — reactivating her feminist sensibilities.

“That's when the disillusionment really sunk in. And I realized these people could be doing a lot more than I know about, because they're cutting the corners that I see, and I'm not an executive of the company. So what else is going on?”

This dawning realization, however, was gradual enough that Kaiser still found herself hobnobbing around victory parties the night before Trump’s inauguration in January 2017. She dropped by one hosted by Britain’s Brexiteers and even made what she said was a brief appearance at the Deploraball, an event including members of what was then called the alt-right, who reveled in the strident, racially charged rhetoric of Trump’s campaign.

Inside the event, Kaiser said, she recoiled at a painting of George Washington wearing a red “Make America Great Again” hat.

“It was so offensive,” she recalled. “I went in there. I recognized some of the people around. Once I got inside and recognized some of the people that were there … I had to leave.”

She watched the inaugural the following day, at another party, atop the W Hotel overlooking the White House with a cocktail in her hand.

A meeting with Julian Assange

The event that would make Kaiser herself newsworthy happened a few weeks later, in February 2017.

She had a long-standing admiration for Assange and, in 2011, had donated about $200 worth of bitcoin to the group in honor of its work revealing a secret trove of U.S. military files related to the Iraq War. Kaiser had cited its work in her master’s thesis on war crimes.

But what ultimately brought Kaiser and Assange together was the death of well-known human rights lawyer John R.W.D. Jones, who was hit by a London train in an apparent suicide. Kaiser considered Jones, who had represented Assange, a mentor. When a mutual friend suggested that Kaiser and Assange meet to commiserate, she agreed in concept but was unable to arrange a meeting quickly. The Jones death happened in April 2016, as Cambridge Analytica’s campaign work was accelerating. In the aftermath of Trump taking office, with Kaiser increasingly questioning her life choices, the idea of meeting Assange gained traction.

But first she had to get through Assange’s gatekeeper, a gray-haired British man whom she knew only as “James.”

He and Kaiser met over tea at Harrods, the iconic London department store. The next day Kaiser visited with one of Assange’s lawyers for a second round of vetting. The third day, Kaiser, in the morning before heading to work at Cambridge Analytica’s London offices, walked up to the Ecuadoran Embassy, suddenly aware that she almost certainly was being watched, her name entered into the files of at least one government’s intelligence agency.

She also entered with full knowledge of the allegations that Assange had worked with Russians in manipulating the U.S. election but, at the time, dismissed the claims as hyperbole.

“All of this, to me it sounded, I hate to use the term, but it just sounded like ‘fake news.’ It sounded like a way to discredit what could have been credible information,” Kaiser recalled. “And so, unfortunately, the information bubble that I was in, actually being surrounded by Republicans and being surrounded by conservative messaging all of the time, looking back on it, I realized I was a lot more affected than I would have liked to believe at the time.”

By this point, Assange had been in the embassy, avoiding arrest, for more than four years and would be there for two more before authorities rousted him this past April. Kaiser, encountering him for the first time, was immediately struck by how pale he was — somehow paler even than the white, buttoned shirt he was wearing.

Yet despite his appearance — and a rambling conversation she recalled as mainly devoted to Assange monologues on several geopolitical subjects — Assange mustered enough charisma to calm Kaiser’s rising unease about the role Cambridge Analytica had played in electing Trump. Assange assured her Trump was a better choice than Clinton would have been, referencing some of the decisions she had made as secretary of state. “The one who didn’t have blood on his hands won the election,” Assange told her, according to her recollection.

The comment succeeded in soothing her, at least for a time. “I kind of viewed that as, well, Julian knows more than I do,” Kaiser said. “So maybe I should be calm about that.”

Flight to Thailand

But Kaiser was decidedly not calm, more than a year later, when the Cambridge Analytica stories broke in the Observer and the New York Times, triggering a global scandal. A few days later came the story, under Cadwalladr’s byline, about the SCL operation in Nigeria and Kaiser’s role in landing the contract.

James, her WikiLeaks contact, messaged that same day, through an encrypted app, wanting to talk, she said.

She was visiting San Francisco at the time and getting worried that authorities in both the United States and England might be looking to talk to her. She knew a lot about the role Cambridge Analytica had played in Trump’s election and also in the first phases of the Brexit campaign. But she wasn’t sure the official inquiries would be friendly. With the possibility of arrests in the back of her mind, Kaiser headed to the airport and off to Thailand for an unplanned vacation.

Kaiser agreed to meet with James a few weeks later when she was back in London, feeling a bit less in immediate peril.

In this second meeting, James made an intriguing offer: Why not turn over her laptop computer for publication online so that journalists, investigators and anyone else searching for the truth could simply crawl their way through the data and reach their own conclusions? Kaiser was desperate to clear her name. James said this was the best way to do it.

“He said, ‘Well, we can help you with that, but we publish indiscriminately,'” she recalled James saying. “'Nothing will be held back. Nothing will be redacted. We’ll publish the entire thing. Your whole hard drive.'”

So tempted was Kaiser by this offer that she made arrangements to take that step remotely — from wherever in the world she happened to be when she made the decision.

“I left a copy of my computer in London in a safety deposit box,” Kaiser recalled. “I had trusted people that had the password. And I knew that if I did make the decision, that someone in London would be able to pass it” to James and WikiLeaks.

And this is where the filmmakers, having trailed her all the way to Thailand and back, played a crucial role.

Telling her story

The team behind “The Great Hack” are Jehane Noujaim and Karim Amer, a married couple who already were working on a film on the dangers of modern technology when the Cambridge Analytica story broke, giving them an ideal frame for telling the story. They found Kaiser quickly upon her emergence in the coverage, and it was Amer who put her in touch with a contact he knew at the FBI.

That connection, which eventually brought her into contact with Mueller’s investigation and other ones in the United States, ultimately provided the most convincing act of redemption in Kaiser’s story.

“Her story is one that’s about power, about how power seduces and how power shapes us,” Amer said.

What he finds redemptive is the decision, however belatedly, to speak up.

“She didn’t need to do any of the things she did” in cooperating with authorities and the film. “She could have just walked away into the wilderness and never been heard from again, like so many people did at Cambridge Analytica.”

Kaiser sat for many hours of interviews with Mueller’s staff, as well as joint visits with investigators for the FBI, Securities and Exchange Commission and Federal Trade Commission. Kaiser talked about Cambridge Analytica. She talked about Facebook. She talked about WikiLeaks and meeting with Assange and the donation. She even gave investigators the number she had for James, which she presumed no longer worked.

The FTC and the SEC together levied more than $5 billion worth of fines against Facebook, and the FTC also sanctioned Cambridge Analytica’s Nix and the app developer from whom Cambridge Analytica bought the Facebook data. The British Information Commissioner’s Office, meanwhile, is in the final phases of a year-long investigation, with the help of Kaiser and others. She also turned over her laptop computer to U.S. investigators — and not to WikiLeaks — along with hundreds of thousands of emails and other documents.

Cambridge Analytica, meanwhile, dissolved in infamy.

The extent of the danger to Kaiser was underscored not long after she first established contact with the U.S. authorities. Another article came out — again by Cadwalladr — about Kaiser’s meeting with Assange.

The story was not a flattering one, and Kaiser disputes the characterizations in it, if not the basic facts. The article reported that Kaiser and Assange met “to discuss what happened during the US election” and that Kaiser claimed to have “funneled money” to WikiLeaks.

In her interviews with The Post, Kaiser said the election barely came up in her one meeting with Assange and the only thing that may have qualified as “funneling” was the bitcoin donation in 2011, before Cambridge Analytica was founded.

Cadwalladr, in speaking to The Post, said of Kaiser’s criticisms, “We sent her a formal right to reply which set down specifically and in detail what we knew and were planning to say and gave her the chance to respond and she didn’t. We therefore based the story on what we knew. We updated it later to reflect her later statements.”

All of which brings back the question of Kaiser’s reputation, which she has worked so hard to rehabilitate. What of it now?

Kaiser wants to be remembered more for what happened after Cambridge Analytica imploded — for working with investigators and, in the interest of not disrupting investigations, holding her tongue on sensitive matters until they could conclude their work. Some questions about her actions, she said, would have been clearer sooner if she had felt free to speak out. That was part of the price of working with authorities, she said, and that price was worth it to her.

“I definitely made the right decision,” Kaiser said. “A lot of the investigations are still ongoing. So I’m really hoping that we’re going to have a result where if people did commit crimes, that they are held to account. As of right now, there are multiple people that I think should be held to account that haven’t yet, and so we’ll see where that goes.”

As for what happened before, she sometimes speaks as if it were another person — or another version of herself — that fell so deeply into a world she now openly despises. The fever, she knows, held her far longer than it should have.

“It started to break down gradually,” she said. “I’m sad that it took me so long to erode this outer shell that I had developed from working there.”

If that falls short of the abject apology that some viewers of “The Great Hack” may crave, she offered this in her interviews with The Post:

“I’m incredibly sorry about letting the wool be pulled over my eyes,” Kaiser said. “I think of myself as intelligent and strong and principled. And look what happened. If it happened to me, it could happen to anyone.”