Former Cambridge Analytica CEO Alexander Nix Testifies Before Parliament

June 6, 2018 at 12:48PM
via Wired

During a nearly four-hour grilling before Parliament Wednesday, Alexander Nix, former CEO of the now defunct data firm Cambridge Analytica, faced the ghosts of his past.

In the green-carpeted room where the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee interrogated Nix for the second time this year, the audience included Christopher Wylie, the former Cambridge Analytica employee who blew the whistle on the surreptitious harvesting of up to 87 million Facebook users' data; Carole Cadwalladr, the Guardian reporter who broke the story; Shahmir Sanni, another whistleblower who alleges that the Brexit VoteLeave campaign flouted campaign finance laws during the referendum; and David Carroll, an American academic who has filed a legal suit against Cambridge Analytica, seeking access to his personal data file.

But of all of the individuals who have challenged Nix over the last three months, the one whose words have gotten him in the most trouble may well be Nix himself. In February, just a month before the Cambridge Analytica scandal broke open in earnest, Nix testified before this very committee about Cambridge Analytica's work. Months later, following steady revelations about the company's misdeeds, the committee decided that Nix's initial answers were at best incomplete, and at worst, intentionally misleading.

'By no stretch of the imagination can you be seen as the victim.'

Brendan O'Hara, UK Parliament

The questioning started contentiously, as committee chairman Damian Collins declined to let Nix deliver an opening statement that he said would clarify misconceptions about his prior testimony. When Nix told the eight members gathered that he had to "insist" on giving the statement, Collins swiftly shut him down. "I'm sorry, sir," Collins said. "It’s not your place to insist."

Throughout his testimony, Nix worked to frame himself as the target of an unfounded international smear campaign coordinated by an ex-employee with an axe to grind (Wylie), a British journalist who wanted to undo the Brexit referendum (Cadwalladr), and an American public that's already divided over President Donald Trump's election, which Cambridge Analytica helped enable.

"I'm sorry if the members of this committee are unhappy with the outcome of the referendum. I'm sorry if the members of the committee are unhappy with Donald Trump being President of the United States," he said. "But you can’t simply put forward your prejudices onto me and make sweeping assumptions about our involvement with a particular campaign simply because that’s what you want to believe."

The members laughed in response.

"You have attempted to paint yourself as the victim," Brendan O'Hara, a member of the Scottish National Party, told Nix during the hearing. "By no stretch of the imagination can you be seen as the victim."

Nix's inquisitors repeatedly asked him to address his past statements, including his assertion in February of this year that none of Cambridge Analytica's data came from Global Science Research, the third-party firm that Nix has since admitted collected Facebook data on Cambridge Analytica's behalf. Nix chalked up the assertion to a misunderstanding, saying that he believed the committee was asking him whether Cambridge Analytica was still using that data. "Clearly I accept some of my answers could have been clearer, but I assure you, I did not intend to mislead you," he said. (In a 2015 interview with WIRED, Nix also stated that Cambridge Analytica did not use Facebook data or harvest it through a third party app, as reported in a story in The Guardian that year.)

The committee members asked Nix to answer for additional controversies that have arisen since he last appeared before them, including a damning undercover video captured by Channel 4 News, in which Nix was caught on tape bragging about using tactics like bribery and extortion against political opponents. In particular, they pressed him on his claims of using Ukrainian women to entrap politicians. "I find that works very well," Nix said in the video.

But before the committee, he walked back those assertions: "That was just a lie to impress the people I was talking to."

Nix argued the sting video was a dirty tactic, and that it had been edited to make him look worse. In response, Channel 4 issued a statement saying, "We absolutely disagree and reject Mr. Nix's allegation."

'You can’t simply put forward your prejudices onto me and make sweeping assumptions about our involvement with a particular campaign simply because that’s what you want to believe.'

Alexander Nix

Several committee members asked Nix about a report in the Financial Times, which said that Nix took $8 million dollars from the company before it collapsed and is now in a standoff with investors over returning the funds. While Nix initially dismissed the report as baseless, he later told Labour MP Jo Stevens that he couldn't comment on the matter.

"Did you take $8 million out of the company?" Stevens asked directly.

"The answer to your question is, I'm not answering your question," Nix replied.

The inconsistencies continued. Nix explained why he told the committee the company never worked with Russian clients, despite the fact that it had worked with the oil company Gazprom, by saying it happened before he joined. As for why he bragged about working with Israeli intelligence agents in the Channel 4 video, Nix said, "I was totally mistaken."

Even as he admitted to his own misstatements, he repeatedly accused Wylie of outright lying. He described him as an "extremely jealous" ex-employee who "sat there and stewed as his baby grew." He said it was Wylie who introduced the company to Aleksandr Kogan, the third-party researcher who collected the Facebook data. "He was the architect for that relationship and the idea," Nix said.

Throughout his former boss's remarks, Wylie sat in the back row shaking his head at the allegations. The committee members also appeared unconvinced, calling Nix's attacks on Wylie irrelevant. Ultimately, even four hours of testimony seemed not to be enough to convince the committee to take Nix at his word.

"Facts are what we are presenting to you," said Labour MP Ian Lucas. "What we are getting back from you is bluster and rudeness."

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