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Spy Agencies Were Involved in Controversial UK Counter Disinformation Unit Since Its Inception

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During the pandemic, UK spy agencies ran roughshod over civil liberties by breaking the rules and expanding their surveillance activities. And now, new documents have linked these intelligence agencies to another controversial Covid-era project — the Counter Disinformation Unit (CDU).

The CDU was established in 2019 within the UK’s Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS), and throughout Covid, it was used to surveil dissent and flag it for censorship. This year, the CDU has faced mounting pushback as the scale of its activities has been revealed.

The pushback became so great that the UK government published a fact sheet in June that tried to downplay concerns about the CDU and explain its origins. This fact sheet made no mention of UK intelligence agency involvement.

But recently released witness statements from Sam Lister, director-general for strategy and operations at the DCMS, and Susannah Storey, permanent secretary at the DCMS, have revealed that the CDU has been working with UK spy agencies since its formation in early 2019.

Lister’s statement was given in March 2023 and Storey’s statement was given in April 2023 but they were only made public this week as part of an independent public inquiry into Covid-19.

“In January and February 2019, the CDU identified key stakeholders from across Whitehall to form the Counter Disinformation Cell (CDC),” Lister’s witness statement says. “Key departments in this cell alongside DCMS were the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO), Cabinet Office (CO) and Home Office (HO). The UK Intelligence Community was also involved.”

Storey’s witness statement provides more details on the scope of the UK intelligence community’s involvement with the CDU. It says that the Counter Disinformation Cell was “working closely with the UK Intelligence Community where appropriate.”

Her statement also reveals that UK spy agencies “regularly attended” a “Disinformation Board” that was responsible for governing the CDU and that these agencies led “intelligence assessments” related to the Counter Disinformation Cell.

Not only has this UK government censorship and surveillance unit worked closely with the country’s spy agencies for years but now that these intelligence agencies have their foot in the door, they don’t appear to be leaving any time soon.

According to Storey’s statement, the DCMS has “work planned with UK Intelligence Community on disinformation from hostile states” to assist in “preparedness for future events where there is a heightened disinformation risk, such as pandemics and civil emergencies.”

While Storey frames this relationship with spy agencies as something that’s focused on foreign disinformation, this same excuse was used to justify the creation of other Covid-era government surveillance units that were ultimately used to spy on British citizens.

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