Spy Tech Firm Palantir Won £27m Gov’t Deal After Intro From Ex-MI6 Boss
By Lucas Amin and Jenna Corderoy: The former head of MI6 introduced Palantir to a top government official in the Cabinet Office a year before the US spy tech firm won a £27m contract with the department.
openDemocracy has revealed that Sir John Sawers set up a meeting between Palantir’s CEO and the Cabinet Office permanent secretary, John Manzoni, in 2019, when the company was pitching for new business.
Palantir went on to win a data deal – without competitive tender – from the Cabinet Office, having touted the benefits of its “unique software” in subsequent correspondence to the department.
Concerns about Palantir’s deep ties to British and American security agencies are underscored by the involvement of Sawers, a one-time spymaster who led the Secret Intelligence Service from 2009 to 2014
Labour MP Clive Lewis told openDemocracy the news suggests the “military-industrial-espionage complex is wheedling its way into our public services and our economy”.
Lewis also called for more scrutiny over the government’s recent Palantir deals: “We know that sunlight is the best disinfectant. The apparent lack of competition and due diligence in procurement must be immediately reviewed.”
Palantir – which is owned by billionaire Trump donor Peter Thiel – is highly tipped to win a new £480m contract to manage NHS data this autumn. Earlier this month, openDemocracy revealed that the firm was a shoo-in for a previous contract with the health service.
Palantir’s Plan For UK Public Sector
Documents obtained under the Freedom of Information Act show that Palantir boss Alex Karp met with Manzoni on 16 July 2019. Government Records describe the meeting as an “introductory discussion recommended by Sir John Sawers”.
A “readout” of the meeting states that Sawers – who founded a geopolitical advisory firm after resigning as the chief of MI6 – was acting in a “security sector consultancy” role.
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Asked about the meeting by openDemocracy, Sawers did not deny acting for Palantir but insisted that his company, Newbridge Advisory, “does not undertake lobbying on behalf of its clients”.
The former spymaster said he knew both Karp and Manzoni personally and had set up the meeting to help the Cabinet Office “digitise government”.
“Directly awarding contracts to Palantir without competition – or proper public oversight – is a recipe for disaster. It must stop.”
David Davis – Tory MP
Karp and Manzoni discussed Palantir’s strategy and its “plan for UK public sector growth”.
Notes from the meeting say: “Palantir is best known for their work in the security and intelligence space (with well-established relationships in both the UK and US) but are looking to diversify their public sector work in the health and fraud spaces.”
A month later, Palantir met with Michael Gove, who was then a Cabinet Office minister. Ahead of the meeting, the firm told the department: “Preparations for Brexit may require… risk-based monitoring for the movement of goods and people across the UK border” and said it could provide “capabilities to manage the fast-evolving and unpredictable environment”.
In August 2020 – one year after Manzoni first met Karp – the Cabinet Office handed Palantir a £27m deal to process border and customs data after Britain left the EU.
Land and Expand
Before the Brexit borders deal was signed, Palantir provided a “free trial” of its Foundry software.
A spokesperson for the firm said there is “nothing unusual in a business offering a prospective customer the opportunity to trial before purchase”. But critics have suggested this tactic was part of a “land and expand” strategy.
Cori Crider, the director of Foxglove Legal, told openDemocracy: “It’s amazing how often with this government winning big-money contracts is just about having the right friends. And let’s face it, the ex-head of MI6 is a hell of a lobbyist to have in your corner.
“Palantir’s lobbying campaign – and their ‘land and expand’ strategy of offering free trials or £1 contracts and jacking up the prices later – seems to have worked.”
Palantir used a similar approach to enter the health service: initially billing just £1 to build the Covid-19 datastore before winning further deals worth more than £60m.
Crider described the NHS as the “plum prize” for Palantir. She said: “Any day now we expect Palantir to be announced the winner of a colossal £480m contract to manage the biggest single access point to patient data the UK has ever seen.”
Tory MP David Davis said that “directly awarding contracts to Palantir without competition – or indeed proper public oversight – is a recipe for disaster. That practice must stop”.
Davis told openDemocracy: “With Palantir now wanting a central role in our health service, we must be extraordinarily careful about awarding any such contract.”
“It’s amazing how often with this government winning big-money contracts is just about having the right friends.”
A Palantir spokesperson said: “We are proud to have helped the UK government to ensure that Brexit implementation was managed as smoothly as possible for UK businesses and citizens. The Cabinet Office awarded Palantir the contract through normal procurement processes and on merit.”
The Cabinet Office spokesperson said: “This contract went through the robust safeguards that exist under the Public Contracts Regulations 2015. These ensure that all government contracts are awarded fairly and transparently.”
The Cabinet Office refused to release the meeting documents to openDemocracy until, 20 months after the initial FOI request, the government’s secrecy watchdog ordered it to do so. In its ruling, the Information Commissioner’s Office said there was a strong public interest in understanding how government policy is formulated.
Palantir has hired several public servants and NHS executives since it began chasing public sector contracts in Britain.
One of its newer hires is Sal Uddin, a technology procurement specialist who left the civil service to become the company’s ‘Commercial Lead’, as first reported in Private Eye.
Uddin joined Palantir in December, after more than three and a half years as a Software and Cyber Security Category Director for the Cabinet Office’s Crown Commercial Service (CCS).
openDemocracy has found that while Uddin was in post, the CCS signed at least three “framework agreement” contracts that pre-approved Palantir to work on government contracts – for back office software, big data and analytics, and cloud computing services, respectively.
A spokesperson for the Cabinet Office refused to comment on whether Uddin was involved in awarding these contracts, and on how much Palantir had earned for services delivered under them.
Upon quitting the civil service, however, Uddin was told not to misuse privileged information or lobby the government for two years, and not to work on bids for public contracts for 12 months.
A Palantir spokesperson added that the firm “requires all staff to adhere to any non-compete clauses or business appointment rules advice.”