Dominic Raab insists Britain ‘not complacent’ about Russia threat after damning report by intelligence watchdog
Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab (Credit: PA)
Britain is “not complacent” about the threat posed by Russia, the Foreign Secretary has said, after a damning report on Russian influence in the UK.
Dominic Raab “categorically” rejected claims from the Intelligence and Security Committee that the Government had “actively avoided” looking for evidence Moscow interfered in the 2016 Brexit referendum.
And he insisted the UK had long recognised the “significant threat” posed by Russia to the country’s cyber security.
A long-awaited report by the Intelligence and Security Committee, published on Tuesday, said it would be “difficult — if not impossible” for the parliamentary group itself to assess whether Moscow tried to influence the result of the EU referendum.
But it called on the Government to “establish whether a hostile state took deliberate action with the aim of influencing a UK democratic process, irrespective of whether it was successful or not”.
The committtee said initial evidence provided by agency Mi5 on the Brexit vote consisted of just “six lines of text” and reference to existing academic studies, with the agencies displaying “extreme caution“ at the idea they “might have any role in relation to the UK’s democratic processes, and particularly one as contentious as the EU referendum”.
The report also warned of a string of links between Russian oligarchs connected to the Kremlin and political organisations and charities in the UK, and confirms a host of attempts to hack British infrastructure.
Launching the report on Tuesday, ISC member and SNP MP Stewart Hosie said no-one in government wanted to touch the issue with a "10-foot pole”.
And he claimed: “The UK Government actively avoided looking for evidence Russia interfered.
“We were told they haven’t seen any evidence, but that is meaningless if they haven’t looked for it.”
But that was rejected by Mr Raab, who told reporters at a press conference alongside US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo: “You mentioned the suggestion that the UK actively avoided investigating Russia.
“I think, in fairness, you'll find that wasn't in the ISC report it was the comment of one MP, Stuart Hosie.
“And we categorically reject that. I think if you look, we’ve got a long period recognising the enduring, significant threat posed by Russia to the UK including in relation to cyber.
“Russia is a top security priority. We call out Russia when it's necessary.
“We’ve shown that in relation to the cyberattacks on research and development facilities in the US, UK and Canada.
“We've done that together with our partners, and we are not for a second complacent about the threat Russia poses when it comes to cyber.”
The Government has already rejected the suggestion it had "badly underestimated" the Russian threat, saying it “remains a top national security priority”.
In its official response to the report it said: “We have seen no evidence of successful interference in the EU Referendum.”
And it explained that it receives regular assessments of the threat of potential interference in UK democratic processes from the ISC, adding: “Given this longstanding approach, a retrospective assessment of the EU Referendum is not necessary.”
Away from the Brexit vote, the committee said there had been “credible open source commentary” suggesting that Russia tried to influence the outcome of the 2014 Scottish independence referendum.
The move was described by some commentators "as potentially the first post-Soviet Russian interference in a Western democratic process“, but the redacted report did not provide further details on this beyond claims already in the public domain.
While the ISC said it has been told that the mechanics of the UK’s voting system “are deemed largely sound”, the committee warned that the UK “is clearly a target for Russia’s disinformation campaigns and political influence operations” and ministers are urged to make sure the UK equips itself to match the threat.
ELITE LINKS AND HACKING
The report also warned that members of the Russian elite with close ties to president Vladimir Putin are deeply involved with charities and political organisations in the UK, “with a public profile which positions them to assist Russian influence operations”.
Britain, it said, has been “viewed as a particularly favourable destination for Russian oligarchs and their money”, with the ISC warning that members of the House of Lords have business interests linked to Russia or are working directly for major Russian companies linked to the state.
The committee called for those links to be “carefully scrutinised”, and floated a US-style ‘Foreign Agents Registration Act’ to make any conflicts of interest clear.
The ISC oversees the work of MI5, MI6, GCHQ and the other intelligence and security services.
Its report on Russia was prepared by its predecessor committee late before the election, with the group at the time saying it would be revealed “imminently”.
Publication comes after the Government’s preferred candidate to chair the ISC, Chris Grayling, was beaten to the post by Julian Lewis, and after a lengthy stint with Number 10, which is able to determine whether any of the report’s contents material would harm the work of the security and intelligence agencies.
Labour’s Lisa Nandy said: “It is extraordinary that the Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, took the political decision last October ahead of the General Election to block the publication of this important report that systematically goes through the threat Russia poses to the UK’s national security.”
The Shadow Foreign Secretary added: “The report is very clear that the Government has underestimated the response required to Russia and it is imperative we learn the lessons from the mistakes that have been made.
“The Labour Party calls on the Government to study the conclusions of the report carefully and take the necessary steps to keep our country safe.”