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Wed, 25 November 2020

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Russia report: Intelligence agencies slammed for ‘extreme caution’ in assessing whether Moscow tried to influence Brexit vote

Russia report: Intelligence agencies slammed for ‘extreme caution’ in assessing whether Moscow tried to influence Brexit vote

Russia’s Vladimir Putin. (PA)

6 min read

Britain’s intelligence agencies have not done enough to reassure the public that the 2016 Brexit referendum was safe from Russian interference, a report by Parliament’s security watchdog has warned.

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.

But it says it is important to “important 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 report also warns 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.

The committtee says initial evidence provided by agency Mi5 on the subject 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”.

That stance is branded “illogical” by the ISC, which says the agencies have a duty to explain means of protecting elections “from hostile state interference”.

“We have not been provided with any post-referendum assessment of Russian attempts at interference,” the redacted report says.

“This situation is in stark contrast to the US handling of allegations of Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election, where an intelligence community assessment was produced within two months of the vote, with an unclassified summary being made public.”

It adds: “Whilst the issues at stake in the EU referendum campaign are less clear-cut, it is nonetheless the Committee’s view that the UK Intelligence Community should produce an analogous assessment of potential Russian interference in the EU referendum and that an unclassified summary of it be published.”

And the committee says: “Even if the conclusion of any such assessment were that there was minimal interference, this would nonetheless represent a helpful reassurance to the public that the UK’s democratic processes had remained relatively safe.” 

SCOTTISH REFERENDUM

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 does not provide further details on this beyond claims already in the public domain.

While the ISC says it has been told that the mechanics of the UK’s voting system “are deemed largely sound”, the committee warns 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 warns 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 says, 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 calls for those links to be “carefully scrutinised”, and floats a US-style ‘Foreign Agents Registration Act’ to make any conflicts of interest clear.

Elsewhere the report reveals that Russian actors have committed “cyber intrusion” into the UK’s critical national infrastructure, which can include the civil nuclear, communications, energy and finance networks.

The UK’s intelligence agency GCHQ told the committee that Russian actors had orchestrated phishing attempts against a string of government departments, including the Foreign Office and the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory in the aftermath of the 2018 Salisbury poisonings.

'OPEN ARMS'

Launching the report, the committee said: “What is clear is that Russian influence in the UK is ‘the new normal’: successive Governments have welcomed the Russian oligarchy with open arms, and there are a lot of Russians with very close links to Putin who are well integrated into the UK business, political and social scene - in ‘Londongrad’ in particular. 

“Yet few, if any, questions have been asked regarding the provenance of their considerable wealth and this ‘open door’ approach provided ideal mechanisms by which illicit finance could be recycled through the London ‘laundromat’.

“It is not just the oligarchs either - the arrival of Russian money has resulted in a growth industry of ‘enablers’: lawyers, accountants, and estate agents have all played a role, wittingly or unwittingly, and formed a ‘buffer’ of Westerners who are de facto agents of the  Russian state.”

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.”

In its own 20-page response to the report, the Government said it would be “resolute in defending our country, our democracy and our values” from the “serious threat” posed by Russia.

It said: “We do this through a cross-Government Russia Strategy and structures that combine the UK’s diplomatic, intelligence, and military capabilities, its hard and soft power, to maximum effect.

"We act in concert with our allies, seeking to lead the West’s collective response to hybrid threats to our societies and values. This includes concerted campaigns to counter disinformation, as well as to bear down on illicit finance, combat influence operations, and fend off cyber-attacks.”

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