What did a parliamentary committee have to say about Brexit, Scottish independence, ‘Londongrad’, social media and cyber warfare?
A long-awaited parliamentary report into Russian interference in UK politics has finally been released. So, what does it say?
Prior to the publication of the Intelligence and Security Committee’s report, some were expecting explosive findings on whether Russia interfered in the 2016 EU referendum.
That wasn’t the case.
The committee acknowledged that there have been “widespread public allegations” that Russia sought to influence the Brexit vote.
But they judged that “the impact of any such attempts would be difficult – if not impossible – to assess” and so they did not seek to do so.
Instead, the committee noted how MI5 initially provided them “just six lines of text” when they requested written evidence.
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They ruled this was “indicative of the extreme caution” that the UK’s intelligence and security agencies had at the thought they might have any role in relation to the UK’s democratic processes, and “particularly one as contentious as the EU referendum”.
“This attitude is illogical; this is about the protection of the process and mechanism from hostile state interference, which should fall to our intelligence and security agencies,” the committee said.
They called for the UK’s intelligence and security agencies to produce their own assessment of Russian interference in the EU referendum and to publish their findings.
The government has rejected the call.
It said it has “seen no evidence of successful interference in the EU referendum”.
The committee said there was “credible open source commentary” to suggest that Russia sought to influence the Scottish independence referendum in 2014.
But they said it was only after Russia completed a “hack and leak” operation on Democratic Party emails in the US – which occurred a month after the Brexit vote in 2016 – that the government “belatedly realised the level of threat” from Moscow in this area.
The committee said it appeared UK intelligence and security agencies “did learn lessons from the US experience” and the UK government then “recognised the Russian threat to the UK’s democratic processes and political discourse”.
Combating Russian meddling a ‘hot potato’
The committee judged that the UK is “clearly a target” for Russia disinformation campaigns and attempts at political interference.
However, they said that the UK’s intelligence and security agencies “do not view themselves as holding primary responsibility for the active defence of the UK’s democratic processes from hostile foreign interference”.
The committee added the agencies “appeared determined to distance themselves from any suggestion that they might have a prominent role in relation to the democratic process itself”.
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The government – through the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport – also suggested it was not responsible for an assessment of, or operations against, campaigns by hostile states, the committee said.
“Overall, the issue of defending the UK’s democratic processes and discourse has appeared to be something of a ‘hot potato’, with no one organisation recognising itself as having an overall lead,” their report stated.
Ministers took their ‘eye off the ball’ on Russia
The committee said it had been “clear for some time” that Russia under President Vladimir Putin “has moved from potential partner to established threat, fundamentally unwilling to adhere to international law”.
They questioned whether the government “took its eye off the ball” because of its focus on counter-terrorism.
“It was the opinion of the committee that until recently the government had badly underestimated the response required to the Russian threat – and is still playing catch up,” they said.
The ‘new normal’ in ‘Londongrad’
The committee found that Russian influence in the UK is “the new normal” and there are “a lot of Russians with very close links to Putin who are well integrated into the UK business and social scene, and accepted because of their wealth”.
“This level of integration – in ‘Londongrad’ in particular – means that any measures now being taken by the government are not preventative but rather constitute damage limitation,” they added.
The committee noted how the UK “welcomed Russian money” following the opening of a new visa route in 1994 for foreigners who invested in the country.
But they said “few questions – if any – were asked about the provenance of this considerable wealth”.
The UK government at the time appeared to believe that “developing links with major Russian companies would promote good governance by encouraging ethical and transparent practices”, the committee said.
They found this “was in fact counter-productive” as it “offered ideal mechanisms by which illicit finance could be recycled through what has been referred to as the London ‘laundromat'”.
“PR firms, charities, political interests, academia and cultural institutions were all willing beneficiaries of Russian money, contributing to a ‘reputation laundering’ process,” the committee added.
‘Name and shame’ social media companies
The committee called for the government to ensure that social media companies take the use of their networks by hostile states seriously and commit to removing such material.
They urged the government to “name and shame” those firms who fail to act.
Moscow’s cyber capability
The committee described Russia’s cyber capability – and its willingness to deploy it maliciously – as “a matter of grave concern” and “an immediate and urgent threat to our national security”.
Russian links to House of Lords need scrutiny
The committee noted how “several members of the Russian elite who are closely linked to Putin are identified as being involved with charitable and/or political organisations in the UK, having donated to political parties, with a public profile which positions them to assist Russian influence operations”.
They also highlighted how a number of members of the House of Lords have business interests linked to Russia or work directly for major Russian companies linked to the Russian state.
“These relationships should be carefully scrutinised, given the potential for the Russian state to exploit them,” the committee said.
The committee said the “clearest requirement for immediate action” is for new laws to give the UK’s intelligence community “the tools it needs and be put in the best possible position if it is to tackle this very capable adversary”.
This includes new legislation to tackle espionage, the illicit financial dealings of the Russian elite and the “enablers” who support this activity, the committee added.