Kremlin interference: what is in the long-awaited Russia report?
UK government accused of turning ‘blind eye’ to fears of foreign interference in Brexit vote
Britain’s government and intelligence agencies “actively avoided” investigating or recognising the threat of Russian interference in UK elections, an inquiry by MPs has found.
The allegation is one of a series of damning conclusions made by the Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC) in the parliamentary security watchdog’s long-awaited Russia report.
The report was finished last October but its publication was repeatedly delayed by the Conservative government for “no reason”, say the cross-party committee members.
What is in the report?
The ISC says that the British government and intelligence agencies made no effort to investigate Russian attempts to interfere with UK elections and democracy, and instead, as The Guardian puts it, “effectively turned a blind eye to allegations of Russian disruption”.
The government “had not seen or sought evidence of successful interference in UK democratic processes” at the time of the 2016 EU referendum, and had made no effort to do so, according to the committee, which scrutinises the work of the UK intelligence agencies.
“We have not been provided with any post-referendum assessment of Russian attempts at interference”, says the report.
“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.”
The authors add: “Had the relevant parts of the intelligence community conducted a similar threat assessment prior to the referendum, it is inconceivable that they would not have reached the same conclusion as to Russian intent, which might then have led them to take action to protect the process.”
The ISC members reveal that when they asked MI5 for written evidence at the outset of their investigation, the security service “initially provided just six lines of text”.
So lacking was the UK government’s investigation into Kremlin interference that no definite conclusion could be reached about whether Russia had successfully interfered in the referendum vote, the report says.
Which part of government was responsible for the “hot potato” of “defending the UK’s democratic processes” was also unclear.
The report points out that the role of MI5 and the Secret Intelligence Service (SIS) is not to set their own priorities but rather to provide “secret intelligence as context” for ministers, who then factor that intelligence into their decision-making and policy setting.
Instead, central government’s Department for Culture, Media and Sport was identified by the committee as being responsible for “the broad [government] policy regarding the use of disinformation”. However, the report concludes, “It has been surprisingly difficult to establish who has responsibility for what.”
Although the ISC could not conclusively show Russia’s meddling had influenced the result of UK elections, the MPs say that Britain was “clearly a target” for the Kremlin. Indeed, they claim that Russian influence in the UK is now “the new normal”, reports the BBC.
And the reaction?
Unsurprisingly, the official UK government response to the report defends Downing Street and the UK spy agencies. The government has also rejected calls to launch a new investigation into Kremlin interference in the Brexit vote.
The 20-page response says that “we have seen no evidence of successful interference in the EU referendum”, adding that MI5 and SIS make “regular assessments” of the Russian threat. “Given this long-standing approach, a retrospective assessment” of the Brexit referendum “is not necessary”.
But not everyone is convinced. Former attorney general Dominic Grieve told Sky News that “somebody took their eye off the ball or didn’t ever put their eye on the ball in the first place”.
“Saying that’s in the past so we can forget about it is an inadequate response. I think there should be a much fuller investigation into whether Russia did interfere,” Grieve said.
Meanwhile, Labour’s shadow foreign secretary Lisa Nandy tweeted that it was “extraordinary that the prime minister 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”.
Responding to the report, Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab tweeted: “We’ve been clear that Russia must desist from its attacks on the UK and our allies. We will be resolute in defending our country, our democracy and our values from such Hostile State Activity.”