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Russia Report: British security services must be aided to protect democratic processes

Analysis: The report throws up more questions than answers in this murky world, but there may just be a way forward

Kim Sengupta
Defence Editor
Wednesday 22 July 2020 00:31 BST
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Vladimir Putin: Russian influence was established as the ‘new normal’ for the UK
Vladimir Putin: Russian influence was established as the ‘new normal’ for the UK (AFP)

Brexit-backing businessman Arron Banks was so concerned about the Russia Report that he wanted sight of it before publication. Russian oligarchs and their families who had contributed lavishly to the Conservative Party, including £160,000 for a game of tennis with Boris Johnson, were keen to stress that any inference of wrongdoing in the dossier would be off the mark.

They need not have worried. The publicly available version of the report by the Commons Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC) does not point the finger at anyone who may have acted or is still acting illicitly on behalf of the Kremlin.

The Security and Intelligence Services and the government are, instead, blamed for abjectly failing to tackle Russian attempts to subvert elections and the Brexit referendum.

The reason for this, the committee found, was a reluctance by the agencies or ministries to take the lead. The security and intelligence services were particularly wary, says the report, of being accused of interfering in the political process. As a result, the task of “defending the UK’s democratic processes”, a fundamental safeguard for the nation, became “something of a hot potato”: Russian influence was established as the “new normal” for the UK.

The ISC stressed that urgent measures now have to be taken, with MI5 taking the lead in combating the threat.

There have been persistent claims that Moscow’s backing for Brexit, Russian donations to the Tories and certain links with Labour would form part of the ISC’s findings.

Banks’s lawyers had written to the ISC stating that leaked information had made their client believe he may be named in the report. They pointed out in their letter that “there is an ongoing defamation case over the previous publication in which he was referred to as a Russian agent”.

The committee says it noted that “Arron Banks became the biggest donor in British political history when he gave £8m to the Leave.EU campaign”. But it acknowledges that a “National Crime Agency investigation concluded the investigation, having found no evidence that any criminal offences had been committed under the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000.”

Johnson’s tennis partner, Lubov Chernukhin, now a British citizen, is married to Vladimir Chernukhin, a former deputy finance minister in Vladimir Putin’s government. She subsequently paid £30,000 to have dinner with then defence secretary Gavin Williamson.

Friends of the Chernukhin’s have pointed out that Vladimir had fallen out of favour with Putin since his time as a minister and was thus not an advocate of the current Russian government. Johnson, who was foreign secretary at the time of the tennis, had insisted “unless and until evidence is produced against individual Russians, I do not think that the entire nation should be calumnified”. Williamson can hardly be called pro-Russian, his officials pointed out. Hadn’t he had told President Putin to “shut up and go away” in one of his first speeches as a minister?

The ISC report expresses concern about oligarch’s contributing to political parties, and notes that a “number of members of the House of Lords have business interests linked to Russia, or work for major Russian companies linked to the Russia state. These relationships should be carefully scrutinised, given the potential for the Russian state to exploit them”.

Arron Banks (AFP/Getty)

But again there were no names or other details of people, organisations and companies involved in the report.

The MPs say that there were a “preponderance of pro-Brexit or anti-EU stories” on the Kremlin’s RT (formerly Russia Today) and Sputnik broadcast channels at the time of the Brexit vote “the use of ‘bots’ and ‘trolls’ on Twitter which pointed towards attempts to influence the outcome. There was, they point out, a similar campaign during the Scottish referendum.

This is publicly known. We also saw similar Russian activities in the French, German and Italian elections, and the Catalan independence referendum as well as, of course, the US presidential election which put Donald Trump in the White House.

But why did the UK’s security and intelligence agencies not counter this? They were reluctant to get involved, says the report. MI5, it says “initially provided just six lines of text” when asked for written evidence. The security service was acting with “extreme caution”, a stance which the ISC points out was “illogical” to ensure “the protection of the process, and mechanism from hostile state interference, which should fall to our intelligence and security agencies”.

The agencies, the ISC discovered: “Do not view themselves as holding primary responsibility for the active defence of the UK’s democratic processes from hostile foreign interference. And indeed appeared determined to distance themselves from any suggestion that they might have a prominent role in relation to the democratic process itself, noting the caution which had to be applied in relation to intrusive powers in the context of a democratic process.”

The MPs were told that “the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) holds primary responsibility for disinformation campaigns, and that the Electoral Commission has responsibility for the overall security of democratic processes.” But the DCMS told the ISC that its policy was “largely confined to the broad HMG policy regarding the use of disinformation rather than an assessment of, or operations against, hostile state campaigns”.

The committee found it almost impossible to work out who was responsible for what. “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.”

It was only after the hacking of the Democratic party computers in the run up to the 2016 presidential elections that the British government “belatedly realised the level of threat which Russia could pose in this area, given that the risk thresholds in the Kremlin had clearly shifted, describing the US ‘hack and leak’ as a “game changer’”.

The committee said: “Had the relevant parts of the intelligence community conducted a similar threat assessment prior to the [EU] 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.”

There is a degree of irony in the UK waking up to the threat because of the Kremlin’s actions in America. There is a seam of British links running through the investigations in the US into alleged links between the Trump camp and Russians.

The US investigation into the hacking of the communications of Hillary Clinton and the Democratic National Committee (DNC) received significant help from Britain’s GCHQ through its American counterpart, the National Security Agency (NSA). The hacked emails, damaging to the Clinton campaign and beneficial to Trump, were disseminated by WikiLeaks. Its founder, Julian Assange, then staying at the Ecuadorian embassy in London, is alleged to have been involved in the operation – a charge he denies.

Special counsel Robert Mueller refers to WikiLeaks as “Organisation I” possessing information which would be damaging to Hillary Clinton. Trump’s adviser and friend Roger Stone, who recently had his jail sentence commuted by the US president after being convicted by the Mueller inquiry, was in communication with Assange and had sent intermediaries to see him in London.

A name that came up as an alleged liaison between the Trump campaign and Assange, is that of Nigel Farage. The Brexit party leader, and friend of Arron Banks, who boasts of his closeness to Trump, visited Assange at the embassy in 2017 after returning from a trip to the US.

Glenn Simpson, whose Washington-based investigations firm hired Christopher Steele to compile the Trump report, told a US Congressional inquiry that Farage was a more frequent visitor to Assange than was known, and that he had passed data on to Assange on “a thumb drive”.

Farage denied the claims, but refused to tell a number of news organisations what he had discussed with Assange. He told The Independent: “I met Julian Assange just once. I went there in a journalistic capacity because I wanted to find out about the emails, no real answer was forthcoming. It is nonsense to say that I had met him secretly. Do you think one of the best known faces in the country can go into the embassy without people noticing?”

It is not just security agencies in the UK which feel constrained due to wariness of being accused of interfering in politics. The FBI director James Comey claimed that he did not publicise early evidence of Russian collusion with the Trump campaign because the presidential election was very close. This did not, however, prevent him from reopening an investigation into Hillary Clinton’s alleged improper use of a private email server, something which Trump applauded at the time.

Comey was subsequently sacked by President Trump for refusing to drop the “Russiagate” investigation: the official reason given by the administration was his supposed politicising of the Clinton inquiry.

The ISC report notes that the (DCMS) Select Committee has already asked the government whether current legislation is adequate to protect the electoral process from “malign interference” and stressed that “legislation should be in line with the latest technological developments”.

The ISC supports this and adds “we have already questioned whether the Electoral Commission has sufficient powers to ensure the security fo democratic processes where hostile state threats are involved: if it is to tackle foreign interference, then it must be given the necessary legislative powers.”

The Russia Report has been long been held up amid accusations and recriminations. A new ISC was not formed for months after the last election with opposition parties accusing No 10 of further delaying tactics.

Even the last days before publication were marked by rancour with Conservative MP Julian Lewis carrying out a “coup” to replace Downing Street choice – or stooge according to his critics – Chris Grayling.

Lewis, who has lost the party whip as a result, accused the government of politicising the oversight of the intelligence agencies.“This committee has been subject to unprecedented delay and dislocation. this must never happen again. The sooner normal relations are established between this government and the committee, the better for all concerned” he said.

The real issue now appears to be finding an effective structure which allows Britain’s security and intelligence services to protect the democratic process without being exposed to charges of interfering in politics. Protecting our democratic discourse and processes from hostile foreign interference is a central responsibility of government, and should be a ministerial priority, the Russia Report concluded.

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