Key conclusions of the Russia report The Intelligence and Security Committee concluded following an 18 month investigation that: There is
Key conclusions of the Russia report
The Intelligence and Security Committee concluded following an 18 month investigation that:
There is ‘credible’ evidence that Russia did try to influence the 2014 Scottish independence referendum
There is ‘no evidence’ that Moscow tried to interfere in the 2016 Brexit vote – but this is because the Government failed to ask ‘for the work to be done’.
Successive governments had ‘underestimated’ the threat posed by the Kremlin and as a result the UK is having to ‘play catch up’.
Russian oligarchs had been welcomed into Britain ‘with open arms’ and have been ‘recycling illicit finance through the London ‘laundromat”.
‘Enablers’ like lawyers and accountants effectively become ‘de factor agents of the Russian state’.
The Official Secrets Act must be urgently updated to prevent spying amid fears security agencies’ ‘hands are tied’.
Social media companies should be forced to remove ‘covert hostile state material’ as soon as possible or face being named and shamed.
Russia’s cyber attack capability ‘when combined with its willingness to deploy it in a malicious capacity, is a matter of grave concern’ which represents an ‘urgent threat to our national security’.
Boris Johnson today dismissed a demand from an influential committee of MPs to launch a formal investigation into whether Russia interfered in the 2016 EU referendum as Downing Street said such a probe is ‘not necessary’.
The Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC) this morning published its long-awaited Russia report in which it warned the UK had long ‘underestimated’ the threat posed by the Kremlin and as a result Britain is now having to ‘play catch up’ because it is ‘clearly a target for Russian disinformation’.
The report concluded that there is ‘credible’ evidence that Russia did try to sway the 2014 Scottish independence vote but it said there was no official evidence of such activity relating to the 2016 EU referendum.
However, it blamed this on an alleged failure by the Government to conduct any formal investigation into the Brexit vote as the ISC demanded ministers now launch an official inquiry into the EU referendum campaign.
But the call was immediately rejected by Number 10, sparking Remainer fury.
The Government insisted it had seen ‘no evidence of successful interference in the EU Referendum’. It said it will ‘always consider the most appropriate use of any intelligence it develops or receives’ and that ‘given this long standing approach, a retrospective assessment of the EU Referendum is not necessary’.
The Prime Minister’s Official Spokesman said Mr Johnson is ‘absolutely’ confident the 2016 EU referendum result was fair.
ISC member Stewart Hosie had earlier claimed that no one in Government knew if Russia interfered or sought to influence the 2016 referendum ‘because they did not want to know’.
But that claim was strongly rejected by Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab this afternoon after he was asked at a press conference why the Government had ‘actively avoided’ looking at the issue.
Mr Raab said: ‘You mention the suggestion that the UK actively avoided investigating Russia. I think in fairness you will find that wasn’t in the ISC report, it was the comment of one MP, Stewart Hosie, and we categorically reject that.’
Acting Liberal Democrat leader Sir Ed Davey said the failure to launch an investigation is ‘a green light for Russia to interfere with our democracy in future, knowing there will be no consequences’.
The ISC report savaged successive governments for the way in which they have approached the subject of Russian meddling.
The committee said it ‘questions whether Government took its eye off the ball on Russia’ as it warned that ‘Russian influence in the UK is the new normal’. It also claimed that Russian oligarchs and their money had been welcomed into British society by successive governments ‘with open arms’.
This had provided the oligarchs ‘with a means of recycling illicit finance through the London ‘laundromat” as well as with ‘connections at the highest levels with access to UK companies and political figures’, the report said.
The report said there had been a ‘growth industry’ of so-called ‘enablers’ like lawyers, accountants and estate agents who it argued had effectively become ‘de factor agents of the Russian state’.
The ISC said that while it was now too late to ‘shut the stable door’ on such activity the Government must ‘urgently’ bring forward ‘greater powers and transparency’ to address the problems.
Meanwhile, the report has demanded that social media companies step up to quickly remove ‘covert hostile state material’ from their platforms, called for the Official Secrets Act to be updated and warned Russia’s cyber attack capability is a ‘matter of grave concern’.
The results of the ISC’s 18 month-long probe were finally published this morning after a nine month delay and following Number 10’s failure last week to install chosen candidate Chris Grayling as chairman as he was beaten by fellow Tory Julian Lewis following a Labour and SNP ‘coup’.
The publication of the report came as:
- ISC committee members said there was ‘no reason’ for the report to have been delayed for so long as they blamed Downing Street for the long wait.
- Businessman and Vladimir Putin critic Bill Browder said the findings were ‘strong’ and the ISC had recognised ‘the whole Russian enabler problem in London-lawyers, accountants and consultants getting rich off dirty Russians’.
- Guy Verhofstadt, chief Brexit negotiator for the European Parliament, said the report shows ‘just how many questions remain unanswered’ about the Brexit vote which was a ‘gift to Putin’.
- Nigel Farage said that after ‘years of lies and smears from Remain politicians and much of our media’ there is ‘no evidence of Russian involvement with Leave.EU or me in the referendum’.
- Nicola Sturgeon said she had ‘no objection’ to an inquiry being launched into Russian interference in the Scottish independence referendum.
Downing Street today ruled out a call from the Intelligence and Security Committee to hold an inquiry into whether Moscow had meddled in the 2016 EU referendum
Dominic Raab told a press conference this afternoon that the Government ‘categorically rejects’ the suggestion that it had ‘actively avoided’ looking to see if Russia had interfered in the Brexit vote
The Intelligence and Security Committee today published its long-awaited report into Russian interference in British democracy
Nicola Sturgeon says she has ‘no objection’ to probe into Scottish independence vote
Scotland’s First Minister today said she has ‘no objection’ to an inquiry being launched into Russian interference in the Scottish independence referendum.
Speaking at the Scottish Government’s coronavirus briefing on Tuesday, hours after a heavily redacted report by Westminster’s Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC) was published, Nicola Sturgeon said governments should not be ‘complacent’ about the possibility of interference in democratic processes.
The UK Government response to such warnings could be viewed as ‘negligence’, she said.
The ISC report, which was due to be published before the 2019 general election but faced months of delays, said there is ‘credible open source commentary’ suggesting Russia had tried to influence the independence referendum campaign in 2014.
Evidence of the claims in the report were redacted by the committee.
The Scottish Tories and Labour’s shadow Scottish secretary Ian Murray have called for inquiries to be launched into the matter.
Ms Sturgeon said that as intelligence and security is a devolved matter, it would be for the UK Government to undertake an investigation.
She said: ‘If there’s to be an inquiry into that – and I would have no objections, to the contrary – it is for the UK Government to do.’
The First Minister said she hopes the ISC report will lead to a ‘much more rigorous approach’ by the UK Government in dealing with interference.
Here is what the ISC’s long-awaited Russia report has concluded on key issues:
Government ‘did not want to know’ about potential evidence of Russian interference in Brexit vote
The committee looked extensively during its investigation at how secure the UK’s democratic process is and it found that the paper-based voting system is ‘largely sound’ and is difficult to meddle with.
But the ISC said the UK ‘cannot be complacent about a hostile state taking deliberate action with the aim of influencing our democratic processes’.
There have been repeated allegations of Russia trying to meddle in the 2016 Brexit vote and in the 2014 Scottish referendum.
On Brexit, the committee said it had not seen any official evidence that Russia had tried to intervene in the 2016 vote on the EU.
But it said this was because the Government had failed to go looking for such information. ISC member Kevan Jones said: ‘There was no evidence that we saw. The reason why there was no evidence was because no one asked for the work to be done.
‘In terms of saying did Russia interfere in the EU referendum? We can’t say that because nobody really asked that either.’
Mr Hosie said that no one in Government knew if Russia interfered or sought to influence the 2016 referendum ‘because they did not want to know’.
As a result, the ISC has urged the Government to now launch a formal investigation into the Brexit campaign, similar to the one conducted in the US examining whether Russia tried to interfere in the most recent presidential election.
The report said: ‘There have been widespread allegations that Russia sought to influence voters in the 2016 referendum on the UK’s membership of the EU: studies have pointed to the preponderance of pro-Brexit or anti-EU stories on RT and Sputnik, and the use of ‘bots’ and ‘trolls’, as evidence.
‘The actual impact of such attempts on the result itself would be difficult – if not impossible – to prove. However what is clear is that the Government was slow to recognise the existence of the threat – only understanding it after the ‘hack and leak’ operation against the Democratic National Committee, when it should have been seen as early as 2014.
‘As a result the Government did not take action to protect the UK’s process in 2016. The Committee has not been provided with any post-referendum assessment – in stark contrast to the US response to reports of interference in the 2016 presidential election.
‘In our view there must be an analogous assessment of Russian interference in the EU referendum.’
The committee said that it had ‘sought to establish whether there is secret intelligence which supported or built on’ open source studies which suggested Russia had tried to influence the EU referendum.
But it said a request for written evidence from MI5 was met with a reply with just ‘six lines of text’. The committee said it believed this was ‘indicative of the extreme caution amongst the intelligence and security Agencies at the thought that they might have any role in relation to the UK’s democratic processes’.
The ISC said such an attitude is ‘illogical’ and that ‘this is about the protection of the process and mechanism from hostile state interference which should fall to our intelligence and security Agencies’.
Russia report finally published after Downing Street failed in bid to install Chris Grayling as ISC chairman
The Intelligence and Security Committee finally published its report on Russian meddling today after Downing Street failed in its bid to install Chris Grayling as chairman.
Mr Grayling was Number 10’s chosen candidate to lead the ISC as it was finally reconvened last week following a nine month hiatus caused by the 2019 general election.
However, the former transport secretary saw his hopes of securing the top job dashed as Tory MP Julian Lewis won the role after launching a last minute bid and securing the support of Labour and SNP votes.
The so-called ‘coup’ prompted a furious response from Downing Street as Dr Lewis, a former chairman of the Defence Select Committee, was swiftly stripped of the Tory whip.
The Russia report was handed to Downing Street before Boris Johnson called the December general election.
The 2019 version of the ISC was dissolved because of the poll being called, stopping the report from being released.
The Government was then accused of bring slow in signing off on the creation of the 2020 committee, something which has now happened.
The Government dismissed the call for a probe into the EU referendum. It said in its official response to the report: ‘Where new information emerges, the Government will always consider the most appropriate use of any intelligence it develops or receives, including whether it is appropriate to make this public. Given this long standing approach, a retrospective assessment of the EU Referendum is not necessary.’
On Scotland, the ISC did conclude there ‘there has been credible open source commentary suggesting that Russia undertook influence campaigns in relation to the Scottish independence referendum in 2014’.
How Putin’s hackers ‘weaponise information’ phished from malicious cyber activity – and social media companies are ‘failing to play their part’ to stop them
Russia has been repeatedly accused of using online social media trolling activity to try to influence democratic decisions and sow division in a number of countries.
The ISC report has demanded that social media companies ‘must take action and remove covert hostile state material’ as quickly as possible as it said they currently are not doing enough.
It also suggested that the Government should ‘name and shame’ any firms which fail to do so with formal deadlines set for the removal of such content.
The report said that it is ‘the social media companies who hold the key’ to tackling the spread of disinformation online. But it said that so far social media firms are ‘failing to play their part’.
‘The Government must establish a protocol with these companies to ensure that they take covert hostile state use of their platforms seriously, with agreed deadlines within which such material will be removed, and Government should ‘name and shame’ those which fail to act,’ the report said.
It added: ‘Russia’s promotion of disinformation and attempts at political influence overseas – whether through the use of social media, hack and leak operations, or its state-owned traditional media – have been widely reported.’
The report also warned that Russia’s cyber attack capability ‘when combined with its willingness to deploy it in a malicious capacity, is a matter of grave concern’ and one which poses an ‘immediate and urgent threat to our national security.
Committee member Mr Hosie said the UK was ‘one of Russia’s top western intelligence targets’ as he said Moscow ‘weaponises information’.
Mr Hosie added: ‘Russia poses an all-encompassing security threat which is fuelled by paranoia about the West and a desire to be seen as a resurgent great power.
‘It carries out malicious cyber activity in order to assert itself aggressively, for example by attempting to interfere in other countries’ elections.’
Russian President Vladimir Putin and the Kremlin have long faced accusations of trying to meddle in the affairs of rival nations
What does the ISC report say about disinformation and how has the Government responded?
A report looking into Russian interference in UK affairs has laid bare concerns about the spread of disinformation.
Here is a breakdown of the concerns raised by the ISC and the Government’s response.
– What does the report highlight?
Widely-reported attempts by the Kremlin to interfere in overseas elections are highlighted, such as alleged bots and trolls on social media and ‘hack and leak’ operations in relation to the 2016 US presidential election.
It believes there may be various reasons why Russia chooses to spread disinformation, but notes that such activity is ‘all in support of its underlying foreign policy objectives’.
Despite these threats, the UK’s paper-based voting and counting system is deemed ‘largely sound’.
Regardless, the UK is clearly a target for Russia’s disinformation efforts and must therefore equip itself to counter them, MPs say.
– So, who needs to step up?
The finger is pointed at social media companies, saying they must take action and remove ‘covert hostile state material’, urging the Government to name and shame those that fail to act.
‘It is the social media companies who hold the key but are failing to play their part,’ the report states.
But the committee also said that it was ‘surprisingly difficult’ to establish who has responsibility for what in terms of who leads the UK’s response to foreign interference.
No one organisation considers itself to be in the lead, or apparently willing to conduct an assessment of such interference, a position the committee wants to see changed.
‘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 writes.
‘DCMS (Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport) is a small Whitehall policy department and the Electoral Commission is an arm’s length body; neither is in the central position required to tackle a major hostile state threat to our democracy.
‘Protecting our democratic discourse and processes from hostile foreign interference is a central responsibility of Government, and should be a ministerial priority.’
The committee believes MI5 should have an operational role, utilising the relationship already built with social media companies when dealing with terrorist content on their platforms.
– What does the Government say?
The Government says its relationship with social media giants ‘continues to evolve’.
‘In the context of the Covid-19 response, we are learning valuable lessons which will be applied to our future approach to countering disinformation and other forms of online manipulation,’ the Government said in response to the report.
‘While the Government welcomes the actions taken by social media companies thus far, including the cooperation they have shown in tackling these issues together, there still issues to be addressed.
‘DCMS will continue pushing platforms to take the actions necessary to improve and safeguard the information environment.’
– What about other cyber threats?
Russia’s cyber capability is highlighted as a matter of ‘grave concern’ which poses ‘an immediate and urgent threat to our national security’.
GCHQ has claimed that Russian GRU actors have orchestrated phishing attempts against Government departments, as well as seeking to employ organised crime groups to supplement its cyber skills.
– What do the social networks say?
Facebook has declined to comment. Twitter is yet to respond.
Russia tried to hack the Foreign Office and Porton Down military laboratory after Salisbury spy poisoning
The ISC report said Russia had used its cyber attack capabilities to target key government departments and national infrastructure.
The committee said that since 2014 Russia had carried out ‘malicious cyber activity in order to assert itself aggressively in a number of spheres’.
In a partially redacted section of its report, the committee said the National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC) had advised there is ‘Russian cyber intrusion’ into the UK’s critical national infrastructure (CNI).
The report also highlighted that GCHQ had advised of ‘orchestrated phishing attempts’ against Government departments by ‘Russian GRU actors’.
The GRU is the Main Intelligence Directorate of the General Staff of the Russian Armed Forces.
As an example, the report said attempts were made against the UK’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (DSTL) during the early stages of the investigation into the Salisbury poisonings in 2018.
Headquartered in Porton Down, Wiltshire, scientists at DSTL were involved in conducting tests after Russian double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia were exposed to Novichok.
Porton Down’s identification of the substance used in the attack was a key plank in evidence presented by the UK in then prime minister Theresa May’s successful bid to recruit international support in the dispute with Moscow, which resulted in the expulsion of more than 100 Russian diplomats from over 20 countries.
The ISC concluded: ‘Russia’s cyber capability, when combined with its willingness to deploy it in a malicious capacity, is a matter of grave concern, and poses an immediate and urgent threat to our national security.’
How corrupt lawyers, estate agents and businesses have helped super-rich Russian oligarchs with links to Putin use the ‘London laundromat’ to clean their dirty money
Super-rich Russian oligarchs with links to the Putin regime have been able to use the ‘London laundromat’ to clean their dirty money with the aide of corrupt lawyers, estate agents and other disreputable industries, the ISC concluded.
The committee said that wittingly or unwittingly ‘a growth industry of enablers’ had helped further the aims of their questionable clientele further their influence in the capital, influence often linked to helped ‘promoting the nefarious interests of the Russian state’.
It also suggested that a ‘large private security industry’ had sprung up in a city mockingly described as ‘Londongrad’ because of the large number of affluent Russians with question marks over the source of their wealth.
These firms had helped protect oligarchs and their families, seek ‘kompromat’ – blackmail material – on rivals, and ‘on occasion help launder money through offshore shell companies and fabricate ”due diligence” reports, while lawyers provide litigation support.’
Russians with shiny clean money had been provided with access to important business and political figures in a way that cannot now easily be undone, the report noted.
It said: ‘It is widely recognised that Russian intelligence and business are completely intertwined. The Government must … take the necessary measures to counter the threat and challenge the impunity of Putin-linked elites.’
Russia’s ‘elite’ and those close to President Vladimir Putin – aided by the UK’s 1994 investor visa scheme – have put money into so many different sectors, particularly in London, that any Government measures against them would be ‘damage limitation’, said one section in the ISC report.
‘What is now clear is that it (the investor policy) was in fact counter-productive, in that it offered ideal mechanisms by which illicit finance could be recycled through what has been referred to as the London ‘laundromat’,’ said the committee.
‘The money was also invested in extending patronage and building influence across a wide sphere of the British establishment – PR firms, charities, political interests, academia and cultural institutions were all willing beneficiaries of Russian money, contributing to a ‘reputation laundering’ process.
Labour committee member Kevan Jones said this morning: ‘What we do know about Russian interference in the UK is that it is the new normal.
‘Successive governments have welcomed Russian oligarchs and their money with open arms and there are a lot of Russians with very close links to Putin who are now very well integrated into the UK business, social and political scene – what has been referred to as Londongrad.
‘Yet few if any questions have been asked regarding the provenance of considerable wealth. This open door approach has provided an ideal mechanism by which illicit finance could be recycled through the London laundromat.’
No one single agency takes the lead to tackle Russian interference – and the Official Secrets Act is ‘not fit for purpose’
The committee raised significant concerns about which Government organisation is actually responsible for protecting the UK against foreign interference.
It said the issue seemed to be a ‘hot potato’ within the government with no single agency in charge of coordinating action.
It said: ‘Yet the defence of those democratic processes has appeared something of a ‘hot potato’, with no one organisation considering itself to be in the lead, or apparently willing to conduct an assessment of such interference. This must change.’
The committee said it had found it ‘surprisingly difficult to establish who has responsibility’ for preventing foreign interference in elections as it recommended ultimate responsibly should lie with MI5.
It said: ‘We understand the nervousness around any suggestion that the intelligence Agencies might be involved in the mechanics of the democratic process, but that does not apply when it comes to the protection of those processes.
‘And without seeking to imply that those organisations currently responsible are not capable, the Committee have questioned whether DCMS and the ElectoralCommission have the weight and access required to tackle a major hostile state threat.
‘Democracy is intrinsic to our country’s success and well-being. Protecting it must be a ministerial priority, with the Office for Security and Counter-Terrorism taking the policy lead and the operational role sitting with MI5.’
Meanwhile, the report said the UK’s legal powers to combat spying were no longer adequate and that the Official Secrets Act needs to be updated.
‘In particular, new legislation must be introduced to tackle foreign spies: the Official Secrets Act is not fit for purpose and while this goes unrectified the UK intelligence community’s hands are tied,’ it said.
The ISC questioned whether the Government ‘took its eye off the ball on Russia’ and ‘finds that they underestimated the response required to the Russian threat and are still playing catch up’.
UK prime ministers’ legacy of inaction over Kremlin: Theresa May and David Cameron ‘failed to take any action against Russian interference’
Boris Johnson was not the only prime minister to come in for criticism in the report as it also laid blame at the doors of his predecessors Theresa May and David Cameron for failing to take any action to determine Russian interference under their tenures.
The report said that as early as 2014, when Mr Cameron was in charge, no effort had been made to assess what efforts, if any, they made to subvert that year’s Scottish independence referendum, which the No campaign won 55-45.
Mr Cameron visited Moscow in 2011, a year into his term in office, in an attempt to repair Russo-British relations. He met with then Russian president Dmitry Medvedev, a Putin puppet who held the role to allow his mater to circumvent Russian political laws on terms served.
PM David Cameron in Moscow in 2011 meeting then Russian president Dmitry Medvedev (left) and (right) taking part in a wreath laying ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier
The ISC said the response to the Salisbury spy poisoning ‘must not be allowed to become the high water mark in international unity over the Russia threat’. Theresa May is pictured with Mr Putin in June 2019
But by 2014 the relationship had soured, following Moscow’s invasion and occupation of Crimea, and the downing of the passenger jet MH17 over Ukraine.
But it was only two years later, after the EU referendum, when Russian efforts to interfere in the US presidential election against the Democrats that the Government in the UK ‘belatedly realised the level of threat which Russia could pose in this area’, the report noted.
Nonetheless, no action appears to have been taken by Mrs May, whose time in No10 was almost entirely occupied by Brexit and related bitter factional Tory infighting.
The ISC said: ‘There has been credible open source commentary suggesting that Russia undertook influence campaigns in relation to the Scottish independence referendum in 2014.’
In censored comments that follow, it notes: ‘It appears that (redacted) what some commentators have described as potentially the first post-Soviet Russian interference in a Western democratic process.’
More now needs to be done by security services and the intelligence community to assure the public that elections and the democratic process are safe, said the ISC.
‘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,’ the committee stated.
‘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.’
House of Lords and their links to the Kremlin: Report calls for ‘more scrutiny’ over business interests linked to Russia and peers who work directly for major Russian companies
Members of the House of Lords should face ‘scrutiny’ of any business links to Russia and rules on outside work should be tightened, the ISC report suggested.
It pointed out that while MPs have to declare any income of more than £100 from outside interests, peers face no such accountability.
This would make it easier for ‘cash-for-questions’ situations to arise without the public being any the wiser.
The report said: ‘It is notable that 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.
‘It is important that the Code of Conduct for Members of the House of Lords, and the Register of Lords’ interests, including financial interests, provide the necessary transparency and are enforced.
‘In this respect, we note that the Code of Conduct for Members of Parliament requires that MPs register individual payments of more than £100 which they receive for any employment outside the House – this does not apply to the House of Lords, and consideration should be given to introducing such a requirement.’