Report on Russia Reveals UK Response: Don't Ask, Don't TellUS Intelligence Agencies Responded to Russian Interference; Britain Did Not
If the first rule of combating attempted election interference by foreign governments is to see where, when and how it might be happening, where does that leave Britain?
The U.K.'s long-delayed Russia report, which was finally released this week, paints a damning picture of inaction by Britain's Conservative party - which has been in power since 2010 - despite obvious signs that Russia was attempting to interfere in the U.K.'s electoral processes.
"Russia under Putin now represents potentially the most significant threat to the U.K.'s institutions and way of life."
The report concludes that Russian money likely corrupted British politicians who should have been putting national security before their own self-interest (see: U.K. 'Failed' to Probe Threat of Russian Election Interference). The report is based on 18 months of evidence gathered from numerous sources by Parliament's powerful Intelligence and Security Committee, which oversees the country's intelligence services. And while the final report has been redacted, some of its conclusions are very public.
The committee found that the government "badly underestimated" the threat posed by Russia as well as the response it should have been taking.
In particular, the report states that despite signs that Russia may have attempted to interfere in the 2014 Scottish independence referendum, the government failed to trace or combat Russia's alleged attempts to influence the outcomes of the 2016 Brexit referendum and the 2017 general election. The report also contrasts Britain's failure to respond to the opposite approach taken in the U.S., where intelligence agencies responded quickly and publicly to Russian attempts to interfere in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.
"The committee found it astonishing that no one in government had thought beforehand to protect the referendum from such attempts or investigated afterwards what attempts to influence it there may have been," says Stewart Hosie, a Scottish National Party MP who serves on the committee.
"One would have thought that once the existence of that threat had been understood, seeing what had happened in the U.S., that someone here would have wanted to understand the extent and nature of the threat to the U.K. and we wanted to see the post-referendum assessment," he said. "But there isn't one. There has been no assessment."
Cyberattack Naming and Shaming
Recently, the U.K. government has taken a more active approach to calling out Russia when it launches cyberattacks. Such efforts have been spearheaded by GCHQ's public-facing National Cyber Security Center, which is overseen by the U.K. government's Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport (see: Turla Teardown: Why Attribute Nation-State Attacks?).
But the Parliamentary committee says the question of who is in charge of defending Britain's democratic processes against foreign actors appears "to be something of a 'hot potato,' with no single organization identifying itself as having an overall lead. ... And without seeking to imply that those organizations currently responsible are not capable, the committee has questioned whether DCMS and the Electoral Commission have the weight and access required to tackle a major, hostile-state threat."
The committee recommends that the Home Office's Office for Security and Counter-Terrorism be the policy lead for combating foreign interference, while MI5 - the domestic counter-intelligence and security agency - handle operations.
In the wake of the report's release, Home Office Minister James Brokenshire said the government is weighing new legislation that would bring "new offenses and powers," allowing U.K. intelligence agencies to better battle the threat.
But Keir Starmer, who leads Britain's Labor party, on Wednesday questioned the delay by Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who pointedly avoided publishing the report before the country's December 2019 general election. "The prime minister sat on this report for 10 months and failed to plug a gap in our laws on national security for a year and a half," despite the report making clear that Moscow "poses an immediate and urgent threat to our national security" and is engaged in "espionage, interfering in democratic processes and serious crime," he said.
Moscow's Powerful Lobby
Why the delay? The committee suggests that the British government's inaction may be due to the many Russian oligarchs with close ties to President Vladimir Putin who are now "well integrated into the U.K. business, political and social scene," forming what one Russia watcher has described as being a "powerful lobby."
"Russian influence in the U.K. is the new normal," the committee's report states. "Successive governments have welcomed the oligarchs and their money with open arms, providing them with a means of recycling illicit finance through the London 'laundromat,' and connections at the highest levels with access to U.K. companies and political figures."
Experts on Russia say Moscow now poses an existential threat to Britain. "Russia under Putin now represents potentially the most significant threat to the U.K.'s institutions and way of life," Christopher Steele, who formerly headed the Russia desk at MI6, the U.K.'s foreign intelligence service and is now director of Orbis, a private intelligence agency, gave evidence to the committee in August 2018. (Steele is also known, of course, as the author of the so-called "Trump-Russia dossier," a collection of 16 private intelligence memos that concluded that the Kremlin likely had a hold over President Trump and his family and business associates. Trump has denied that allegation.)
Testifying before the committee two years ago, Steele said more resources were required for the intelligence services to be able to counter Russia. "No terrorist group has to date successfully deployed a weapon of mass destruction, either nuclear or chemical, in the U.K. Russia has deployed both," he said. "If not effectively deterred going forward, clearly Putin's regime will stop at little to achieve its objectives."
Given that Russia likely attempted to sway the results of U.K. referendums and general elections, will the British government finally open its eyes to the threat Moscow poses?