Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 23 September 2020

UK officials failed to spot possible Russian meddling in referendum campaigns

Kremlin links to Scottish independence referendum and 2016 Brexit vote were not examined

The report was completed in March 2019 but Downing Street was accused of delaying its release. AP
The report was completed in March 2019 but Downing Street was accused of delaying its release. AP

Britain's security agencies stood accused of serial failure to detect and counter Russian attempts to interfere in referendums including the pivotal Brexit and Scottish independence votes.

A highly anticipated report from the UK Parliament's Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC) has said there was evidence the Kremlin meddled in the 2014 Scottish independence vote but neither that activity nor possible interference in 2016 was detected by intelligence agencies or the government.

The Russia report, produced by the body which scrutinises the work of Britain’s intelligence agencies, said ministers “had not seen or sought evidence of successful interference in UK democratic processes”.

Parts of the parliamentary report have been redacted heavily, particularly where it discusses the 2016 EU referendum. The ISC said security agency responses over the Brexit campaign were short and even what was sent to the committee was then redacted with asterisks from its report.

"In response to our request for written evidence at the outset of the Inquiry, MI5 initially provided just six lines of text. It stated that ***, before referring to academic studies," the redacted version reads. It said there were indications from open sources that Russia sought to influence the Brexit vote but that the British government had not sought stronger evidence of interference.

The government only began to appreciate the threat posed by Russian meddling after allegations of Kremlin interference in the US Presidential elections later in 2016, the report said.

“It was only when Russia completed a ‘hack and leak’ operation against the Democratic National Committee in the US – with the stolen emails being made public a month after the EU referendum – that it appears that the Government belatedly realised the level of threat which Russia could pose in this area.”

Chair of the intelligence and security committee which produced the report, MP Julian Lewis. AFP
Chair of the intelligence and security committee which produced the report, MP Julian Lewis. AFP

Only two months after the US vote which took President Donald Trump to the White House, the US intelligence community had produced an extensive assessment on the interference. But in “stark contrast” to the United States, Britain has so far failed to produce a retrospective assessment of potential Kremlin interference in the Brexit referendum, the report said.

Britain’s intelligence agencies should produce an “analogous” assessment of possible interference in the Brexit vote, the report’s authors said.

The report was completed in March 2019 and before the general election last December, Downing Street was accused of delaying its release.

The report on Russian political influence in Britain also suggested Russia had targeted the Scottish independence referendum in 2014. It relied on news reports to underpin the allegation, not official intelligence activity.

“There has been credible open source commentary suggesting that Russia undertook influence campaigns in relation to the Scottish independence referendum in 2014,” it said.

The Kremlin on Tuesday denied that Russia had ever interfered in another country's electoral processes. It has frequently denied meddling in Western politics, accusing the US and Britain of being gripped by anti-Russian hysteria.

The committee report cast Russia as a hostile power that posed a significant threat to the UK across a range of fronts including espionage, disinformation, cyber activity and money laundering.

"It appears that Russia considers the UK one of its top Western intelligence targets," the report said.

The report also examined Russian money flows into the British capital, a phenomenon that was welcomed in London power circles.

"The UK welcomed Russian money, and few questions – if any – were asked about the provenance of this considerable wealth," the report said. "The UK has been viewed as a particularly favourable destination for Russian oligarchs and their money.

"It offered ideal mechanisms by which illicit finance could be recycled through what has been referred to as the London 'laundromat'," the report said.

Updated: July 21, 2020 04:28 PM

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