The UK Government and British intelligence failed to assess Russian interference in the EU referendum, a long-awaited report has revealed.
The Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC) referred to Russian influence in the UK being “the new normal” with the country a top target for disinformation campaigns.
The heavily-redacted ISC report noted that there had been widespread allegations that Russia sought to influence voters in the 2016 Brexit vote, but it would be “difficult – if not impossible” to assess whether any such attempts had been successful.
But the committee said the Government was “was slow to recognise the existence of the threat”.
It said the intelligence agencies and ministers should have been aware of the risk of Russian interference as a result of “credible open source commentary suggesting that Russia undertook influence campaigns in relation to the Scottish independence referendum” in 2014.
Publication of the committee’s report was postponed by Boris Johnson’s decision to call a general election and the subsequent delays in setting up the ISC in the new parliament.
There was “no evidence” that Russia sought to influence the EU referendum, but only because the Government did not seek to find out if it had, ISC member Kevan Jones said.
Asked for the committee’s views on whether Russia did influence the 2016 referendum, Mr Jones told journalists on Tuesday: “There was no evidence that we saw.
“The reason why there was no evidence was because no one asked 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.”
He said “no one” in the Government “sought to look or ask the question that needed to be asked”.
SNP MP Stewart Hosie, a member of the committee, said that no-one in Government wanted to touch the issue of Russian interference in the 2016 vote with a “10-foot pole”.
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”.
He told reporters: “There has been no assessment of Russian interference in the EU referendum and this goes back to nobody wanting to touch the issue with a 10-foot pole.
“This is in stark contrast to the US response to reported interference in the 2016 presidential election.
“There should have been an assessment of Russian interference in the EU referendum and there must now be one, and the public must be told the results of that assessment.”
Mr Hosie added that the UK was “one of Russia’s top western intelligence targets”.
“It weaponises information,” he said. “Russia’s intelligence services are disproportionately large and powerful and they can act with little constraint.”
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.”
The committee said Russian influence in the UK is “the new normal” as successive have welcomed oligarchs with open arms.
There were Russians with “very close links” to Vladimir Putin who were “well integrated into the UK business, political and social scene – in ‘Londongrad’ in particular”.
The ISC said it was a priority to “mitigate the risk, and ensure that where hostile activity is uncovered, the proper tools exist to tackle it at source and to challenge the impunity of Putin-linked elites”.
The ISC noted that “a number of Members of the House of Lords have business interests linked to Russia, or work directly for major Russian companies” and these relationships should be “carefully scrutinised” given the potential for Moscow to exploit them.
The committee said: “It has been clear for some time that Russia under Putin has moved from potential partner to established threat, fundamentally unwilling to adhere to international law – the murder of Alexander Litvinenko in 2006 and the annexation of Crimea in 2014 were stark indicators of this.
“We therefore question whether the Government took its eye off the ball because of its focus on counter-terrorism: it was the opinion of the Committee that until recently the Government had badly underestimated the response required to the Russian threat – and is still playing catch up.”
The UK’s paper and pencil-based voting system makes it more difficult to influence, according to the ISC’s report.
It said: “In terms of the direct threat to elections, we have been informed that the mechanics of the UK’s voting system are deemed largely sound: the use of a highly dispersed paper-based voting and counting system makes any significant interference difficult, and we understand that GCHQ has undertaken a great deal of work to help ensure that the online voter registration system is safe.”
Work is being undertaken “nonetheless” by the GCHQ to ensure any risks to the voting system are mitigated.
Shadow foreign secretary Lisa Nandy tweeted: “It is 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.
“The report is very clear that the Government has underestimated the response required to Russia and it is imperative we learn the lessons from the mistakes that have been made.
“The Labour Party calls on the Government to study the conclusions of the report carefully and take the necessary steps to keep our country safe.”
Liberal Democrats acting leader Sir Ed Davey tweeted: “Outrageous that Russian interference in UK elections and referendums has never been investigated properly.
“It is wilfully negligent for the Govt to turn a blind eye to this, we need a proper investigation into the full role that Russian interference has played in our democracy.”
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