UK Finally Releases Russia Report

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A committee of the United Kingdom (UK) Parliament issued its report on its investigation into Russian interference and rendered a scathing indictment of disengagement by the British government on the challenges and threats posed by the Russian Federation going back to early this century. The Intelligence and Security Committee of Parliament (ISC), a joint body consisting of nine members of the House of Commons and the same number from the House of Lords, had been tasked with investigating the extent to which Russia has been interfering with the UK, including the Brexit vote in 2016. The ISC has returned with a record of half-measures, often uncoordinated between agencies and entities inside the British government, that have proved ineffective. The ISC is calling for a range of policy, strategic, and legislative changes to counter the threat posed by Russian activities, many of which occurred in cyberspace or digitally. Presumably, these changes would also help the UK deal with other nations that are aggressive in cyberspace, including the People’s Republic of China (PRC), the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), Iran, and others.

This report follows the four of five volume report the United States Senate Intelligence Committee has released on Russian interference with the 2016 US Presidential Election in favor of the Trump Campaign and to sow discord and distrust generally. In October 2019, the Committee transmitted its report to Prime Minister Boris Johnson who would “now consider whether there is any information in the report which, if published, would be prejudicial to the continued discharge of the functions of the security and intelligence Agencies.” In its press release today, the ISC stated “it is a matter of great regret that it was not published last November, ahead of the General Election.”

In the report, the ISC explained the report “covers aspects of the Russian threat to the UK (Cyber; Disinformation and Influence; and Russian Expatriates) followed by an examination of how the UK Government – in particular the Agencies and Defence Intelligence – has responded (Allocation of Effort; Strategy, Co-ordination and Tasking; A Hard Target; Legislation; International Partnerships; and Engagement with Russia).”

The previous ISC wrote the press release the current ISC issued:

ISC questions whether Government took its eye off the ball on Russia, finds that they underestimated the response required to the Russian threat and are still playing catch up:

  • Russian influence in the UK is the new normal. 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 UK companies and political figures.
  • This has led to a growth industry of ‘enablers’ including lawyers, accountants, and estate agents who are – wittingly or unwittingly – de facto agents of the Russian state.
  • It clearly demonstrates the inherent tension between the Government’s prosperity agenda and the need to protect national security. While we cannot now shut the stable door, greater powers and transparency are needed urgently.
  • UK is clearly a target for Russian disinformation. While the mechanics of our paper-based voting system are largely sound, we cannot be complacent about a hostile state taking deliberate action with the aim of influencing our democratic processes.
  • 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.
  • Social media companies must take action and remove covert hostile state material: Government must ‘name and shame’ those who fail to act.
  • We need other countries to step up with the UK and attach a cost to Putin’s actions. Salisbury must not be allowed to become the high water mark in international unity over the Russia threat.
  • A number of issues addressed in this published version of the Russia Report are covered in more depth in the Classified Annex. We are not able to discuss these aspects on the grounds of national security.

The previous ISC continued in its press release:

  • [T]his Inquiry found it surprisingly difficult to establish who has responsibility: the defence of the UK’s democratic processes has appeared to be something of a ‘hot potato’, with no single organisation identifying itself as having an overall lead. 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 Electoral Commission 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.
  • In terms of responsibility, it was noted that – as with so many other issues currently – it is the social media companies who hold the key but 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.
  • 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.
  • What is clear is that Russian influence in the UK is ‘the new normal’: successive Governments have welcomed the Russian oligarchy with open arms, and there are a lot of Russians with very close links to Putin who are well integrated into the UK business, political and social scene – in ‘Londongrad’ in particular. Yet few, if any, questions have been asked regarding the provenance of their considerable wealth and this ‘open door’ approach provided ideal mechanisms by which illicit finance could be recycled through the London ‘laundromat’. It is not just the oligarchs either – the arrival of Russian money has resulted in a growth industry of ‘enablers’: lawyers, accountants, and estate agents have all played a role, wittingly or unwittingly, and formed a “buffer” of Westerners who are de facto agents of the Russian state.
  • There is an obvious inherent tension between the Government’s prosperity agenda and the need to protect national security. To a certain extent, this cannot be untangled and the priority now must be 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. It is notable, for example, 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.
  • In addition to the Putin-linked elites, the UK is also home to a number of Putin’s critics who have sought sanctuary in the UK fearing politically-motivated charges and harassment, and the events of 4 March 2018 showed the vulnerability of former Russian intelligence officers who have settled in the UK – one of the issues we address in the Classified Annex to our Report.
  • 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. Russia poses a tough intelligence challenge and our intelligence Agencies must have the tools they need to tackle it. 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.
  • More broadly, we need a continuing international consensus against Russian aggressive action. Effective constraint of nefarious Russian activities in the future will rely on making sure that the price the Russians pay for such interference is sufficiently high: the West is strongest when it acts collectively, and the UK has shown it can lead the international response. The expulsion of 153 ‘diplomats’ from 29 countries and NATO following the use of chemical weapons on UK soil in the Salisbury attack was unprecedented and, together with the subsequent exposure of the GRU agents responsible, sent a strong message that such actions would not be tolerated. But Salisbury must not be allowed to become the high water mark in international unity over the Russia threat: we must build on this effort to ensure momentum is not lost.

In the report, the ISC explained

As a result of our scrutiny, we have reached conclusions as to what is working well, where there is a need for more, or different, effort, or where a strategy may need updating, and we have commissioned a number of actions. These are embedded throughout the Report. We note here, however, that there have been a number of cross-cutting themes which have emerged during the course of our work:

  • Most surprising, perhaps, was the extent to which much of the work of the Intelligence Community is focused on ***. We had, at the outset of our Inquiry, believed they would be taking a rather broader view, given that it is clearly acknowledged that the Russians use a whole-of-state approach.
  • This focus has led us to question who is responsible for broader work against the Russian threat and whether those organisations are sufficiently empowered to tackle a hostile state threat such as Russia. In some instances, we have therefore recommended a shift in responsibilities. In other cases, we have recommended a simplification: there are a number of unnecessarily complicated wiring diagrams that do not provide the clear lines of accountability that are needed.
  • The clearest requirement for immediate action is for new legislation: the Intelligence Community must be given the tools it needs and be put in the best possible position if it is to tackle this very capable adversary, and this means a new statutory framework to tackle espionage, the illicit financial dealings of the Russian elite and the ‘enablers’ who support this activity.
  • More broadly, the way forward lies with taking action with our allies; a continuing international consensus is needed against Russian aggressive action. The West is strongest when it acts collectively and that is the way in which we can best attach a cost to Putin’s actions. The UK has shown it can shape the international response, as it did in response to the Salisbury attacks. It must now seek to build on this effort to ensure that momentum is not lost.

The Committee is pursuing additional inquiries that could also result in proposed changes in how the UK handles cyberspace threats:

  • an Inquiry into national security issues relating to China;
  • an Inquiry into Right Wing Terrorism;
  • an examination of the current threat from Northern Ireland-Related Terrorism; and
  • a case study on GCHQ procurement.

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Image by TeeFarm from Pixabay

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