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Russian to judgement
Sheer complacency in No.10, dire strategic planning, suboptimal expert advice and inadequate cross-Whitehall coordination. That may sound to some like Boris Johnson’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic, but in fact it’s the picture painted by the Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC) of the UK’s preparedness for Russian interference in our elections.
The long-awaited ‘Russia Report’ had been played down so relentlessly in recent months that it was a surprise to find it was more hard hitting than some expected. Yes, there was no ‘smoking gun’ to suggest Moscow had skewed the 2016 Brexit referendum. But instead there was a withering verdict that no one had even bothered to look for any gun or gunsmoke - before or after the historic vote.
The scenario set out by the report, that successive UK governments failed to grip the Russian threat, certainly seems plausible. In the run up to the referendum, David Cameron was so complacent that he even confided to fellow EU leaders he would walk it. Theresa May had zero interest in unpicking the result and as little inclination to analyse it. And Boris Johnson is the last person who would want to taint the Vote Leave triumph.
Of course, it’s worth saying that 17 million people voted for Brexit and you can bet every one of them would find it deeply insulting to say they were somehow brainwashed by Russian bots. Moreover, although the percentages were 52% to 48%, the 1.3 million vote margin of victory of Leave over Remain was so big that it suggested a groundswell of pent up frustration rather than Moscow manipulating useful idiots.
But that’s not to say that Vladimir Putin’s larger goal of splitting Western alliances wasn’t served by the Brexit vote, just as it was by Trump’s victory in the US in the same year. One only has to look at how Trump’s handling of Nato, let alone the free pass he gave Putin in Syria and on Ukraine, to see why the Russians worked hard to hack the outcome.
Which brings us to the UK government’s formal response to the ISC’s central charge of a lack of pre-emptive action. “We have seen no evidence of successful interference in the EU Referendum,” it said. But that word “successful” sounds pretty important; what about any unsuccessful interference? The ISC also points out that conducting a retrospective assessment of Russian actions would reassure the public the referendum and other political process were safe.
One of the most fascinating nuggets in the ISC report was its revelation that after the US presidential election, UK intelligence agencies learned lessons. “In May 2017, the Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC) concluded that “***” and that “***”.” it states. Even with the redactions, the next sentence is startling. “Had the relevant parts of the Intelligence Community conducted a similar threat assessment prior to the [Brexit] referendum, it is inconceivable that they would not have reached the same conclusion as to Russian intent, which might then have led them to take action to protect the process.”
The criticism of not just ministers but also UK intelligence agencies makes worrying reading. ISC chair Julian Lewis and member Kevan Jones were careful not to blame the agencies directly. Jones told me today “I wouldn’t want to live in a society where our security services are politically directed”. But the report does point out MI5 is ‘self tasking’ and does not need ministers to tell it to be on its guard and report Russian meddling in elections. Hostile state interference is hostile state interference, even when it’s about politics and democracy.
The committee expressed its irritation at the way MI5 provided a mere six lines of text initially in response to its queries. I noted too the ISC complaint that the intelligence agencies too often hid behind the 2013 Justice and Security Act exemption that means they can refuse to comment on an issue if it relates to ongoing operations. The lawyerly voice of former chairman Dominic Grieve can be heard in the section that states the Act does not give a blanket exemption and “it is disappointing that in relation to a subject of such public interest this option has been exercised quite so broadly”.
Just as big a problem as Russian bots are Russian oligarchs, the ISC suggests. “The extent to which Russian businesses are using access to UK businesses and politicians to exert influence is ****” You don’t need to know the censored word to realise its importance. “Several members of the Russian elite who are closely linked to Putin are identified as being involved with charitable and/or political organisations in the UK, having donated to political parties”. No wonder Boris Johnson wanted that conclusion delayed.
Where does all this leave the very thing that was supposed to be the ambition of the Brexit referendum: greater UK sovereignty? Some believe we are now more reliant on America than ever. There was an awkward moment today when US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo joked to Dominic Raab “I’ll take your questions” about Huawei. Raab denied the UK had been “strong-armed” but he did point to the “reality” of US sanctions that ensured our policy shift. “We support those sovereign choices, we think ‘well done’,” Pompeo added, artlessly.
But perhaps the most concerning aspect of the government’s response to the ISC report that it was more aggressive than it would be to a normal select committee. It had a detailed eight-point rebuttal, unusually issued the moment the committee released the report, and No.10 flatly rejected criticisms about the delays to publication. Usually, No.10 would work with the ISC and would take on board its concerns, precisely because the committee is seen as non-partisan and has a unique responsibility in overseeing our spies.
The sins of omission and commission in the UK’s preparedness for Russian interference may well have echoes to many of its preparedness for coronavirus. If No.10 is going to treat the ISC like it treats Keir Starmer, the damaging outcome to the government’s reputation may be similar in the long run. But the whole ethos of our carefully balanced scrutiny arrangements for British intelligence may suffer too.
Quote Of The Day
“The UK Intelligence Community should produce an assessment of potential Russian interference in the EU referendum...and an unclassified summary of it be published.”
Intelligence and Security Committee
Tuesday Cheat Sheet
Chief medical officer Chris Whitty rejected claims that ministers failed to respond quickly enough to advice on the lockdown, and said the R number fell ‘well before’ the PM’s big announcement. He also admitted that on care homes, he had not recognised the risks of agency workers not paid sick leave and visiting several premises.
Rishi Sunak warned public sector workers to expect a renewed squeeze on pay as he ordered government departments to find cost savings in response to the downturn unleashed by Covid-19.
Matt Hancock said he had been told by the Chancellor that his 100,000 test a day target was a ‘big, hairy, audacious goal’. He also announced that residents of sheltered housing would get routine tests.
Home Office minister Kit Malthouse said that police will not patrol shops to enforce face covering rules. This was after Devon and Cornwall Police became the first force in the country to announce that it would not respond to calls about shoppers refusing to wear face coverings.
Tory MP Rob Roberts is under investigation by the Tory party and has been referred to the parliamentary standards commissioner after BBC Wales revelations he sent WhatsApp texts to a young female intern and a male parliament worker.
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