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Tory ministers and intelligence agencies did not do enough to investigate or protect the UK from possible Russian interference in the 2016 Brexit referendum, MPs have said in a long-awaited report.
The Russia report, compiled by parliament’s intelligence and security committee (ISC), was finally released on Tuesday after months of delay.
But No.10 swiftly rejected one of its main recommendations, which was to publish an assessment of whether Moscow tried to influence the EU vote.
With no evidence of interference to date, a “retrospective” assessment was “not necessary”, it said.
The ISC report found that the UK government “took its eye off the ball” of the Russian threat, underestimated its dangers and is “still playing catch-up” on attempted manipulation of British democracy.
In a section entitled “failure to prepare”, it criticised the intelligence agencies for being slow to spot the threat posed by Russia, saying they may have taken action to protect the EU referendum from outside interference if they had recognised it sooner.
This was despite “credible” commentary suggesting Russia tried to influence the 2014 Scottish independence referendum, in potentially the first post-Soviet Russian interference in a Western democratic process.
The government only “belatedly” realised the the kind of threat Russia could pose to democracy after Moscow’s “hack and leak” operation against the Democratic national committee in the US in the run-up to Donald Trump’s election as president in 2016.
The intelligence community “did learn lessons from the US experience” and the government “recognised the Russian threat to the UK’s democratic processes and political discourse”, the committee said.
But it went on: “Had the relevant parts of the intelligence community conducted a similar threat assessment prior to the 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.”
Protecting UK democracy was regarded as a “hot potato” in Whitehall, with no single organisation taking an overall lead and nervousness on the part of the intelligence agencies to be involved in democratic processes.
The committee said it understood agencies’ reticence but stressed “that does not apply when it comes to the protection of those processes”.
It was noted that MI5 initially provided just six lines of text to the committee’s initial request for written evidence, which has been redacted from the report.
The ISC concludes that MI5 should now take primary operational responsibility for combatting the Russian threat to UK politics, with policy responsibility resting in the Home Office’s Office for Security and Counter-Terrorism.
The MPs said it would be “difficult, if not impossible” to assess whether Russia influenced the outcome of the Brexit referendum.
But they added: “It is important to establish whether a hostile state took deliberate action with the aim of influencing a UK democratic process, irrespective of whether it was successful or not.”
Calling for agencies to now assess the impact on the EU referendum, the committee said: “Even if the conclusion of any such assessment were that there was minimal interference, this would nonetheless represent a helpful reassurance to the public that the UK’s democratic processes had remained relatively safe.”
ISC members Kevan Jones and Stewart Hosie said that the main responsibility for the failure to pre-empt the Russian threat lay with ministers rather than intelligence agencies.
They were sharply critical of the UK government’s failure to assess whether Russia was trying to interfere in both the EU referendum and the Scottish independence referendum.
“Who is protecting the British public from interference? In a nutshell, we found no one is,” Jones, a Labour MP, told a press conference.
“No one is prepared to accept an overall lead...Protecting it must be a ministerial priority.”
Jones also said neither the Department for Culture, Media and Sport nor the Electoral Commission had “the weight to tackle a hostile threat to the UK’s democracy”.
Calling for Home Office ministers to work closely with MI5 on future threats, he said: “This needs to be gripped now.
“The outrage isn’t that there was interference – the outrage is that no one wanted to know if there was interference.”
Jones told HuffPost UK: “Ultimately, this was a government decision and a ministerial decision.
“I think to sidestep and say blame the agencies, is not fair because I wouldn’t want to to live in a society where our security services are politically directed that’s going down a road which I don’t think is very healthy for democracy.
“The government have got to take responsibility.”
HuffPost UK understands that many of the recommendations of the report - other than starting a specific probe into the Brexit referendum - are being implemented.
The SNP’s Hosie said it was difficult if not impossible to prove that Moscow skewed the 2014 Scottish referendum. “It’s worse than that,” he said. “No one in government knew if Russians sought to interfere in or influence the referendum.”
Hosie also seized on the Joint Intelligence Committee 2017 verdict that if the UK had followed the pre-emptive approach shown by US agencies during the 2016 presidential election, it would have reached the same conclusion about Russian interference.
“That if they had done the same investigation they’d have reached the same conclusions: that’s really damning of the government’s subsequent failure not to undertake that investigation or assessment. It’s not that they didn’t know by then what was going on in other parts of the world.”
The ISC also called on the government to create a new protocol with social media companies to bar from their platforms Russian ‘bots’ intent on hostile state activity.
Responding to the report, the government rejected the committee’s call for a retrospective assessment of the EU referendum, insisting there is “no evidence” of successful interference.
In a lengthy response to the ISC report, the government said: “We have seen no evidence of successful interference in the EU referendum.
“The intelligence and security agencies produce and contribute to regular assessments of the threat posed by hostile state activity, including around potential interference in UK democratic processes.
“We keep such assessments under review and, where necessary, update them in response to new intelligence, including during democratic events such as elections and referendums.
“Where new information emerges, the government will always consider the most appropriate use of any intelligence it develops or receives, including whether it is appropriate to make this public.
“Given this long standing approach, a retrospective assessment of the EU referendum is not necessary.”
Asked if Johnson believed the 2016 referendum result was “fair”, the PM’s official spokesman said “Yes absolutely.”
Pressed on whether the government had actually looked for any evidence of interference, he added: “Our intelligence and security agencies produce regular assessments of the threats posed by hostile states including potential interference in past or current UK democratic processes.”
The report’s release is one of the first acts of new ISC chair Dr Julian Lewis, who last week defied attempts by Downing Street to put former cabinet minister Chris Grayling in the post instead.
Both Jones and Hosie heavily criticised Boris Johnson and Downing Street for their repeated claims that more work was needed before signing off the report last autumn.
Jones said that the PM’s claims were “not true”. “Everyone who needed to see the report in government had done so and we were awaiting for the prime minister to agree the report which was sent to him on 17th October,” he said
But the PM’s spokesman rejected suggestions that he had delayed the report. ”[In] the memorandum of understanding with the Committee...there is no set timetable for a response, nor is it set in legislation.
“The prime minister took the appropriate time to consider publication of a report which by definition relates to matters of national security.”
Last week, foreign secretary Dominic Raab said that “Russian actors” had tried to meddle in the 2019 general election, but this was after the ISC report was finished.
The UK government also said last week that hackers linked to the Russian intelligence services tried to access UK coronavirus vaccine research.