Russians tried to influence the 2019 British general election by “amplifying” a leaked document on UK-US trade that ended up being highlighted by Jeremy Corbyn, the government has claimed.
Foreign secretary Dominic Raab said that the intelligence assessment was that “Russian actors” - a way of describing hostile hackers as opposed to Moscow’s intelligence agencies - had “almost certainly” sought to interfere by “amplifying” the documents online.
Former Labour leader Corbyn seized on the documents in December to claims that they proved that the Tories were hatching a trade deal with Donald Trump to “sell off” the NHS to American private health and drug firms.
He held a press conference to parade the leaked papers, having brandished redacted versions of them during a live TV debate days beforehand.
Uncensored versions of the document first appeared online on the Reddit website more than a month earlier, but initially gained very little attention.
However, the UK’s National Cyber Security Centre - an offshoot of GCHQ- has assessed that “Russian actors” decided to spread the documents to a larger audience.
A criminal investigation is underway into how the papers were initially accessed, but that is unrelated to the dissemination of the documents later.
There is no suggestion that Labour was in any way involved in the original leak of the papers.
Labour said it condemned “any attempt by Russia, or any foreign power, to interfere in our country’s democratic processes” and pledged to work to protect the nation’s security.
The news came as intelligence agencies in the UK, US and Canada issued a joint statement revealing that hackers linked to the Russian intelligence services had tried to access coronavirus vaccine research in the three countries.
In a written statement to parliament Raab revealed that during the 2019 general election a cross-government “election security” cell was stood up to coordinate responses to threats and hazards.
“On the basis of extensive analysis, the government has concluded that it is almost certain that Russian actors sought to interfere in the 2019 General Election through the online amplification of illicitly acquired and leaked government documents,” he said.
“Sensitive government documents relating to the UK-US Free Trade Agreement were illicitly acquired before the 2019 General Election and disseminated online via the social media platform Reddit.
“When these gained no traction, further attempts were made to promote the illicitly acquired material online in the run up to the General Election.
“Whilst there is no evidence of a broad spectrum Russian campaign against the General Election, any attempt to interfere in our democratic processes is completely unacceptable. It is, and will always be, an absolute priority to protect our democracy and elections.
“There is an ongoing criminal investigation and it would be inappropriate for us to say anything further at this point.”
The prime minister’s official spokesman said that it was “nonsense” to suggest that the information was now being made public to distract attention from the likely publication next week of the Intelligence and Security Committee’s ‘Russia report’ pointing to Moscow influence in the Tory party.
He said that Raab had been waiting for the establishment of the new ISC – which finally appointed a chairman Julian Lewis on Wednesday – before deciding to go public with the revelations.
In his statement, the foreign secretary added: “The government reserves the right to respond with appropriate measures in the future.
“The UK will continue to call out and respond to malign activity, including any attempts to interfere in our democratic processes, alongside our international partners.
“We fully support the recent action taken by our German partners who exposed Russian responsibility for the hack of their parliament in 2015 as well as their intention to act against those responsible under the cyber sanctions regime. The UK government laid the statutory instrument for our own cyber sanctions regime on 17 June.”
The forum website Reddit said the unredacted papers had been uploaded as “part of a campaign that has been reported as originating from Russia”.
It suspended 61 accounts that showed a “pattern of coordination”.
Asked about the government statement by reporters outside his home, Corbyn declined to comment on Thursday.
A Labour spokesman said: “We condemn any attempt by Russia, or any foreign power, to interfere in our country’s democratic processes.
“Labour stands ready to work cross-party to protect our nation’s security. That includes in our response to the publication of the long-awaited report by the Intelligence Security Committee on the Russian threat to the UK.”
Russian foreign ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said Raab’s statement was “ambiguous” and “confusing”.
She said Raab had said there was “no evidence of full-scale interference” by Russia in his statement but had also claimed “any attempts of such interference are unacceptable”.