The British Government 'badly underestimated' Russian Political Interference

The responsibility for defending the UK’s democratic processes from Russian disinformation campaigns has been passed around like a “hot potato”, according to the British Parliamentary  Intelligence and Security Committee’s (ISC) ‘Russia Report’. The report has concluded that the UK government "badly underestimated" the Russian threat and the response it required. 

The delayed publication of the ISC Report on 21st July finds that British intelligence agencies, along with the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS), did not see themselves as “holding primary responsibility for the active defence of the UK’s democratic processes from hostile foreign interference”.

The Report into Russian activity in the UK said the government was "playing catch-up" and needed to take "immediate action". The Report says “It appears that Russia considers the UK one of its top Western intelligence targets” …  that the UK “sits just behind the US and NATO in any priority list. This is likely to be related to the UK’s close relationship with the US…”

The Report says that social media companies "hold the key and yet are failing to play their part", adding that the government should "name and shame those which fail to act."

The Report also claims the government made no effort to investigate Russian interference in the EU referendum. While it does not contain conclusive proof of Russian interference in UK politics, this is because the UK’s intelligence services have not, as far as the ISC can tell, ever properly investigated the matter.

Its most damning finding is the distinction it draws between US intelligence services, who two months after the election of Donald Trump had produced and published a comprehensive report into attempts by Kremlin news sites, bots and hackers to influence the outcome.

The ISC's inquiry covers a number of topics, including disinformation campaigns, cyber tactics and Russian expatriates in the UK.  Much of the "highly sensitive" detail was not published due to fears Russia could use the evidence to threaten the UK.

The committee said Russian influence in the UK was now "the new normal", and the UK was a "top Western intelligence target" for the state, only behind the United Nations and US. 

ISC member, Scottish Nationalist Party MP Stewart Hosie, told reporters the government "took its eye off the ball, because of its focus on counterterrorism", adding: "The government had badly underestimated the response required to the Russian threat, and is still playing catch up."

In its report, the group said UK was "clearly a target" for disinformation campaigns around its elections, but that the issue was described as a "hot potato", with no one organisation taking a lead to tackle it. 

The report criticised intelligence agencies for not taking action during the EU referendum, despite there being "credible open source commentary" suggesting "influence campaigns" from the Russians during the Scottish independence referendum in 2014.

Further, the report say the UK government only "belatedly realised the level of threat which Russia could pose" after the so-called "hack and leak" operation against the Democrats in the 2016 US election, calling it a "game changer". 

Unexpectedly, the report concludes the problem was the government and the British national spy  spy agencies failure to even look at this question, with the government holding ultimate responsibility.

The report raises several serious questions about the failure of the UK to confront the spread of Russian money and influence over a long period and publication has been met with urgent calls for new legislation to deal with the challenge.

Intelligence & Security Committee:       BBC:        Independent:       CNN:       Verdict

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