The 55-page report into Russian interference – prepared last year but only released on Tuesday after being blocked by Number 10 – said intelligence agencies should now conduct an assessment of Russian interference in the Brexit campaign which was led by Prime Minister Boris Johnson – then a backbench MP at the time.
“The written evidence provided to us appeared to suggest that Her Majesty’s Government had not seen or sought evidence of successful interference in UK democratic processes or any activity that has had a material impact on an election, for example influencing results,” the committee said.
The committee said when it asked MI5 – Britain’s domestic spy agency – whether there was any “secret intelligence” to support or supplement the open-source studies suggesting Russian influence campaigns during the Brexit campaign, officials initially responded with just six lines of text.
“This was noteworthy in terms of the way it was couched … and the reference to open-source studies,” the committee said.
“The brevity was also, to us, again indicative of the extreme caution amongst the intelligence and security agencies at the thought that they might have any role in relations to the UK’s democratic processes and one as contentious as the EU Referendum.”
“We repeat that this attitude is illogical.”
Speaking at a news conference after the report’s release, members lashed out at the government, saying the UK, which has had three prime ministers in the last four years, had failed.
“They have actively avoided looking for evidence,” said committee member Stewart Hosie, an MP representing the Scottish National Party which opposed Brexit and wants Scottish independence.
“There has been no assessment of Russian interference in the EU referendum and this goes back to nobody wanting to touch this issue with a ten-foot pole, this is in stark contrast to the US response to reports of interference in the 2016 presidential election,” Hosie said.
The government immediately rejected the committee’s call and said: “retrospective assessment of the EU referendum is not necessary.”
A heavily redacted paragraph referred to “credible open-source commentary” suggesting that Russia undertook influence campaigns in relation to the Scottish independence referendum in 2014″
“It appears that *** what some commentators have described as potentially the first post-Soviet Russian interference in a Western democratic process,” the partially-redacted paragraph said.
The report laid into the bureaucratic structures in upholding the integrity of the electoral process.
“The issue of defending the UK’s democratic processes and discourse has appeared to be something of a ‘hot potato’, with no one organisation recognising itself as having an overall lead.”
And in a blow to campaigners of electronic voting, the committee said it was paper-based voting and counting that had kept UK elections safe to this point.
Social media companies ‘failing to play their part’
The committee also blasted social media companies like Facebook and Twitter for holding the key yet failing to play their part in combatting disinformation campaigns, saying action was urgently required.
In last December’s poll, which the committee did not examine, then Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn used documents relating to UK-US trade negotiations, which were obtained by Russian hackers and posted on Reddit to claim that Johnson would sell off the NHS.
The new leadership installed after Corbyn’s loss at the polls has said it would never use documents which were obtained by hacking to advance its political cause.
The committee said social media companies should be required to cooperate with MI5 when covert hostile foreign state campaigns are suspected. Under a proposed protocol, companies would be given a timeframe within which they would have to remove material or face being named-and-shamed if they refuse to comply.
London laundromat for Londongrad’s oligarchs
The report was particularly scathing of Britain’s open-arms for Russia’s elite, since the introduction of the UK’s investor visa scheme in 1994.
It said this has led to a climate where Russian oligarchs laundered their illicit finances through the London ‘laundromat’, with much of that money invested in “extending patronage and building influence” through donations to political, charitable and cultural institutions in a “reputation laundering process.”
“In brief, Russian influence in the UK is ‘the new normal’, and there are a lot of Russians with very close links to Putin who are well integrated into the UK business and social scene, and accepted because of their wealth.
“This level of integration – in ‘Londongrad’ in particular – means that any measures now being taken by the Government are not preventative but rather constitute damage limitation.”
Londongrad refers to the swanky suburbs of Knightbridge, Belgravia and Mayfair where Russian oligarchs have purchased large swathes of property, dominating the cultural make-up of the areas.
Latika Bourke is a journalist for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, based in London.