In the end, the long-awaited Russia Report from the Intelligence and Security Committee dropped with all the predictability of a soap opera storyline. Broad in framing the threat and yet light on actual detail, it outlined Moscow’s ramping up of its “hybrid war” hostilities, with sections devoted to cyber security, disinformation and influence operations, and the political donations and lobbying activities of London’s Russian emigrés.
For a government that has repeatedly expressed its keenness to “move on” from bad political weather and Get Brexit Done, we always knew it was going to contain a measure of embarrassment. This was implicit in the suppression of publication until after the December general election, keeping it out of the campaign news agenda, and in Downing Street’s attempt to politicise the ICS with the failed appointment of a preferred candidate in Chris Grayling.
But given the lightness of detail – justified on the grounds of ongoing security matters – the Russia Report is perhaps embarrassing in ways they didn’t imagine.
The report concludes that the UK is seen by Russia as one of its “top targets” in the West, and that the government here “actively avoided” looking for Kremlin interference during the EU referendum, despite some evidence of interference in the Scottish independence referendum. For this reason, committee members said, it could not definitively assess whether Russia had successfully influenced the EU vote.
Matthew Flinders, professor of politics at the University of Sheffield and president of the Political Studies Association, is scathing. “In 55 pages that include 175 redactions,” he says, “the only thing this report clarifies is that nobody seems to know what Russia might – or might not – have done. In places the report reads more like a script from Yes, Minister than a long-awaited and serious security report. ‘We don’t know what we don’t know because no one has bothered to ask’ might be a succinct summary, which is not the fault of the Intelligence and Security Committee as much as it seems to be an almost complete vacuum at the heart of Whitehall and Westminster.
“This is damaging and embarrassing at a number of levels. For the government, the fact that the report has been delayed does not look good and brings with it a whiff of arrogance; for Brexit, it doesn’t really provide any evidence of anything; but more critically it risks undermining public confidence in the integrity of British democracy.”
What is especially evident from the report – something already abundantly clear to those studying the nexus of hostile foreign powers’ influence operations, social media, and the opacity of online political advertisements – is that events have run ahead of the ability of liberal democracies to manage them.
The ISC report highlights the fragmented nature of the British government’s capacity for response to the threat and the lack of joined-up action between government and the intelligence community. “It showcases the complete confusion of the accountability and oversight structures in relation to cyber-security,” explains Flinders. “No one minister carries the can for the topic and this might explain how and why what the ICS calls ‘a hot potato’ appears to have fallen between the cracks.”
Indeed, there are serious question marks raised as to whether MI5 can reasonably sustain its hands-off, apolitical stance in the face of this new threat to the integrity of the British democratic process. A key passage of the report states:
“In response to our request for written evidence at the outset of the Inquiry, MI5 initially provided just six lines of text. […] 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 relation to the UK’s democratic processes, and particularly one as contentious as the EU referendum. We repeat that this attitude is illogical; this is about the protection of the process and mechanism from hostile state interference, which should fall to our intelligence and security Agencies.”
Professor Tony Travers of the London School of Economics takes up this point. “In fairness to MI5 and MI6, [the] broad evidence is that they operate outside mainstream day-to-day politics,” Travers says. “The fact that they appear not to have invested much time and effort into investigating whether efforts were being made by external powers, by whatever means, to influence the Brexit referendum is a bit surprising, given everything else we know.
“What comes through [the report] is the idea that the responsibility fell to DCMS [Department of Culture Media and Sport] rather than the security services, which is absurd. A department of state are not going to be able to handle this sort of thing.”
“It clearly requires security services looking into these issues, and as far as I can see we will now never know whether there was any action or influence, in this case by Russia, that had any effect on the Brexit referendum. But as no research was done, there's no evidence. So it's a 0-0 draw, as it were.”
The ISC report also recognises that social media platforms have been slow to respond to the threat, and that new protocols and legislation are needed. These gaps and blind spots in the democratic process were notoriously exploited during the Brexit referendum through so-called dark ads. The report also makes clear that the British government was late to realise the extent of the threat. Commenting on the July 2019 announcement of the government’s Defending Democracy programme, it says that, “while the aim is sound […] it seems to have been afforded a rather low priority”.
As you would expect, the motives for such a delay in formulating and implementing this programme are not speculated upon in the report, but several media and academic analysts have suggested that politics have been prioritised over national security, not least with the suppression of the ISC report itself.
The government’s behaviour around its release has not exactly been edifying, argues Flinders. “The publication of the report is not good for the Prime Minister as it provides another example of bungling. Bungling, not just in terms of not asking the key questions of the key people, but then bungling in trying to delay and control the publication of the report.
“This will fall on the back of the crude attempt to shoe-horn Chris Grayling into the chairmanship of the committee which, in turn, risks Boris being seen as not respecting the House of Commons in quite the way that all Prime Ministers, irrespective of the size of their majority, need to.”
If public trust in both the integrity of our democratic processes and the transparency and accountability of our government is eroded, then such an outcome aligns perfectly with the general strategic aims of Putin’s hybrid war, which is pursued through many avenues simultaneously: namely, to undermine trust in Western liberal democracy from within.