The fact that the release of the Intelligence and Security Committee’s report on Russian interference came after many months of delays had led to speculation that it may reveal extensive evidence of foreign interference in British elections – particularly as US authorities have, for several years, been investigating Russia’s possible role in shaping the 2016 presidential election. Some pundits have questioned whether the Russian government’s activities had any impact on the campaigning or outcome of the UK’s 2016 EU membership referendum. Speaking at Prime Minister’s Questions, leader of the opposition Sir Keir Starmer accused the government of delaying legislation to counter Russian democratic interference, saying that “the PM sat on this report for 10 months and failed to plug a gap in our law in national security.”
The report does not provide any discrete evidence that Russian authorities swayed the Brexit vote, as it focuses more on the role of broader disinformation campaigns that originated in Russia than on any specific electoral outcome. It also details the role of Russian investors in changing the broader political landscape worldwide, as well as Russian oligarchs’ alleged links to organised crime. You can read the report, in full, by clicking here.
So What Does The Report Say?
The report’s contents roughly cover three areas: the Russian use of cyber crime; the role of Russian wealth, oligarchs and expatriates in the UK; and the role Russia may have played in disseminating political disinformation and in influencing the UK’s democratic processes.
1. The Russian Use of Cyber Crime
The report explains that Russia has a sophisticated cyber presence. It also explains that the UK sometimes is hindered in countering this cyber threat due to what it calls the UK intelligence agencies’ “complex landscape” – in other words, several different agencies across the UK intelligence community have involvement in countering Russian cyber threats. In some cases, the report claims, it wasn’t clear how those agencies are coordinated. Decisions relating to cyber threats are taken by multiple ministers, which further complicates the situation. For instance, the Foreign Secretary has responsibility for one body that is responsible for response to incidents, yet the Home Secretary also has responsibility for responses to major cyber incidents.
2. The Role of Russian Wealth, Oligarchs and Expatriates in the UK
The UK has been a particularly popular destination for Russian oligarchs in recent decades, a problem that the Russia report claims has been exacerbated by the UK’s investor visa scheme. This scheme provides an easy and rapid path to settled status if high sums of money are invested by an individual in the UK economy (many millions of pounds or more). This scheme was introduced in 1994, and was followed by the introduction of light financial regulation, which created an environment with attractive investment opportunities for wealthy Russians, many of whom have links to the Kremlin.
The report explained that the visa scheme created mechanisms by which illicit finance could be laundered through London, in what ultimately became known as the London “laundromat”. Illicit funds were sometimes invested to build influence across the British establishment, such as in charities, political interests and cultural institutions. For this reason, Russian hostile state activity could easily be carried out without ever engaging specialised operatives.
The arrival of Russian oligarchs and expatriates also led to a growth of what the report terms “enablers”, or individuals and organisations that manage and lobby for the Russian elite in the UK. These include lawyers, estate agents and PR professionals, as well as a large private security industry that aims to protect oligarchs and seek kompromat (compromising material, sometimes used for blackmail) on competitors. Russian state interests and business, the report claims, are highly intertwined. William Browder, the campaigner previously labelled as “Putin’s Number One Enemy”, told the Committee that:
“Russian state interests, working in conjunction with and through criminal private interests, set up a ‘buffer’ of Westerners who become de facto Russian state agents, many unwittingly, but others with a reason to know exactly what they are doing and for whom. As a result, UK actors have to deal with Russian criminal interests masked as state interests, and Russian state interests masked by their Western agents.”
The report questions the efficacy of the recently-introduced Unexplained Wealth Orders, which can be used to compel a target to reveal the sources of their unexplained wealth. Many well-established Russian oligarchs have lawyers primed to explain their wealth if they are called into question, even when their wealth is linked to organised crime. The Director-General of the UK’s National Crime Agency explained that:
“… unexplained wealth does have to be unexplained and, unfortunately … Russians have been investing for a long period of time … you can track back and you can see how they will make a case in court that their wealth is not unexplained, it is very clearly explained.”
3. The Dissemination Of Political Disinformation & Russian Interference In Democracy
One major question posed by the national press, and subsequently investigated by the intelligence committee, is the role Russian state activity may have played in the UK’s democratic process.
The report notes that the UK’s voting processes and infrastructure are mostly sound. As the UK uses paper voting, committing electoral fraud is considerably more challenging than in countries that use electronic or online voting.
However, the report claims that the Russian state aims to alter the political and information landscape by promoting disinformation, and promulgating the country’s chosen ideological arguments in the international press. In particular, it mentions the following techniques allegedly used by Russian state actors:
- Use of Russian state-owned media to influence opinion, such as Russia’s state-funded broadcasters RT and Sputnik;
- Use of bots and trolls on social media to alter the political landscape;
- Use of ‘hack and leak’ operations, where sensitive information that could alter public opinion or voter outcomes is hacked by Russian state actors and subsequently leaked into the public domain. Examples mentioned in the report include the online publication of Hillary Clinton’s hacked emails during the US presidential election in 2016, and the release of 9GB of hacked emails from Emmanuel Macron 48 hours prior to the French presidential election in 2017;
- Use of ‘real life’ political interference – examples included Russian “soft-loans” to the far-right Front National party in France, seemingly as a reward after the party supported Russian annexation of Crimea. The report also cites Russia’s apparent sponsorship of a failed coup in Montenegro in October 2016 as an example of ‘real life’ influence.
The report claims that Russia’s aims when engaging in political interference are varied, but could include:
- Attempts to support a pro-Russian narrative in relation to particular events. This can include casting doubt on the true account of events. The report claims that when average voters state that ‘you don’t know what to believe’ or ‘they’re all as bad as each other’, this is an indicator Russia’s disinformation strategies have worked;
- Attempts to direct support towards Russia’s preferred outcome in international affairs;
- Attempts to poison the broader political narrative in the West by encouraging extremism and ‘wedge issues’ (issues that polarise opinion). This goal is sometimes also achieved by astroturfing, which is the use of social media to give the impression that a specific social group supports a policy or candidate. Attempting to poison the political landscape can also involve general discrediting of the West or Western institutions such as NATO.
As Edward Lucas, a British writer and security specialist, stated in his evidence to the Committee:
“If you believe that the West is run by hypocritical, incompetent, greedy politicians, then it becomes much harder to take any kind of moral high ground about Russia which really is run by very, very bad people.”
Case Study: The EU Referendum
Claims of Russian democratic interference in the UK’s national press have almost entirely focused on the 2016 EU membership referendum. The report includes a case study of this election, but begins with the following statement: “the impact of any such attempts [to alter the outcome of the EU referendum] would be difficult – if not impossible – to assess, and we have not sought to do so.”
The report cites external studies that have pointed to the large volume of pro-Brexit and anti-EU written articles that appeared on Russian state owned media outlets such as Russia Today and Sputnik, as well as the widespread use of bots and trolls during the referendum campaign. The report also notes that there has been credible commentary suggesting Russia launched influence campaigns during the Scottish independence referendum in 2014.
The intelligence committee has stated in the report that it had aimed to establish whether the UK had secret intelligence that provided evidence of Russian involvement in UK elections. But that the initial response provided to the committee from MI5 was limited, and amounted to “just six lines of text.” MI5 did not provide any post-EU referendum assessment of Russian attempts to interfere with the electoral process. This lacklustre response was contrasted with the 2016 US Presidential election, when the US intelligence community successfully produced an assessment of Russian interference within just two months of the vote. The UK report noted that UK agencies such as MI5 did not view themselves as responsible for defending the UK’s democratic process from foreign interference, and that various UK security organisations feared they would be interfering with democratic processes if they pursued intelligence in this area. No particular intelligence agency recognises itself as having an overall lead over investigating democratic interference, which the report criticises.
The report notes that social media companies hold the key to solving the problem of online electoral disinformation and that they have, thus far, failed to combat the problem successfully.
What Actions Does The Report Recommend?
The report criticised in particular the lack of resources devoted to combatting hostile state action. The financial resources devoted to this area of intelligence have fluctuated a great deal in the last thirty years. Around twenty years ago, MI5 devoted about 20% of its operations to investigating and combating hostile state activity, but this proportion had declined to 3% by 2008-9, partly as resources were shifted to counter-terror measures following the 9/11 and 7/7 terror attacks. It wasn’t until 2013 that efforts to counter hostile state activity rose significantly from this very low level, to 14.5%.
Efforts to curb cybercrime, according to the report, are hindered by the current computer misuse legislation. The report states that “the Computer Misuse Act…is very outdated legislation. It was designed for a time when we all didn’t carry six phones and computers and let alone have criminals who do the same.” On the subject of democratic interference, the report recommends that the government lobbies social media companies to have a protocol for dealing with disinformation. It goes on to suggest that the government then “names and shames” those companies that fail to act.
The report states that the government’s Defending Democracy programme, which was publicly announced in mid-2019, has sound aims but that the proposed measures within the programme are fragmented. Ten separate teams in the government are involved in the programme, but it does not seem to have been a matter of high priority, having been signed off three years after the EU referendum and the US presidential election that brought these problems to public attention. The question is raised in the report whether electoral law is sufficiently up-to-date, given “the move from physical billboards to online, micro-targeted political campaigning.” The report also states that the Electoral Commission should possibly be given greater legislative powers to ensure the security of democratic processes.
Attempts to curb the actions of hostile state actors who have invested in the UK have led to the introduction in February 2019 of new powers to stop, question, search or detain any person entering the UK. Unexplained Wealth Orders were introduced in 2018, which require an individual with unexplained wealth in assets over £50,000 to provide information as to the legitimacy of these assets.
The National Crime Agency stated to the intelligence committee that sanctions have “a powerful impact” on members of the Russian elite and their “enablers” and suggested changes be made to the legislation, such as including serious and organised crime as grounds for introducing sanctions. The report also proposes an overhaul of the Tier 1 (investor) visa programme, which currently allows those who invest £2million or more to reside in the UK for three years and four months, time which is easily extended. Greater investments grant the investor settled status after a requisite period of time.
Legislation concerning espionage is viewed as out-of-date by the authors of the report. In particular, it states that the Official Secrets Act is no longer fit for purpose; under this Act, it is not illegal to be a foreign agent in the UK. The Director-General of MI5 explained that:
“… there are things that compellingly we must investigate, everybody would expect us to address, where there isn’t actually an obvious criminal offence because of the changing shape of the threat and that for me is fundamentally where this doesn’t make sense.”
In 2017, the Law Commission reviewed options for updating the Official Secrets Act, with a suggestion the legislation be replaced with a new “Espionage Act.” The outcomes of the consultation have not yet been published.The intelligence report notes that in 1938 the US passed the Foreign Agents Registration Act, which requires individuals representing the interests of foreign powers “in a political or quasi-political capacity”, who are not accredited diplomats, to register with the Department of Justice. US legislation also requires agents, other than diplomats, who are performing non-political activities under the control of foreign governments, to notify the Attorney General. Anyone who should have registered but who has not done so can be prosecuted and, in the case of non-US citizens, deported. The report mentions this as a possible route by which to counter foreign operatives and political actors.