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‘Credible commentary’ suggesting Russia undertook indyref ‘influence campaigns’: report

Image credit: PA

‘Credible commentary’ suggesting Russia undertook indyref ‘influence campaigns’: report

There is “credible open source commentary” that suggests Russia “undertook influence campaigns in relation to the Scottish independence referendum”, a long-awaited report by Westminster’s security watchdog has found.

The Westminster Intelligence and Security Committee’s (ISC) Russia Report, released on Tuesday, said some commentators described the move as “potentially the first post-Soviet Russian interference in a Western democratic process”.

Responding to the report during Tuesday’s coronavirus conference, Nicola Sturgeon said:“We should not be at any point complacent about the possibility of Russian interference in our democratic processes.”

“I don’t think you can really draw any conclusions from the three lines, or thereabouts, that the report has on the Scottish independence referendum, but I would include that in my general remarks about not being complacent about Russian interference,” the First Minister said.

“I would say that the Scottish independence movement and the kind of values I and my party stand for, I don’t think could be further removed from the kind of values that Vladimir Putin and the Russian regime stand for.”

While the ISC said it had been told the mechanics of the UK’s voting system “are deemed largely sound”, the committee warned that the UK “is clearly a target for Russia’s disinformation campaigns and political influence operations” and ministers were urged to make sure the UK equipped itself to match the threat.

Additionally, the report found Britain’s intelligence agencies had not done enough to reassure the public that the 2016 Brexit referendum was safe from Russian interference.

The report said it would be “difficult — if not impossible” for the parliamentary group itself to assess whether Moscow tried to influence the result. But it says it is “important to establish whether a hostile state took deliberate action with the aim of influencing a UK democratic process, irrespective of whether it was successful or not”.

SNP MP Stewart Hosie, a member of the ISC, said the UK Government “should have recognised the threat back in 2014 in relation to the Scottish referendum, but it didn't”.

“It didn't understand the threat until after the hack and leak operation against the Democratic National Committee in the United States, and because it was too slow to recognise the threat, it didn't take action to protect the UK in 2016,” Hosie said.

“One would have thought that once the existence of that threat had been understood, seeing what had happened in the US, that someone here would have wanted to understand the extent and nature of the threat to the UK and we wanted to see the post-referendum assessment, but there isn't one.

“There has been no assessment of Russian interference in the EU referendum, and this goes back to no one 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 elections. No matter how politically awkward or potentially embarrassing, there should have been an assessment of Russian interference in the EU referendum, and there must now be one, and the public must be told of the results of that assessment.”

On the Brexit referendum findings, Sturgeon said: “I do think the main message out of an initial reading of this report, would be what I think could possibly be described as negligence on the part of the UK Government in the face of potential Russian interference.

“I hope that this report leads to much a more rigorous approach, and to the UK Government taking these threats to our democratic processes much more seriously than they appear to have been doing so far.”

The report also warned of a string of links between Russian oligarchs connected to the Kremlin and political organisations and charities in the UK, and confirmed a host of attempts to hack British infrastructure.

The committee said initial evidence provided by agency MI5 on the subject consisted of just “six lines of text” and reference to existing academic studies, with the agencies displaying “extreme caution“ at the idea they “might have any role in relation to the UK’s democratic processes, and particularly one as contentious as the EU referendum”.

That stance was branded “illogical” by the ISC, which said the agencies had a duty to explain means of protecting elections “from hostile state interference”.

“We have not been provided with any post-referendum assessment of Russian attempts at interference,” the redacted report said.

“This situation is in stark contrast to the US handling of allegations of Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election, where an intelligence community assessment was produced within two months of the vote, with an unclassified summary being made public.”

It added: “Whilst the issues at stake in the EU referendum campaign are less clear-cut, it is nonetheless the Committee’s view that the UK Intelligence Community should produce an analogous assessment of potential Russian interference in the EU referendum and that an unclassified summary of it be published.”

And the committee said: “Even if the conclusion of any such assessment were that there was minimal interference, this would nonetheless represent a helpful reassurance to the public that the UK’s democratic processes had remained relatively safe.”

The report warned that members of the Russian elite with close ties to president Vladimir Putin were deeply involved with charities and political organisations in the UK, “with a public profile which positions them to assist Russian influence operations”.

Britain, it said, had been “viewed as a particularly favourable destination for Russian oligarchs and their money”, with the ISC warning that members of the House of Lords had business interests linked to Russia or were working directly for major Russian companies linked to the state.

The committee called for those links to be “carefully scrutinised” and floated a US-style ‘Foreign Agents Registration Act’ to make any conflicts of interest clear.

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