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British officials ‘actively’ avoided investigating Russian meddling in Brexit referendum, report says

Russian President Vladimir Putin
Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks in Sevastopol, Crimea, in March 2018.
(Alexander Zemlianichenko / Associated Press)

A long-awaited report on Russian influence in British politics has criticized the British government for neglecting to investigate whether Russia interfered in the 2016 Brexit referendum, describing its utter lack of curiosity about the threat to democracy as being a major failure at the heart of power.

The parliamentary report’s authors accused the British government of “actively avoiding” looking into evidence of the Russian threat to the referendum on the U.K.'s membership in the European Union. The authors found this particularly unforgivable given the evidence that emerged of Russian interference in the U.S. elections and in the Scottish independence referendum in 2014.

“There has been no assessment of Russian interference in the EU referendum and this goes back to nobody wanting to touch the issue with a 10-foot pole,” committee member Stewart Hosie said, demanding that such a study be done and the public informed.

While the report by Parliament’s Intelligence and Security Committee said it would be “difficult — if not impossible — to prove” allegations that Russia sought to influence the referendum, it was clear that the government “was slow to recognize the existence of the threat.”

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Committee members concluded that the goal of a resurgent Russia in influencing the vote would be to amplify existing divisions, and thus possibly destabilize Western political systems.

In a 20-page response, Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s administration denied that the government had “badly underestimated” the Russian threat and rejected the call for an assessment of alleged Russian meddling during the Brexit referendum. “We have seen no evidence of successful interference in the EU referendum,” the statement said.

The report says Russia sees Britain as one of its top intelligence targets in the West. It said Russian influence in the U.K. is the “new normal,” and said successive governments have welcomed Russian oligarchs with open arms. Russians with “very close links” to President Vladimir Putin were “well-integrated into the U.K. business, political and social scene — in ‘Londongrad’ in particular,” it said.

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Speaking before the report was released, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Tuesday that Russia has “never interfered in electoral processes in any country in the world.”

“Not in the United States, not in Britain, not in any other country. We don’t do that ourselves and we don’t tolerate when other countries try to interfere with our political affairs,” Peskov said.

The report was finally published Tuesday after criticism that the government delayed its release for more than six months to shield Johnson and his Conservative Party, which has been in power for more than a decade, from embarrassment.

Painting a portrait of Russian cybercrimes spanning the globe, the Justice Department on Thursday charged seven Russian intelligence officers with targeting an international chemical weapons watchdog agency, a nuclear energy company in Pennsylvania and the keepers of Olympic athletes’ drug-testing data.

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The committee did not offer a theory as to why the government delayed the report, but did say the government’s explanations for delaying the report were not true.

It was originally submitted to Johnson on Oct. 17. The government initially said the report couldn’t be published until it was reviewed for national security issues, which postponed its release until after the Dec. 12 general election. Further holdups were caused by delays in appointing new members to the Intelligence and Security Committee.

Finally, Johnson named five Conservative lawmakers to the nine-person panel in hopes his handpicked candidate would be chosen as chairman and block the report. The gambit failed when a renegade Conservative was chosen to head the committee with backing from opposition parties.

The opposition Labor Party has accused the government of failing to publish the report because it would lead to further questions about links between Russia and the pro-Brexit campaign in the 2016 referendum on EU membership, which Johnson helped lead.

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Intelligence officials have warned lawmakers that Russia is interfering in the 2020 election campaign to help Donald Trump get reelected, according to three officials familiar with the closed-door briefing.

Another parliamentary panel — the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee — previously published the results of its own inquiry into disinformation and “fake news,” which called on election regulators and law enforcement to investigate reports that a British businessman with links to Russia donated $10.6 million to the Brexit campaign. The National Crime Agency said in September that it found no evidence of criminal offenses related to the donation.

The intelligence committee report covers the full range of the Russian threat to Britain, including election interference, espionage and targeted assassinations such as the attempt to kill former spy Sergei Skripal in the English city of Salisbury two years ago.

The report urged British authorities to beef up their defenses, and called for immediate legislation to give intelligence agencies the tools to deal with a “very capable” adversary and to battle espionage, illegal financial dealings of the Russian elite in Britain and their “enablers.”

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The report called for better coordination with Britain’s Western allies, and said London should be ready to lead international action and work to develop new rules on “offensive cyber” operations.

It faulted unspecified social media companies for “failing to play their part” in weeding out misinformation and spurious users, and said the British government should set up rules to “ensure that they take covert hostile state use of their platforms seriously” and “name and shame” those that fail to act.

The report’s release comes only days after Britain, the United States and Canada accused hackers linked to Russian intelligence agencies of trying to steal information from researchers working on a potential coronavirus vaccine.


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