Russia report: Government 'underestimated' threat and 'clearly let us down' by not probing Brexit meddling

Video report by ITV News Political Correspondent Paul Brand

Successive governments failed to tackle threats to British democracy after a long-awaited report into Russian interference found the UK is considered one of Moscow's "top Western intelligence targets".

The Russia report has shown there were attempts to influence the Scottish independence referendum in 2014 but the Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC) said the government "actively avoided" investigating interference in the Brexit referendum in 2016.

ISC member and Labour MP Kevan Jones said no evidence of meddling in that vote was found because “no one” in government “sought to look or ask the question that needed to be asked”.

As such, the committee said interference in the Brexit referendum could not be ruled out.

Main points from the report:

  • Russia considers the UK one of its top Western intelligence targets

  • There is "credible" evidence suggesting that Russia undertook influence campaigns in relation to the Scottish independence referendum in 2014.

  • It is "impossible" to assess allegations that Russia sought to influence the 2016 Brexit referendum

  • The government “took its eye off the ball” and failed to respond to the threat from Moscow

  • Social media companies must take action and remove "covert hostile state material"

Successive governments - whether under David Cameron, Theresa May or Boris Johnson - are heavily criticised in the report, with the ISC accusing ministers of taking their "eye off the ball" regarding the threat of Russian interference, instead choosing to prioritise counter-terrorism.

The committee said the government "has clearly let us down" because it should have attempted to mitigate interference in the Brexit referendum after evidence showed Russia tried to meddle in the Scottish referendum.

What is the Russia Report and why was it commissioned?

The ISC said: “There has been credible open source commentary suggesting that Russia undertook influence campaigns in relation to the Scottish independence referendum in 2014.”

It added: “It appears that (redacted) what some commentators have described as potentially the first post-Soviet Russian interference in a Western democratic process.”

The committee said the government “badly underestimated” the Russian threat and was now "playing catch-up" in investigating the country, an allegation swiftly denied by the government.

Level of Russian meddling in British democracy unknown says Political Correspondent Paul Brand

No-one in government wanted to touch the issue of Russian interference in the Brexit referendum with a “10-foot pole”, said committee member and SNP MP Stewart Hosie.

Speaking about the probe into alleged Russian interference in British democracy, Mr Hosie said no-one in government knew if Russia interfered or sought to influence the 2016 referendum “because they did not want to know”.

The report into Russian meddling - which the committee said was unnecessarily delayed by many months - found the country "poses an all encompassing security threat" to the UK, "fuelled by paranoia about the West".

Russia "carries out malicious cyber activity in order to assert itself aggressively, for example by attempting to interfere in other countries elections," Mr Hosie said.

He added: "We know that Russia targets the UK."

Following the report's release, a spokesperson for Boris Johnson said the prime minister is “absolutely” confident the 2016 European Union referendum result was fair.

“We have seen no evidence of successful interference in the EU referendum,” the spokesperson said, as he confirmed the government would not order an investigation of Russian activities around the vote.

“Our intelligence and security agencies produce regular assessments of the threat posed by hostile state activities, including any potential interference in past or current UK democratic processes.”

'Unprecedented delays and dislocation' before publication

The report said Russian influence in the UK is "the new normal" but criticised successive governments for welcoming "oligarchs and their money with open arms".

The report was delayed several times and was eventually released many months after it was finished.

A complete version was sent to Boris Johnson on October 17, before the 2019 general election, but its release was delayed in order to prepare for the poll.

Video report by ITV News Security Editor Rohit Kachroo 

The committee said the public should have had sight of the report before the election.

Dominic Grieve, a former chair of the ISC, said: "The delay in publishing this report, I’ve always considered to be inexplicable and the public were entitled to have this information at the end of October and the government has given no credible explanation as to why they didn’t have it."

The report was again delayed after the election, with it taking several months to reform the ISC.

Mr Jones said claims by the prime minister that it required six weeks to get his confirmation for the report were “categorically not true”.

The committee had been subjected to “unprecedented delay and dislocation”, its chair Julian Lewis said.

He told journalists on Tuesday: “This really must never happen again and the sooner normal relations are restored between this committee and the government, the better it will be for all concerned.

“That prospect has not been helped by the government refusing to tell us what was in the written ministerial statement about this Russian report which the government chose to table at the Commons at 10.30 this morning to clash with the start of this event.”

Commenting on the delay in the release of the ISC Russia report, Mr Hosie said: “The impact is that any lessons which could have been learned will now be learned rather later than they ought to have been, perhaps too late to stop some other cyber attacks.”

The report comes just days after Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said it was “almost certain” Russia had tried to interfere in the 2019 election.

The Intelligence and Security Committee said: “Russia’s cyber capability, when combined with its willingness to deploy it in a malicious capacity, is a matter of grave concern, and poses an immediate and urgent threat to our national security.”

Its report said GCHQ had advised that Russian actors had “orchestrated phishing attempts against Government departments”, including against the Foreign Office and the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (DSTL) during the early stages of the investigation into the Salisbury attacks in 2018.

Time to 'name and shame'

The Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC) recommended that the Government “name and shame” Russia when it is found to be behind hacking or other cyber attack attempts.

It also said ministers should engage in diplomacy to ensure allies do the same.

Its report said: “When attacks can be traced back – and we accept that this is in itself resource-intensive – the Government must always consider ‘naming and shaming’.”

The Government rejected the suggestion it had “badly underestimated” the Russian threat.

“The Government has long recognised there is an enduring and significant threat posed by Russia to the UK and its allies, including conventional military capabilities, disinformation, illicit finance, influence operations, and cyber-attacks,” the official response to the report said.

“As such, Russia remains a top national security priority for the Government.”

What does the Government say in response?

In a 20-page response to the report, the Government rejected the call for an assessment of alleged Russian activity during the Brexit referendum.

It said: “We have seen no evidence of successful interference in the EU Referendum."

It added: "We keep such assessments under review and, where necessary, update them in response to new intelligence, including during democratic events such as elections and referendums.

“Where new information emerges, the Government will always consider the most appropriate use of any intelligence it develops or receives, including whether it is appropriate to make this public.

“Given this long standing approach, a retrospective assessment of the EU Referendum is not necessary.”

The Russian response:

The Kremlin denies any attempt to influence foreign democracies, with Russia’s ambassador to the UK Andrei Kelin saying the country would work with the British government, whether Labour or the Conservatives were reading it.

He told ITV News Political Correspondent Paul Brand that Russian people may have attempted to interfere in the UK democracy, but he denied it being sponsored by the Russian state.

"On the official level, I can categorically deny interferences in the British democracy, we have no interest in interference," he said.

He added: "Russia is big and Russians are living everywhere - some of them are, well of course there is a group of hackers - but this officially linking them with Russian government, it will be nonsense.

"The Russian government does not do anything like that."

Mr Kelin quoted Shakespeare when commenting on the report, saying "it’s much ado about nothing" - or it amounted to not very much.

"It provided a lot of noise in the press but it does not contain any facts which may be of interest for us."

Russia's Director of the Information and Press Department of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Maria Zakharova told ITV News the "report is empty" and said "there is nothing more to add".

The report's release comes at a time of strained relations between Britain and Russia.

There are allegation that Russian intelligence-linked hackers tried to steal details of research into coronavirus vaccines.

This comes on top of the Salisbury Novichok poisoning in 2018, which left former double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia in hospital and led to the death of Dawn Sturgess.

Watch the Russia report press conference in full: