Scalding rebuke for years of naivety: EDWARD LUCAS, one of the experts who gave evidence for Russia report, presents his damning verdict on Kremlin interference
As I took my seat in the spartan, bug-swept offices of the intelligence and security committee’s anonymous Westminster headquarters in the summer of 2018, my excitement was tempered with trepidation.
Since watching the Soviet empire collapse 30 years ago, I had been sounding the alarm about Russia’s reluctance to give up its dreams of empire.
Yet now the committee was launching a much-awaited, much-delayed inquiry on exactly the topics that have taken up so much of my life: the shadowy fusion of organised crime, big business and the old KGB.
On that July day, I was the inquiry’s first witness. The Kremlin, I explained, had refashioned the traditional Soviet tools of political espionage, adding sophisticated digital tools and all the opportunities presented by globalisation — shell companies, offshore finance, cross-border trade and investment. In short, I said, Britain’s response had been pitiful.
Yet all those months ago, even I couldn’t begin to imagine how devastating yesterday’s report would be.
A view of the Moscow Kremlin and Bolshoi Kamenny Bridge across the Moskva River
Put to one side its dramatic calls for further investigations into the use of money, cyber-attacks and propaganda in the Brexit and Scottish independence referendums, as well as recent general elections.
Even the language of the report – with repeated use of words such as ‘surprised’ and ‘disappointed’ – constitutes, in the careful lexicon of government, a scalding rebuke of decades of short-sightedness.
For a start, the ISC explicitly highlights the way in which previous governments – Labour and Conservative alike — have foolishly overlooked the threat from Russia. Such naivety dates all the way back to 1994 – when changes to the UK’s investor visa scheme allowed holders to smoothly turn them into British passports, with all the rights those precious documents entail, including the ability to make legal donations to political parties.
In no uncertain terms, the report sharply concludes that ‘the key to London’s appeal was the exploitation’ of this scheme.
But that was just the first in a string of blunders. Indeed, the ISC damningly recalls its previous warnings to the Government, pointedly quoting anonymous spymasters who sheepishly claimed their focus on counter-terrorism took priority.
As for the notion that Russia might dare to attack our political system, the report reveals it was barely considered – as demonstrated by the fact that MI5 replied to the committee with only six lines of text on that matter. That was enough for the committee to note there was ‘credible’ evidence of Russian influence during the Scottish independence referendum in 2014. Yet the clueless Clouseaus of MI5 apparently thought this and any other suggestion of Russian mischief was not worth investigating. On cyber-warfare, the ISC notes with shock, nobody appears to be in charge.
With concern dripping from every page, it’s hardly surprising the report poses more questions than it answers.
It however makes immediate recommendations that will directly affect the security of all of us. It confirms that the outdated Official Secrets Act of 1989 needs to be replaced with a new system that ensure the registration of those who peddle political influence on behalf of foreign powers. The Computer Misuse Act of 1990 is similarly obsolete, predating the era of mobile phones. Another much-needed recommendation is for a thorough investigation of Russian meddling in our political system. As the report highlights, the authorities have been scandalously incurious about this.
Why does GCHQ, it asks, not look at who lies behind the Twitter accounts that peddle hoaxes and scare stories.
Of course, it does seem that our intelligence services have belatedly turned their attention to online political manipulation – as demonstrated by some tantalising asterisks, reflecting redaction of secret material – scattered throughout the section of the report dedicated to it.
But it is all too little, and shamefully late. As for the report’s calls for further investigation into pernicious Russian influence, I fear that there is little prospect of the report’s forceful conclusions being matched with real action.
Take the committee’s alarm at Kremlin’s pinstriped accomplices – the bankers, lawyers and accountants whom it calls unwitting or even witting agents of Russian influence.
Dealing with such rot in our system will need new legislation and a revamped National Crime Agency. Even if that were possible, we cannot ignore the fact that it may be too late already.
To put it bluntly, our country is afloat on a sea of dodgy money. And the bitter truth is that this is our fault.
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