The real lesson from the Russia report is that interference in UK democracy is far closer to home
The long delayed report by the Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC) of Parliament on alleged Russian interference in UK politics has now been published. It covers cyber attacks, disinformation, and the role of Russian ‘ex-pats’.
However, it failed to examine a number of serious concerns, in particular donations by Russian or Putin-linked oligarchs. Also, the report’s focus on Russian interference rather successfully distracts from interference by actors in elections and the referendum that are closer to home.
Summary of the report
The report refers to offensive measures undertaken by the UK to combat Russian cyber attacks. Details of these measures are given in the restricted annex. This is a “substantial” section of additional material which hasn’t been made visible to the public.
On disinformation, the report mentions Russia’s use of media, bots, hacking, and funding. It references Chris Donnelly (Institute of Statecraft) as a source, and also the Integrity Initiative (which helped smear Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn – see below).
The report provides a case study on alleged Russian interference in the EU referendum, the Scottish referendum, and in the US, but provides little detail. It concludes:
The written evidence provided to us appeared to suggest that HMG [the government] had not seen or sought evidence of successful interference in UK democratic processes or any activity that has had a material impact on an election, for example influencing results.
On Russian oligarchs, the report admits that money laundering in the UK is a problem and adds:
Several members of the Russian elite who are closely linked to Putin are identified as being involved with charitable and / or political organisations in the UK, having donated to political parties, with a public profile which positions them to assist Russian influence operations.
The report also references the nerve agent attacks on the Skripals in Salisbury.
The remainder of the report examines the role of the security and intelligence services in how to combat threats from Russia better. The report argues for a more joined-up approach, which it describes as the ‘Fusion Doctrine’. It also raises the question of whether the Official Secrets Act should be replaced by a more wide-ranging Espionage Act.
The report concludes:
The UK, as a Western democracy, cannot allow Russia to flout the Rules Based International Order without there being commensurate consequences. Any public move towards a more allied relationship with Russia at present would severely undermine the strength of the international response to Salisbury, and the UK’s leadership and credibility within this movement.
While not included in the main body of the report, there is speculation that the annex contains details of donations made to Tories by Russian or Putin-linked oligarchs:
The long-awaited #Russia report will be published by the UK parliament's new intelligence and security committee at 10.30am London tomorrow, Tuesday July 21. https://t.co/h3KjbbNVE5 We won't get classified annexe which is likely to examine #Moscow-linked donations to #Tory party
— Luke Harding (@lukeharding1968) July 20, 2020
The Canary has already provided details of some of these donations. Given that this information is publicly available, it is nonsensical for the ISC to ignore these claims, which it should either substantiate or refute.
‘Interference in democracy’ doesn’t have to come from Russia
Much of the commentary around the report, including in the press release accompanying its publication, has focussed on “disinformation” and “influencing our democratic processes”. The focus of the report is Russia, which is fair enough. But this means it makes no mention of much of the real interference in UK politics.
In particular, there was the smearing of former Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn to ensure a left-wing Labour government wouldn’t become a reality. Here are a few examples of the smearing and lies put out by the right-wing press, the BBC, an Army chief, an MI6 chief, and a so-called counter-disinformation agency.
- On 6 June 2017, right-wing blogger and political gossip-monger Paul Staines, aka Guido Fawkes, accused Corbyn of “speaking at an extremist rally attended by a terrorist group”. Later, the same story appeared in the Sun.
- In 2015, a senior serving British Army general told the Sunday Times that Corbyn would face a mutiny as prime minister if he attempted to end the Trident nuclear weapons system, or withdraw from NATO, or cut back the armed forces: “The Army just wouldn’t stand for it. The general staff would not allow a prime minister to jeopardise the security of this country and I think people would use whatever means possible, fair or foul to prevent that. You can’t put a maverick in charge of a country’s security”.
- A similar claim and threat were recycled in 2018. And a former MI6 chief claimed Corbyn was a danger to national security.
- In February 2018, the right-wing tabloids claimed Corbyn was a Czech spy. But German authorities confirmed there was no Stasi file held on Corbyn and the head of the Czech Security Forces Archive said the allegations were untrue. The story began with the Sun, which claimed Corbyn had met with a communist spy and the Daily Mail dutifully followed up with more claims. Staines also played a key role in promoting the fake news story that claimed Corbyn had worked for Czechoslovakian intelligence. Staines continued to publish more smears.
- In December 2018, The Canary ran a story showing how disinformation specialists with the Integrity Initiative published a number of tweets denigrating Corbyn. A previous Canary article showed how Integrity was funded by the Institute of Statecraft, which in turn was funded by the Foreign & Commonwealth Office (FCO). On 27 November, in answer to a written question, Alan Duncan MP confirmed: “In financial year 2017/18, the FCO funded the Institute for Statecraft’s Integrity Initiative £296,500. This financial year, the FCO is funding a further £1,961,000. Both have been funded through grant agreements”. Integrity’s UK cluster includes individuals who hold hedge-fund interests or represent thinktanks, such as DEMOS, RUSI, the Henry Jackson Society, and Chatham House. It also names people who represent the Ministry of Defence and the FCO as well as Orbis – the private intelligence agency headed by ‘Trump dossier’ author Christopher Steele.
- BBC Panorama‘s July 2019 documentary Is Labour Anti-Semitic? was presented by former Sun journalist John Ware. He previously wrote that Corbyn’s “entire political career has been stimulated by disdain for the west, appeasement of extremism, and who would barely understand what fighting for the revival of British values is really all about”. The programme produced the following response from the Labour Party: “The Panorama programme was not a fair or balanced investigation. It was a seriously inaccurate, politically one-sided polemic, which breached basic journalistic standards, invented quotes and edited emails to change their meaning. It was an overtly biased intervention by the BBC in party political controversy”.
Interference in the EU referendum by other actors
Also, with the ISC report limited to just alleged Russian interference in UK politics, there’s a failure to show how Boris Johnson and his cronies were engaged in their own voter manipulation operations. For example, there was the role played by AggregateIQ (AIQ) in the EU referendum on behalf of Vote Leave, the pro-Brexit group fronted by Johnson and Michael Gove.
According to the Information Commissioners Office, “AIQ created and, in some cases, placed advertisements on behalf of the DUP Vote to Leave campaign, Vote Leave, BeLeave, and Veterans for Britain”. Cambridge Analytica (CA) whistleblower Christopher Wylie claimed he helped establish AIQ so that SCL, the parent of CA, could expand its operations; he also claims that AIQ was essentially the Canadian “department” of CA. Here is his testimony.
The Vote Leave ads were subsequently looked at by the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) Committee as part of its inquiry into fake news. It’s been established that 45% of those ads played on fears about immigration.
The UK’s own disinformation programmes
And we should not forget that the UK has its own army of information organisations, which refer to themselves as counter-disinformation specialists. Some fall under the aegis of government. They include:
- The 77th Brigade, which specialises in “psychological operations and use of social media to engage in unconventional warfare in the information age”. The Brigade was formed from “the Military Stabilisation and Support Group, Media Operations Group, 15 Psychological Operations Group and the Security Capacity Building team”. As reported by The Canary, 15 Psychological Operations Group was headed by Steve Tatham, who went on to head the Defence division of SCL, now defunct in the wake of the Facebook data privacy scandal).
- NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden was first to expose the work of the Joint Threat Research Intelligence Group (JTRIG). Wired asserts that JTRIG’s arsenal includes “posting negative information on internet forums”, changing someone’s social media content, depositing compromising information on a target’s computer. In January 2018, The Canary reported on a presentation by LulzSec co-founder and security researcher Mustafa Al-Bassam to the Chaos Communication Congress, summarising JTRIG’s work. He claimed that the group “is tasked with creating sock puppet accounts and fake content on social media, so as to use “dirty tricks” to “destroy, deny, degrade [and] disrupt” enemies by “discrediting” them”.
- The Rapid Response Unit is another agency, which was set up in April 2018 to “work round the clock to monitor online breaking news stories and social media discussion”.
- The Open Information Partnership (OIP) is described as the “Network Hub of the UK government Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s (FCO) EXPOSE network”. It is understood that the network facilitator of EXPOSE is “a consortium led by Zinc Networks who were formerly known as Breakthrough Media. The project’s resource partners are Bellingcat, DFR Labs and the Media Diversity Institute. The implementing consortium partners are the Institute of Statecraft and Aktis Strategy (no longer operating) with risk management and security almost certainly provided by Toro Risk Solutions. Grant fund management is probably handled by Ecorys”. EXPOSE is “a project of the Counter Disinformation & Media Development Program (CDMD), currently headed by Andy Pryce”.
- There’s also the Fusion Doctrine, launched when Theresa May was prime minister as part of the 2018 National Security Capability Review.
The ISC report says more about what it doesn’t say, than what it does. The bigger picture is about the threat to UK politics – specifically UK elections and the EU referendum – by the media, the Conservative Party, and the establishment generally. These are the real, home-grown subversives, who in many ways pose an even greater threat to our democracy.
Featured image via Wikimedia – Piotr VaGla Waglowski
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