And so the Russia Report was published, and by the time advertised. Now it is being pored over by interested parties, but one nugget of information has almost leapt off its pages: not only did the Government not know whether Russian actors had interfered in the 2016 EU referendum, they did not show the slightest inclination to find out. Hence the reassuring “no effect on the result” dead cat deployed by the Telegraph overnight.
However, the security agencies “have emphasised that they see their role in this as providing secret intelligence as context for other organisations, as part of a wider HMG response … they do not view themselves as holding primary responsibility for the active defence of the UK’s democratic processes from hostile foreign interference”.
So who does? Well, “the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) holds primary responsibility for disinformation campaigns … However, DCMS told us that its function is largely confined to the broad HMG policy regarding the use of disinformation rather than an assessment of, or operations against, hostile state campaigns. It has been surprisingly difficult to establish who has responsibility for what”. And the conclusion?
“Overall, the issue of defending the UK’s democratic processes and discourse has appeared to be something of a ‘hot potato’, with no one organisation recognising itself as having an overall lead”. Now over to the specific case study on the Brexit vote.
“There have been widespread public allegations that Russia sought to influence the 2016 referendum on the UK’s membership of the EU. The impact of any such attempts would be difficult - if not impossible - to assess, and we have not sought to do so. However, 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”. So what did the Government do? Sadly, it’s more a case of what they did not.
“It was only when Russia completed a ‘hack and leak’ operation against the Democratic National Committee in the US … that it appears that the Government belatedly realised the level of threat which Russia could pose in this area [but] The written evidence provided to us appeared to suggest that HMG had not seen or sought evidence of successful interference in UK democratic processes”. And then came worse news.
“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”. Let’s see how others have viewed that.
The Guardian, for instance, has been quick out of the blocks with this assessment: “British government and British intelligence failed to prepare or conduct any proper assessment of Kremlin attempts to interfere with the 2016 Brexit referendum … The damning conclusion is contained within the 50-page document from parliament’s intelligence and security committee”. That is why the “no interference” story is a dead cat.
Because the problem is that there could well have been interference - but the Government of the time, and indeed those that followed, didn’t bother to find out. And given the cavalier attitude in Downing Street to such matters, there probably won’t be any future attempt.
The only conclusion that can be reached is that Downing Street is so fearful of an inquiry finding that Russian actors swayed the vote towards Leave that they can’t bear the thought of having to handle the fallout. So this sleeping dog will be allowed to lie.