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The ISC Russia report highlighted problems that cannot be solved by the intelligence services alone 

The ISC's Russia report is a serious warning that needs a broad-based solution

The Intelligence and Security Committee’s much-delayed report found that Russia presents a broad-based threat to the UK’s political system and institutions. Alex Nice argues this serious warning needs a broad-based solution

The long delay to parliament’s Intelligence and Security Committee’s report into the Russian threat had raised speculation that it would contain explosive new details about Russian interference in the UK’s politics and elections. In fact, much that was new in the report was what it told us about the UK’s response, rather than about the Russian threat. The breadth of the challenge, described as a ‘whole state approach’, extends well beyond the traditional scope of counterintelligence, and the response needs to be similarly comprehensive. 

The ISC’s revelations about Russian actions cover familiar ground 

The ISC’s redacted report confirms much that was known about how Russia is seeking to disrupt and influence the UK through a wide range of channels – everything from assassination attempts on its former citizens and cyber-attacks on national infrastructure, to political financing and the spread of disinformation to influence elections.  

The most controversial news was the revelation that there had been no examination of whether Russia had sought to undermine the 2016 EU referendum, despite plenty of evidence on disinformation during the Scottish independence referendum and in the public domain. The government’s reluctance to look into this doesn’t look set to change, but the gaping hole in who is charged with countering disinformation will need to be addressed.  

The report highlighted classic Whitehall problems of lack of co-ordination and accountability 

There was some cause for praise, including the UK’s success in bringing together a swift international response to the Salisbury Novichok attack. But on the simple question of which department takes the lead on countering hostile state action, the ISC identified many blurred lines of responsibility and an insufficiently coherent approach. The committee could not even say which department carries operational responsibility for defending the UK’s democratic processes from disinformation campaigns and influence operations.  

This is a serious finding. A joined-up approach is vital because, as the report argues and the government acknowledged in its response, managing the threat posed by hostile states requires a response that extends beyond traditional counterintelligence. It encompasses areas such as social media, political financing, financial regulation and the integrity of elections. This was the premise of the UK’s ‘Fusion Doctrine’ created in 2018 by Mark Sedwill, the outgoing cabinet secretary and national security advisor (NSA), to achieve close co-operation between government bodies beyond the traditional security domain. The government says that it will continue with this approach, but this does not answer the criticisms.   

The ISC provides only limited solutions to a far more complex problem   

The ISC makes a range of sensible recommendations, including clearer ministerial responsibility; increasing the transparency for financial interests of members of the House of Lords; a new registry of those representing the interests of foreign powers; and, greater resourcing for the National Crime Agency (NCA) to counter money laundering. But in places these amount to keyhole surgery, when the ISC’s diagnosis of the problem suggests more comprehensive reform to protect the UK’s institutions.  

The ISC's focus on serious vulnerabilities in London’s financial system is a good example, something it said has offered "ideal mechanisms" by which illicit finance could be recycled and used to build influence "across a wide sphere of the British establishment". The ISC is sceptical that investigatory powers recently provided to the NCA such as 'Unexplained Wealth Orders', which enable the agency to compel individuals to reveal the source of their assets, will make much difference. The problem can only be addressed through more extensive financial reform to address London’s reputation as a ‘laundromat’ for offshore wealth, making it harder for beneficial owners to hide their identity behind a network of shell companies. Thus far the government seems reluctant to be more proactive on this front, arguing these are merely the risks of the being such an attractive place for "legitimate business".  

This reflects the deeper criticism behind the ISC report: that the UK state has, for a long period, taken "its eye off the ball" when it comes to Russia. Added to this is the fact that UK strategy is at times contradictory – both continuing to try and bring Russia into the fold when it comes to the West’s "rules based international order", while also seeking to counter the threat it poses. This does not seem set to change.  

New legislation will help, but the government needs to be more certain about what it is trying to protect 

The government is taking some action, including revisiting the law underpinning the intelligence agencies to reflect the fact that espionage and the actions of hostile states are far more complex than when the original laws were created. The government also has a chance to improve its protection against the tools that Russia uses. On disinformation and online influence campaigns, the government’s response to the ISC suggests plenty of opportunities to address the problems: more work with social media companies; improving campaign rules; and increased transparency about who is promoting online material.  

But the big lesson that the UK should take from this report is that to counter the threat, it needs to stay ahead of technology and techniques, not just react after the event. That is why identifying Russian threats across the board and seeing it as a comprehensive approach is so important. That is why the UK needs to have clearer co-ordination about how the different parts of the UK response – the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport on social media, the Cabinet Office on transparency, and the intelligence agencies, the Home Office and the Foreign Office – work together. The UK’s response needs to be greater than the sum of its parts, at the moment it seems it is failing to do the maths.  

Country (international)
Institute for Government

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