The responsibility for defending the UK’s democratic processes from Russian disinformation campaigns has been passed around like a “hot potato”, according to the Intelligence and Security Committee’s ‘Russia report’.
The long-awaited report, published today, found that British intelligence agencies, along with the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS), did not view themselves as “holding primary responsibility for the active defence of the UK’s democratic processes from hostile foreign interference”.
Such disinformation and influence campaigns consist of social media ‘bots’ and ‘trolls’, hacking and leaking information, use of state-owned media and “soft loans” made to political groups.
The aim of these disinformation and influence campaigns is to support a pro-Russian narrative and political outcomes favourable to Moscow, as well as casting doubt on political discourse and “fomenting political extremism” in the UK.
“The UK is clearly a target for Russia’s disinformation campaigns and political influence operations and must therefore equip itself to counter such efforts,” the ISC report states.
However, the Russia report found that the mechanics underpinning the UK’s electoral processes are at low risk and that the UK’s voting system is “deemed largely sound”.
This is in large part because the UK’s paper-based voting system “makes significant interference difficult” from cyber threats.
Russian disinformation: Blame game
The Russia report found that British intelligence agencies – which includes GCHQ and MI5 – view their role as “providing secret intelligence as context for other organisations” and not as the primary form of defence against disinformation campaigns.
The committee found that these agencies “appeared determined to distance themselves from any suggestion that they might have a prominent role in relation to the democratic process itself”.
Instead, they pointed to the DCMS as holding the “primary responsibility for disinformation campaigns”. The Electoral Commission should have responsibility for the “overall security of democratic processes”, they added.
However, DCMS sought to distance itself from this assertion. It told the committee that it takes more of an overview position aligned with government policy.
“It has been surprisingly difficult to establish who has responsibility for what. 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,” the report states.
In the committee’s view, the “operational role must sit primarily with MI5”. It said that it is a “question of scale and access” and that DCMS and the Electoral Commission did not meet these requirements.
The committee said the “policy role” should sit with the Office for Security and Counter-Terrorism, which works closely with MI5 and government.
“This would also have the advantage that the relationship built with social media companies to encourage them to co-operate in dealing with terrorist use of social media could be brought to bear against the hostile state threat; indeed, it is not clear to us why the Government is not already doing this,” the report said.
MI5 “the right people” to take on Russian disinformation
One former British intelligence officer told Verdict that MI5 “are the right people to take this on, given their role and their capabilities”.
They added that MI5 would need to “work closely” with overseas agencies and the UK’s National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC), the cyber branch of GCHQ.
The former spook added that “there has always been a slightly uncomfortable tension between the agencies as providers of intelligence and the agencies as activist parts of government”.
They said that the “balance between them shifts” when governments, leadership and geopolitical situations change. This tension was highlighted with the “recent playing of politics with the ISC itself”, they said, after Downing Street unsuccessfully attempted to install former transport secretary Chris Grayling as chair of the committee.
Call for social media firms to be more proactive
The committee called on the government to “establish a protocol” with social media firms to “ensure that they take covert hostile state use of their platforms seriously”.
This should include “clear timescales” for removing disinformation materials and the government should “name and shame” firms that don’t take action, the report said.
The ISC was due to publish the Russia report nine months ago but this was delayed ahead of the 2019 general election by Prime Minister Boris Johnson.
Elsewhere the heavily redacted Russia report noted that British intelligence agencies didn’t look for Russian interference in the 2016 EU referendum and was therefore unable to find any clear evidence of successful Russian interference.
An official UK government response said: “We have seen no evidence of successful interference in the EU referendum”. It added that there was no need to launch an inquiry into referendum interference because the UK’s intelligence agencies made “regular assessments” of the Russian influence activity.
“Given this long-standing approach, a retrospective assessment of the EU referendum is not necessary,” it said.
It also suggested that the UK should lead offensive cyber efforts against Russia in the face of Russian cyberattacks.