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Intelligence and Security Committee finds Government “underestimated response required to Russian threat”

07 August 2020

THE INTELLIGENCE and Security Committee in Parliament has produced a detailed report on Russian influence in the UK and the ongoing threat posed by the global super-power to our national security. Among other areas, that threat encompasses the cyber realm and the political agenda and has been evidenced by episodes including the Salisbury terror attack.

Russian influence in the UK is deemed to be the ‘new normal’. The Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC) suggests that successive Governments have welcomed the oligarchs and their money with open arms, providing them with a means of recycling illicit finance through the London ‘laundromat’ and connections at the highest levels with access to UK companies and political figures. In turn, this has led to a growth industry of ‘enablers’ including lawyers, accountants and estate agents who are – either wittingly or unwittingly – de facto agents of the Russian state.

The ISC observes: “This situation clearly demonstrates the inherent tension between the Government’s prosperity agenda and the overriding need to protect national security. While the nation cannot now shut the stable door, greater powers and transparency are needed as a matter of urgency.”

The UK, according to the ISC, is “clearly a target for Russian disinformation”. While the mechanics of the UK’s paper-based electoral voting system are largely sound, the nation “cannot be complacent” about a hostile state taking deliberate action with the aim of influencing the democratic processes. The ISC adds: “Yet the defence of those democratic processes has appeared something of a ‘hot potato’, with no single organisation considering itself to be in the lead or apparently willing to conduct an assessment of such interference. That situation simply must change.”

For their part, social media companies must take action, believes the ISC, and remove covert hostile state material. Government must “name and shame” those who fail to act. The nation needs other countries to step up alongside the UK and “attach a cost” to President Putin’s actions. Importantly, asserts the ISC: “Salisbury must not be allowed to become the high water mark in international unity over the Russia threat.”

Intelligence targets

The UK is one of Russia’s top Western intelligence targets, particularly so given the UK’s firm stance against recent Russian aggression and the UK-led international response to the aforementioned 2018 Salisbury attack. Russia’s intelligence services are disproportionately large and powerful and, given the lack of rule of law, are able to act without constraint.

“The fusion between state, business and serious and organised crime provides further weight and leverage,” continues the ISC. “Russia is able to pose an all-encompassing security threat which is fuelled by paranoia about the West and a desire to be seen as a resurgent great power.”

Russia is a highly capable cyber actor, employing organised crime groups to supplement its cyber skills. Russia carries out malicious cyber activity in order to assert itself aggressively (for example, by attempting to interfere in other countries’ elections). It has also undertaken cyber pre-positioning on other countries’ Critical National Infrastructure. Given the immediate threat this poses to the UK’s national security, the ISC is more than a little concerned that there’s no clear co-ordination of the numerous organisations across the intelligence community working on this issue. This is reinforced by an unnecessarily complicated ‘wiring diagram’ of responsibilities among Government Ministers.

The Intelligence and Security Committee welcomes the Government’s increasingly assertive approach when it comes to identifying – and laying blame on – the perpetrators of cyber attacks and, in the ISC’s view, the UK should encourage other countries to adopt a similar approach towards “naming and shaming”. The same is true in relation to an international doctrine on the use of ‘offensive cyber’. This is now essential and the UK – as a leading proponent of the Rules Based International Order – should be promoting and shaping the ‘Rules of Engagement’ by working with its allies.

Promotion of disinformation

Russia’s promotion of disinformation and attempts at political influence overseas (whether through the use of social media, ‘hack and leak’ operations or its own state-owned traditional media) have been widely reported. In the UK, the use of a highly-dispersed, paper-based political voting and counting system makes actual interference with the mechanism difficult, but the ISC warns that the nation “should not be complacent” about other forms of interference. According to ISC, the UK is clearly a target and must equip itself to counter such efforts.

The Committee’s Inquiry, though, has found it “surprisingly difficult” to establish who has responsibility. As stated, the defence of the UK’s democratic processes has appeared to be something of a ‘hot potato’, with no single organisation identifying itself as having an overall lead. The Committee understands the nervousness around any suggestion that the intelligence agencies might be involved in the mechanics of the democratic process, but that doesn’t apply when it comes to the protection of those processes.

The ISC asserts: “Without seeking to imply that those organisations currently responsible are not capable, the Committee has questioned whether the Department for Culture, Media and Sport and the Electoral Commission have the weight and access required to tackle a major hostile state threat. Democracy is intrinsic to our country’s success and well-being. Protecting it must be a ministerial priority, with the Office for Security and Counter-Terrorism taking the policy lead and the operational role sitting with MI5.”

In terms of responsibility, it was noted that – as is the case with so many other issues at the present time – it’s the social media companies who hold the key, but are “failing to play their part”. The Government must establish a protocol with these companies to ensure that they take covert hostile state use of their platforms seriously, with agreed deadlines within which such material will be removed, while Government should, as mentioned, “name and shame” those companies who demonstrably fail to act.

There have been widespread allegations that Russia sought to influence voters in the 2016 European Union Referendum on the UK’s membership. Studies have pointed towards the preponderance of pro-Brexit or anti-EU stories on RT and Sputnik, as well as the use of ‘bots’ and ‘trolls’, as evidence. The actual impact of such attempts on the result itself would be difficult (if not impossible) to prove.

However, what’s clear to the ISC is that the Government was “slow to recognise” the existence of the threat, only understanding it after the ‘hack and leak’ operation against the Democratic National Committee, when it should have been seen as early as 2014. As a result, the Government did not take action to protect the UK’s voting process in 2016.

The Committee has not been provided with any post-EU Referendum assessment, in stark contrast to the US response to reports of interference in the 2016 Presidential Election. In the ISC’s view, there must now be an “analogous assessment” of Russian interference in the EU Referendum.

The ‘new normal’

What’s clear to the ISC is that Russian influence in the UK is ‘the new normal’. As stated, successive Governments have welcomed the Russian oligarchy with open arms, and there are a lot of Russians with very close links to Putin who are well integrated into the UK’s business, political and social scene (in ‘Londongrad’ in particular).

Yet few, if any, questions have been asked regarding the provenance of their considerable wealth. Further, the ISC suggests this ‘open door’ approach provided ideal mechanisms by which illicit finance could be recycled through the London ‘laundromat’.

It’s not just the oligarchs, either. The arrival of Russian money has resulted in the aforementioned growth industry of ‘enablers’. Lawyers, accountants and estate agents have all played a role, wittingly or unwittingly, and formed a “buffer” of Westerners who are now viewed as de facto agents of the Russian state.

There’s an obvious inherent tension between the Government’s prosperity agenda and the need to protect national security. “To a certain extent, this cannot be untangled and the priority now must be to mitigate the risk and ensure that, where hostile activity is uncovered, the proper tools exist to tackle it at source and to challenge the impunity of Putin-linked elites.”

The ISC points out it’s notable, for example, that a number of Members of the House of Lords have business interests linked to Russia or work directly for major Russian companies linked to the Russian state. These relationships “should be carefully scrutinised” given the potential for the Russian state to exploit them.

In addition to the Putin-linked elites, the UK is also home to a number of Putin’s critics who have sought sanctuary in the UK, fearing politically-motivated charges and harassment. The events of 4 March 2018 in Salisbury showed the vulnerability of former Russian intelligence officers who’ve settled in the UK.

Established threat

It has been clear for some time now that Russia under Putin has moved from potential partner to established threat and one that’s fundamentally unwilling to adhere to international law. The murder of Alexander Litvinenko in 2006 and the annexation of Crimea in 2014 were stark indicators of this assertion.

On that basis, the ISC questions whether the Government “took its eye off the ball” because of its necessarily keen focus on counter-terrorism. It’s the firm opinion of the Committee that, until recently, the Government had badly underestimated the response required to the Russian threat and is “still playing catch-up”.

Russia poses a tough intelligence challenge and the UK’s intelligence agencies must have the tools they need to tackle it. In particular, new legislation must be introduced to tackle foreign spies. The Official Secrets Act is, according to the Committee, “not fit for purpose” and, while this situation goes unrectified, the UK intelligence community’s hands are tied.

More broadly, the Committee feels that the UK needs a continuing international consensus against Russian aggressive action. Effective constraint of nefarious Russian activities in the future will rely on making sure that the price the Russians pay for such interference is sufficiently high.

The West is strongest when it acts collectively, while the UK has shown that it can lead the international response. The expulsion of 153 ‘diplomats’ from 29 countries and NATO following the use of chemical weapons on UK soil in the Salisbury attack was unprecedented and, together with the subsequent exposure of the GRU agents responsible, sent a strong and clear message that such actions would not be tolerated.

That said, the Committee believes Salisbury must not be allowed to become the high water mark in international unity over the Russia threat, concluding: “We must build on this effort to ensure momentum is not lost.”

Forceful document

Commenting on the Intelligence and Security Committee’s report of Russian activity in the UK, Dr Duncan Hodges (senior lecturer in cyber space operations at Cranfield University), stated: “This is a forceful report and, while it has no major surprises in the detail, it does clearly frame the Russian threat to the UK. It demonstrates that the threat from Russia is significant and here to stay.”

Hodges continued: “Russia has learned that cyber is a powerful tool for its approach to international relations, using it alongside more traditional statecraft. This cyber capability is used indiscriminately and recklessly by a state with a significant risk appetite. Where Russia is particular effective is by using all means at its disposal, including criminal actions, to pursue its goals by effectively linking its cyber activities, financial and political influence and traditional intelligence activities. This has put Russia ahead of the game and is, partly, why its actions have been so effective.”

In addition, Hodges said: “The report is critical of how fragmented the UK approach has historically been, with the responsibility for cyber resting in multiple departments. Responsibility for managing and countering the threat from Russia seems to rest not in one place. More concerning is the lack of appetite to counter disinformation and political influence, with the report describing it as a ‘hot potato’.”

According to Hodges: “The calls from the UK’s intelligence community for new legislation are striking. It’s not surprising that the Official Secrets Act, which is now over 30 years old, is no longer deemed to be fit for purpose against this form of activity. It will be interesting to see whether the Government heeds the calls from senior intelligence officials who clearly believe they don’t have the legislative tools to do the job.”

Hodges feels that Russia’s end goal is not necessarily to influence election results. “The report highlights that the UK Government had not seen or indeed sought evidence of successful interference. One of Russia’s key goals is to further deepen divides in the population, whether that’s with Brexit in the UK or with gun control or BLM in the US. For them, this represents little effort, so any gain is beneficial and helps weaken the West, the EU and NATO. This not only structurally benefits Russia, but is important for that nation’s domestic population.”

Hodges added: “The report also highlights the UK’s lead in attributing and ‘calling-out’ malicious cyber activity. While important for international consensus building, it’s not clear that this is a deterrent to future activity.”