My warnings to our spy watchdogs

Britain is under attack from Russia. And the government is blocking a Parliamentary report that details it

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Boris Johnson stands in front of St Basil's Cathedral during a visit to Red Square, Moscow, on December 22, 2017 (Stefan Rousseau-Pool/Getty Images)

The report is called simply “Russia”. It has about 50 pages. No hard copy exists. Its authors are nine senior, security-vetted MPs and peers who comprised the Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC) in the last Parliament. Britain’s seven intelligence outfits have all given the redacted version a thumbs-up. The last hurdle before removal of its top-secret classification was the prime minister’s assent, which Boris Johnson has refused to give. If the aim was to safeguard his election campaign from a distracting controversy, it backfired. The “Russia report” is still in the headlines weeks later, not least thanks to Hillary Clinton, who says the government’s obstruction is “shameful”.

I was a witness at the inquiry’s first session, in July last year. I had the right to see the transcript of the events of that morning, which I exercised in mid-November, just before writing this piece. I was asked to make clear that my evidence is not necessarily reflected in the full report (which I have not seen).

The ISC sits in a Cabinet Office building in Westminster, not exactly secret, but not public either. I was ushered to a tiny room and given 21 pages of flimsy recycled paper, marked “Official Sensitive”, printed on both sides.

Media speculation since the report’s obstruction has focussed on the possibility that it contains something embarrassing to the Conservative Party. Clearly the report could revive unhappy memories, for example of the ill-fated and short-lived Conservative Friends of Russia, a pro-Kremlin ginger group sponsored by the Russian embassy. But it is not just the Conservatives who have problems. The committee should, I said, regard our whole political system as part of the “critical national infrastructure”: as vital as the power grid, hospitals, railways or telephones. Our agencies should take steps to protect not just MPs and peers, but their researchers, constituency associations, and the party HQs.

I highlighted the way in which our political system is vulnerable to rich people, and pointed out that “dodgy people with Russian backgrounds” have become major donors. I did mention one name—a Tory donor—as a specific example, and the inexplicable source of wealth of another British political tycoon with ties to Russia. I was pressed for details which I was reluctant to provide because of the danger of a subsequent libel action. I was assured that my evidence to them was protected by law, and in retrospect I wish I had been blunter. I have no idea whether these names appeared in the final redacted report, but I would like to think that the committee followed up these leads as they quizzed our spymasters. Even an apparently anodyne mention in the report of our political system’s vulnerabilities should be taken as a reflection of concerns backed up by the classified evidence.

But from what I know about the committee’s workings, and particularly from my direct experience at the evidence session, I think a bombshell revelation about Russian mischief-making in one political party is highly unlikely. The Kremlin typically seeks to discredit and disrupt target countries’ political systems, rather than to secure a particular outcome. The Remain side, I said, lost the Brexit referendum, not because of Russian interference, but because its campaign was rubbish. Several members snorted agreement to that. The real prize for Russia is to undermine public confidence in democracy, stoking fatalism and apathy. One part of the report where the committee has (it tells me) used a direct quote from my evidence, is this:

If you believe that the West is run by hypocritical, incompetent, greedy politicians, then it becomes much harder to take any kind of moral high ground about Russia which really is run by very, very bad people.

Propaganda plays a part in this, but behaviour matters more. I poured cold water on the general efficacy of Russian disinformation, noting the tiny viewing figures for the RT propaganda channel. It was more likely, I said, that the real damage was in building influence. I noted cases of politicians who said they had been offered substantial sums of money, in cash, for appearing on Russian outlets. My thoughts on that are quoted in the report too.

Where Russia does have the edge is in crises, especially when we drop the ball. In the aftermath of the Salisbury nerve-agent poisoning last year, our official communications were initially shambolic. Russia sprayed conspiracy theories into our media space. A troubling number of people believed them, and suspected that our authorities were not telling the whole truth about the incident.

You would not know this from the backslapping in Whitehall. We were in similarly self-congratulatory mode about the diplomatic response, in which more than 20 allies expelled 342 Russian spies and other officials. That was a terrific victory, but it was won by a hairs-breadth, mainly thanks to excellent personal diplomacy by the Cabinet Secretary, Sir Mark Sedwill. Initially, only two countries, Lithuania and Poland, were willing to take part in
expulsions. All the others were waiting for a big country to take the lead. Luckily, President Macron saw a chance to showcase French statecraft, and saved our jambon.

The threat from Russia, I said, was deeper, graver and growing faster than most people in this country realised. The ISC, with its unique access to both the secret parts of government, and other ministries and agencies, was the best-placed body in Britain to get a sense of the overall danger, and deliver a credible warning to the public. It was also uniquely well-placed to see the threat in an international context. I urged members to invite the head of a security or intelligence service from somewhere like Estonia to give evidence. These countries, I explained, see what we don’t see, hear what we don’t hear, and smell what we don’t smell.

It would be a mistake to see the danger as only coming from Russia, I underlined. What the Kremlin does today, China will do tomorrow, and vice versa. Many of the vulnerabilities in our system—to lies, dirty money and intimidation—can also be used by organised criminals, terrorists and other nefarious forces.

Having outlined the scope of the threat, we turned to responses. We relied too much, I argued, on the “hard deterrence” of our Trident nuclear weapons. We needed a broader, less apocalyptic response. We should rehearse the deployment of rapid, drastic economic sanctions, mirroring the military “snap exercises” that Russia conducts to fray the nerves of those who guard Nato’s eastern flank.

Deterrence, I argued, was not just capability but also messaging. There is no point in having a big stick if you do not
persuade potential attackers that you are capable of wielding it. We need to communicate clearly and convincingly the price Russia would pay for aggression against us and our allies. I did not say so then, but it is worth noting now, that worries about America’s reliability put a much greater burden on Britain and France as the two heavyweight military powers in Europe.

Even better than the threat of retaliation is to instil the belief among adversaries that their attacks will be useless. Britain needs to build resilience to Russian attacks across all of government and all of society, I argued. Given the spectrum of threats ranging from high-end espionage, assassination, propaganda attacks, abuse of our legal system, subversion, bribery and influence-peddling, ranging from Parliament to the City via universities and the media, we need a commensurately broad response.

On this front I implored the committee to range widely. Provincial police forces have few if any Russian speakers. They are not best placed to investigate the activities of Russian-sponsored martial-arts clubs; they may overlook the mysterious deaths of Kremlin foes. I urged the ISC members to take evidence from the National Police Chiefs’ Council. I also suggested quizzing the Crown Prosecution Service and financial regulators about whether they take a strategic view of Russian influence operations. What may seem like low-level money-laundering, for example, can be a sign of more serious mischief-making. Football clubs are another serious worry. I highlighted the case of a Scottish club which some years ago had highly questionable owners, who seemed to be using it as part of an influence operation in that country’s political establishment.

We also need to talk to universities about vetting and screening of students, staff and donors. I highlighted the case of a Finnish professor, a convicted Russian spy who now has a senior job at a British university. If you sleep with your students as an academic, your career, these days, is over. This man had spied on his students for Russian intelligence—and nobody in our system seemed to regard this as serious. Universities have shown a shocking lack of judgment in taking money from rich people with questionable backgrounds, even naming institutions and programmes in their (for want of a better word), honour. Thinktanks are even more vulnerable: more entrepreneurial in their outlook, and without even the flimsy governance systems of a chartered, publicly funded university.

Prosecution is rarely the answer here. But under current rules the Security Service is hamstrung because to warn the victims of, or unwitting accomplices in, Russian operations risks giving away secrets. In my view, we need to tweak those rules so that our officials can deliver private, emphatic advice to the people and institutions concerned. The difficulty here is that our security culture has ebbed since the Cold War. We need to refashion the tools we use to combat terrorism and cyber-attacks and apply them to the activities of hostile states.

I cannot say how much was new to the committee, though I can say that members took notes assiduously, and that the session overran substantially. So what has caused the hold-up? My guess is that the problem concerns a reference to Russian activity in another country, most likely the United States. Russia did meddle in the 2016 US presidential contest, by hacking into Democratic Party computers—a sore topic for Donald Trump, who treasures his victory. A mention of that in the Committee report could be seized on by the Democrats, and then provoke a splenetic presidential tweet, perhaps jinxing the UK/US trade deal that is central to the vision of post-Brexit prosperity. It would be paradoxical if a desire to spare the blushes of our main ally trumped the need to expose our main enemy. A more alarming thought is that the prime minister blocked the report explicitly to curry favour with the president. Either way, the political and constitutional price is too high. The prime minister could—and should—eat humble pie and ask the government’s lawyers urgently to find a way of publishing, if not the report itself, at least its contents.