Written by Nick Busvine
This article was first published in Briefings for Britain and we republish here with kind permission.
Former diplomat Nick Busvine examines the ISC Russia report. He argues that it must be right to ask questions if there are concerns about covert Russian – or indeed any hostile foreign – interference in our democratic process. He worries that Remain assumptions underpinning the ISC inquiry have undermined the report’s impact and will have weakened the chances of some of the report’s sensible recommendations being implemented
The recently published Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC) Report on Russia makes for interesting reading. It is always a good idea to ask whether improper or undue influence is being exerted on our democratic process – whether by foreign states or wealthy private interests or, in the case of Russia, a possible combination of the two. The best way to counter any form of covert information operation is to shine a public spotlight on it. In that sense, the ISC report is wholly welcome.
The fact that the ISC inquiry was conducted under the chairmanship of ultra-Remainer Dominic Grieve and the subsequent delay in publishing the report’s findings prompted all sorts of speculation that it would produce evidence of decisive Russian interference in the 2016 referendum. In the event, there were no explosive Brexit referendum revelations. The likelihood now is that disappointed Remainers and relieved Brexiteers will move on to the next Brexit battleground and, in doing so, lose sight of a number of valuable observations and recommendations contained in the report.
I have yet to meet a Brexiteer who felt in any way influenced by some form of covert Russian information operation in 2016. Leave voters find the suggestion not just patronising, but deeply offensive. Ah, say the Remain advocates of the hidden Russian Brexit campaign, ‘you were bombarded with misleading, micro-targeted social media campaign material which was either designed in Moscow or funded by the Russian intelligence services.’ Personally, I can’t remember receiving any such material, though maybe I was not part of the target audience for these super-refined propaganda shots. Given the extraordinary sensitivity around opinions and views that circulate on social media – not least in relation to Brexit – and the amount of analysis of that material by all sorts of individuals and groups, one would have thought that if there had been some form of highly orchestrated Russian messaging campaign, we would have seen evidence for it by now on the basis of properly conducted open source research and data analysis. That said, as a firm advocate of transparency, I welcome the recommendation in the report that all political adverts on social media should contain a reference to who paid for them [see para. 38].
In the immediate aftermath of the report’s publication, the Remainer argument swiftly morphed into a suggestion that the truth is out there, if only the authorities can be bothered to look for it. In para. 44 of the report we are told: ‘The written evidence provided to us appeared to suggest that HMG had not seen or sought evidence of successful interference in UK democratic processes or any activity that has had a material impact on an election, for example influencing results.’
But there are strong hints that HMG agencies have indeed looked at this carefully – and continue to do so. For example, para. 30 of the report states: ‘In terms of the direct threat to elections, we have been informed that the mechanics of the UK’s voting system are deemed largely sound: the use of a highly dispersed paper-based voting and counting system makes any significant interference difficult, and we understand that GCHQ has undertaken a great deal of work to help ensure that the online voter registration system is safe. Nonetheless, GCHQ informed us that “*** [NB: * denotes a redaction for security reasons]”, and the Deputy National Security Adviser noted that “there is a lot of work going on [in relation to electoral mechanics] to map the end-to-end processes … *** and to make sure where we can we are mitigating the risks there”. This was reflected in the Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC) judgement in May 2017 that “the UK paper-based voting process is protected from cyber operations but ***”. ***. The Committee will expect an update on this in six months.’
It is also encouraging to note that the UK’s intelligence agencies gave every impression of not wanting to be drawn into an investigation that might be seen as prejudicial to their duty to maintain strict political impartiality and respect for our democratic process. At para. 31 the report states that ‘The UK is clearly a target for Russia’s disinformation campaigns and political influence operations and must therefore equip itself to counter such efforts’, before going on to complain that ‘The 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, and indeed during the course of our Inquiry appeared determined to distance themselves from any suggestion that they might have a prominent role in relation to the democratic process itself, noting the caution which had to be applied in relation to intrusive powers in the context of a democratic process.’
Part 2 will be published here on Independence Daily tomorrow.