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British gov't failed to examine possible Russian interference, report says

By
Don Jacobson
Brexit supporters celebrate plans to leave the European Union during a gathering in Parliament Square in London, Britain, on December 31, 2019. File Photo by Hugo Philpott/UPI
Brexit supporters celebrate plans to leave the European Union during a gathering in Parliament Square in London, Britain, on December 31, 2019. File Photo by Hugo Philpott/UPI | License Photo

July 21 (UPI) -- A long-awaited British intelligence report released Tuesday concludes the government did little to address threats posed by Russian interference to the 2014 Scotland independence referendum and the Brexit vote two years later.

Members of Parliament's Intelligence and Security Committee concluded in the 55-page report that although evidence showed Russia has targeted Britain's democratic processes, the government and its intelligence agencies neglected election security -- like a "hot potato" -- and did little to investigate.

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"The U.K. is clearly a target for Russia's disinformation campaigns and political influence operations and must therefore equip itself to counter such efforts," the report states, adding that intelligence services "do not view themselves as holding primary responsibility" to protect Britain's democratic processes from hostile foreign interference.

Instead, the report said the issue of defending Britain's elections "has appeared to be something of a 'hot potato', with no one organization recognizing itself as having an overall lead."

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The committee said intelligence services did not take the threats seriously until Russian hackers were caught stealing documents from the U.S. Democratic National Committee in 2016 and meddling in the presidential election, in an effort to elect then-Republican nominee Donald Trump.

The report calls the U.S. electoral interference a "game-changer" and said the British government "belatedly realized the level of threat which Russia could pose" to democratic processes.

The long-delayed report was completed last October, but Prime Minister Boris Johnson refused to release it before the general election two months later, citing security issues.

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Intelligence and Security Committee member Kevan Jones on Tuesday criticized Johnson for not signing off on the report sooner, and member Stuart Hosie added that the investigators couldn't determine the extent of Russia's possible interference in the Brexit campaign.

No one in the British government wanted to touch the issue with a "10-foot pole" because "they did not want to know" the extent of the meddling, Hosie told reporters.

The report calls for a new investigation into Russia's role in the Brexit referendum, but Johnson responded with skepticism Tuesday.

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"We have seen no evidence of successful interference in the EU referendum," Johnson's government answered in a 20-page response. "A retrospective assessment of the EU referendum is not necessary."

"We've been clear that Russia must desist from its attacks on the U.K. & our allies," British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab added in a tweet. "We will be resolute in defending our country, our democracy & our values from such hostile state activity."

Lisa Nandy, Labor Party shadow foreign minister, tweeted the report makes clear that the government "underestimated" the Russian threat and added that it's "imperative" to learn from the "mistakes that have been made."

"It is extraordinary that the prime minister ... took the political decision last October ahead of the general election to block the publication of this important report that systematically goes through the threat Russia poses to the U.K.'s national security."

Last week, British cybersecurity experts said Russian hackers have also recently attempted to steal critical data on potential COVID-19 vaccines in the United States, Britain and Canada.

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