Election Meddling Report Finds No Evidence of Russian Brexit Interference, Tells Govt to Look Harder

LONDON, ENGLAND - JULY 21: A lady walks past the Russian embassy on July 21, 2020 in London, England. The report into Russian interference in the Brexit Referendum and the 2017 UK General Election is published today. (Photo by Luke Dray/Getty Images)
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The Independent Security Committee has said that it “saw no evidence” of Russian interference in the 2016 Brexit referendum. The crux of the report, however, criticised the government for failing to task intelligence agencies to look into the possibility, advising the Boris Johnson administration to undertake a review — a claim the government has rejected.

On Tuesday, the ISC, the body responsible for the oversight of the UK’s intelligence community, released its report on Russian interference in Britain’s democratic processes.

In the case study on the EU referendum, the authors criticised the “narrow coverage” given to the possibility of Russian interference, saying “HMG [Her Majesty’s Government] 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.”

In a published response to the committee’s report, the Boris Johnson’s UK government rejected the suggestion they had been blind on Russia, and instead was very alive to the possibility of Russian interferrence. The response noted the criticisms, and said: “The Government has long recognised there is an enduring and significant threat posed by Russia to the UK and its allies, including conventional military capabilities, disinformation, illicit finance, influence operations, and cyber-attacks.

“As such, Russia remains a top national security priority for the Government… The UK has a record of taking strong action against Russian wrongdoing and will continue to work closely with allies to fully and robustly respond to the challenges Russia presents.”

The committee also complained in the report that the government had not sought “any post-referendum assessment of Russian attempts at interference” and as a result saw no evidence of Russian meddling.

The ISC then recommended that “the UK Intelligence Community should produce an analogous assessment of potential Russian interference in the EU referendum and that an unclassified summary of it be published”.

“Even if the conclusion of any such assessment were that there was minimal interference, this would nonetheless represent a helpful reassurance to the public that the UK’s democratic processes had remained relatively safe,” authors added.

Ultimately, the government said in their response: “We have seen no evidence of successful interference in the EU Referendum. The Intelligence and Security Agencies produce and contribute to regular assessments of the threat posed by Hostile State Activity, including around potential interference in UK democratic processes. We keep such assessments under review and, where necessary, update them in response to new intelligence… Given this long standing approach, a retrospective assessment of the EU Referendum is not necessary.”

Speaking at a press conference at the release of the report, committee member Kevan Jones MP was asked whether he believed that Russia tried to influence the referendum, he responded: “I think the question is this: we deal with evidence. We have extensive powers, including access to highly classified and secret material that is available to government.

“There was no evidence that we saw and the reason why we saw no evidence is because no one actually asked for the work to be done. So in terms of saying: ‘Did Russia interfere in the EU referendum?’ You can’t say that. But no one in government asked that [question], either. So on the evidence we saw, we came to the conclusion that we can’t make a judgement call…

“Even if there had been an investigation into it, quantifying the effect of that on the result would be very difficult.

“We saw no evidence because there was no evidence and no one in government sought to look or ask the questions that needed to be asked.”

“We suggest government should now do it [undertake a review],” he added.

That Russia may have interfered in the 2016 Brexit referendum has been a persistent conspiracy theory among anti-Brexit activists since the result came in, but repeated investigations and probes have found the claims to be baseless. One particular lightning-rod for such conspiracies is British millionaire political donor Arron Banks, who despite his frequent citation as a lynchpin in such claims was mentioned only once in the report, in a footnote which noted his innocence in the affair.

The report stated:

Arron Banks became the biggest donor in British political history when he gave £8m to the Leave.EU campaign. In October 2018, the Electoral Commission – which had been investigating the source of this donation – referred the case to the National Crime Agency, which investigated it ***. In September 2019, the National Crime Agency announced that it had concluded the investigation, having found no evidence that any criminal offences had been committed under the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000 or company law by any of the individuals or organisations referred to it by the Electoral Commission.

The claims persist, however. European Parliament Brexit point-man Gy Verhofstadt doubled down in response to the report Tuesday morning, writing that Brexit was a “gift” to Russian leader Vladimir Putin, and said that questions remained unanswered.


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