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U.K. officials accused of 'actively avoiding' probing allegations of Russian meddling in Brexit referendum

A long-awaited report published Tuesday on Russian influence in British politics criticized the British government for its slow response to allegations of Russian interference in the 2016 Brexit referendum.

In 20-page response, officials denied the government had 'badly underestimated' the Russian threat

Critics claimed the report was delayed to shield Prime Minister Boris Johnson and his Conservative Party from embarrassment. Here, the British prime minister is pictured heading to Downing Street after attending a cabinet meeting at the Foreign Office in London on Tuesday. (Matt Dunham/The Associated Press)

A long-awaited report on Russian influence in British politics criticized the British government for neglecting to investigate whether Russia interfered in the 2016 Brexit referendum, describing its utter lack of curiosity about the threats to democracy as being a major failure at the heart of power.

The parliamentary report's authors accused the British government of "actively avoiding" looking into evidence of the Russian threat to the EU referendum. The authors found this particularly unforgivable given the evidence that emerged of Russian interference in the U.S. elections in 2016 and in the Scottish independence referendum in 2014.

While speaking at a press conference, Scottish National Party lawmaker and committee member Stewart Hosie said: "The report reveals that no one in government knew if Russia interfered in or sought to influence the referendum because they did not want to know. The U.K. government have actively avoided looking for evidence that Russia interfered. We were told that they hadn't seen any evidence, but that is meaningless if they hadn't looked for it."

The report from the parliament's intelligence and security committee said it would be "difficult — if not impossible — to prove" allegations that Russia sought to influence the referendum, but it was clear that the government "was slow to recognize the existence of the threat."

"There has been no assessment of Russian interference in the EU referendum, and this goes back to nobody wanting to touch the issue with a 10-foot pole," Hosie said, demanding that such a study be done and the public informed.

Committee members concluded that the goal of a resurgent Russia in influencing the vote would be to amplify existing divisions and thus possibly destabilize Western political systems.

In a 20-page response, officials denied the government had "badly underestimated" the Russian threat and rejected the call for an assessment of alleged Russian meddling during the Brexit referendum.

"We have seen no evidence of successful interference in the EU referendum," the statement said.

The report says Russia sees Britain as one of its top intelligence targets in the West. It said Russian influence in the U.K. is the "new normal," and successive governments have welcomed Russian oligarchs with open arms.

Russia denies meddling

Russians with "very close links" to President Vladimir Putin were "well integrated into the U.K. business, political and social scene — in 'Londongrad' in particular," the report said.

Speaking before the report was released, Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said Tuesday that Russia "never interfered in electoral processes,"not in the United States, not in Britain, not in any other country."

"We don't do that ourselves and we don't tolerate when other countries try to interfere with our political affairs," Peskov said.

Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks in front of a Russian flag in Sevastopol, Crimea in this March 14, 2018 file photo. A Kremlin spokesperson denied that Russia has ever interfered in the electoral processes in any country. (Alexander Zemlianichenko/The Associated Press)

Authors cite delay in making report public

The report's authors said they were subjected to an unprecedented delay in making the document public, with officials holding off its release for more than six months. Critics claimed that was meant to shield Prime Minister Boris Johnson and his Conservative Party from embarrassment.

The committee did not offer a theory as to why the government delayed the report but did say the government's explanations for delaying the report were not true.

The report was originally submitted to Johnson on Oct. 17. The government initially said it couldn't be published until it was reviewed for national security issues, which postponed its release until after the Dec. 12 general election. 

Further holdups were caused by delays in appointing new members to the intelligence and security committee. 

Finally, Johnson named five Conservative lawmakers to the nine-person panel in hopes his hand-picked candidate would be chosen as the chair and block the report. The gambit failed when a renegade Conservative was chosen to head the committee with backing from opposition parties.

The opposition Labour Party has accused the government of failing to publish the report because it would lead to further questions about links between Russia and the pro-Brexit campaign in the 2016 referendum on European Union membership, which Johnson helped lead.

Another parliamentary panel — the digital, culture, media and sport committee — previously published the results of its own inquiry into disinformation and "fake news," which called on election regulators and law enforcement to investigate reports that a British businessman with links to Russia donated 8.4 million pounds (approximately $14.3 million Cdn) to the Brexit campaign. The National Crime Agency said in September that it found no evidence of criminal offences related to the donation.

The intelligence committee report covered the full range of the Russian threat to the U.K., including election interference, espionage and targeted assassinations, such as the attempt to kill former spy Sergei Skripal in the English city of Salisbury two years ago.

The report urged British authorities to beef up their defences, saying the "clearest requirement for immediate action" was for new legislation to give tools to the British intelligence community faced with a "very capable" adversary and to battle espionage, illegal financial dealings of Russian elite in Britain and their "enablers."

It called for better co-ordination with Britain's Western allies and said Britain should be ready to lead international action and should work to develop new rules on "offensive cyber" operations.

It faulted unspecified social media companies for "failing to play their part" and said the British government should set up rules to "ensure that they take covert hostile state use of their platforms seriously" and "name and shame" those that fail to act.

The report's release comes only days after Britain, the United States and Canada accused hackers linked to Russian intelligence agencies of trying to steal information from researchers working on a potential coronavirus vaccine.

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