Analysis: British report into Russian meddling leads to uncomfortable conclusions

British parliamentBritain is abuzz today with news of the long-awaited release of the Parliament’s report [.pdf] into Russian meddling in British politics. The report is the work of the Parliament’s Intelligence and Security Committee. Since 2013, the Committee has been appointed to oversee the work of Britain’s intelligence agencies. Almost all of its meetings are conducted behind closed doors, and its reports are vetted by the spy agencies prior to release. By law, the Committee cannot make its reports public without previously submitting them for approval to the Office of the Prime Minister.

In the past it has taken no more than 10 days for the Committee’s reports to be approved by the prime minister. This particular report, however, which concerns —among other things— Russian meddling into British politics, took considerably longer. It was given to the prime minister on October 17. But by November 6, when parliament was dissolved in preparation for the election that brought Boris Johnson to power, it had not been approved. It finally came out yesterday, after numerous and inexplicable delays. Many speculated that the government did not want to deal with the uncomfortable conclusions in the report.

Like all reports of its kind, this one will be politicized and used by Britain’s major parties against their rivals. But behind the politicking, the report makes for uncomfortable reading indeed. It shows that, not just British, but Western intelligence agencies as a whole, remain incapable of combating online psychological operations from foreign state actors —primarily Russia— aiming to influence Western politics on a mass scale.

This is ironic, because Western spy agencies used to be really good on Russia. In fact, during the Cold War that is all they did. Many years have passed since then, and many leading Western experts on Russia have either retired or died. Additionally, the attacks of September 11, 2001, turned the attention of Western spy agencies to terrorism by groups like al-Qaeda, and away from Russia. Meanwhile, back in Moscow, President Vladimir Putin, a former KGB officer, rebuilt the state and sought to reclaim Russia’s lost international prestige. This plan includes a page from the old KGB playbook: destabilizing Western nations through psychological operations that accentuate existing extremist tendencies from the left or right.

The British Parliament’s Intelligence and Security Committee’s report on Russia shows that the Internet, and social media in particular, have been major conduits of Russia’s psychological operations in Britain. This means that America’s 2016 presidential elections formed but a single step in Russia’s broader tactic for political destabilization of key Western nations. Additionally, whereas Western intelligence agencies have used social media to collect information, the Russians have developed an expertise in using these platforms to influence politics on a mass scale. The lack of understanding of social media dynamics by Western spies, who are usually older and not online-savvy, has added to their inability to stop Russian advances.

More importantly, the report offers clear evidence that British spy agencies —and to some extent those in leadership positions— have underestimated the degree to which Britain has been a target of Russian intelligence in recent years. This is an important realization in two ways: first, it shows that the Russian spy services have the manpower and technical capability to target many countries at once —something they had lost for a while in the 1990s. Second, it shows that other countries should take heed. If Britain has been a systematic target, chances are that Germany, France, Spain, Italy, Canada, and many others, have also been subjected to Russia’s online influence operations.

The report also shows that British spies have been so overwhelmed by this problem, that they don’t even know how to start tackling it. Doing so would take a fundamental rethinking of how to conduct intelligence in an increasingly networked and globalized world, where disinformation is quickly becoming a weapon in the hands of malicious state actors. This is completely uncharted territory, and no-one in the West is quite sure how to respond to these novel challenges.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 22 July 2020 | Permalink

4 Responses to Analysis: British report into Russian meddling leads to uncomfortable conclusions

  1. Pete says:

    Russia indeed gains by “destabilization of key Western nations” – part of what used to be called Russia’s Correlation of Forces strategy. Now, with modern Internet/Social Media technology, Russia can further the careers of some Western leaders. Some of those leaders might feel grateful to Russia.

    The most powerful Western leader, in particular, has an inexplicably warm relationship with Russia at the highest level – with Russia’s leader, Putin…

  2. The problem for liberals seems to be that unlike the USSR who spread communism, Russia is backing conservative candidates through social media.

  3. Pete says:

    @Sir Gene

    Putin, the skilled ex-KGB Case Officer, has certainly perfected the manipulation of his most valuable Agent of Disruption.

    Cheers

    Pete

  4. beyond1984 says:

    From what i understand the cold war 2.0 is about money. Specifically Putin’s money. With a wealth that exceeds the GPD of several dozen countries, the Russian leader and his mafia have their wealth spread across tax havens, in particular the massive tax haven that is in the heart of the UK the ‘City of London’. (seriously look it up).

    During the Obama days the US, EU and UK began working on a global anti-money laundering laws that were born from the vile torture and murder of Sergei Magnitsky. Which concided with the rise of BRIC, Brazil, Russia, India and China. Four countries with sickening amounts of corruption, with hundreds of billions of dollars stolen from national tresuries and then laundered via western managed tax havens.

    From BRIC’s perspective this push represented a call to war.

    Which was only solidified when the western allies decoupled Putin from his biggest money maker, the Ukraine with the Euro-Maiden 2014 protests.

    Putin retaliated with Brexit. He realised the enemy of my enemy was his friend, that being the western conservatives who also stood to lose sickening amounts of money they had not paid any tax on.

    Using the same loopholes and backdoors that corporations and the western mega rich had used to “lobby” their governments Russia was able to buy itself a seat at the table using puppets like the NRA. China did the same in Australia, NZ and the UK, using expats to buy power and influence.

    In the US Putin was even more forcefui, attempting to blackmail Clintons campaign with the Podesta hack.

    We know that the republicans were hacked as well but unlike the democrats who refused to submit to blackmail/extortion the republicans kowtow’d to Putin. My money is on the Russian’s have video and pictures of republicans either with Epstein or doing something similar. We know from Australia’s royal comission on the rape and torture of over 60,000 children by the (catholic & Evangelicals) Church that conservatives have no control whatsoever when it comes to raping children.

    Every time church in the west has this problem and who is deeply allied with these church’s but the conservatives.

    What does my head in is the hundreds of thousands of people in the 5-eyes must be seeing the raw intelligence. Hell the FBI’s counter-intelligence people saw it and pushed hard ultimately leading to the Mueller investigation.

    But with those attempts nullified why aren’t he inttilgence services fighting back?

    Or do they want to be ruled by dictators like Putin and Xi Jinping who’s countries are crime ridden hell holes, where the rule of law is non-existent and where corruption is epidemic?

    I will freely admit my mistakes. In the early 2000s i was taken in by pax Amercia imperalism narrative. That the west was the baddie and poor little Russia and China weren’t as bad as the racist xenophobes made out. They were just trying to make their way through the world with respect, dignity and honesty. It was easy to believe this. Against the back-drop of forever wars, WMD lies and the puppet master Dick and his puppet Bush the fear was that the west was going to lead us into proxy war after proxy war leading up to the crippling of China & Russia

    The left were taken in by this narrative, for sure.

    But we now know the truth. We know that China propaganda has hidden a society that has massive problems that has lead to a global pandemic and a state that makes the book 1984 look quaint. Hundreds of millions live in crime ridden cities with massive corruption & enviromental problems

    We now know that Putin and his mafia chums are going hard at the foundations of western democracy. Trying to destroy our states and institutions.

    Worse they are using Cambridge Analytics (or clones thereof) to identify and take down opposition even before they know they’re going to be opposition. A Cambridge Analytica whistleblower explained how they tested their weapon on a Africa state. With access to intelligence data, the countries internet feed and even interception of live calls/texts they were able to identify individuals who would most likely join the opposition and thus were able to take them out before they even knew they were a threat.

    Is it not a surprise that in the west that the labour party in Australia & UK have been utterly defanged? How the democrats, with the worst possible president ever cannot seemingly give trump a hard body blow?

    So when i read that the UK government stuck its head in the sand with respects to Russia hacking and supporting their ascent to power I am not surprised whatsoever.

    Like i said before what surprises me is the lack of a response from the opposition parties and loyal patriots in public service, in particular the intelligence agencies.

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