LONDON (AP) – A long-awaited report into Russian influence in British politics says it would be â€œdifficult – if not impossible – to proveâ€ allegations that Russia sought to influence the 2016 Brexit referendum, but â€œthe Government was slow to recognize the existence of the threat.”
The report from parliamentary Intelligence and Security Committee said it was â€œastonishingâ€ that no one sought to protect the 2016 EU referendum from Russian interference, and that British officials should have recognized the Russian threat back in 2014. The authors said there had been no assessment of Russian influence.
â€œWhat is clear is that the government was slow to recognise the existence of the threat – only understanding it after the â€˜hack and leakâ€™ operation against the Democratic National Committee, when it should have been seen as early as 2014,â€ the report said.
â€œAs a result, the Government did not take action to protect the UKâ€™s process in 2016.â€
The reportâ€™s authors criticized the British government for â€œactively avoidingâ€ looking into the Russian threat. â€œSerious questions needed to be askedâ€ why ministers didnâ€™t look into the issue after evidence of interference in the 2014 Scottish referendum and reports of similar activity in the U.S. elections, it said.
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A report on Russian interference in British politics will finally be published Tuesday amid criticism the government delayed its release for more than six months to shield Prime Minister Boris Johnson and his Conservative Party from embarrassment.
An influential committee of lawmakers plans to deliver its findings to Parliament after staving off what many observers saw as a last-minute effort to once again stall the report, which was originally submitted to Johnson on Oct. 17.
The government initially said the report couldnâ€™t be published until it was reviewed for national security issues, which postponed 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 handpicked candidate would be chosen as chairman and block the report. The gambit failed when a renegade Conservative was chosen to head the committee with backing from opposition parties.
â€œCompletely self-defeating act that bears the hallmark of a government so arrogant it really believes it is above scrutiny,â€ Lisa Nandy, the opposition Labour Partyâ€™s spokeswoman on foreign affairs, tweeted. â€œWhat is in the Russia report that Johnson doesnâ€™t want to see the light of day?â€
Labour 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 â€œfake news,â€ which called on election regulators and law enforcement to investigate reports that a British businessman with links to Russia donated 8.4 million pounds ($10.6 million) to the Brexit campaign. The National Crime Agency said in September that it found no evidence of criminal offenses related to the donation.
The intelligence committee report covers 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, said Dominic Grieve, who chaired the panel until he left the House of Commons after the election. The governmentâ€™s explanations for delaying the report â€œare simply not credible,â€ Grieve said in an interview with Britainâ€™s Channel 4 News.
â€œI hope that when it comes out … it will be useful and informative to the public, which is what it was intended it to be when we were trying bring it out at the end of October, early November,â€ he said.
The reportâ€™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.
â€œThe government hasnâ€™t been reticent about calling out other cases of Russian influence operations, including attributing cyber-operations to Russia,â€ Nigel Gould-Davies, senior fellow for Russia and Eurasia at the International Institute for Strategic Studies told The Associated Press.
â€œWhy the reluctance to bring evidence of political funding into the public domain?â€