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Current location: Scotland
Member since: Mon Sep 7, 2009, 12:57 AM
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Hillary chimes in

What does the Russia report mean for British people and politics?

What does the report tell us?

The Russia report accuses the government of failing to investigate Russian interference in British politics, in particular during the 2016 EU referendum. The Commons intelligence and security committee’s language is scathing. It says Downing Street showed a “lack of curiosity” over Kremlin meddling. The report doesn’t say whether this complacency was deliberate or an omission. Either way, it amounts to a stunning rebuke of Boris Johnson and his predecessor as prime minister, Theresa May. We now know why Johnson sought to bury the report before last December’s general election. It is embarrassing. He burned political capital to keep it secret.

The report broadly reflects the expert view of Christopher Steele, a former MI6 spy who gave evidence to the ISC in 2018. He said Johnson, as foreign secretary, and May “threw a blanket” over indications that the Russians had pushed for Brexit and may have covertly funded the campaign. They put Tory party politics above national security, Steele alleged. The ISC says: “The written evidence provided to us appeared to suggest that 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.”

There is abundant evidence that the Russians were actively seeking to undermine British democracy, the report says. The intelligence agencies – including MI6, MI5 and GCHQ – were acutely aware of Kremlin activity around the 2014 Scottish independence referendum. They had early warning in spring 2016 of Moscow’s email hacking and dumping operation against the Democrats in the US, done to damage the party’s then presidential candidate, Hillary Clinton, and to help the Republicans’ Donald Trump. Yet no Russian “threat assessment” was carried out before the 2016 EU vote, the ISC says. The referendum was therefore left “unprotected”, it says.

The report is equally critical of the spy agencies. They appear to have been reluctant to take responsibility for defending the UK from hostile state meddling, it suggests. None of the agencies carried out an assessment of what Moscow did during the EU vote. When asked, MI5 sent the committee a cursory six-line note. GCHQ failed to provide information about the numerous pro-leave troll accounts run from inside Russia. And the report suggests MI6 didn’t ask its secret agents “to provide information on the extent or nature of Russian influence campaigns”. The big picture is damning: of a government that didn’t want to know, and of spooks who were too timid to ask.


The arguments about Russian interference in UK politics will not be resolved by this report - indeed, the main complaints are about blase attitudes in government and the security services which mean that any evidence hasn't seriously been sought or explored, or worse, has been papered over.

The mention of interference in the 2014 Scottish independence referendum has predictably been pounced on by some as a handy distraction, including whoever drafted the Telegraph's front page, but the report devotes a mere few lines to it and presents no hard evidence, just relying on "open source commentary", which amounts to no more than somebody's expressed opinion:

There's no suggestion of interference with voting processes in any election or referendum, more attempts via social media to influence voters - and if it did spread misinformation during any votes, Russia was far from the only bad faith actor, as events since have proven. Russia expressed scepticism at the result after the 2014 independence referendum, but David Cameron's on record as having appealed to Putin to intervene:

Cameron's plea to Putin: help me stop Salmond

DAVID Cameron's Government wants the backing of Russian President Vladimir Putin in the battle against Scottish independence, the former USSR's leading news agency has reported.

Itar-Tass, citing a source in the Conservative Prime Minister's office, said Britain was "extremely interested" in referendum support from Russia, which this year holds the presidency of the influential G8 group of rich industrial nations.


More important in my view is the report's focus on Russian money laundering and influence-peddling via the UK. This Twitter thread by the New York Times's Jane Bradley covers the main points:


Jane Bradley @jane__bradley
The Russia Report is finally out — I’ll tweet key lines.

• The UK is one of Russia’s top intelligence targets, yet the UK government has “actively avoided looking for evidence of Russian interference” which the committee brands “astonishing”.

• London was allowed to become a 'laundromat' for illicit finance. The arrival of Russian money has resulted in a growth of “enablers” including lawyers, accountants and estate agents who wittingly or unwittingly became 'de facto agents' of Russian state.

• Nobody in government is protecting the UK from Russian interference.

“The outrage isn’t that there is interference, the outrage is that nobody wanted to find out whether there was interference.”

• The mechanics of the UK's paper-based voting system makes direct interference difficult, so Russia has instead sought to influence voters *before* they cast their vote through the likes of state-owned media, bots and trolls, and leaks and hacks.

• "The UK welcomed Russian money, and few questions if any were asked about the provenance of this considerable wealth." Highlighted as particular issues:

• The UK's investment visa scheme
• Housing market
• Judicial system
• PR firms etc offering "reputation laundering"

• "Russian influence in the UK is the new normal. There are a lot of Russians with very close links to Putin who are well integrated into the UK business and social scene, and accepted because of their wealth."

Committee calls on the government to make legislative changes.

• Report raises the important issue of Russians at risk in UK and questions whether the UK intelligence services has picture of which Russians are at risk in the UK.

• Salisbury attack shows that it's not only people "critical of Putin who are at risk here in the UK."

• Report cites a 2017 BuzzFeed investigation into 14 suspicious deaths in Britain (which I was part of) that warned the UK authorities weren't fully investigating possible Russian hits. The report evidence is redacted (!) but you can read the series here

Given how widely it's been known for quite some time that the Tories have received numerous sizeable donations from Russian oligarchs, it's a scandal that each example hasn't been headline news.

Julian Lewis has Tory whip removed after beating Chris Grayling to top security job


Mr Lewis, who was elected as chair of the Intelligence and Security Committee in a surprise turn on Wednesday, has been booted out of the parliamentary Tory party after defeating Chris Grayling.

A senior government source accused Mr Lewis of “working with Labour and other opposition MPs for his own advantage”.

Mr Grayling was Number 10’s preferred choice to lead the ISC, which oversees the work of MI5, MI6, GCHQ and the other intelligence and security services.


A few aspects to this.

Failing Grayling lives up to his name in grand style yet again. Much hilarity is being enjoyed at the irony of the would-be chair of the Intelligence Committee seemingly being utterly blindsided by Lewis's behind-the-scenes manoeuvres.

Lewis's almost instant ejection from the Parliamentary Conservative Party could be seen as a kneejerk act of petulance worthy of Dominic Cummings or an attempt to put a shot across the bows of any other Tory MPs tempted to display disloyalty.

The chances of the Russia report seeing light of day any time soon are likely higher than they would have been under the favoured placeman Grayling. It wouldn't be surprising if this was part of the bargaining between Lewis and the Labour and SNP MPs who supported his candidacy.

I must confess to having had a brush with Lewis in the 1980s, when he was chair of the Coalition for Peace Through Security. His main activities at the time consisted of dogging the steps of CND's Bruce Kent, especially during a long peace walk Kent undertook from Faslane to Aldermaston. At least in the initial stages, Lewis and his sole companion and their placards received decidely frosty welcomes in the towns en route. At the beginning of the walk, a police inspector chatting with us at the Faslane gates looked across at Lewis and pal and asked, "Those the fascists, then?"

It remains to be seen whether Lewis is as suspicious about Russia's intentions nowadays as he was in the 1980s.

Cummings to drop in on Britain's most secret defence installations

London: Boris Johnson's controversial adviser Dominic Cummings will tour some of Britain's most highly classified national security sites as part of his plan to radically shake up the military amid a major turf war in Westminster over how Britain will defend itself in the future.

According to internal correspondence obtained by The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, the Prime Minister's top adviser requested visits to five classified sites including facilities that specialise in defence intelligence.

Such are the high stakes of the review, due for publication from September, that Defence Minister Ben Wallace expressly forbade ministry officials from talking to Number 10 or Cummings directly about the itinerary for his planned trip.

"The Secretary of State explicitly does not wish anyone to engage Number 10 or Dominic Cummings on this," officials were told. "It is for the [the Minister's special adviser] and the Secretary of State to engage in the first instance before delegating to officials."


Why is Dominic Cummings still in No 10? Because Vote Leavers never say sorry

The adviser is at the heart of a government that is treating the pandemic just like the 2016 Brexit referendum campaign

Dominic Cummings is a lucky man. A couple of weeks ago, Boris Johnson’s chief strategist – and his lockdown-busting trip to north-east England – dominated the news headlines. Now the global outpouring of Black Lives Matter protests and other vital issues in the coronavirus pandemic have captured the news agenda. With the prime minister’s vocal support, Cummings still has a job, and the world seems to have moved on.

But Cummings’s continued presence at the heart of the British government is not just down to luck, of course. Johnson’s special adviser has probably the most valuable asset in Downing Street right now: the unswerving loyalty of the Vote Leave campaign that now holds the key levers of power in British politics.

On paper, Vote Leave disappeared almost four years ago. Having won the Brexit referendum, the campaign packed up its spartan office beside Lambeth Bridge. Cummings left politics to advise an artificial intelligence startup (which subsequently won lots of NHS contracts, but that’s another story).
When Johnson, Vote Leave’s public face, came to power last July his first significant act was to bring in a large swath of the campaign’s backroom operation into the heart of his new administration: from Cummings as his right-hand man to Lee Cain as Downing Street’s truculent head of communications. All the great offices of state are now held by Brexit true believers, from Priti Patel to Dominic Raab.

Why does any of this matter? Well, for one thing, now that Vote Leave has managed to take control of government – and looks set to take us to the brink of a no-deal Brexit, again – many of its ranks are worried about what would happen if their eminence grise were not around to oversee the project.


UK abandoned testing because system 'could only cope with five coronavirus cases a week'

Disastrous decision is now seen as the key reason why UK has Europe's highest death rate

Britain’s disastrous decision to abandon testing for coronavirus occurred because health systems could only cope with five cases a week, official documents show.

Newly-released papers from the Scientific Advisory Group on Emergencies shows routine testing and tracing of contacts was stopped because Public Health England’s systems were struggling to deal with a handful of cases.

At a meeting on Feb 18, advisors said PHE could only cope with testing and tracing contacts of five Covid-19 cases a week, with modelling suggesting it might only be possible to increase this to 50 cases.

Advisors then agreed it was "sensible" to shift to stopping routine testing - despite acknowledging that such a decision would “generate a public reaction”....


(Text after the .... only viewable with a Telegraph subscription.)

I've not been posting much, if at all, about the pandemic and fuck-ups around lockdown etc. because the situation's so messed up and we're all up to our necks in it anyway, so why add to the air of doom we're powerless to do anything about apart from try to safeguard ourselves and those around us? But this revelation seems appalling enough to be noted.

The fact that abondoning testing may have suited the initial (and perhaps ongoing in some UK government quarters, who knows?) drive for mythical "herd immunity" and prioritizing economic considerations over our health and lives may also be a significant factor.

"the Health Ministry produced its own timeline and pushback"

That "pushback", judging by its length, style and tone, didn't originate from the Health Ministry, but from Johnson's adviser Dominic Cummings, a major proponent of the initial "herd immunity" policy that would now be totally discredited if it didn't appear to be the last desperate hope, since the UK government has made no serious preparations for an emergence from the current lockdown and social isolation that doesn't involve mass infection, with the accompanying proportion of deaths.

It's the old dilemma between whether events as they've panned out were the result of a conspiracy or a cock-up. Quite possibly a bit of both. Here's Johnson in early February:

Oli Dugmore

Further evidence the UK’s initial coronavirus strategy was wilfully negligent.

Johnson argues global lockdown is an economic opportunity to profit.

Swashbuckling much.

[Twitter video]

It was born of the same demented delusion of Little Britain exceptionalism that fueled Brexit.

Jacob Rees-Mogg's investment firm set to make fortune from the coronavirus crisis

EXCLUSIVE: Somerset Capital Management, which the MP co-founded, says market volatility offers a “once or twice in a generation” opportunity to make “super normal returns”
The MP owns at least 15 per cent of a company investing in businesses hit by falling share values.

Somerset Capital Management says investors have a “once in a generation” chance of “super normal returns”.

Mr Rees-Mogg stood down as a director of SCM to become Leader of the House of Commons. SCM said it was focusing on clients’ long-term security.
As millions face financial misery, SCM managers are buying into businesses where valuations have tumbled – but should bounce back. Potential gains of 500 per cent are touted.
Investments so far include private hospitals in Brazil, pharmacies in South Africa and a firm behind a scanning device which checks if people are wearing masks in China.


The other "once or twice in a generation opportunity" would be Brexit. That's evidently on the back burner for now.

Home Office chief Sir Philip Rutnam quits over Priti Patel 'bullying'

Rutnam announces plans to sue government for constructive dismissal over ‘vicious and orchestrated campaign’ against him
Rutnam was emotional as he said he would step down after 33 years because he had become the “target of vicious and orchestrated campaign against him,” which he accused Patel of orchestrating.
Rutnam made clear his anger in his statement on Saturday, which he read to the BBC outside an address in north London. He said he had received allegations that Patel’s conduct had included belittling people and making unreasonable demands.

He said: “One of my duties as permanent secretary was to protect the health, safety and wellbeing of our 35,000 people. This created tension with the home secretary and I have encouraged her to change her behaviours.

“I have received allegations that her conduct has included shouting and swearing, belittling people, making unreasonable and repeated demands – behaviour that created fear and that needed some bravery to call out.”

He claimed the Home Office offered him a financial settlement to avoid his public resignation, and he said he hoped his stand “may help in maintaining the quality of government in this country”.


The Tories' house rag, The Telegraph, has wasted no time launching a counter-spin operation, hot from the desk of Stephen Pollard:

Sir Philip Rutnam’s real agenda was surely ousting Priti Patel

This briefing war is just the latest battle in a long history of civil servants v Home Secretaries

The knives were out for Priti Patel from the moment she was appointed Home Secretary last July. Ms Patel is not one of those ministers who puts her head down, keeps quiet and does what she’s told. She makes waves – and enemies – wherever she goes.

None of us really knows what transpired between Ms Patel and Sir Philip Rutnam, her now departed permanent secretary. Sir Philip has taken the extraordinary step of making his grievances public. According to him, Ms Patel is an all-round monster, responsible for days of hostile stories about the department. He says he will now sue the government for constructive dismissal. Needless to say, Ms Patel denies these allegations....


The rest of the Telegraph's story fades into blah behind a paywall, but you no doubt get the drift.

It remains to be seen whether another of the Telegraph's better-known and more colourful columnists will be able to find the time to drag himself away from not holding COBRA meetings about widespread flooding, instead understandably preoccupied with singing onstage at a Tory party fundraiser, to offer his view on the kerfuffle in the Home Office.

Pentagon reveals deal with Britain to replace Trident

MPs dismayed after US defence officials leak news of nuclear weapons deal before parliament is told

Britain has committed itself to buying a new generation of nuclear warheads to replace Trident, which will be based on US technology. The decision was revealed by Pentagon officials who disclosed it before an official announcement has been made by the government.

The revelation has dismayed MPs and experts who question why they have learned of the move – which will cost the UK billions of pounds – only after the decision has apparently been made. It has also raised questions about the UK’s commitment to staunching nuclear proliferation and the country’s reliance on the US for a central plank of its defence strategy.

Earlier this month, Pentagon officials confirmed that its proposed W93 sea-launched warhead, the nuclear tip of the next generation of submarine-launched ballistic missiles, would share technology with the UK’s next nuclear weapon, implying that a decision had been taken between the two countries to work on the programme.

In public, the UK has not confirmed whether it intends to commission a new nuclear warhead. The Ministry of Defence’s annual update to parliament, published just before Christmas, says only: “Work also continues to develop the evidence to support a government decision when replacing the warhead.”

But last week Admiral Charles Richard, commander of the US strategic command, told the Senate defence committee that there was a requirement for a new warhead, which would be called the W93 or Mk7. Richard said: “This effort will also support a parallel replacement warhead programme in the United Kingdom, whose nuclear deterrent plays an absolutely vital role in Nato’s overall defence posture.”

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