A British parliamentary committee has criticized the government for failing to investigate Russian interference during the 2016 Brexit referendum despite “credible” commentary that Moscow had tried to meddle in the Scottish independence referendum two years earlier.
In a much-anticipated report published on July 21, the Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC) described Russian interference in Britain as “the new normal” and called for a “full assessment” of Moscow’s actions during the referendum to decide whether Britain should leave the EU.
ISC committee member Stewart Hosie said no one in the government wanted to touch the issue of Russian interference with a "10-foot pole" and that its members “did not want to know” because it was too hot a topic.
"There should have been an assessment of Russian interference in the EU referendum and there must now be one, and the public must be told the results of that assessment," Hosie said.
The report was completed in March 2019 and was originally submitted to Prime Minister Boris Johnson in October. Critics said his government delayed its release to shield Johnson and his Conservative Party from embarrassment.
The government initially said the report couldn't be published until it was reviewed for national security leaks, enabling 10 Downing Street to postpone its release until after the December general elections. Further holdups were caused by delays in appointing new members to the Intelligence and Security Committee.
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.
The heavily redacted report made little mention of the 2016 referendum, saying the British intelligence community should produce an assessment of potential Russian interference in the EU referendum analogous to that produced by the United States following allegations that Moscow meddled in its 2016 presidential election.
The intelligence and security committee recommended that an unclassified summary of it be published.
"In response to our request for written evidence at the outset of the inquiry, MI5 initially provided just six lines of text. It stated that ***, before referring to academic studies," the redacted version reads, adding that "the government was slow to recognize the existence of the threat."
The report did, however, say Russia attempted to interfere in a 2014 independence referendum in Scotland.
"There has been credible open-source commentary suggesting that Russia undertook influence campaigns in relation to the Scottish independence referendum in 2014," the report says.
The Scottish referendum, a closely fought contest that divided the country and drew attention worldwide, narrowly failed, with 55.3 percent voting against independence while 44.7 percent backed it.
Russia has constantly denied meddling in the affairs of any other sovereign nation, often meeting accusations of interfering with claims of anti-Russian sentiment.
Analysts say Russia apparently saw a "yes" vote in the Scottish plebiscite as a way of justifying its own annexation of Crimea earlier in 2014, after a hastily arranged "referendum" condemned by the West.
"Russia has never interfered in the electoral process in the United States, the United Kingdom, or any other country. We don't do such things and we won't tolerate other countries' attempts to interfere in our political affairs," Kremlin spokesman Dmitri Peskov said on July 21.