21 July 2020

After nine months since it was cleared for publication by the British Intelligence Community (IC) but then withheld by Boris Johnson’s government, the Russia Report has finally been released.

Produced by the non-partisan Intelligence and Security Committee of Parliament, at the time chaired by highly respected Conservative member Dominic Grieve, the Russia Report can be found here. It is now a stunted document, with little supporting detail and heavy redactions* in sections with the most interesting sub-heads. It is also unclear as to which of the redactions were made after the IC-cleared document fell into the clutches of Boris Johnson and his unelected (and unelectable) puppet-master, Dominic Cummings. Those familiar with the writings of Luke Harding, Edward Lucas, and Heidi Blake, among others, will find an elegant, trenchant and very newsworthy summary of the penetration of the UK ‘establishment’ by Putin-linked Russian oligarchs (paras. 49-56) – but no surprises, and no names.

Despite its glaring limitations, the Report has some real value. This resides chiefly in its revelation about the role of the Intelligence Community during the Brexit referendum of June 2016. This was narrowly won by the Johnson-led Leave campaign but the legitimacy of its victory was soon threatened by the charge that it had been assisted by an influence operation run by Russia, which saw advantage in weakening the EU. Johnson’s Brexit ultras have always maintained that there was no evidence of Russian influence in the referendum campaign. Of course not, says the Russia Report, neatly pricking this disingenuous mantra, because the Intelligence Community was not required to look for it: the role of the IC was to have no role, to turn a blind eye (see especially paras. 39-48). The Report’s recommendation that a retrospective investigation should be conducted has naturally been rejected by No. 10. Other recommendations might get more traction, among them that MI5 should be the lead agency for tackling foreign influence operations (at the moment there is a paralysing division of responsibility) and that the UK should have a body analogous to that established under the American Foreign Agents Registration Act. Action on both these proposals is certainly long overdue.

*The usual method employed to conceal sensitive parts of official documents released to the public (‘redacting’) is solidly to black them out by word, phrase or sentence. This shows how much is being withheld, which is suggestive of the importance attached to it, and sometimes provides the context that makes possible an accurate stab at its content, as shown by this recent episode in the United States. For entirely understandable reasons, therefore, a document of this nature cannot use this method. Instead, however long the redactions in ISC reports, they are indicated only like this  ***. Unfortunately, what suits the Intelligence Community for legitimate security reasons also suits a notoriously unprincipled prime minister like Boris Johnson for illegitimate political reasons.