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MI5′s failure to proactively tackle the Russian threat to UK elections risks undermining its key role “defending the realm”, the chair of the Commons’ foreign affairs committee has warned.
Tom Tugendhat said the long-awaited intelligence and security committee (ISC) raised “serious questions” for the spy agency, whose efforts to defend UK democracy from Moscow’s meddling he said amounted to “giving out parking tickets while there is looting going on”.
The report, published this week, found the UK was late to recognise the threat Moscow posed and that the 2016 Brexit referendum was targeted for disinformation campaigns.
Both ministers and spy agencies failed to investigate interference in politics as the issue was seen as a “hot potato” in Whitehall.
Tugendhat told HuffPost UK’s Commons People podcast that MI5 had failed to step up for fear of being seen to be influencing politics, but said the body must now learn to “walk a careful line”.
He said: “There is a natural reticence – of course there is – of the intelligence services to steer clear of politics because they don’t want to be seen to be having an influence on the independent desires of the British people. And quite rightly they don’t want to be seen as having an influence over democracy in the sense of the free expression and free exchange of the British people.
“But they need to realise that unwillingness to act, that unwillingness to see there are people who are genuinely trying to exploit and promote division in our country as a form of strengthening their own position and weakening ours, is a real threat to our national security.
“And frankly if MI5 aren’t willing to act on that, aren’t willing to walk a very careful line there, then they are not really defending the realm. What they are doing is giving out parking tickets while there is looting going on.”
Tugendhat said government and MI5 must recognise that “the nature of political influence has changed hugely” while adding Russian attempts to meddle were evident as far back as 2015.
Acknowledging Putin’s bids to gain influence have so far been “cack handed”, he said there is “a genuine threat to the democracy of the United Kingdom and to our national security”, adding: “We are seeing that democracies around the world are having to wake up to a new reality.”
The ISC criticised ministers and MI5, adding that intelligence bodies were “determined to distance themselves” from taking a key role for fear it would be viewed as “intrusive” to British democracy.
The report concludes: “Whilst we understand the nervousness around any suggestion that the intelligence and security agencies might be involved in democratic processes – certainly a fear that is writ large in other countries – that cannot apply when it comes to the protection of those processes.”
Last week, foreign secretary Dominic Raab said that “Russian actors” had also tried to meddle in the 2019 general election.
The UK government also said that hackers linked to the Russian intelligence services had tried to access UK coronavirus vaccine research.