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The Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC) Russia report offers little comfort to most arms of government. Whitehall is presented as disjointed and uncoordinated, a street of many plans and strategy groups, but little genuine integration. The notion that the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport should protect the integrity of the democratic process is treated with genteel disbelief. The intelligence agencies, though, come in for a particularly chilly scrutiny, but the proposed solutions are unlikely to match the challenge.
While acknowledging ‘the very considerable pressures on the Agencies since 9/11, and that they have a finite amount of resource, which they must focus on operational priorities’, much attention is given to the relative decay of capabilities and activity relating to Russia. Although the agency chiefs themselves pushed back against the suggestion, the report asks the loaded question of whether they ‘should – and could – have reacted more quickly and increased operational effort on Russia. On figures alone, it could be said that they took their eye off the ball’.
MI5, for example, once ‘devoted around 20% of its effort to Hostile State Activity’ (not just Russia), but this declined over time to 16% by 2001–02, and to just 3% in 2008–09. Not until 2013–14, around the time of the Crimean annexation that so clearly marked the new state of relations between Russia and the West, did this trend begin to reverse, such that it rose to 14.5% and presumably further (the most recent data is redacted).
The figures for the Secret Intelligence Service (SIS, or popularly MI6) are even more heavily laden with the triple asterisks that denote redaction, but again this is presented as a rapid and lengthy decline only subject to a relatively recent uptick.
As for the electronic eavesdroppers of the Government Communications Headquarters, ‘at the height of the Cold War, 70% of GCHQ’s effort was focused on the Soviet bloc’, but this tumbled to 16% directed at Russia in 2000, and just 4% in 2006 (the year when Alexander Litvinenko was poisoned in London). A new focus on the Kremlin meant this figure was back up to 10% by 2012, a level which remained pretty constant until 2016 when it again began to rise.
Of course, the reasons behind these curves were both the conviction that Russia was a declining power and a new priority on counterterrorism. By the mid-2000s, MI5 was committing 92% of its efforts to fighting terrorism, while even SIS and GCHQ were devoting a third of theirs to this target. Likewise, Defence Intelligence was also having to support deployments first in the former Yugoslavia, then Afghanistan and Iraq.
These were priorities established by successive governments, and resource constraints likewise set by those governments. The Single Intelligence Account – the combined budget for MI5, SIS and GCHQ – came under pressure during the austerity years, and although it has risen since, capacity cut or redirected cannot quickly or easily be recovered.
Chto delat? (What is to be Done?)
The ISC is right to suggest the agencies are ‘playing catch-up’, but what is to be done? It usefully outlines a series of legislative responses, including a new Espionage Act to replace the old Official Secrets Act, unsuited for the internet age. Passing laws, though, is what governments are most comfortable with, and while valuable, they are only part of the answer.
More money is, of course, the inevitable answer presented to any problem, but here the ISC is suddenly ambivalent. Having excoriated previous administrations for not devoting more money to the agencies in general and their Russia-focused work in particular, suddenly it strikes a cautious note, saying that given all the other priorities, from terrorism to Iran, ‘it is difficult to single out the Russian threat as deserving greater allocation of effort. It is therefore essential that the strategy is right – enabling smarter working and effective co-ordination’.
‘Smarter working and effective co-ordination’ are, like ‘efficiency savings’, politicians’ usual mantra for doing more with the same. There may be no magic money tree, but there somehow seems to be a magic workplan able to squeeze greater efficiencies from agencies that have already been punching above their weight.
The agencies do not just gather actionable information to support political decision-making and protect the country’s interests and security, they are also part of the UK’s international power base. Intelligence sharing is an implicitly transactional process: the more you have to offer, the more you can expect to receive. This is one of the capabilities giving true meaning to the much-touted but often-limited ‘special relationship’ with the US, and in a post-Brexit era will also provide London with an additional point of leverage with the EU.
To force them to respond to a growing Russian challenge – as well as an increasingly assertive China – with ‘smarter working’ is every bit as short-sighted as the past policies the ISC so politely damns with the faintest of praise. To be blunt, they need more resources to be able to recruit and just as importantly retain the best subject-matter specialists, to keep up with the technological challenges from what the ISC acknowledges is a ‘highly capable cyber actor’, and to develop the emerging skillsets required for intelligence gathering in the panopticon age of ubiquitous surveillance, facial recognition systems and artificial intelligence.
That does not, however, require changing their fundamental missions. The suggestion, for example, that MI5 should take the primary role in defending the integrity of the political process from disinformation is a seriously problematic one. To be sure, much of this is part of malign influence operations and it would be useful to be able to identify the key actors and break their connections with local dupes and proxies which amplify their messaging.
However, this is first and foremost a legitimacy challenge: people do not mistrust their own government and mainstream media because they believe conspiracy theories and subversive propaganda, but rather the other way around. The answer is to find better ways to connect with groups that feel marginalised and misrepresented, and to educate consumers of the dangers of the virtual information space. MI5 is not and should not be in the business of media education.
Likewise, the ISC notes agencies’ ‘extreme caution … at the thought that they might have any role in relation to the UK’s democratic processes’, and considers this ‘illogical; this is about the protection of the process and mechanism from hostile state interference, which should fall to our intelligence and security Agencies’. Maybe so, but the issue is whether they should get involved on their own initiative or – as in the UK so far – only if and when the government tasks them to this end. (Technically, MI5 is self-tasking, but within a set of parameters and objectives set by the Home Secretary.)
Take a look across the Atlantic for a cautionary tale of what can happen when intelligence agencies regard it as their right and duty to involve themselves in ‘the protection of the process and mechanism’ of democracy, even in virtual opposition to the government of the day. The inevitable politicisation of the agencies, the factional conflicts which can make sure good intelligence is ignored and the culture of partisan leaks are, surely, not examples to commend themselves.
There is a danger that the intelligence and security community becomes seen as some kind of national Swiss army knife, the tool for every problem. It is a phenomenally powerful instrument, but it is most efficient when it is most focused – and adequately resourced.
The ISC report raises a series of valid and important questions about the way forward in an age of influence operations and sharp-elbowed strategic competition, but there is more work to be done to generate adequate answers.
The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.
BANNER IMAGE: Exterior of MI6 building in London. Courtesy of I-Wei Huang / Adobe Stock.