British officials are “almost certain” that “Russian actors” sought to interfere in last year’s general election, the UK Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said Thursday.
Covertly-acquired government documents were amplified online, Raab said, describing the activity as “completely unacceptable.”
Documents relating to a UK-US Free Trade Agreement were leaked and published on the online forum website Reddit before the December 2019 election. The opposition Labour party – unaware of their origins – used them in the election campaign as the basis for allegations that UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson wanted to sell parts of the British National Health Service to American health providers.
Raab said there was “no evidence of a broad-spectrum Russian campaign,” but said the issue was the subject of an ongoing criminal investigation.
The announcement came amid a controversy over the reestablishment of Parliament’s Intelligence and Security Committee, which has been dormant since the 2019 election and is sitting on an unpublished report about Russian interference in British politics.
Johnson was accused of intentionally delaying the report in the run up to the 2019 general election. Downing Street has also been accused of meddling in the process for reestablishing the committee, which oversees the work of intelligence agencies MI5, MI6 and GCHQ.
The membership of the committee was approved this week, and members were expected to elect as their chair a candidate who had the backing of Downing Street, former transport secretary Chris Grayling. But in a surprise development, one of the Conservative members on the committee, Julian Lewis, put himself forward for election alongside Grayling, winning out with the support of opposition members, according to PA Media.
In a statement released through PA, Lewis claimed he received a text in advance of the vote “asking me to confirm that I would be voting for the Prime Minister’s preferred candidate” for chairman. Lewis said he ignored the request, deeming it improper.
Lewis was expelled from the Conservative Party for the maneuver.
The former chairman of the committee, Dominic Grieve, said he was “speechless” when he learned of Lewis’ expulsion. In an interview with the UK’s Times Radio on Thursday, Grieve added he was “troubled” at the government’s attempts to “manipulate the outcome of the election of the chair.”
The committee met on Thursday and “unanimously agreed” to publish the Russia report before the summer parliamentary break, a Cabinet Office statement said. This means the full report will be published within less than a week, as summer recess begins on July 22.
CNN reported last November that the ISC heard warnings that Russia’s influence reaches deep into the British establishment and not enough had been done to counter the threat. One witness described Russian influence as “potentially the most significant threat to the UK’s institutions and its ways of life,” according to written testimony reviewed by CNN.
The report was completed before the 2019 election, and would not cover the allegations made by Raab on Thursday.
In November 2019, former US Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton criticized the delay to the report’s publication, calling it “inexplicable and shameful.”
CNN’s Aimee Lewis contributed reporting.