The UK government has moved quickly to prepare for the impending release of the Intelligence and Security Committee’s (ISC) report on Russian interference in UK politics. In effect, they have tried to mix two different stories and hope to escape in the confusion.
On 16 July, the intelligence services of the US, Canada and the UK issued simultaneous press releases which said that Russian hackers, principally APT-29 (Cozy Bear), have been trying to steal Covid-19 vaccine details from laboratories in the West. In many ways this is not such hot news because a) Russia is always trying to hack something – but then so is everybody else; and b) stealing the vaccine plans is hardly much of a crime since whenever a successful vaccine is discovered, the nation responsible is likely to share the results with the rest of the world.
However, the UK government news managers saw this story an opportunity to protect themselves and stepped in. The Russian hacking story was supported in the UK by a glossy document from GCHQ’s National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC). At the same time, government sources, including the Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab, were briefing journalists that the Labour Party had obtained a key document during last year’s election from the very same Russian hackers. (This key document was an unredacted verison of a draft trade deal with the US. The UK government had only released in redacted form earlier because the document demonstrated a threat to the UK’s national health service, the NHS.)
Linking the two stories in this way was rather suspicious. In the first place, the government sources were asked what the evidence was, at which point they all just looked rather sheepish and mumbled into their microphones. Whereas the vaccine hacking story had been supported by a wealth of evidence. In the second place, while it is almost certainly true that the document was obtained by Russian hackers (most likely APT-28, a GRU unit known as Fancy Bear), the document was simply released onto the internet. It was not specifically stolen to aid the Labour Party – although the UK government was trying to imply that it was.
Why do this now? The government is expecting heavy criticism next week. The election of Damien Lewis as Chair of the ISC has caught them completely off guard (see below). If they can plant a story this week that Labour benefits from Russian involvement, then they hope that the public will become confused and the government can escape. Next week we should see if they have been successful.