Revelations that Russian hackers stole documents from a UK minister’s email account in an attempt to influence last year’s general election “illustrate exactly” the warnings by parliament’s intelligence watchdog that the government underestimated the threat from Moscow, the committee’s former chair has said.
“The point we were making is that Russia has the skills and capacity to hack emails and engage in cyber activity for a wide variety of destructive purposes,” Dominic Grieve, the former Conservative MP who headed the intelligence and security committee until late last year, told the Financial Times.
The National Crime Agency is conducting a criminal investigation into the theft of the classified documents about US-UK trade discussions from the email account of former trade secretary Liam Fox.
“What appears to have happened with Liam Fox’s emails . . . [is] that they were hacked and leaked in order to cause the government embarrassment. It’s a show of power, and one designed to make people doubt their systems and institutions,” Mr Grieve said.
“This episode shows that as the report said, the risk presented by Russia wasn’t being taken seriously enough,” he added. “This illustrates exactly the point we were trying to make.”
Mr Grieve had long argued the report, which was written when he chaired the committee, should have been published ahead of December’s general election.
However, Downing Street refused to release the report and held it back until last month, by which time the committee had been reformed with different members: Mr Grieve lost his seat in the last election as an independent.
The central criticism was that both ministers and spy agencies had dropped the ball by failing to investigate whether Russia had sought to influence the outcome of the 2016 Brexit referendum.
The issue of election interference gained new prominence during the 2019 election campaign, when a leaked dossier on US-UK trade negotiations was seized on by then Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn to accuse the government of putting the NHS up for sale.
Dominic Raab, foreign secretary, last month said “Russian actors” had “almost certainly” tried to interfere in the 2019 election by helping to distribute the sensitive documents online but he would not say how they had been obtained. The Kremlin has denied the claims.
The FT confirmed this week British officials believed the dossier had been stolen by Russian hackers from a personal email account belonging to Mr Fox.
Reuters, which first reported the story, on Tuesday said hackers had obtained the “entire contents” of Mr Fox’s personal email account via a “spear phishing” attack which tricks recipients into revealing their passwords.
One person with knowledge of the hack told the FT that while government email accounts were subject to a stringent firewall, there was relatively little that could be done to protect ministers’ personal accounts other than issuing warnings not to use these for government business.
A spokesperson for Mr Fox, who is the UK’s nominee to run the World Trade Organization, declined to comment.
Peter Ricketts, former national security adviser, said the hacking revelations underlined the scale of the government’s error in failing to publish the ISC report ahead of the general election, so that “consciousness all round could have been raised”.
He added: “When the documents were brandished, everyone would have been able to say, here’s a very good example of what the Russia report said . . . The failure to publish the report before the election in a way makes this worse . . . the most striking thing is how clearly this bears out those warnings.”
Additional reporting by Sebastian Payne in London
Get alerts on UK politics & policy when a new story is published