- Intelligence officials have warned of hacking risk and noted “significant increase” in Russian cyber activity.
- But Cabinet Office minister Ben Gummer says there’s only a “negligible” chance of Russia undermining British elections.
- Academic says Gummer’s position “makes little sense” given attacks on the US.
LONDON — The government has dismissed the possibility of Russian state-sponsored interference in the rigging of votes in British elections, a move that has surprised some intelligence officials.
In a letter seen by Business Insider, the cabinet office minister tasked with protecting future UK elections from external interference, said there was only a “negligible” chance of direct Russian interference.
“I am confident that there is a negligible risk of a foreign government or agency being able to influence the operational delivery of electoral events in the UK,” Cabinet Office minister Ben Gummer wrote in a letter to Labour MP Ben Bradshaw.
A Cabinet Office source told Business Insider that Gummer’s “negligible” comment referred specifically to the non-electronic logistics and mechanics of voting in the UK, rather than to a cyber attack, which he accepts is a possibility.
Bradshaw believes the government is not being transparent enough about attempted Russian interference in British democracy — particularly given there is acceptance in the US and other European nations that Vladimir Putin’s regime have attempted to subvert foreign elections.
Gummer’s dismissal of the threat from Russia was described as “ridiculous” by a leading intelligence expert.
Professor Anthony Glees, the director of the Centre for Security and Intelligence Studies at the University of Buckingham, told Business Insider that Gummer’s dismissal was “ridiculous”.
He added that it “makes little sense” given that Russia had hacked and published 20,000 Democrat Party emails during the US election. He said the government’s position suggests it “does not like the political implications of the intelligence it has been given.”
“It’s blindingly obvious that there are ‘reasonable grounds’ for suspicion,” he added. “As [American astronomer] Carl Sagan has said: ‘An absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.’ If Gummer does not think there are reasonable grounds to suspect interference, the government will not do what it needs to do in order to discover whether there is any evidence of wrongdoing by Russia.”
The tone of the letter contrasts with those made by a top intelligence official on Tuesday. Ciaran Martin, the chief executive of GCHQ offshoot the National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC), told BBC Radio 4 that “clearly there is now a threat” that Britain’s democracy is vulnerable to interference.
In an interview with World at One, Martin added: “The broad assessment that we and other countries have made is that there has been a significant increase in Russian cyber activity against critical services and national democratic systems and institutions.”
Alex Younger, the head of the British intelligence agency MI6, has also been clear about the risk of cyber attacks. In a speech last year, the spy chief said: “The risks at stake are profound and represent a fundamental threat to our sovereignty.”
Gummer reassured Bradshaw there is “no evidence or reasonable grounds for suspicion” that there has been an attempt to interfere in the Brexit vote or previous general elections. This echos Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, who told ITV politics show “Peston on Sunday” this weekend: “We have no evidence that the Russians are actually involved in trying to undermine our democratic process at the moment.”
Here’s the letter: