UK looks to new laws on spies after critical intel report

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Vladimir Putin

FILE – In this file photo dated Wednesday, March 14, 2018, Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks in front of a Russian National flag in Sevastopol, Crimea. An influential committee of British lawmakers plans to publish its findings Tuesday July 21, 2020, reporting on Russian interference in British politics, amid criticism the government delayed its release for more than six months to shield Prime Minister Boris Johnson and his Conservative Party from embarrassment. (AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko, FILE)

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LONDON (AP) — Britain’s government faced heated questions on national security Wednesday after a damning intelligence committee report on Russian meddling in the nation’s politics concluded the U.K. should examine allegations of interference in the European Union referendum.

The fallout from the report from Parliament’s Intelligence and Security Committee dominated the agenda on the final day in the House of Commons before the summer break, with lawmakers demanding to know whether the UK had done enough to face the threat posed by Moscow.

The report concluded that Russia sees Britain as one of its top intelligence targets, adding that Moscow’s attempts to influence the U.K. are the “new normal” and successive governments have welcomed Russian oligarchs with open arms.

Russians with “very close links” to President Vladimir Putin are “well integrated into the U.K. business, political and social scene — in ‘Londongrad’ in particular,” the report said.

Opposition Labour Party leader Keir Starmer challenged Prime Minister Boris Johnson in the Commons, suggesting he sat on the report despite its dire warnings of the threat to national security.

“The report was very clear, that until recently the government badly underestimated the Russian threat and the response it required,” Starmer said. “It’s still playing catch-up. The government’s taken its eye off the ball — arguably it wasn’t even on the pitch. After this government has been in power for 10 years, how does the government explain that?”

Though Johnson insisted new laws are coming in connection with espionage, theft of intellectual property and sanctions, he sidestepped on the notion put forward by the report’s authors that nothing was done to investigate whether Russia had interfered in the referendum.

The real problem, Johnson insisted, is that some lawmakers still object to the outcome of the referendum — namely, voters’ decision to leave the EU.

That group of remainers are now interested in trying to suggest Moscow was responsible for Brexit, he said.

“That’s what this is all about,” Johnson said. “The people of this country didn’t vote to leave the EU because of pressure from Russia or Russian interference, they voted because they wanted to take back control of our money, our trade policy and our laws.”

Johnson helped lead the campaign for Britain to leave the EU. He has made delivering Brexit his primary goal since he became prime minister last July.

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