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Report Says U.K. Actively Avoided Investigating Russian Influence In Brexit

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

A long-delayed parliamentary report on Russian influence in United Kingdom is out this morning. And it's bad. Among other things, it says the U.K. government actively avoided trying to figure out if Russia tried to influence the Brexit referendum. For more, we've got NPR's London correspondent with us, Frank Langfitt, who's looking at this. Hi, Frank.

FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: Hey, Rachel.

MARTIN: I mean, I said it's bad. It's...

LANGFITT: (Laughter).

MARTIN: That the British government would be intentionally...

LANGFITT: Yeah.

MARTIN: ...Trying to avoid figuring out the extent of Russian interference - I mean, what...

LANGFITT: Yeah.

MARTIN: ...Can you tell us?

LANGFITT: Well, it's completely damning. People here - actually, we've been waiting for this report for months. And we thought we were going to find out if the Russians tried to influence the Brexit vote. The answer in fact was different. And definitely, it was more unsettling. Stewart Hosie is with the Scottish National Party. He's also in the Parliament. And this is what he said today at a press conference.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

STEWART HOSIE: No one in government knew if Russia interfered in or sought to influence the referendum because they did not want to know. The U.K. government have actively avoided looking for evidence that Russia interfered.

MARTIN: Why, Frank? Why wouldn't anyone in the British government want to know this?

LANGFITT: That's actually a really easy answer. And I think the answer is this - it would've undermined the Brexit referendum - remember, the biggest decision of the British people in decades. It's already changed the course of British history. And the person who was front and center in that was a guy named Boris Johnson who is now the prime minister.

So if you say Russia interfered, then it could undermine this thing that has changed the course of British history. And you can see why nobody, certainly in the government, wanted to mess with that. Stewart Hosie said no one wanted to touch it with a 10-foot pole. And he went on and said this.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

HOSIE: This is in stark contrast to the U.S. response to reports of interference in the 2016 presidential elections. No matter how politically awkward or potentially embarrassing, there should've been an assessment of Russian interference in the EU referendum. And there must now be one.

MARTIN: So let's get back to the original query. I mean...

LANGFITT: Sure.

MARTIN: ...Did the report find any Russian influence in the Brexit vote?

LANGFITT: It did not because it said it wasn't able to at all. But what it did find - and this is very interesting and politically important, too, Rachel - is that in the 2015 Scottish referendum, which was on independence, it said there was attempted Russian influence to do that. And the reason is that Vladimir Putin wants to split up the U.K. He wants to weaken the West, as we all know. If Scotland leaves the U.K., then that makes the United Kingdom - obviously infinitely, it breaks up the United Kingdom.

It was also for - Vladimir Putin also had an interest in the Brexit vote because he also would've seen that as weakening the West by splitting up the EU. There was also stuff in here that everybody kind of knows, but it was great to see in black and white. And that is that London - one of London's industries is money laundering. And this is a - this was, like, the most striking quote to me. "Russian influence is the new normal. Successive governments have welcomed oligarchs and their money with open arms, providing them with a means of recycling illicit finance through the London laundromat."

MARTIN: Wow. So how is the British government responding?

LANGFITT: Not much of anything - considering what this report says, you might expect something more robust. Dominic Raab - he's the foreign secretary - he has a boilerplate response, so far saying Russia must desist from these attacks and that the U.K. has to defend its country and democracy and values from such a hostile state.

MARTIN: NPR's Frank Langfitt in London. Thanks, Frank. We appreciate it.

LANGFITT: Always great to talk, Rachel.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.