Downing Street acted “beyond the conventions of its authority” by demanding that specific names be removed from a report into Russian influence on UK politics by the parliamentary Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC), according to sources close to the committee.
The redactions are understood to have been ordered to protect London-based Russian oligarchs who are either leading donors to the Conservative Party or individuals regarded as friends of the prime minister, Boris Johnson.
According to Whitehall sources close to the ISC, with detailed knowledge of how it operates, Number 10 or senior ministers can order the redaction of names only if publication is regarded a matter of national security.
One source said: “If it is simply politically inconvenient or embarrassing for Number 10 or the Conservative Party that individuals are named in a controversial report, that cannot be an official reason to issue an order that names be covered up.
“However if Downing Street does genuinely believe these names represent a security risk, then the importance of this report and the need for its immediate publication has just grown.”
The source added that Downing Street has acted “beyond the conventions of its authority”.
Russian money and lavish parties
Last week openDemocracy revealed that the Conservative Party benefitted from a recent surge in cash given by Russian donors and their associates.
The money, boosting Tory coffers ahead of the general election, came from well-connected Russian oligarchs and companies involved in lobbying for Russian commercial interests.
Among the list of donors is Lubov Chernukhin, the wife of a former Russian deputy finance minister, who has donated more than £450,000 to the Tory Party in the past year.
Alexander Temerko, a former arms tycoon, is another Russian donor who has given money to Johnson’s party in the past twelve months. Temerko has publicly described the prime minister as his “friend”.
Theresa May’s government promised to distance her party from Russian money after the Salisbury poisonings in 2018.
Another friend of the prime minister – though not a known Tory donor – is Evgeny Lebedev, the owner of the media group that publishes the London Evening Standard and the Independent. He is the son of the Moscow-based former KGB agent Alexander Lebedev, and has hosted Johnson several times at his various homes in London, in Richmond and at his villa in Italy.
Details of Johnson’s visits to Evgeny Lebedev’s villa near Perugia – and the extravagant parties he attended there – were first revealed by openDemocracy earlier this year during the Conservative leadership campaign.
It has not been confirmed if Chernukhin, Temerko or Lebedev are among those mentioned in the ISC report.
The request for the redactions of the ISC’s controversial Russia report is the latest in a series of attempts by Johnson’s government to prevent any evidence-based debate on Russia’s alleged covert influence on UK politics till the general election has been concluded next month.
Last week Downing Street unexpectedly announced publication of the report was being blocked. Dominic Grieve, the ISC’s chairman, described the decision as “jaw-dropping”, saying that no valid reason had been offered by Number 10.
The security services are understood to have approved the ISC’s final version of its report, with the lengthy official clearance process beginning almost seven months ago.
Downing Street was handed the final draft at the beginning of last month. And it is at this point that widespread redactions were ordered. openDemocracy has been told it was not clear whether the request came directly from Johnson or through his senior team of close advisors.
Senior government figures have insisted the delay is routine. Chancellor Sajid Javid said the timescale for the publication of the ISC report was “perfectly normal”.
Michael Gove said the report was being dealt with in an “appropriate” manner, with the transport secretary, Grant Shapps, pointing to the “machinery of government” being responsible for the delay.
The fifty-page report – the result of over a year’s work by the ISC – examines Russian influence, activity and interference suspected of affecting UK politics and allied institutions. The committee gathered evidence from leading intelligence analysts as well taking submissions from the three branches of the UK’s intelligence network, MI5, MI6 and GCHQ.
Potential links to the Kremlin and Russian intelligence, the influence of Russian money in the UK, and relationships that London-based Russian exiles enjoy at the highest level of the UK’s political elite, are all discussed in the report.
Last night the former US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, called Downing Street’s suppression of the report into potential Russian infiltration of British politics “damaging, inexplicable and shaming”.