Russia report: Johnson to boost security laws with register for spies

Boris Johnson is preparing to give the security services more powers to stop foreign interference in Britain under new laws to combat the threat of Russian spies.

The crackdown, suggested in the Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC) report which claimed the government “took its eye off the ball” over Russia, will include a “register of foreign agents”.

Sky News understands that the PM, who held talks on security with the US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in Downing Street, is looking at whether additional powers are needed to meet threats to the UK.

The US has a Foreign Agents Registration Act, which forces individuals working on behalf of foreign governments, officials or political parties to register with the Department of Justice and file reports about their activities.

And Number 10 sources have told Sky News that the government is considering whether an Espionage Bill first proposed by Theresa May after the Salisbury poisonings in March 2018 should include these additional powers.

It is understood that the prime minister and senior colleagues believe a register would allow the security services to monitor agents from hostile states such as Russia or China much more closely.

The government is likely to be pressed on the plans when Labour’s Shadow Home Secretary Nick Thomas-Symonds asks Home Secretary Priti Patel an urgent question on the Russia report and during Prime Minister’s Questions.

Although the government dismissed the ISC report and claimed there was no need for a formal investigation on Russia, the report includes a suggestion that a US-style register could prevent spies concealing their activities.

“One specific issue that a new Espionage Act might address is individuals acting on behalf of a foreign power and seeking to obfuscate this link,” the report recommends.

“The US, in 1938, introduced the US Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA), which requires anyone other than accredited diplomats – including both US and non-US citizens – who represents the interests of foreign powers in a “political or quasi-political capacity” to register with the Department of Justice, disclosing their relationship with the foreign government and information about related activities and finances.

“Additionally, US legislation requires agents, other than diplomats, performing non-political activities under the control of foreign governments or foreign officials, to notify the Attorney General (registration under FARA serves as the requisite notification).

“Anyone who should have registered but who has not done so can be prosecuted and, in the case of non-US citizens, deported. The UK has no equivalent legislation to FARA – which would clearly be valuable in countering Russian influence in the UK.”

The UK government is now likely to push ahead with new counter-espionage legislation, aimed at making Britain a “harder environment for adversaries to operate in”. Those who fail to register could be jailed or deported.

The US law was originally introduced just before the Second World War to combat foreign agents disseminating fascist propaganda. It was revived by Robert Mueller during his investigation as US special counsel into Russian efforts to interfere in the 2016 presidential election and has since been used to charge prominent figures who have breached its terms.

The prime minister’s move to follow the US lead – and that of Australia, which has a similar law – comes amid growing concern in the intelligence community that Britain’s counter-terrorism laws are out of date.

The Russia report also includes evidence from the former head of MI5 Sir Andrew Parker, who told the ISC that foreign agents were, in effect, able to operate with impunity in Britain because of outdated security laws.

He warned that under the present legislation foreign spies could not be prosecuted unless they were caught acquiring official secrets.

“Today it is not an offence in any sense to be a covert agent of the Russian intelligence services in the UK – just to be that, to be in covert contact, to be pursuing a brief – unless you acquire damaging secrets and give them to your masters,” he told the committee.

He said the Official Secrets Act, parts of which date back to the First World War, had become “dusty and largely ineffective”, adding: “We are left with something which makes it very hard to deal with some of the situations we are talking about today in the realm of the economic sphere, cyber, things that could be more to do with influence.”

The ISC report said that successive governments welcomed Russian oligarchs and money to Britain “with open arms”, making Russian influence in the UK a “new normal”.

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