our democracy is under attack in a new cold war

our democracy is under attack in a new cold war

Politicians must be alert to threats from foreign authorities

30 December 2022 at 06.48

Soliciting prostitutes, drinking too much and verbally abusing local staff. Brits abroad, right? Just for once, it’s not tough guys on a bachelor party who are being accused of appalling behavior abroad, but British parliamentarians.

MPs and peers are alleged to have engaged in a raft of misconduct on overseas trips organized by All Party Parliamentary Groups (APPGs). The indictment includes asking for directions to the nearest brothel, skipping morning meetings after heavy drinking sessions and subjecting a diplomat to a “sustained tirade,” according to a Politico investigation.

Such hair-raising reports raise pressing questions about the character of the parliamentarians involved, none of whom have been named so far, as well as the oversight model for these APPG visits. But amid the abundant allegations of outrageous antics, one claim in particular should be thought-provoking.

Despite some MPs apparently needing little persuasion to indulge in bad behavior on these overseas trips, it appears that third parties have actively sought to encourage risky behavior – and potentially for nefarious purposes.
The times revealed that on one APPG visit to a dictatorship, MPs found prostitutes loitering in their hotel rooms. There was no suggestion that the MPs knew in advance that sex workers were waiting for them, nor that they engaged their services.

Nevertheless, the incident has provoked unrest in the government, where sources fear that the list was clearly intended to gain influence over MPs on the trip. If a parliamentarian had been tempted, hidden cameras would probably have recorded footage that could in turn be used to blackmail the politician.

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The obvious inference is that the (unidentified) host state was behind the trick, which itself appears to have been an obvious attempt at an old-fashioned “honey trap”. More commonly found as a plot device in novels by John Le Carré, who coined the term in the first place, the honey trap may have been thought to be a relic of Cold War craft.
But its deployment today reflects an era of increasing international competition and geopolitical intrigue not unlike the heyday of Western-Soviet tensions.

A number of espionage operations are targeting our politicians, with outre tactics such as the honey trap intertwined with far more artful techniques that are harder to detect.

Some of these are underscored by technological prowess and involve complex digital attacks. In a notorious incident in 2017 linked to Iran, up to 90 people’s email accounts were compromised in a cyber attack on the British Parliament.
In this case, it was worrying that the methodology was not even sophisticated; the hack was based on a rudimentary technique that exploited weak passwords.

Meanwhile, Russia’s attempts to undermine UK democracy and the integrity of the Scottish independence referendum via disinformation, bot networks and propaganda have also been well documented. It was even alleged this autumn that Moscow agents hacked Liz Truss’ mobile phone when she was foreign secretary, allegedly giving them access to “top secret details” about Britain’s negotiations with international allies.

More insidious operations are also underway on home soil. Last month, MI5 chief Ken McCallum used his annual public threat assessment to draw attention to Chinese authorities, which he described as “playing the long game” in cultivating contacts in the UK to “manipulate public opinion in China’s favour”.

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This strategy involves Beijing gradually developing commitment debt, such as offering all-expenses-paid trips to lavish resorts on flimsy pretexts, and is aimed not only at cross-party, high-profile MPs or peers, but also at far-flung individuals. earlier stages of career in public life.

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When I asked him to elaborate in a Q&A after his speech, he explained that Chinese intelligence points to local councilors and others who “may be future parliamentary candidates, but are not yet even a candidate, much less an MP.” Beijing’s efforts are not limited to politics either: future rising stars and individuals deemed to show potential in academia and industry are also targeted in this way.

Examining the relatively low status of these “brands” has led some people to conclude that if it is the best China can do, it is of little concern. McCallum insists that this is the wrong conclusion. “If they’re prepared to invest this amount of patience, this amount of money, this amount of effort in cultivating very large volumes of potential assets throughout our system, that looks to me like a big and lasting challenge,” he said.

It was only at the beginning of this year after all that MI5 was forced to issue an interference notice to MPs about an alleged Chinese agent, who had donated around £500,000 to the office of Labor MP Barry Gardiner. He later spoke of his anger that someone had tried to use him in this way.

Taken together, then, these attempts by hostile states to build influence and enable interference in British politics target both specific, prominent politicians and diffuse groups of low-level actors. Rude tactics are used by foreign powers, not only abroad, but also here at home. Some operations seek immediate results, while others look towards further horizons.

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The result is that our democracy is under more sustained attack than many may have imagined. Politicians must be ever more vigilant – not only to the obvious dangers of honey traps and other old gambits, but also to the risks associated with their associates, staff, donors and digital communications.

Lucy Fisher is chief political commentator at Times Radio

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