As I noted on Thursday, Britain's top security priority is countering Islamic terrorist threats. Yet the world is big and British spy agencies also have other top concerns.
In its 2016-2017 report released before Christmas, Parliament's Intelligence and Security Committee gave us a window into just what those priorities are.
First up, Russia.
While the ISC hints, positively, that MI5 (the U.K.'s domestic-focus spy agency) has a strong awareness of Russian intelligence operations in Britain, it does not bother to mention the costs of that Russian presence. That's a problem because Britain's central challenge with Russian intelligence is not that it doesn't know what the Russians are doing, but that it allows them to do it.
This acquiescence flows from a U.K. political decision to allow pernicious Russian crime and intelligence influences on its soil in return for billions of pounds in Russian spending in London's economy. Only recently did Prime Minister Theresa May outline plans to take a less amenable stance here.
Still, the ISC does carry some tough language towards the Kremlin. It notes the assessment of MI6 (the U.K.'s foreign-focus spy agency) "that Russia is to all intents and purposes in conflict with Ukraine."
This language has value for American observers of the Ukraine conflict. As I explained last week, the Trump administration must broadcast surety of resolve to Putin as it supports the Ukrainian government with new weapon deliveries. Regardless, Putin is likely to bring new violence to that afflicted nation.
The ISC also calls out Russian denials of responsibility for the downing of passenger airliner MH-17 over Ukraine in July 2014. These denials, the ISC says, are "an outright falsehood: we know beyond any reasonable doubt that the Russian military supplied and subsequently recovered the missile launcher."
The language of that intelligence assessment means the U.K. has multi-source, highest-confidence reporting that Russia was responsible.
On China, the ISC notes that Beijing's intelligence operations are consistently trying to steal British intellectual property and military secrets. But the ISC also speaks to an Obama administration project. "As part of the diplomatic push to curb cyber-crime," the ISC says, "in October 2015 the UK and China jointly announced that they had agreed not to engage in commercial cyber-espionage on one another."
That deal was originally brokered by former President Barack Obama with Xi Jinping of China.
While the ISC redacts a GCHQ (Britain's NSA equivalent agency) assessment of the deal's outcome, we can make a fair analysis based on the U.S. experience of the same deal. Today, Chinese cyber-theft remains a serious problem, but its hackers are now focused on deliberate targets rather than trailblazing their way through western corporate servers looking for anything they can grab.
I've always thought China's evolution here reflected a shift in its strategic awareness that it could get more value by greater intelligence targeting. But the deal is not, as some Obama folks claim, a U.S. success. If anything it made the west look weak.
Nevertheless, Britain probably faces fewer Chinese intrusions than the U.S. as a result of its government's strategic decision to play nice with China in return for economic deals.
Onto the Middle East, the ISC describes Iran as "a [redacted] priority in the [U.K. intelligence community] plan, marked as relevant against [redacted national priority] themes."
Redactions aside, seeing as Iran affects various U.K. priority intelligence target themes of counter-proliferation, cyber-espionage and counter-terrorism, the Ayatollah's theocracy is almost certainly a high priority target. The most interesting ISC comment is that "Iranian motivations against the UK are more obscure than those of Russia and China."
I think I know why Iranian motivations are more obscure: Iranian strategy.
More specifically, while Iran fundamentally mistrusts the U.K. for its alliance with America, it also wants to separate the U.K. from President Trump's harder-line stance on the nuclear deal. Tehran knows that if Britain refuses to support Trump's approach to reform the Iran deal, the other European nations will likely follow suit. Correspondingly, Iran is presently reluctant to engage in highly aggressive activities against U.K. interests in the fear that doing so will push Britain into Trump's hands.
Two points stand out in the ISC report's North Korea section.
First, that Kim Jong Un's liberated command authority and a "lack of legal process means that North Korea can act with considerable speed." Kim's unpredictable behavior is a problem, the ISC continues, in that he is "prepared to use its capabilities without any concern for attribution, and for ideological motives which are alien to other countries."
This language suggests Britain has less confidence than the U.S. intelligence community when it comes to the question of Kim's rationality or otherwise.
Second, reflecting the challenge of recruiting agents inside North Korea, the ISC's footnotes show that its North Korea reporting relies wholly on testimony from GCHQ. I would assume much of GCHQ's operational activity here is conducted alongside the NSA.
Then there's the issue of Brexit.
The ISC notes that the November 2015 Paris attacks led Britain to build an increasingly close intelligence relationship with European nations. That said, the ISC expresses concern that Britain's departure from the European Union will restrict its ability to influence E.U. counter-terrorism efforts.
I don't share that concern. As I've noted, the U.K. should play hardball here: the European Union needs British intelligence far more than vice versa.
Anyway, you can read the entire report here.