WASHINGTON (Circa) — New details were revealed Friday about Russian attempts to influence the 2016 presidential election as special counsel Robert Mueller filed an indictment against 12 Russian intelligence officers for their alleged role in the hacking of email accounts and computer networks tied to Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton.
Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein announced the indictment at a news conference, peeling back the curtain slightly on the work of Mueller’s team, which has spent more than a year digging into Russian election meddling and potential ties to President Donald Trump’s campaign. The indictment does not level any accusations against Trump or his campaign staff.
“According to the allegations in the indictment, the defendants worked for two units of the Main Intelligence Directorate of the Russian General Staff, known as the GRU,” Rosenstein said. “The units engaged in active cyber operations to interfere in the 2016 presidential election. One GRU unit worked to steal information, while another unit worked to disseminate stolen information.”
Rosenstein said he briefed President Trump on the new charges earlier this week. Despite the revelations, the White House said Friday Trump’s planned meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin next week is still on.
Court documents identify 12 Russians accused of “knowingly and intentionally” conspiring to hack into computers of persons and entities involved in the election, steal documents from those computers, and stage releases of the stolen documents to influence the election.
Eleven of the defendants were charged with conspiring to commit an offense against the United States, aggravated identity theft, and money laundering. One of those defendants and a twelfth Russian face an additional conspiracy charge for attempting to infiltrate computers of organizations responsible for administering elections.
The indictment alleges a lengthy and elaborate effort to influence the election by targeting hundreds of people, hacking dozens of computers and email accounts, and strategically releasing tens of thousands of stolen documents over the course of nine months.
“It’s what’s called a speaking indictment,” said former federal prosecutor Juliet Sorensen, director of the Bluhm Legal Clinic at Northwestern University. “It’s not a bare-bones indictment. That in and of itself sends a strong signal about the strength of the investigation, about what evidence has been gathered so far.”
Beginning in March 2016 and continuing through the summer, the indictment states the hackers targeted more than 300 individuals affiliated with Clinton’s campaign, the Democratic National Committee, or the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, including campaign chairman John Podesta.
Plans to release the stolen documents were underway as early as April 2016, when the defendants allegedly registered the domain dcleaks.com. After the DNC announced it had been hacked by the Russian government in June 2016, the persona of a lone Romanian hacker known as “Guccifer 2.0” was created with its own website and Twitter account.
In addition to posting documents on Guccifer 2.0’s WordPress page, the hackers allegedly received a message from WikiLeaks—identified in the indictment only as an organization “that had previously posted comments stolen from U.S. persons, entities, and the U.S. government”—offering to help release them in a way that would have greater impact.
Alleged messages from WikiLeaks quoted in the indictment specifically mentioned wanting to get documents posted before Hillary Clinton solidified support from backers of primary opponent Sen. Bernie Sanders. Days before the Democratic convention, 20,000 DNC documents were released, stirring outrage among Sanders voters who believed the primary process was rigged against him.
The new joke in town is that Russia leaked the disastrous DNC e-mails, which should never have been written (stupid), because Putin likes me— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) July 25, 2016
On October 7, 2016, WikiLeaks dumped the first of 33 tranches of documents obtained from Podesta’s email account. In the month before the election, more than 50,000 stolen documents were released.
WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange has repeatedly denied working with the Russian government, but he has refused to identify the source of the Democratic documents.
The court filing lays out tactics used to infiltrate the networks, including sending spearphishing emails posing as a known campaign member. After gaining access to a DCCC employee’s account, hackers were able to install malware on at least ten computers. That enabled them to obtain the credentials of a DCCC staffer with access to the DNC’s network. By June, they had wormed into 33 DNC computers.
On July 27, 2016, the same day then-candidate Trump publicly said he hoped Russia could find the 30,000 personal emails Clinton deleted from her tenure as secretary of state, the hackers allegedly "attempted after hours to spearphish for the first time email accounts at a domain hosted by a third-party provider and used by Clinton's personal office." Around the same time, they targeted 76 email addressed at the Clinton campaign's domain.
If Russia or any other country or person has Hillary Clinton's 33,000 illegally deleted emails, perhaps they should share them with the FBI!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) July 27, 2016
The identity theft charges relate to eight specific attempts to access email accounts or computer networks with victims’ user names and passwords. The money laundering allegation involves $95,000 worth of cryptocurrencies used to purchase servers, domains and other services to facilitate the hacking.
Beyond hacking networks and accounts associated with Clinton and the Democratic Party, the indictment also alleges efforts were made to obtain voter information in several states, including the theft of records on 500,000 voters in one unspecified state. However, Rosenstein underscored Friday there is no evidence vote counts anywhere were affected.
“There is no allegation in this indictment that any American citizen committed a crime. There is no allegation that the conspiracy altered the vote count or changed any election result,” he said. “The special counsel's investigation is ongoing. There will be no comments from the special counsel at this time.”
The indictments Rod Rosenstein announced are good news for all Americans. The Russians are nailed. No Americans are involved. Time for Mueller to end this pursuit of the President and say President Trump is completely innocent.— Mayor Rudy Giuliani (@RudyGiuliani) July 13, 2018
Though the indictment does not identify any U.S. citizens directly implicated in the conspiracy, it does suggest a few actively engaged with the Guccifer 2.0 persona about obtaining stolen information.
“The fact that they are identified, even if they are not named, certainly raises the possibility the special counsel has looked at those individuals as well,” Sorensen said.
On or about August 15, 2016, Guccifer 2.0 received and complied with a request from an unnamed U.S. congressional candidate for documents related to their opponent. A week later, the hackers transferred 2.5 gigabytes of data stolen from the DCCC, including donor records, to “a then-registered state lobbyist and online source of political news.” The account was also in contact with at least two U.S. reporters.
In addition, the indictment quotes three messages sent to “a person who was in regular contact with senior members of the presidential campaign of Donald J. Trump,” including one explicitly offering help. Roger Stone, a friend and adviser of the president, has previously confirmed having identical contacts with Guccifer, stating last September that the communication was “benign.”
Stone dismissed the filing Friday, telling The Daily Beast, “This exchange is entirely public and provides no evidence of collaboration or collusion with Guccifer 2.0 or anyone else in the alleged hacking of the DNC emails, as well as taking place many weeks after the events described in today’s indictment.”
While the indictment offers fresh granular details like what aliases were used and where servers utilized by the hackers were located, former FBI special agent Jim Wedick, who spent 35 years with the bureau, shrugged it off as “old news.”
“We’ve known this for two years,” he said, questioning why it has taken so long to take action when Russian interference was alleged with high confidence long ago by intelligence agencies.
According to John Iannarelli, a former FBI special agent and spokesperson, the charges serve as a reminder amid the partisan rancor that has developed around the special counsel’s probe that this is all about uncovering the truth about a Russian intelligence operation.
“This is why the investigation was opened,” he said.
The indictment comes at a complicated moment politically. President Trump is set to meet with Putin in Helsinki Monday, and he told reporters earlier Friday he intends to raise the election meddling issue. However, Trump has suggested in the past that he believes Putin’s denials of involvement, casting doubt on Russian culpability as recently as two weeks ago.
Russia continues to say they had nothing to do with Meddling in our Election! Where is the DNC Server, and why didn’t Shady James Comey and the now disgraced FBI agents take and closely examine it? Why isn’t Hillary/Russia being looked at? So many questions, so much corruption!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) June 28, 2018
“Russia continues to say they had nothing to do with Meddling in our Election!” he tweeted on June 28. “Where is the DNC Server, and why didn’t Shady James Comey and the now disgraced FBI agents take and closely examine it? Why isn’t Hillary/Russia being looked at? So many questions, so much corruption!”
Stakes were already high for the Putin summit, coming days after a contentious NATO meeting and a rocky visit to England. After the indictment was announced Friday, Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., called on Trump to cancel the meeting with Putin. The White House promptly rejected that demand.
Back home, the partisan divide over the legitimacy of Mueller’s probe continues to deepen. Republicans repeatedly questioned the origins and motivations behind the investigation Thursday during a 10-hour public interrogation of Peter Strzok, the FBI agent who initiated the counter-intelligence case involving Trump’s campaign in mid-2016.
Strzok served briefly on Mueller’s team in 2017 before virulently anti-Trump texts he exchanged with FBI lawyer Lisa Page—with whom he was having an affair—were uncovered. Page was interviewed by House members Friday. Trump and his supporters have argued Strzok’s bias invalidates the entire investigation.
The White House did not dispute the indictment’s allegations, but spokesperson Lindsay Walters stressed that it does not accuse anyone involved with the campaign of wrongdoing.
“Today’s charges include no allegations of knowing involvement by anyone on the campaign and no allegations that the alleged hacking affected the election result. This is consistent with what we have been saying all along,” she said in a statement.
According to Iannarelli, the timing of the indictment likely was not a coincidence, and it provides the public and the president with new context for the meeting with Putin.
“If there’s discussions that appear tense for any reason, this may be why,” he said.
The legal consequences of the filing are unclear. As with Mueller’s previous indictment of Russian individuals and entities associated with the Internet Research Agency, it is unlikely any of the defendants will ever face prosecution.
There is no chance of Russia extraditing its operatives to stand trial, but the officers will be unable to travel to countries with extradition treaties with the U.S. and they now know their activities are being watched.
“It kind of neutralizes their ability to act,” Iannarelli said.
The U.S. government took similar action against five Chinese military hackers in 2014, accusing them of cyber espionage against several American corporations.
“It just more or less makes a statement,” Wedick said.
NEW NUMBERS: Special counsel Robert Mueller has brought 191 criminal charges against 35 defendants, according to CNN’s count. This includes 112 new charges brought today against a dozen Russian operatives for hacking.— Marshall Cohen (@MarshallCohen) July 13, 2018
In this case, that statement appears to be that Mueller’s investigation is far from complete.
“Although a U.S. court may never have jurisdiction over the individuals charged today, other targets who are in the U.S. should be on notice that the work of the special counsel continues,” Sorensen said.