Special counsel Robert Mueller indicted 12 Russian military officials on Friday and accused them of hacking into two Democratic Party computer systems to sabotage the 2016 presidential election.
Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein announced the indictments, filed in federal district court in Washington, just days before a scheduled Monday summit in Helsinki between Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin. U.S. intelligence agencies have assessed that Putin ordered a Russian effort to manipulate the 2016 election in Trump’s favor.
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Rosenstein said the Russians stole and released Democratic documents after planting malicious computer codes in the network of the Democratic National Committee as well as the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.
He said Russia’s GRU military intelligence service was behind online entities that disseminated and promoted the documents under the names Guccifer 2.0 and DCLeaks.
While many of its details confirmed previous news reports and other assessments, the indictment dramatically shifts the context for Trump’s upcoming meeting with Putin, whom U.S. intelligence services have concluded was behind the 2016 election interference scheme. Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer quickly called on Trump to cancel the planned meeting.
Speaking at a press conference at Justice Department headquarters in Washington, Rosenstein said he briefed Trump about the upcoming criminal charges earlier this week. He said the indictment’s timing was “a function of the collection of the facts, the evidence, and the law and a determine that it was sufficient to present the indictment at this time.”
“I’ll let the president speak for himself,” Rosenstein told reporters when asked if Trump, who has frequently blasted the Russia investigation as a “witch hunt,” supported the latest step in the 15-month old Mueller probe.
“Obviously it was important for the president to know what information we’ve uncovered because he’s got to make very important decisions for the country. So he needs to understand what evidence we have for an election interference,” he added.
Rosenstein added that the indictment does not allege involvement by any U.S. persons. Nor does it allege that the GRU operatives altered vote counts or otherwise affected the numerical results of the presidential race.
The indictments are the latest charges in a probe that has already netted guilty pleas from three former Donald Trump campaign aides whilethe presidenthimself remains under investigation by Mueller for potential obstruction of justice.
The 11-criminal count indictment will be handled by the Justice Department’s National Security Division.
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It alleges that the Russian military officials in 2016 sent spearfishing emails to volunteers and employees of Clinton’s campaign, including its chairman, Jon Podesta. Through those tactics, they stole user names and passwords from several people and used the information to both steal emails and hack into other Clinton campaign computers.
Russian officials also gained access to computer networks at the DCCC and DNC, where they covertly monitored the online activity of dozens of employees while implanting hundreds of files of malicious computer code to steal passwords and stay on their networks.
The charges filed in U.S. District Court in Washington against the Russians include criminal conspiracy to commit offense against the U.S. through cyber operations and attempting to hack into state election officials, aggravated identity theft and money laundering.
Democrats have long speculated that Moscow had inside help – whether from Americans or the Trump campaign itself – on which political targets to exploit and what kinds of leaked information would most resonate with swing voters.
It’s already been revealed that several people in Trump’s orbit – including Donald Trump Jr. and Roger Stone – communicated with Kremlin-linked individuals and WikiLeaks, which posted many of the Democrats’ hacked emails.
And Mueller’s prior indictments have further fueled speculation of a Trump-Russia connection. They have revealed that George Papadopoulos, a Trump campaign foreign policy aide who pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI, was told by a Kremlin-linked professor that the Russian government had “dirt” on Clinton in the form of “thousands of emails” a full three months before the DNC hack became public.
The recent charges against Russian social media disruptors also alleged that the online trolls used fake American personas to communicate with “unwitting” Trump aides and U.S. individuals as they gathered information on the American political landscape.
While lawyers for one of the Russian companies fighting Mueller’s earlier charges has pushed back in federal court, It’s still considered unlikely any of the latest spate of charged hackers will actually end up in a U.S. court. But American officials have increasingly pursued a strategy of publicly indicting overseas hackers as a way of shaming foreign governments for launching cyberattacks on the U.S. In recent years, the Justice Department has similarly filed charges against hackers working for the Chinese and Iranian governments.
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