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Justice Department Charges Russian Cyberspies With Attack On 2016 Election

Jul 13, 2018
Originally published on July 13, 2018 9:38 pm

Updated at 9:38 p.m. ET

The Justice Department charged 12 Russian intelligence officers on Friday with a litany of alleged offenses related to Russia's hacking of the Democratic National Committee's emails, state election systems and other targets in 2016.

Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who announced the indictments, said the Russians involved belonged to the military intelligence service GRU. They are accused of a sustained cyberattack against Democratic Party targets, including its campaign committee and Hillary Clinton's campaign.

The GRU attackers also allegedly targeted state election systems, including government agencies and their vendors, and stole information about 500,000 American voters.

The attacks were a signature feature of Russia's active measures against the United States; embarrassing emails were passed to WikiLeaks, which released them publicly. The GRU also created other ways to pass the material it stole into the public, including a website called DCLeaks and a fake persona called "Guccifer 2.0."

The flood of embarrassing information about the inner workings of the Democratic Party's leadership led to the resignation of then-DNC Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman-Schultz. Later, Clinton's campaign chairman John Podesta also was embarrassed by the release of his emails.

The Russians named in the indictment discussed how and when to release material they had accumulated to make the biggest political splash inside the United States, Rosenstein said.

There is no allegation in the indictment that any American participated knowingly in the GRU cyberattacks, Rosenstein said.

Justice Department special counsel Robert Mueller is continuing to investigate whether anyone in the United States conspired with the Russian attack on the election.

But Rosenstein said that responsibility for this prosecution — which is unlikely to go forward to a trial in court as Russia is unlikely to extradite the suspects who have been charged — would pass from Mueller's office to the national security division of the Justice Department.

Friday's announcement follows a separate but related indictment by the special counsel's office from earlier this year of Russians allegedly connected to the campaign of social media agitation aimed at amplifying political controversy within the United States.

The Russian government has so far declined to extradite the people named, although one American attorney has been arguing the case in Washington on behalf of a company that's involved.

Cui bono?

Rosenstein asked Americans to not only focus on who was hurt by or benefited politically from the Russian attacks but to unite against foreign influence in the American democratic process.

"In my remarks, I have not identified the victims," Rosenstein said. "When we confront foreign interference in American elections, it is important for us to avoid thinking politically as Republicans or Democrats and instead to think patriotically as Americans. Our response must not depend on who was victimized."

The U.S. intelligence community has concluded, with further verification by the Senate intelligence committee, that Russia's active measures were aimed at hurting Clinton and helping Trump.

White House spokeswoman Lindsay Walter emphasized that no one in the Trump campaign was connected with the indictment unsealed on Friday.

"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," she said. "This is consistent with what we have been saying all along."

Separately, one of Trump's lawyers, former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, welcomed the Justice Department announcement and said it showed that Mueller should finish up soon.

"The indictments Rod Rosenstein announced are good news for all Americans," he wrote on Twitter. "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."

The Americans who were unwittingly communicating with the Russian spies included a candidate for Congress — who is not identified — and at least one journalist. At least "one person who was in regular contact with senior members of the presidential campaign" also communicated with the GRU officers.

The indictment also says that on July 27, 2016, the GRU officers "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." They also pinged 76 emails associated with the Clinton campaign.

July 27 was the day that Trump said, "Russia, if you're listening, I hope you're able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing" from Clinton's email servers.

Geopolitical implications

Rosenstein's announcement took place just ahead of a planned meeting between President Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin on Monday in Helsinki.

Trump told reporters Friday during his visit to the United Kingdom that he planned to "ask" Putin about Russia's attack on the election.

Trump has gone back and forth as to what he acknowledges about what took place and has cited Russia's official denials about its active measures. The president also has said the interference took place and vowed that if it returned in the 2018 midterm election — as U.S. intelligence officials have warned it may — he would "counteract it very strongly."

Rosenstein said the announcement of the charges on Friday took place because that was when the special counsel's office had completed its work investigating them and had the ability to present the evidence to a grand jury. The deputy attorney general said he had briefed the president about the matter.

Russia's foreign ministry said the indictments were an attempt to "spoil" the meeting.

Virginia Sen. Mark Warner, the top Democrat on the Senate intelligence committee, called on Trump to cancel his one-on-one meeting with Putin in Helsinki.

Warner told reporters on Capitol Hill that he worried that Trump's "ad hoc style" in which he "does not prepare" would be "taken advantage of" by Putin.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said the indictment emphasized how tough Trump must be on Putin at their summit.

"The stakes for the upcoming Trump-Putin meeting could not be higher," Pelosi said. "President Trump must demand and secure a real, concrete and comprehensive agreement that the Russians will cease their ongoing attacks on our democracy. Failure to stand up to Putin would constitute a profound betrayal of the Constitution and our democracy."

Pelosi later joined other Democrats on Friday in calling for Trump to cancel his meeting with Putin.

Republicans stopped short of calling for Trump to cancel his meeting but some of them did also call for the president to take a firm line.

"All patriotic Americans should understand that Putin is not America's friend, and he is not the president's buddy," said Nebraska Sen. Ben Sasse. "We should stand united against Putin's past and planned future attacks against us."

South Carolina Rep. Trey Gowdy, chairman of the House oversight committee, echoed the note that Rosenstein sounded about how Americans of all political parties should be concerned about foreign election interference.

"I am pleased Russia is being held accountable for their actions against our country," Gowdy said. "This was not an attack on Republicans or an attack on Democrats — this was an attack on the United States."

The oversight committee plans to convene a hearing about election security by the end of July.

The indictment unsealed on Friday is available here.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

President Trump sipped tea with the queen this afternoon at Windsor Castle. Even as the president and the first lady were trading pleasantries with Britain's longest-reigning monarch, a different story involving the administration was unfolding back in Washington.

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ROD ROSENSTEIN: Indictment charges 12 Russian military officers by name for conspiring to interfere with the 2016 presidential election.

KELLY: That was deputy attorney general Rod Rosenstein announcing more indictments in special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 election. The 12 Russian intelligence officers are accused of carrying out sustained attacks on the Democratic National Committee, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, the Hillary Clinton campaign and numerous state election systems. The charges include aggravated identity theft, also conspiracy to launder money and conspiracy to commit an offense against the United States - quite the list.

All right. Let's bring in Senator Angus King. He is an independent from Maine, and he sits on the Senate Intelligence Committee. He joins me now from Maine. Welcome back to the program, Senator.

ANGUS KING: Glad to be with you.

KELLY: Some Democrats who you caucus with are calling on President Trump to cancel his upcoming meeting - this is supposed to be happening Monday in Helsinki - his meeting with Vladimir Putin. Do you agree? Should he call it off?

KING: No, I don't think that he should call off the meeting. What I do think he should do is turn the one-on-one meeting that's been scheduled into an open meeting, not unlike the breakfast that he had at the NATO meeting, where he confronts Mr. Putin directly with the evidence of their involvement in our election. And let's see how Putin responds in public. This recent...

KELLY: You're talking about the breakfast meeting with the secretary general Jens Stoltenberg, which, at least part of it, was televised. Do you want that?

KING: Exactly. I think it should be public and televised. If he's going to - he ought to lay it out and say, look; we've got criminal indictments approved by a grand jury in America of your people by name. You know, let's fess up here. Let's get this - get to the bottom of this. So that's my suggestion. I don't think he should cancel the summit. But I do think he should cancel the one-on-one meeting and instead substitute a public meeting where he can confront the president of Russia with this new information.

KELLY: An on-the-record summit. I suspect every journalist who'll be covering that in Helsinki would agree with (laughter) you on that point. Let me - setting the meeting aside, let me ask this. Should there be consequences for Russia beyond these indictments?

KING: Absolutely. And that's one of the problems in this whole enterprise, is that this is - we've been a cheap date for Russia. There have been no consequences. There have been no real results. There were some sanctions and some expulsions, but nothing really of the significance that this attack on our democracy merited. And until we start making it clear to our adversaries - and in this case, it's Russia - that a price will be paid when you do something like this, it's going to keep happening. And I believe that it's happening right now with regard to the elections coming up this fall and certainly in 2020.

We've - and the president can really help by separating the collusion issue, which he's understandably defensive about, from the fact that they did it. Everybody knows they did it. The Intelligence Committee community is unanimous. Our committee verified that report last week. And now we've got these indictments. Let's get over this witch-hunt stuff and talk about what happened...

KELLY: On...

KING: ...To us and how we can keep it from happening again.

KELLY: On the subject of collusion, there is nothing in this indictment, no allegation, that any American knowingly participated in the cyberattacks that are detailed here. Does that in some way stand up what the president's been arguing all along, that there was no collusion with the Trump campaign?

KING: Well, I don't think it's evidence of that one way or the other. I don't think it adds or subtracts. It's a part of the case, you know. And these were the - these apparently were the individuals that were actually involved in this activity, but we don't know how far up the line it went. So I don't think it answers that question one way or the other.

KELLY: Just in a few seconds that we have left, Senator, set these indictments alongside all the charges Mueller has already brought. What's the significance of these 12 being indicted?

KING: Well, I think the significance is this adds another level of detail of - if you read the indictments, of what was actually done. And the fact that we have these names means, you know, this just isn't a gray area or a supposition. This is detailed information about the Russians attacking our democratic system. And it's serious, and we've got to be prepared for it again. And we've got to put a stop to it.

KELLY: Thanks very much, Senator.

KING: Thank you.

KELLY: That's Angus King, member of the Senate Intelligence Committee and an independent from Maine. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.