WASHINGTON -- A dozen Russian military intelligence officers were indicted Friday on charges they hacked Democrats' computers, stole their data, and published those files to disrupt the 2016 election -- the clearest connection to the Kremlin established so far by special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation of interference in the presidential campaign.
The indictment against members of the Russian military agency known as the GRU marks the first time Mueller has taken direct aim at the Russian government, accusing specific military units and their named officers of a sophisticated, sustained effort to hack the computer networks of Democratic organizations and the Hillary Clinton campaign.
Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein announced the charges at a midday news conference. Mueller, as has been his practice, did not attend the announcement. Court records show that a grand jury Mueller has been using returned an indictment Friday morning.
The suspects "covertly monitored the computers, implanted hundreds of files containing malicious computer code, and stole emails and other documents," Rosenstein said. "The goal of the conspirators was to have an impact on the election. What impact they may have had ... is a matter of speculation; that's not our responsibility."
The indictment comes days before President Donald Trump is due to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Finland. Rosenstein said he briefed Trump earlier this week on the charges.
Rosenstein said of his decision to brief Trump, "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. He needs to understand what evidence we have of foreign election interference."
Rosenstein said the hackers interacted with some Americans in the course of their efforts but noted that those people had not been charged with a crime.
"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," he said. "There will always be adversaries who work to exacerbate domestic differences and try to confuse, divide and conquer us. So long as we are united in our commitment to the values enshrined in the Constitution, they will not succeed."
Mueller and a team of prosecutors have been working since May 2017 to determine whether any Trump associates conspired with Russia to interfere in the election. With the new indictment, his office has filed charges against 32 people on crimes including hacking, money laundering and lying to the FBI. Twenty-six of those charged are Russians who are unlikely to ever be put on trial in the United States.
The Russian defendants are not in custody, and it is not clear they will ever appear in an American courtroom, though the Justice Department in recent years has seen value in indicting foreign hackers in absentia as public deterrence.
Trump's lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, said on Twitter that the indictments "are good news for all Americans. The Russians are nailed. No Americans are involved." He then called on Mueller "to end this pursuit of the president and say President Trump is completely innocent."
The 11-count, 29-page indictment describes in detail a carefully planned and executed attack on the information security of Democrats, as Russian government hackers implanted hundreds of malware files on Democrats' computer systems to steal information. The hackers then laundered the pilfered material through fake personas including DC Leaks and Guccifer 2.0 to try to influence voters.
One of their conduits, identified in the indictment only as "Organization 1," was WikiLeaks, the global anti-secrecy group led by Julian Assange, according to people familiar with the case. The indictment describes WikiLeaks communicating with Guccifer 2.0 to obtain material. On July 6, 2016, according to the indictment, WikiLeaks wrote, "if you have anything Hillary related we want it in the next tweo [sic] days prefable [sic] because the DNC [Democratic National Convention] is approaching and she will solidify bernie supporters behind her after," referring to Clinton's rival for the Democratic nomination, Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt. WikiLeaks explained, "we think trump has only a 25% chance of winning against hillary ... so conflict between bernie and hillary is interesting."
WikiLeaks released nearly 20,000 Democratic National Committee emails on the eve of the convention later that month, providing a look at party operations and attitudes to the Sanders campaign.
The charges allege the Russian defendants, using the Guccifer 2.0 persona, in August 2016 contacted a person close to the Trump campaign saying it would be a "great pleasure" to help. And they allege that the hackers, hours after Trump encouraged Russia to find missing Clinton emails, tried for the first time to break into email accounts used by Clinton's personal office, along with 76 Clinton campaign email addresses.
The indictment does not allege that Trump campaign associates were involved in the hacking effort or that Americans were knowingly in touch with Russian officers. It also does not allege that any vote tallies were altered by hacking. The White House seized on those points in a statement that offered no condemnation of the alleged Russian conspiracy.
According to the indictment, Guccifer 2.0 received a request for stolen documents from an unidentified congressional candidate and provided them, and sent pilfered materials on the Black Lives Matter movement to a journalist.
On Aug. 15, the indictment says, Guccifer 2.0 reached out to someone in regular contact with the Trump campaign and asked the person if he or she had seen anything "interesting in the docs I posted?" Guccifer 2.0 offered help.
The indictment doesn't identify the person, though Roger Stone, through his lawyer on Friday, acknowledged a "24-word exchange with someone on Twitter claiming to be Guccifer 2.0."
The conspirators used a variety of currencies for its financial network, according to the indictment. But the Russians principally sought to use bitcoin to fund their work, including the purchase of servers and domain names.
Relying on bitcoin, the indictment said, allowed the Russians "to avoid direct relationships with traditional financial institutions" -- that is, banks that typically want to know details about their customers.
DENIALS IN MOSCOW
Trump repeatedly has expressed skepticism about Russian involvement in the hacking and has been accused by Democrats of cozying up to the Russian president. He complained anew about the Russia investigation before the indictment, saying the "stupidity" was making it "very hard to do something with Russia."
The Kremlin denied anew that it tried to sway the election. "The Russian state has never interfered and has no intention of interfering in the U.S. elections," Putin's foreign affairs adviser, Yuri Ushakov, said Friday just hours before Rosenstein announced the indictments.
During a briefing on the summit in Finland, Ushakov challenged U.S. officials to offer proof to back the ongoing allegations of Russian interference, adding that Putin has proposed setting up a joint working group on cybersecurity to look into the matter.
"Opponents of better U.S.-Russia ties mustn't be allowed to endlessly speculate on that harmful and artificial subject," he said.
Ushakov described the summit as "the summer's main international event" and said it offered hope that Moscow and Washington could join efforts to tackle global challenges such as international terrorism and regional conflicts.
"The current tensions have no objective reasons," he said.
Russia-U.S. ties have plummeted to post-Cold War lows over the Russian annexation of Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula, the war in Syria and the allegations that Russia meddled in the U.S. presidential race to help Trump win.
The Russian Foreign Ministry rejected the indictment's allegations as lacking evidence and described the charges as a clear effort to derail the Helsinki summit.
"It is unfortunate that distributing false information has become the norm in Washington, and that criminal cases are being initiated based on clearly political motives," the ministry said. Referring to the Mueller investigation, the statement went on: "The question remains how long this shameful comedy that is embarrassing the United States will go on."
If the involvement of the officers in the Russian GRU is proved, it would shatter the Kremlin denials of the Russian state's involvement in the U.S. elections given that the GRU is part of the state machine.
Mueller's probe has come under sustained attack from Trump and at a news conference Friday in England before Rosenstein spoke, the president again labeled the investigation a "witch hunt."
"I think that we're being hurt very badly by the rigged witch hunt," said Trump as he stood beside British Prime Minister Theresa May. "It really hurts our relationship with Russia."
Top Senate Democrat Charles Schumer of New York urged Trump to cancel the Helsinki meeting until Russia takes steps to prove it won't interfere in future elections.
"Glad-handing with Vladimir Putin on the heels of these indictments would be an insult to our democracy," Schumer said in a statement less than an hour after Rosenstein detailed the new charges.
Schumer said the indictments are "further proof of what everyone but the president seems to understand: President Putin is an adversary who interfered in our elections to help President Trump win."
Information for this article was contributed by Devlin Barrett, Matt Zapotosky, Spencer S. Hsu, Amie Ferris-Rotman and John Wagner of The Washington Post; by Eric Tucker, Darlene Superville, Richard Lardner, Desmond Butler, Mary Clare Jalonick, Raphael Satter and Vladimir Isachenkov of The Associated Press; and by Mark Mazzetti and Katie Benner of The New York Times.
A Section on 07/14/2018
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