The golden domes of the Kremlin’s Orthodox churches sit in Moscow, Russia. (Photographer: Andrey Rudakov/Bloomberg)

Mueller Charges 12 Russians on Hacking Before Trump-Putin Summit

(Bloomberg) -- The U.S. special counsel brought election meddling directly to Vladimir Putin’s doorstep just days before the Russian leader plans to meet with President Donald Trump, charging 12 Russian military intelligence officers with computer attacks meant to undermine the Democratic Party.

The indictment, announced on Friday, fleshes out U.S. intelligence agencies’ longstanding conclusion that Russia interfered with the 2016 presidential race. The case provides powerful evidence to rebut skeptics -- including Trump himself at times -- who say Russia may not have had a role.

In a news conference, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein described how units of Russia’s GRU intelligence agency stole emails from the Democratic National Committee and Hillary Clinton’s campaign, then released them in ways meant to dominate headlines as Americans prepared to vote. In a second operation, the officers targeted election infrastructure and local election officials. They set up servers in the U.S. and Malaysia under fake names to run their operations, paying for their work with cryptocurrency that had been “mined” under their direction.

The fine details of Russian intelligence operations -- the names of officers, the buildings where they worked and the computers they used to run phishing operations and make payments -- suggest that prosecutors had an inside view aided by their own or another government’s intelligence apparatus.

Rosenstein, who appointed Special Counsel Robert Mueller to investigate Russian election meddling, concluded his succinct announcement of the indictment with what amounted to a sermon on the importance of adhering to facts and the rule of law as partisan tempers flare. The Justice Department works independently of politics, he said, adding that he had informed the president earlier this week of its findings.

“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,” Rosenstein said, adding that the fevered political climate doesn’t reflect the "grace and dignity of the American people.”

With the latest charges, Mueller has secured indictments against three entities and 32 individuals, including more than two dozen Russians, and secured five guilty pleas. Mueller’s prosecutors have also marked out other Internet pathways they say Russia used to influence the U.S. election. On Feb. 16, they charged 13 Russians and three Russian entities with sowing discord among U.S. voters through social media -- impersonating Americans, coordinating with unwitting U.S. activists and even planning rallies.

No Americans were charged Friday. But the indictment shows unidentified Americans -- including a person close to the Trump campaign and a candidate for Congress -- communicated with the Russian intelligence officers.

Echoing Rosenstein, White House spokeswoman Lindsay Walters said that “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.”

The charges were unveiled only three days before the U.S. president is to meet Putin in Helsinki. “The president is fully aware of the department’s actions,” Rosenstein said.

Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer called for Trump to cancel his summit. “Glad-handing with Vladimir Putin on the heels of these indictments would be an insult to our democracy," Schumer said.

Edward Royce, the Republican chairman of the House Foreign Relations Committee, gave the Trump administration credit for taking actions to hold Russia accountable but said “the president should use today’s indictments to challenge Vladimir Putin” at Monday’s summit.

Stolen Information

The Russian officers are accused of stealing user names and passwords of volunteers in Clinton’s campaign, including its chairman, John Podesta.

Trump “continues to ignore it all, to excuse it all,” Podesta said in an interview. He stopped short of calling on Trump to cancel his meeting with Putin but said, “Maybe he should ask Putin to turn over” the indicted Russians.

The charges include conspiracy to commit an offense against the U.S., aggravated identity theft and conspiracy to launder money. Rosenstein said the investigation would now be handled by the Department of Justice’s national security unit.

The case has been assigned to U.S. District Judge Amy Berman Jackson, also presiding over the Washington trial of Paul Manafort, Trump’s former campaign chairman, set to begin on Sept. 17.

The GRU officers hacked a state election board and stole information on 500,000 voters, according to Rosenstein. They also were accused of hacking a company that supplied software used to verify voter registration information and targeting state and local officials who administered the elections.

The Russians masked their activities using cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin to buy servers, register Internet domains and make other payments, according to the indictment. While Bitcoin transactions are recorded on a public Blockchain, the Russians sought to hide their actions by using fictitious names and hundreds of email accounts. They oversaw Bitcoin mining and bought cryptocurrency using transactions using pre-paid cards and peer-to-peer exchanges as well.

The indictment said the Russians shifted their hacking tactics “on or about July 27, 2016” to target a domain hosted by a provider used by Clinton’s personal office and 76 email addresses at the Clinton campaign’s Internet domain. That was the same day that Trump urged the Russians “to find the 30,000 emails that are missing.”

Trump has frequently dismissed the Russia probe as a “witch hunt” and expressed his anger that Attorney General Jeff Sessions recused himself from overseeing the investigation. Rosenstein then appointed Mueller.

The DNC has sued Russia, the Trump campaign and WikiLeaks over what it called an attack on American democracy. Tom Perez, the chairman of the DNC, said on Friday that the indictments make clear the attack was part of a vast Russian operation.

“This is not a witch hunt and it is certainly not a joke, as Donald Trump has desperately and incorrectly argued in the past," Perez said. “It’s long past time for him and his allies in the Republican Party to stop ignoring this urgent threat to our national security.”

Trump told reporters in London on Friday, before the indictments were announced, that he would “absolutely firmly” ask Putin about the interference allegation. But he added, “I don’t think you’ll have any ‘Gee, I did it, I did it, you got me” confession.

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