US Charges 12 Russians in 2016 Hacking Ahead of Trump–Putin Summit

July 13, 2018 Updated: July 14, 2018

The United States charged 12 Russians on July 13 for a range of hacking activities meant to interfere with the 2016 presidential election.

Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein announced the charges in a press conference days before President Donald Trump was scheduled to meet Russian President Vladimir Putin. Rosenstein said that he had informed Trump about the charges earlier this week.

Special counsel Robert Mueller filed the indictment at the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia. Mueller has been investigating Russian interference in the 2016 election since last year.

The indictment alleges that the Russians hacked into the emails of the employees of the Hillary Clinton Campaign, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) and the Democratic National Committee (DNC).

The Russians then stole documents and emails from the computers and released them through two fictional personas, DC Leaks and Guccifer 2.0, the indictment alleges. The defendants also used a third entity to release the stolen information. The entity is not named in the indictment.

Rosenstein said that the Russians communicated with some Americans, but that the indictment contains no allegation that the Americans knew they were corresponding with Russian operatives.

Rosenstein went to great lengths to urge the media to not politicize the indictment based on the allegation that the Russians victimized targets on one side of the political spectrum.

“In my remarks, I have not identified the victims. When we confront foreign interference in American elections it’s important for us to avoid thinking politically as Republicans or Democrats and instead to think patriotically as Americans,” Rosenstein said.

“There will always be adversaries who will seek to exacerbate our divisions and try to confuse, divide, and conquer us,” he added. “Blame for election interference belongs to the criminals who committed election interference.”

The indictment goes into great detail on how the Russians hacked Clinton campaign Chairman John Podesta and other Clinton campaign staffers using phishing emails; how they used phishing again to steal login information from a DCCC employee and thus accessed the DCCC network; and how they used screenshot and key-log functions of their malware to then steal login information of a DNC employee, thus accessing the DNC network through the DCCC network.

The prosecutors demonstrated minute details such as which Russians performed what tasks on specific dates, down to what keywords they searched on one DCCC computer and what folders they copied.

Yet when it came to accessing the DNC emails, the indictment glosses over the matter in a single paragraph without even providing an exact date of the hack.

“Between on or about May 25, 2016, and June 1, 2016, the Conspirators hacked the DNC Microsoft Exchange Server and stole thousands of emails from the work accounts of DNC employees,” the indictment states, providing one piece of circumstantial evidence: “During that time, Yermakov researched PowerShell commands related to accessing and managing the Microsoft Exchange Server.”

Trump has criticized the Mueller investigation because those tied with Trump’s campaign who were indicted were charged with crimes unrelated to Russia’s interference in the 2016 election, which the special counsel was appointed to investigate. Opponents of the president often use Mueller’s investigation to undermine Trump’s presidency.

“There is no allegation in this indictment that any American citizen committed a crime,” Rosenstein said, in an apparent attempt to dispel the partisan speculation. “There is no allegation that the conspiracy changed the vote count or affected any election result.”

At a press conference in the United Kingdom shortly before Rosenstein announced the indictment, Trump said that he “will absolutely bring” up the issue of election meddling at his upcoming meeting with Putin.

“I will absolutely firmly ask the question,” Trump said.

The Russians also allegedly hacked into a state election system and stole information on 500,000 voters. They also allegedly hacked into a computer company that supplies software to verify voter registration information.

The Russians are facing charges of conspiring to access computers without authorization in an effort to interfere with a presidential election, aggravated identity theft, and money laundering. The laundering charge stems from the hackers using cryptocurrency to pay for computer services with the intent of concealing their link to Russia.

Efforts to protect the U.S. elections are ongoing, Rosenstein said.

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