Special counsel Robert Mueller's office indicated on Friday that a federal grand jury has indicted 13 Russians and three Russian entities for meddling in the 2016 presidential election. While still part of the now defunct Soviet Union, Russia historically interfered in American politics in the past through disinformation campaigns and bribery, for example. Targets included Pope Pius XII, the Democratic primary of 1960, as well as a prominent anti-communist Democrat in the 1970s. In the 2016 election, Russians utilized social media platforms to mask themselves as Americans involved in the political process.

"By in or around May 2014,” read the indictment, “the organization's strategy included interfering with the 2016 U.S. presidential election, with the stated goal of "spread[ing] distrust towards the candidates and the political system in general." 

While Democrats and other critics of President Donald Trump have tried to show that Russian meddling in the election was evidence of supposed collusion with the Trump campaign, President Trump tweeted on Friday that indictment clears his campaign of such collusion. “Russia started their anti-US campaign in 2014, long before I announced that I would run for President,” Trump wrote on Twitter. “The results of the election were not impacted. The Trump campaign did nothing wrong - no collusion!”

Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein said in a press conference that there is no evidence that the Russians had any effect on the outcome of the election. Moreover, Rosenstein said that the indictment does not alleged any American knowingly cooperated with the Russian disinformation campaign. "The nature of the scheme was that the defendants took extraordinary steps to make it appear that they were ordinary American political activists," Rosenstein said. He explained that those under indictment used a a virtual private network to disguise their work, so that “if anybody traced them back to their first jump, they appear to be Americans."

Rosenstein added that federal government will seek the extradition of the Russians under indictment through "normal channels." However, the United States has no extradition treaty with Russia, which has not historically cooperated with extradition requests.

According to the indictment, the Russian Internet Research Agency conducted "information warfare" against the United States and its political system to "sow discord" by using social media platforms, internet media, and fictitious American personas. Known to some as a “troll farm,” the Internet Research Agency is allegedly controlled by Yevgeny Progozhin, a wealthy associate of Russian President Vladimir Putin and defendant.

Russian state media quoted Progozhin, who said, "Americans are really impressionable people. They see what they want to see. I greatly respect them. I’m not upset at all that I am on this list. If they want to see the devil, let them see him."

The eight-count indictment charges that the effort to interfere with the 2016 election was hatched in 2014. By mid-2016 the defendants were "supporting the presidential campaign of then-candidate Donald J. Trump ... and disparaging Hillary Clinton." The indictment charges, "Some Defendants, posing at U.S. persons and without revealing their Russian association, communicated with unwitting individuals associated with the Trump Campaign and with other political activists to seek to coordinate political activities."

In the U.S., non-resident foreigners are prohibited by law from influencing federal elections. 

Among the actions the defendants allegedly took was to organize political rallies in support of the Trump campaign and to protest the results of the election. The indictment asserted that the defendants organized a rally on November 12, 2016, for instance, to "show your support for President-elect Donald Trump," and another rally to proclaim "Trump is NOT my president rally." Both were held in New York.  

According to Deputy Attorney General Rosenstein, the defendants created hundreds of social media accounts using fake personas, while using Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter to advance Russian goals. The indictment said that they used a "computer infrastructure, based partly in the United States, to hide the Russian origin of their activities and to avoid detection" by American authorities. 

All of the defendants are charged with conspiracy to defraud the United States. None are in custody. Three of them are charged with conspiracy to commit wire fraud and bank fraud, and five defendants are charged with aggravated identity theft. This came just four days after Richard Pinedo -- a U.S. citizen -- pleaded guilty to using identities stolen from fellow U.S. citizens to circumvent the security systems of online payments companies. He also bought and sold bank account numbers over the internet using stolen identities. The indictment appears to refer to conduct by Pinedo."Defendants and their co-conspirators also used, without lawful authority, the social security numbers, home addresses, and birth dates of real U.S. persons to open accounts at PayPal, a digital payments company," the indictment against the Russians says.

In reaction to the indictment, House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wisc.) said in a statement, "We have known that Russia meddled in the election, but these indictments detail the extent of the subterfuge." The statement went on to say, "The Russians engaged in a sinister and systematic attack on our political system. It was a conspiracy to subvert the process, and take aim at democracy itself. “Today's announcement underscores why we need to follow the facts and work to protect the integrity of future elections."

Senate Minority Leader Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York, claimed that the indictment is “further proof that Vladimir Putin directed a campaign to interfere with our elections, with the goal of tipping the outcome.” Schumer demanded that Trump should reverse his decision to refrain from imposing sanctions against Russia that were recently approved by Congress.

In a statement released by the White House on Friday, Trump said, “It’s time we stop the outlandish partisan attacks, wild and false allegations, and far-fetched theories, which only serve to further the agendas of bad actors, like Russia, and do nothing to protect the principles of our institutions.”

 

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Martin Barillas is a former US diplomat and the editor of Spero News.

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