WASHINGTON (CN) – Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein said Friday that a dozen Russian military officers have been indicted in connection with interference in the 2016 presidential election and the hacking of the Democratic National Committee.
At a press conference shortly after noon Friday at the Robert F. Kennedy Department of Justice Building in Washington, D.C., Rosenstein announced that special counsel Robert Mueller has charged 12 Russians accused of “spear phishing” hacking the DNC to sabotage the 2016 election.
According to the indictment, Directorate of the General Staff, or GRU, officers “knowingly and intentionally conspired with each other, and with persons known and unknown to the grand jury…to gain unauthorized access… into the computers of U.S. persons and entities involved in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, steal documents from those computers, and stage releases of the stolen documents to interfere with the 2016 U.S. presidential election.”
The new charges are the latest in the investigation into potential coordination between Russia and the Trump campaign, and they come just three days before President Donald Trump is set to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Helsinki, Finland.
The president has consistently railed against Mueller’s investigation, dubbing it a “witch hunt” and calling into question the impartiality of the investigators on Mueller’s team.
Trump has also questioned the conclusions drawn by U.S. intelligence agencies that Russia was responsible for the hacking, and said more than once that he believes Putin’s denials of any such meddling.
But Harry Sandick, a white collar defense attorney with Patterson Belknap, said Friday’s indictment refutes any criticism of Mueller’s investigation.
“Regardless of whether Trump was involved in the conspiracy, or whether people in his campaign were involved in the conspiracy, it’s impossible to view this work by the special counsel as a witch hunt,” Sandick said in a phone interview.
“Anyone who reads today’s charges would be hard pressed to deny the legitimacy or seriousness of the Mueller investigation,” he added.
The 29-page indictment says that beginning in March 2016, the Russian intelligence officers hacked into the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) and DNC networks, as well as employees of Hillary Clinton’s campaign, including campaign chairman John Podesta.
“The conspirators covertly monitored the computers of dozens of DCCC and DNC employees, implanted hundreds of files containing malicious computer code…and stole emails and other documents from the DCCC and DNC,” the indictment states.
In June 2016, they allegedly used fictitious online personas – DCLeaks and Guccifer 2.0 – to begin releasing the stolen material.
“The defendants falsely claimed that DCLeaks was a group of American actors and that Guccifer 2.0 was a young Romanian hacker. In fact both were created, or controlled, by the Russian GRU,” Rosenstein said during his press conference Friday.
The indictment says the alleged conspirators also used the Guccifer 2.0 persona to release other stolen documents, which were posted on a website maintained by an entity referred to only as “Organization 1” in the indictment.
According to Rosenstein, the hackers used Organization 1 as a “pass through” to publicly release the stolen materials.
“They discussed the timing of the release in an attempt to enhance the impact on the election,” he said.
National security attorney Mark Zaid said Organization 1 could be Wikileaks, though Wikileaks is not named in the indictment and has not been charged with any crimes related to the 2016 election.
“It raises the question, is it Wikileaks, and if it is Wikileaks what does that actually mean,” Zaid said in a phone interview. “Did Wikileaks know the information was coming from the Russians?”
The named defendants are Russian nationals Viktor Borisovich Netyksho, Boris Alekseyevich Antonov, Dmitriy Sergeyevich Badin, Ivan Sergeyevich Yermakov, Aleksey Viktorovich Lukashev, Sergey Aleksandrovich Morgachev, Nikolay Yuryevich Kozachek, Pavel Vyacheslavovich Yershov, Artem Andreyevich Malyshev, Aleksandr Vladimirovich Osadchuk, Aleksey Aleksandrovich Potemkin and Anatoliy Sergeyevich Kovalev.
The indictment charges 11 of the Russian intelligence officers with conspiring to access and damage computers without authorization as part of an effort to disrupt the election. Those 11 GRU officers are also charged with aggravated identity theft, or stealing passwords and user names to commit computer fraud, and money laundering related to the transfer of cryptocurrencies.
Two of the GRU officers are charged with a separate conspiracy to access and damage computers without authorization as part of an effort to infiltrate computers used to administer elections.
“In or around July 2016, Kovalev and his co-conspirators hacked the website of a state board of elections…and stole information related to approximately 500,000 voters, including names, addresses, partial Social Security numbers, dates of birth, and driver’s license numbers,” the indictment states.
The indictment also includes a forfeiture claim related to property involved in the alleged criminal activity.
Rosenstein stressed during the press conference that the indictment contains no allegation that any U.S. citizen committed a crime.
“The conspirators corresponded with several Americans during the course of the conspiracy through the internet,” he said. “There’s no allegation in this indictment that the Americans knew they were corresponding with Russian intelligence officers.”
Rosenstein also noted that the indictment does not allege that the conspiracy altered the vote count or the outcome of the 2016 presidential election.
According to the indictment, “Guccifer 2.0 wrote to a person who was in regular contact with senior members of the presidential campaign of Donald J. Trump, asking if that person found anything of interest in the documents posted, and later offering his assistance to the American.”
Attorney Sandick said the unidentified American may be Roger Stone. Though not named in the indictment, Stone served as both a formal and informal adviser to the Trump campaign.
Stone has also acknowledged communicating with Guccifer 2.0 on Twitter and recently told the Washington Post he’d been in contact with a Russian national who offered damaging information on Clinton during a May 2016 meeting.
Sandick said the fact that the unnamed Americans in the indictment were not aware they were communicating with Russian intelligence, according to Rosenstein, doesn’t signal that the investigation is over.
“We now know that someone who was in regular contact with the [Trump] campaign was in fact communicating with Russian intelligence officers about the stolen emails. That seems like a major story,” Sandick said.
According to the charging document, the defendants used spear phishing to gain access to computers and targeted more than 300 people affiliated with the DCCC, the DNC and the Clinton campaign.
Hackers use spear phishing to impersonate a familiar person or entity and then direct a computer user to provide sensitive information or click on a malicious link. To gain access to Podesta’s computer, for example, Aleksey Lukashev allegedly sent him an email that appeared to be a Google security notification that directed him to change his password and instructed him to click on a link embedded in the email.
Podesta complied, which enabled the hackers to steal more than 50,000 emails from his account, according to the indictment.
According to attorney Zaid, the indictment should put to rest conspiracies circulated by Fox News and others on the right that DNC staffer Seth Rich handed over the emails to WikiLeaks. The conspiracies about Rich emerged in the wake of his 2016 murder in Washington, D.C., which police have said resulted from a botched robbery attempt.
But some on the right have continued to insist that Rich was murdered for leaking the DNC emails, claiming this would clear Trump and his campaign of any sort of collusion with the Russian intelligence effort.
“This would seem to me to further diminish the absurdity of the Seth Rich conspiracy theories,” Zaid said of Friday’s indictment.
According to Zaid, the way the Russian intelligence officers carried out the spear phishing would give the appearance of being an “inside job,” since ostensibly the Russians acted as DNC employees when accessing their email accounts.
“I’d like to think this puts that further to bed,” he said of conspiracy theories.
According to the indictment, the defendants also used what the indictment describes as “a publicly available tool” to steal many documents at once without being detected, along with malware that used encrypted channels to move the material out of the DCCC and DNC networks. They then deleted logs and computer files to cover their tracks, the indictment states.
Despite detection of a network breach by both the DCCC and the DNC, the indictment says that a Linux-based program designed to communicate with a GRU-registered domain remained on the DNC network through October 2016.
The indictment also notes that the alleged conspirators spear phished Clinton campaign officials through the summer of 2016 and tried on July 27 that year to access email accounts used by Clinton’s personal office.
That was the same day that then-candidate Trump invited Russia to find 30,000 emails missing from the private server Clinton used during her tenure as secretary of state.
“I will tell you this, Russia: If you’re listening, I hope you’re able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing,” Trump had said during a press conference in Florida.
The indictment doesn’t mention Trump’s comments, but attorney Sandick said it’s noteworthy that it mentions the July 27 hacking attempt.
“The way it’s framed in the indictment suggests to me that the Mueller team was well aware of the significance of that date,” he said.
According to Sandick, the indictment also contains a warning about the integrity of American elections.
“Our electoral system is in grave danger of foreign interference. And one would hope that federal and state authorities make it a top priority to protect our election system,” he said. None of the 12 Russian defendants will likely ever see the inside of a U.S. courtroom unless they visit a country that has an extradition treaty with the United States.
The White House press office meanwhile highlighted that the charges contain no allegations of knowing collusion by members of the Trump campaign.
“This is consistent with what we have been saying all along,” White House deputy press secretary Lindsay Walters said in a statement.
President Trump’s attorney Rudy Giuliani meanwhile said the indictment should clear his client.
“The indictments Rod Rosenstein announced are good news for all Americans. The Russians are nailed. No Americans are involved,” Giuliani said in a statement. “Time for Mueller to end this pursuit of the President and say President Trump is completely innocent.”