A dozen Russian intelligence officials have been charged with allegedly hacking and leaking emails of senior Democrats during the 2016 US presidential campaign, the Department of Justice (DoJ) has announced.
The 11-count indictment includes charges of conspiracy by the Russian intelligence officials against the United States, money laundering and attempts to break into state boards of elections and other government agencies.
The indictments were revealed by Rod Rosenstein, deputy attorney general, as part of the FBI probe, led by Special Counsel Robert Mueller, into election meddling and potential coordination between members of the Trump campaign and Russia.
The news arrived as the president was being received by Queen Elizabeth II at the royal palace, and days before the US president is set to meet with Vladimir Putin in Finland on Monday.
The Russians are accused of hacking into the computer networks of the Democratic National Committee (DNC), the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) and the presidential campaign of Hillary Clinton, and then releasing stolen emails via the internet in the months before the election.
In its indictment, the Justice Department indictment alleges the Russian officials “staged” releases of emails they had stolen from the DNC and Ms Clinton’s campaign in their apparent attempts to sway the election against the Democratic Party’s candidate.
“In or around 2016, the Russian Federation operated a military intelligence agency called the Main Intelligence Directorate of the General Staff (GRU),” the indictment reads. “The GRU had multiple units … engaged in cyber operations that involved the staged releases of documents stolen through computer intrusions. These units conducted large-scale cyber operations to interfere with the 2016 US presidential election.”
Mr Rosenstein said the Russian intelligence officials used the names “DCLeaks and Guccifer 2.0” to release the emails they had collected throughout the campaign season, as well as “another entity”.
Those two hacking entities were responsible for the collection large portion of the emails from the DNC and Ms Clinton’s campaign which were dumped online, according to the indictment.
Russia has repeatedly denied its government had any role in the hacking that preceded the presidential election.
The charges include “conspiring to infiltrate computers”, with defendants working in Russia’s main intelligence units, according to Mr Rosenstein.
“The internet allows foreign adversaries to attack Americans in new and unexpected ways,” Mr Rosenstein said. “Free and fair elections are hard-fought and contentious and there will always be adversaries who work to exacerbate domestic differences and try to confuse, divide and conquer us.”
Before Friday’s announcement there had been at least 79 charges brought against at least 20 separate officials in the investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 election led by Mr Mueller, with five guilty pleas and one sentencing already being announced.
Mr Rosenstein said the indictment did not include any allegation that the Russian efforts succeeded in influencing the election results.
Mr Rosenstein had previously held an unexpected news conference in February, when he announced indictments related to 2016 presidential election interference against a Russian internet firm and 13 Russian nationals.
On Friday, Mr Rosenstein alleged the Russian officials paid for hackings using cryptocurrency, and coordinated with each other using advanced software that was difficult to trace.
United States intelligence officials concluded in a January 2017 report that Russia had created a sophisticated hacking campaign to influence the 2016 election. However, Mr Trump has consistently called the special counsel investigation a “witch hunt”, and he has never fully accepted the intelligence findings.
Several members of his 2016 presidential campaign have already been indicted, including his former campaign chairman Paul Manafort and aide Rick Gates.
The investigation has also reached the White House, with Mr Trump’s former national security adviser Michael Flynn admitting lying to FBI agents about his conversations with former Russian ambassador to the US, Sergei Kislyak. He is reportedly now cooperating with the special counsel’s office.
Russian operatives first targeted Ms Clinton’s campaign emails “on or about July 27, 2016,” according to the indictment – the same day Mr Trump said during a televised statement, “Russia, if you’re listening, I hope you’re able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing.”
That same night, the DoJ alleges Russian hackers hit individuals affiliated with Ms Clinton’s presidential campaign and targeted at least 76 email addresses associated with the Clinton Campaign domain.
In a statement, White House deputy press secretary Lindsay Walters said: “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. This is consistent with what we have been saying all along.”
There are concerns in Congress that the Russians are also trying to meddle in the midterm congressional elections in November, but Mr Trump said he would tell Mr Putin to stay out of those elections when he meets with him next week.
“I know you’ll ask will we be talking about meddling?” Mr Trump told reporters on Friday. “And I will absolutely bring that up. I don’t think you’ll have any, ‘Gee, I did it, I did it, you got me’. But I will absolutely firmly ask the question. And hopefully we’ll have a very good relationship with Russia.”
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