Robert Mueller, the special prosecutor investigating foreign agents tampering with the 2016 US presidential election, has criminally charged 13 Russian nationals with conspiring against the United States.
A 37-page grand jury indictment, revealed today, named staff at the Internet Research Agency troll factory as conspirators in a plan to "sow discord," and tip the White House race in favor of Donald Trump.
The Russians are accused of stealing or fabricating Americans' identities to open PayPal accounts to purchase controversial attack ads. The agency also created online profiles with hundreds of thousands of followers to spread divisive messages, and coordinated political protests and campaign events, all while posing as legit Americans, it is alleged.
The trolls would use email addresses such as firstname.lastname@example.org in organizing their efforts to tear the people of the United States apart, it is claimed.
The baker's dozen of charged individuals are: Mikhail Ivanovich Bystrov, Mikhail Leonidovich Burchik, Aleksandra Yuryevna Krylova, Anna Vladislavovna Bogacheva, Sergey Pavlovich Polozov, Maria Anatolyevna Bovda, Robert Sergeyevich Bovda, Dzheykhun Nasimi Ogly, Vadim Vladimirovich Podkopaev, Gleb Igorevitch Vasilchenko, Irina Viktorovna Kaverzina, Yevgeny Viktorovich Prigozhin, and Vladimir Venkov.
(Oligarch Prigozhin is so close to the Kremlin, he is nicknamed "Putin's cook," we note.)
The indictment alleged the Ruskies interacted with "unwitting individuals" within the Trump campaign, although no Americans are named in this indictment. In a separate announcement, Mueller revealed a California man, Richard Pinedo, had pled guilty to identity fraud related to payment processing, though that plea deal makes no mention of the Russian indictments.
In short, Internet Research Agency, based in St Petersburg, Russia, is said to have concocted a number of shell companies in the US and hijacked Americans' identities to sabotage Hillary Clinton's presidential bid in an attempt to sway the election result. The troll factory pumped out messages pillorying Hillary while lauding Trump, it is claimed.
The organization is believed to have employed hundreds of operatives, and given with a monthly budget in excess of $1.2m.
Mueller indictment says Russian defendants sought to "sow discord" in US political system and communicated with "unwitting" individuals associated with the Trump Campaign https://t.co/ZqO9iOCRwW pic.twitter.com/OUaDq0t4TA— kadhim (＾ｰ^)ノ (@kadhimshubber) February 16, 2018
"In order to carry out their activities to interfere in US political and electoral processes without detection of their Russian affiliation, the Defendants conspired to obstruct the lawful functions of the United States government through fraud and deceit, including by making expenditures in connection with the 2016 US presidential election without proper regulatory disclosure; failing to register as foreign agents carrying out political activities within the United States; and obtaining visas through false and fraudulent statements," Mueller's indictment read.
According to the indictment, the 13 individuals mastered Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube to reach American voters with messages like "Donald wants to defeat terrorism... Hillary wants to sponsor it," "Trump is our only hope for a better future!" and "Hillary is Satan, and her crimes and lies had proved just how evil she is."
Among the accounts run by the Russian troll factory was @Ten_GOP, a right-wing Twitter account that amassed more than 130,000 followers, it is claimed.
The Russians allegedly muddied the waters by sponsoring a handful of anti-Trump groups – including backing post-election "Trump is not my President" rallies in New York and Charlotte – as well as setting up and directing anti-Clinton operations. For example, the Russians would pay US citizens to dress up as a jailed Hillary Clinton and march on America's streets, according to today's charges. In at least once instance, it is claimed, the Russians scheduled pro and anti Trump rallies to kick off on the same day in the same city.
The prosecutors allege the Russians even wired money to an American to cover the cost of building "a cage large enough to hold an actress depicting Clinton in a prison uniform." pic.twitter.com/soowFD78Lw— Daniel Dale (@ddale8) February 16, 2018
These efforts, online and in the real world, were bankrolled by cash from PayPal accounts created using stolen or fake American identities. The origin of the campaigns was further obscured by running all of the activity through a US-based VPN.
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The indictment goes on to describe how even after a probe was launched, the group continued to operate while also seeking to cover its tracks. One of the defendants, Irina Kaverzina, was said to have written an email to her family saying: "We had a slight crisis here at work: the FBI busted our activity (not a joke). So, I got preoccupied with covering tracks together with the colleagues. I created all these pictures and posts, and the Americans believed that it was written by their people."
Investigators believe the US election meddling was part of a much larger effort, called "Projeckt Lahkta" Internet Research Agency was running to manipulate political systems and public opinion around the globe.
Rosenstein: “There is no allegation in this indictment that any American was a knowing participant in this illegal activity. There is no allegation in the indictment that the charge conduct altered the outcome of the 2016 election” https://t.co/XGOyggOBcL— CNN Politics (@CNNPolitics) February 16, 2018
The charges are the first formal acknowledgement from Mueller of what many had already come to suspect and accept: that troll factories in Russia, with the Kremlin's blessing, had formed in the run-up to the 2016 elections to sow chaos in the US and stir up fear, uncertainty, and doubt.
Both Facebook and Twitter fessed up to taking money from the groups to run ads and promoted content, and Twitter has since admitted that thousands of Russian-controlled bot accounts were spreading propaganda aimed at Americans. ®
PS: Twitter deleted 200,000 tweets posted by Russian trolls, although you can now read them here.