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Dutch, U.S. Authorities Target Russian Military Intelligence, Alleging Wide Hacking Campaign


The OPCW has been investigating the poisoning of former Russian double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter with a nerve agent in the English city of Salisbury in March.

Dutch and U.S. authorities have accused Russia's military intelligence agency of involvement in a multifaceted, multinational hacking campaign that targeted global anti-doping agencies, the international chemical weapons watchdog, and other entities.

Related announcements made by Canada and Britain signaled a widening effort by Western allies to go after Russian intelligence, in particular the military intelligence agency known as the GRU.

The Netherlands said on October 4 that it had expelled four Russian agents in April over a plot targeting the Organization for the Prevention of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), and Dutch investigators looking into the 2014 downing of a passenger jet over Ukraine.

The announcement was followed hours later in Washington, with the U.S. Justice Department announcing charges against seven GRU officers as part of the same plot. Four of the Russians indicted by U.S. authorities were those expelled by the Netherlands.

Dutch officials said that the Russian agents had targeted the Hague-based OPCW in a bid to hack its computer system. The agents sought to steal passwords from the OPCW, used sophisticated computer and WiFi equipment that was, in some cases, operated out of the back of a car parked near the organization's headquarters.

The organization has taken a central role in investigating chemical weapons attacks in Syria. It also has been involved in investigating the March poisoning of Russian double agent Sergei Skripal, who was targeted with a military-grade nerve agent in England and nearly died.

The organization said in a statement that, since early this year, it "has observed increased cyber-related activities" and "undertaken measures to mitigate them."

Defense Minister Ank Bijleveld told a news conference in the Netherlands that the cyberoperation targeting the chemical weapons organization, known as the OPCW, was carried out by the GRU.

In a joint statement, the Dutch and British prime ministers, Theresa May and Mark Rutte, accused Russia of disregarding global values and “rules that keep us all safe" by trying to hack global institutions.

"This aggressive act demonstrated contempt for the solemn purpose of the [OPCW]," said European Council President Donald Tusk, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, and EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini.

In the face of mounting evidence, and harsher Western action, Russia has repeatedly denied the allegations.

"The Western spy mania is gathering pace," the Russian Foreign Ministry said.

Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova called the allegations a "diabolical perfume cocktail." And Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov told the Interfax news agency that Washington and its allies had "lost any sense of measure and normalcy."

In Washington, the U.S. criminal indictment targeted seven GRU officers, including three that had been previously charged by Special Counsel Robert Mueller for their role in allegedly interfering in U.S. elections. Four of those named were the ones expelled by the Netherlands in April.

The indictment said that the Russian agents targeted global anti-doping monitors in the wake of revelations that Russia had engaged in a state-backed doping effort to help its athletes during the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics.

Some of the agencies had supported a ban on Russian athletes in international sports competitions.

"They cheated, they got caught, they were banned from the Olympics, they got mad, and they retaliated. And in retaliating, they broke the law. They're criminals," Scott Brady, U.S. attorney for Western Pennsylvania, told reporters.

The Western Pennsylvania attorney's office is one of the leading U.S. law enforcement agencies investigating Russian hacking and cyber operations.

U.S. prosecutors also said that the Russians also targeted the Pennsylvania-based company Westinghouse, which among other things builds, nuclear power plants.

Earlier, U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, who was meeting with U.S. allies in Europe, said Russia must pay a price for its attempts to hack the chemical weapons organization, a call echoed by his British counterpart, Gavin Williams

"This is not the actions of a great power, these are the actions of a pariah state," Williamson told reporters.

Britain, meanwhile, accused the GRU of being behind high-profile cyberattacks seeking to undermine critical Western institutions -- from sports and transportation authorities to election processes.

London has said GRU officers were behind the March attack on Skripal, which also poisoned his daughter, Yulia. The incident caused international outcry, leading to Western nations expelling dozens of diplomats and deepening tensions between Moscow and the West.

Bijleveld, the Dutch defense minister, said that the Russians also targeted files on the probe into the 2014 shooting down of flight MH17 over eastern Ukraine.

All 298 passengers and crew -- most of whom were Dutch -- were killed when the jet crashed in an area held by Russia-backed separatists. Dutch-led investigators concluded that the plane was downed by a missile belonging to a Russian military unit.

Bijleveld told reporters that a laptop belonging to one of the four Russians was linked to Brazil, Switzerland, and Malaysia, and that the activities in Malaysia were related to the investigation.

Russia denies any involvement in the jet's destruction.

With reporting by reporting by AFP, AP, and the BBC
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