A U.S. grand jury has charged 12 Russian intelligence officers for their roles in hacking into the U.S. Democratic Party and leaking stolen e-mails and other information during the 2016 presidential campaign.
The indictments, announced on July 13 by Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, were released just three days before U.S. President Donald Trump was set to meet Russian leader Vladimir Putin in their first one-on-one summit meeting.
The 12 were identified in the indictment as officers with the Main Intelligence Directorate of the Russian General Staff. Known as the GRU, the directorate is one of Russia’s primary intelligence agencies, along with the Federal Security Service (FSB).
GRU officers "in their official capacities engaged in a sustained effort to hack into the computer networks of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, the Democratic National Committee, and the presidential campaign of Hillary Clinton," a Justice Department news release said.
The officers, the statement said, then "released that information on the Internet under the names DCLeaks and Guccifer 2.0” -- referring to a suspicious website and persona claiming to be a hacker that appeared during the 2016 campaign.
Rosenstein deflected questions about the timing of the release, but said Trump had been briefed on the charges prior to him leaving on his trip to Europe.
The indictment does not allege that Trump campaign officials were involved in the hacking efforts. It does not say if any Americans who had been in contact with hackers knew they were Russian officers, nor does it allege that any vote tallies were altered.
The Kremlin has regularly denied any such effort to meddle in the U.S. election campaign. The Foreign Ministry called the indictments "a shameful comedy," and said they were aimed at disrupting the upcoming meeting in Helsinki.
"Obviously, the purpose of this news dump is to spoil the atmosphere before the Russian-American summit," the ministry said.
Trump himself has in the past cast doubt on U.S. intelligence conclusions that Moscow engaged in an effort to sway U.S. voters. And he downplayed the findings of the U.S. intelligence community, which in January 2017 concluded that Putin ordered a hacking-and-propaganda campaign aimed at influencing voters. U.S. officials later said the effort was intended to denigrate Clinton, who was Trump’s Democratic Party rival in the 2016 election.
Trump In U.K.
There was no immediate response from Trump, who was in England at the time the indictments were announced. But the White House said they buttressed what Trump and other administration officials have said.
“Today’s charges include no allegation of knowing involvement by anyone on the campaign and no allegations that the alleged hacking affected the decision results. This is consistent with what we have been saying all along,” a White House statement said.
The statement made no mention of the alleged Russian hacking itself.
Speaking after the indictments were announced, Chuck Schumer (Democrat-New York), the Senate's minority leader, called on Trump to cancel his meeting with Putin until Russia pledges not to interfere in future elections.
And Senator John McCain (Republican-Arizona), long known as a Kremlin opponent and frequent critic of Trump, praised the announcement.
“Today’s indictment is a result of the hard work of America’s law enforcement and intelligence officials who dedicate their lives to bringing to justice those who wish to do us harm,” he said in a post to Twitter. “These revelations add to a body of evidence confirming an extensive plot by #VladimirPutin’s government to attack the 2016 election, sow chaos and dissension among the American electorate, and undermine faith in our democracy.”
The announcement was the latest twist in the politically charged investigation being run by Special Counsel Robert Mueller and overseen by Rosenstein.
Mueller was appointed by Rosenstein in May 2017 to conduct the investigation into interactions between Russian officials and current and past Trump associates.
Prior to the July 13 announcement, 20 people and three companies had been indicted for various charges including bank fraud and election-law related violations.
That number includes several Russians, as well as the Russian company overseeing the Internet Research Agency, commonly known as the Russian “troll company.”
Among Trump associates who have been charged are Trump's first national security adviser, Michael Flynn, and Trump's former campaign manager, Paul Manafort.
The U.S. Treasury Department has also targeted both GRU and FSB agents in the past, accusing them of hacking and election-related meddling. The July 13 indictment does not mention the FSB.
As the Mueller investigation has advanced, Trump has become more critical of it. He has repeatedly denied accusations of colluding with Russian officials, and he has stepped up his attacks against Mueller's probe, calling the investigation a "witch hunt."
Democrats in Congress have largely supported Mueller’s efforts. Republicans have as well, though a number of Republican House members have openly accused Mueller and his team of politically motivated bias.
Those attacks were on display this week when Peter Strzok, an FBI agent who formerly served on Mueller’s team, was grilled by a House committee over allegations of bias.
Most polls show that a majority of American voters continue to support Mueller’s efforts, though attacks on the probe by Trump and other Republicans have slightly diminished that support.
In announcing the indictments, Rosenstein, who has defended Mueller against many Republican attacks, sought to appeal to Americans to overcome the partisan rancor that permeates Washington and elsewhere.
"The Internet allows foreign adversaries to attack Americans in new and unexpected ways," he 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."
"Partisan warfare, fueled by the Internet, does not reflect the grace, dignity, and unity of the American people,” he said. “The blame for election interference belongs solely to the criminals who committed election interference."