AMERICA’S Justice Department has announced charges against 12 senior level Russian officials for hacking the Democratic National Commitee and Hillary Clinton’s emails during the 2016 presidential election.
The indictments were announced overnight by Deputy Attorney-General Rod Rosenstein as part of the ongoing special counsel probe into potential co-ordination between the Trump campaign and Russia.
It comes as President Donald Trump is due to meet Russian President Vladimir Putin for a summit between the two countries in Helsinki on Monday. There are now calls for Mr Trump to cancel the meeting.
“The internet allows foreign adversaries to attack America in new and unexpected ways,” Deputy Attorney-General Rod Rosenstein said at a news conference at the Justice Department.
“Together with our other law enforcement partners, the Department of Justice is resolute in its commitment to locate, identify and seek to bring to justice anyone who interferes with American elections.”
But White House spokesperson Sarah Sanders said the Helsinki meeting between the presidents will still go ahead.
“It’s on,” she confirmed.
The charges were drawn up by Special Counsel Robert Mueller, the former FBI director who is looking into alleged Russian meddling in the 2016 vote and whether any members of Trump’s campaign colluded with Moscow
Russia’s Foreign Ministry is denouncing the United States’ indictment of 12 alleged military intelligence agents.
The ministry says “obviously, the purpose of this is to spoil the atmosphere” before Monday’s summit of President Putin and President Trump.
The ministry’s statement blames “influential political forces of the United States, who oppose the normalisation of relations between our countries and have been manufacturing blatant slander for two years.”
It says: “It is regrettable that the circulation of false information in Washington has become the norm, and that criminal cases are brought for obvious political reasons.” The Kremlin has denied that the Russian state interfered in the US election.
The 12 are members of Russia’s spy agency the GRU, the successor to the KGB, in which President Putin was an intelligence officer.
Mr Rosenstein said they disseminated the stolen emails, which rocked Clinton’s campaign, on the websites Guccifer 2.0, DCLeaks, and “another entity.”
DCLeaks disguised itself as the work of American hackers, while Guccifer was supposedly a lone Romanian. But Mr Rosenstein said they were all GRU agents.
The defendants were slapped with multiple charges, including conspiracy, identity theft and money laundering. They remain at large, presumably in Russia.
Mr Rosenstein said there was no evidence of American involvement in the indictments, and that nothing in the indictment suggested the hacking changed the election results.
And he warned people to avoid speculation about the ongoing Mueller probe.
“I want to caution you, the people who speculate about federal investigations usually do not know all of the relevant facts. We do not try cases on television or in congressional hearings,” he said.
“Most anonymous leaks are not from the government officials who are actually conducting these investigations. We follow the rule of law, which means that we follow procedures and we reserve judgment,” he continued.
“We complete our investigations, and we evaluate all of the relevant evidence before we reach any conclusion. That is how the American people expect their Department of Justice to operate, and that is how our department is going to operate.“
Mr Rosenstein said he briefed President Trump — who was meeting with Queen Elizabeth at Windsor Castle as the indictments were announced — on the case earlier in the week.
Asked about Mr Trump’s charge earlier on Friday that special counsel Robert Mueller’s probe was a “witch hunt,” Mr Rosenstein did not directly respond.
“With regard to the nature of the investigation, I only comment on the evidence. The evidence is reflected in our indictments and in our charges [and] represents a determination by prosecutors and agents without regard to politics that we believe the evidence is sufficient to justify the charges,” he said.
The White House said later that nothing in the indictment suggested any impropriety by anyone connected to the campaign or president.
“There is no allegation in this indictment that Americans knew that they were corresponding with Russians. There is no allegation in this indictment that any American citizen committed a crime. There is no allegation that the conspiracy changed the vote count or affected any election result,” spokeswoman 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.”
The bombshell came a day after GOP politicians spent hours trying to discredit Mr Mueller’s probe by attacking FBI agent Peter Strzok, whose anti-Trump text messages with his FBI colleague and then-lover Lisa Page were cited as evidence of a tainted investigation.
Mr Trump’s latest “witch hunt” comment came days before his meeting with Putin.
Mr Rosenstein supervises Mr Mueller’s investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 US election and ties to Mr Trump’s campaign.
He has been a frequent target of the commander-in-chief, who has consistently attacked Mr Mueller’s investigation as “fake news,” “a hoax” and a “witch hunt” cooked up by Democrats as an excuse for Hillary Clinton’s election defeat.
In February, Mr Rosenstein called a surprise news conference to announce the indictment of 13 Russian nationals and a Kremlin-linked internet company for alleged meddling in the election.
To date, Mr Mueller’s probe has netted five guilty pleas, including from Mr Trump’s ex-national security adviser, Michael Flynn, along with more than 30 indictments, including the president’s former campaign chairman, Paul Manafort.
Parts of this article originally appeared on the New York Post and has been republished with permission.