Updated July 14, 2018 13:43:04
Twelve Russian intelligence officers have been charged by a US federal grand jury with hacking the Democratic Party's computer networks in 2016.
The 29-page indictment lays out how Russians schemed to break into key Democratic email accounts months before Americans went to the polls.
Stolen emails, many politically damaging for Hillary Clinton, appeared on WikiLeaks in the campaign's final stretch.
The indictment stands as the clearest Justice Department allegation yet of Russian efforts to interfere, through illegal hacking, in the election before Americans went to the polls.
It had been sought by special counsel Robert Mueller as part of his probe into Russian involvement in the election and is the first to implicate the Russian Government directly.
The indictment accuses the 12 Russian military intelligence officers of two key efforts: a hacking attack on Democratic computers during the election campaign and a plot to hack into the computers of state boards of elections, secretaries of state, and voter software.
First, it claims that starting in March 2016, officials covertly monitored the computers of dozens of Democratic officials and volunteers, implanted malicious computer code known as malware to explore the networks and steal data, and sent phishing emails to gain access to accounts.
According to the indictment, the Russian hacking operation was so precise that they were able to pinpoint specific computers within the House Democratic campaign arm, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, the Democratic National Committee that stored information related to the election, and Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta.
They were then able to search the computers for certain terms, like "Hillary", ''Cruz", and "Trump". They also copied folders, including opposition research and field operation plans.
The Russians hid their involvement through fake email addresses and identities and a network of computers located around the world — including in the United States. They paid for their infrastructure using cryptocurrency.
By June 2016, the defendants, relying on fictional personas like DCLeaks and Guccifer 2.0, began planning the release of tens of thousands of stolen emails, the indictment alleges.
At one point it details how one attempt at interference came hours after Donald Trump, in a speech, urged Russia to find Hilary Clinton's missing emails that she said she had deleted from her tenure as secretary of state.
"Russia, if you're listening," Mr Trump said, "I hope you're able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing."
That evening, the indictment said, the Russians attempted to break into email accounts used by Mrs Clinton's personal office, along with 76 Clinton campaign email addresses
Russian defendants — using a persona known as Guccifer 2.0 — contacted a person in touch with the Trump campaign to offer help in August 2016.
However, Mr Mueller did not allege that Trump campaign associates were involved in the hacking effort, that Americans were knowingly in touch with Russian intelligence officers, or that any vote tallies were altered by hacking.
Although it does say that Russians wrote to an unnamed person "who was in regular contact with senior members of the presidential campaign of Donald J Trump".
The indictment also says the Russians hacked the website of a state board of elections and stole the information of roughly 500,000 voters — including names, addresses, partial Social Security numbers, dates of birth and driver's licence numbers.
They also hacked into a national election vendor that supplied software used to verify voter registration information.
But Department of Homeland Security officials have said there is no evidence of any election results being tampered with during the 2016 intrusions.
The indictment identifies the defendants as officers with Russia's Main Intelligence Directorate of the General Staff, also known as GRU.
The GRU, which answers to the Russian military's General Staff, is part of the state machine and its involvement would indicate that the orders to interfere in the US election came from the very top.
The indictment says the GRU had multiple units that "conducted largescale cyber operations" to interfere with the 2016 US presidential election.
One of the units was based on an unassuming side street in the Moscow suburb of Khimki, in a building referred to within the GRU as the "Tower", according to the indictment.
Another was based near central Moscow, not far from Defence Ministry headquarters.
The Kremlin denied anew it tried to sway the election.
"The Russian state has never interfered and has no intention of interfering in the US elections," Mr Putin's foreign affairs adviser, Yuri Ushakov, said.
Mr Mueller's team don't anticipate prosecuting any of the Russian intelligence officers anytime soon, according to Wired magazine.
The Russian defendants are not in custody, and it is not clear they will ever appear in a US court although the Justice Department has recently seen value in indicting foreign hackers in absentia as public deterrence.
The charges come as Mr Mueller continues to investigate potential coordination between Russia and the Trump campaign to influence the presidential election.
"The open question is whether Americans were involved in this and will they be charged? You can certainly imagine a subsequent indictment in the future of an American of being part of this conspiracy," former federal prosecutor Renato Mariotti said.
However, the indictment does not allege that Trump campaign associates were involved in the hacking efforts or that any American was knowingly in contact with Russian intelligence officers.
The indictment also does not allege that any vote tallies were altered by hacking.
Hours before the announcement, Mr Trump complained anew that the special counsel's investigation was complicating his efforts to forge a better working relationship with Russia.
Mr Trump and Mr Putin are scheduled to hold talks on Monday in Finland, a meeting largely sought by Mr Trump, but top Senate Democrat Chuck Schumer has now called on Mr Trump to cancel his meeting until Russia takes steps to prove it will not interfere in future elections.
He said the indictments were "further proof of what everyone but the President seems to understand — President Putin is an adversary who interfered in our elections to help President Trump win".
Mr Trump said at a news conference with British Prime Minister Theresa May that he was not going into the meeting with Mr Putin with "high expectations".
He also referred to Mr Mueller's probe, saying: "We do have a political problem where in the United States we have this stupidity going on".
"Pure stupidity. But it makes it very hard to do something with Russia. Anything you do, it's always going to be, 'Oh, Russia, he loves Russia'," he said.
"I love the United States. But I love getting along with Russia and China and other countries."
No. Before the most recent indictment, 20 people and three companies had been charged in the Mueller investigation.
Those charged include:
If the involvement of the GRU officers in the hacking effort is proved, it will shatter the Kremlin denials of the Russian state's involvement in the US elections.
First posted July 14, 2018 06:20:09