WASHINGTON (Reuters) – A Russian Internet agency and more than a dozen Russians interfered in the 2016 U.S. election campaign in a multi-pronged effort to support Donald Trump and disparage rival Hillary Clinton, the U.S. Special Counsel said in an indictment on Friday.
The charges by the office of Robert Mueller described a conspiracy that started in 2014 to disrupt the U.S. election by people who adopted false online personas to push divisive messages; traveled to the United States to collect intelligence; and staged political rallies while posing as Americans.
Russia’s Internet Research Agency “had a strategic goal to sow discord in the U.S. political system, including the 2016 U.S. presidential election,” the indictment states.
Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein told reporters in announcing the charges that the investigation was not finished.
“Defendants posted derogatory information about a number of candidates, and by early to mid-2016, Defendants’ operations included supporting the presidential campaign of then-candidate Donald J. Trump … and disparaging Hillary Clinton,” the court document said.
The indictment broadly echoes the conclusions of a January 2017 U.S. intelligence assessment, which found that Russia had meddled in the election, and that its goals eventually included aiding Trump. In November 2016, the Republican candidate won a surprise electoral college victory over Democratic Party candidate Clinton, who won the popular vote.
A Kremlin spokesman said he was not yet familiar with the U.S. indictment.
Trump has never unequivocally accepted the intelligence report and has denounced Mueller’s probe into whether his campaign colluded with the Kremlin as a “witch hunt.”
President Trump has been briefed on the indictment announced on Friday, White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders said.
Some of those charged, posing as Americans, communicated with unwitting individuals associated with the Trump campaign, the indictment said. Last year, two former Trump campaign aides pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI – charges brought by Mueller’s office.
The indictment of the Russians, coupled with the FBI disclosure that it failed to heed a warning about the Florida high school shooter, were blows to the White House, still reeling from the fallout of a scandal involving a former aide accused of domestic abuse by two ex-wives.
Trump, who had hoped to focus the entire week on his infrastructure proposal, was closeted in the Oval Office as the reports rolled in, and his communications team was slow to respond to the ever-growing list of queries.
Rosenstein told a press conference “the indictment alleges that the Russian conspirators want to promote discord in the United States and undermine public confidence in democracy. We must not allow them to succeed.”
The indictment appeared likely to provide ammunition to Democrats and others arguing for a continued aggressive investigation of the election interference.
It names the Internet Research Agency, based in St. Petersburg, Russia, 13 Russian nationals and two other companies.
The indictment describes a sophisticated, multi-year and well-funded operation, dubbed “Project Lakhta,” by Russian entities to influence the election, beginning as early as May 2014.
It reveals a deeper level of sophistication and planning than previously known behind Moscow’s purported attempts to interfere.
The indictment said that Russians unlawfully used stolen social security numbers and birth dates of Americans to open accounts on the PayPal digital payment platform and to post on social media using those fake identities.
It said the defendants and others began producing, purchasing and posting political advertisements of U.S. social media.
They included “I say no to Hillary Clinton/I say no to manipulation,” “JOIN our #HillaryClintonForPrison2016,” “Donald wants to defeat terrorism . . . Hillary wants to sponsor it,” and “Trump is our only hope for a better future.”
Facebook and Twitter, the social media companies whose platforms were used, both declined to comment on the indictment.
The Russians sought to measure the impact of their online social media operations, tracking the size of U.S. audiences reached through posts and other types of engagement, such as likes, comments and reposts, according to the indictment
The Internet Research Agency was registered with the Russian government as a corporate entity in July 2013 and the St. Petersburg location “became one of the organization’s operational hubs” through which the defendants and others “carried out their activities to interfere in the U.S. system,” including the presidential election, the indictment said.
The organization employed hundreds of people, ranging from creators of fictitious person to technical experts, and by September 2016, its budget was in excess of $1.2 million, the court document said.
Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats told the Senate Intelligence Committee on Tuesday that he had already seen evidence Russia was targeting U.S. elections in November, when Republican control of the House of Representatives and Senate are at stake, plus a host of positions in state governments.
“Frankly, the United States is under attack,” Coats said at an annual hearing on worldwide threats.