By Dustin Volz and Warren Strobel
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – A Russian Internet agency and more than a dozen Russians interfered in the U.S. election campaign from 2014 through 2016 in a multi-pronged effort with the aim of supporting then-businessman Donald Trump and disparaging his rival Hillary Clinton, the U.S. Special Counsel said in an indictment on Friday.
The 37-page indictment filed by Special Counsel Robert Mueller described a conspiracy 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 said.
The indictment broadly echoes the conclusions of a January 2017 U.S. intelligence community assessment, which found that Russia had meddled in the election, and that its goals eventually included aiding Trump, the Republican candidate who went on to win a surprise victory over Democratic Party candidate Clinton in November 2016.
"This indictment serves as a reminder that people are not always who they appear to be on the Internet," Rod Rosenstein, the deputy attorney general, told reporters. "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."
A Russian lawmaker called the U.S. charges "another anti-Russian push," RIA reported.
President Trump has been briefed on the indictment announced on Friday, White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders said.
Trump has never unequivocally accepted the intelligence agencies' report, and has denounced Mueller's probe into whether his campaign colluded with the Kremlin as a "witch hunt."
Facebook and Twitter both declined to comment on the indictment.
"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 appeared likely to provide ammunition to Democrats and others arguing for a continued aggressive probe of the matter.
The indictment names the Internet Research Agency, based in St. Petersburg, Russia; 13 Russian nationals; and two other companies.
The 2017 intelligence agency finding has spawned investigations into any ties between Republican Trump's campaign and Moscow. Russia denies interfering in the election. Trump denies any collusion by his campaign.
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.
Russia would try to interfere in the 2018 U.S. midterm elections by using social media to spread propaganda and misleading reports, much as it did in the 2016 campaign, intelligence chiefs said at the hearing.