Indictment Reveals Russian Influence Operation Primarily Targeted Clinton

Earlier U.S. intelligence report said Moscow backed Trump by discrediting Clinton

Robert Mueller
Robert Mueller / Getty Images
February 21, 2018

The special counsel indictment of Russian election meddling reveals new details of the operation indicating the covert "information warfare" operation was targeted at preventing the election of Hillary Clinton.

The 13 Russians and a front company charged in the federal grand jury indictment were part of a sophisticated covert influence campaign aimed at the 2016 presidential election and sowing political discord in the United States.

The Russians, along with two funding entities and the internet troll group called Internet Research Agency, were charged with eight criminal counts under four federal laws, including conspiracy, in seeking to disrupt the U.S. political system, including the 2016 presidential election.

The indictment, however, did not provide new intelligence linking the Moscow government to an organization behind the coordinated scheme called Operation Lakhta, which used American social media and other outlets for political influence activities.

The indictment revealed that intelligence and law enforcement agencies first learned of the election meddling plans in the summer of 2014—two years earlier than the claims of a recent U.S. intelligence assessment.

The indictment outlining the sophisticated election meddling plan contrasts with the January 2017 intelligence assessment produced by the CIA, FBI, and National Security Agency.

That assessment differs slightly from the indictment in stating clearly that the influence operation was ordered by Russian President Vladimir Putin in 2016.

Regarding Russian backing of Trump, the assessment said the Russians wanted to help Trump to win by discrediting Clinton in her bid for the White House, a judgment the CIA and FBI voiced high confidence in, but the NSA gauged with only moderate confidence.

The indictment does not address Russian cyber attacks or the publishing of stolen emails online during the campaign. The intelligence assessment said Moscow's network penetrations against the Democratic National Committee and John Podesta, Clinton's campaign chairman, and other political figures were part of a cyber-enabled influence plan.

According to the indictment, American authorities first learned about the influence operation around June 2014 following news reports that a Russian hacking group had obtained internal documents from the Internet Research Agency.

The indictment did not reveal how prosecutors obtained details of the operation. But it quotes from internal emails and other communications used by the Russians, suggesting the details were obtained from intelligence gathered by human spies or electronic intercepts during its years of activities, or after its operations were publicly exposed in September.

"The organization sought, in part, to conduct what it called 'information warfare against the United States of America' through fictitious U.S. personas on social media platforms and other internet-based media," the 37-page indictment states.

The indictment is the first legal action against Russians related to efforts to influence the outcome of the presidential election.

The legal case also seems to undermine the conspiracy theory of many Democrats who have claimed the Trump campaign colluded with Russia in defeating Clinton.

To the contrary, details in the indictment suggest Moscow's calculus behind the operation appeared aimed at thwarting Clinton's election more than backing the long-shot candidacy of Republican nominee Donald Trump.

The Russians worked covertly to build support for Clinton's primary opponents Bernie Sanders and Jill Stein, in addition to Trump.

Backing Trump during the later stages of the 2016 campaign indicates that Russian support also was driven by opposition to Clinton, in addition to overall information warfare against the U.S. political system.

The Russians "engaged in operations primarily intended to communicate derogatory information about Hillary Clinton, to denigrate other candidates such as Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio, and to support Bernie Sanders and then-candidate Donald Trump," the indictment said.

Putin's opposition to Clinton dates back to 2012 and is based on his belief that as secretary of state she supported destabilizing "color" revolutions by pro-democracy activists in Russia.

Russian disinformation targeting Clinton had been underway for years before the 2016 campaign. An internal report by the CIA-based Open Source Center from May 2012 revealed that Moscow produced a 25-minute "pseudo-documentary" attacking Clinton called "Basic Instinct Hillary."

"The show links the secretary’s conduct of U.S. foreign policy to her alleged marital problems, and attempts to dehumanize and insult her for her alleged uncompromising desire to incite revolutions across the world, including Russia," the report says.

"The broadcast, part of a wider, Russian government-initiated televised anti-U.S. campaign that has continued after the Russian presidential elections, leaves open the possibility that Russia-U.S. relations could improve under a successor to Secretary Clinton."

White House National Security Adviser Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster said last week that the indictment is significant for exposing the operations he described as part of Moscow's "disinformation, subversion, espionage."

"As you can see with the FBI indictment, the evidence is now really incontrovertible and available in the public domain, whereas in the past it was difficult to attribute for a couple of reasons," he told a security conference in Munich.

The indictment makes no reference to Russian intelligence services or direction from Putin.

The 2017 intelligence assessment concluded the influence operation was ordered by Putin in 2016, not 2014 as in the indictment, to "undermine public faith in the U.S. democratic process, denigrate Secretary Clinton, and harm her electability and potential presidency."

The CIA, FBI, and NSA assessment also stated Putin and the Russian government developed "a clear preference" for Trump and "aspired to help President-elect Trump's election chances when possible by discrediting Secretary Clinton and publicly contrasting her unfavorably to him."

Propaganda themes for what the Russians code-named "the translator project" in the United States were to be spread on their social media accounts. They included topics such as "politics in the USA" while seeking to "use any opportunity to criticize Hillary and the rest (except Sanders and Trump—we support them)," the indictment said, quoting internal Russian communications.

As part of the operation, the Russians used pro-Trump and anti-Clinton social media hashtags, including #Trump2016, #TrumpTrain, #MAGA, #IWontProtectHillary, and #Hillary4Prison.

The Twitter account "March for Trump" was also a Russian invention along with the Facebook accounts Clinton FRAUDation and Trumpsters United.

The Russians also were in contact with "unwitting" members, volunteers, and supporters of the Trump campaign and grassroots supporters.

The Russian organization employed more than 80 people who used YouTube, Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter with the goal of "spreading distrust toward the candidates and the political system in general."

The translator project was part of a larger plan to influence both foreign and domestic Russian publics dubbed Operation Lakhta that was funded with $1.25 million.

The Russians' activities involved creating false social media personas, spreading political messages through posts and advertising on social media, and organizing political protest groups, including anti-immigration and black racist groups.

The Russians recruited and paid Americans to conduct political activities, promote campaigns, and stage rallies while pretending to be grassroots American activists.

One group sponsored by the Russian operation was the Facebook account "Blacktivist" that garnered some 360,000 likes and sought to stoke racial tensions.

A White House spokesman declined to say if the U.S. government will take retaliatory steps to punish Russia for the election interference, or whether the CIA would conduct covert action to undermine the upcoming president elections in Russia next Month.

Moscow denied the charges in the indictment.

Dmitri Peskov, a Kremlin spokesman, said Monday the government has "yet to see any substantive evidence that someone interfered in [U.S.] internal affairs."

Peskov said the indictment charges Russian nationals. "Yet we have heard statements from Washington alleging the interference of the Russian state, the Kremlin, and the Russian government. There are no indications that the Russian state could have been involved. There are no such and there cannot be any," he said.

Putin is expected to win re-election after blocking serious opposition candidates from running.

The indictment is largely symbolic because special counsel Robert Mueller and his team of prosecutors are unlikely to bring a case to a federal court against the 13 Russians, all of whom are believed to be residing outside the United States.

Additionally, the special counsel made no evaluation of whether the operation was successful, a point made by Deputy Attorney General Rosenstein in announcing the indictment.

"There is no allegation in this indictment that any American was a knowing participant in this illegal activity," Rosenstein said. "There is no allegation in the indictment that the charged conduct altered the outcome of the 2016 election."

Trump declared on Twitter the indictment vindicated his claim that the special counsel probe into collusion between Russia and the Trump campaign was a "hoax."

"I never said Russia did not meddle in the election, I said 'it may be Russia, or China or another country or group, or it may be a 400 pound genius sitting in bed and playing with his computer,'" the president said on Sunday.

"The Russian 'hoax' was that the Trump campaign colluded with Russia - it never did!"

The main entity behind the operation was the St. Petersburg, Russia-based Internet Research Agency.

The agency was exposed by a Russian hacker group in 2014 and the indictment said its activities targeting the election were known around that time.

Hacked documents from the agency made public by the group Anonymous International revealed that the agency was funded by Concord, a Russian company owned by Yevgeni Prigozhin, a Russian who spent nine years in a labor camp for criminal offenses and who became an associate of Putin through his restaurant.

Prigozhin was the only Russian named in the indictment that did not work for the Internet Research Agency, also known by several other names.

Rosenstein, the deputy attorney general, said Prigozhin "funded the conspiracy."

The other 12 Russians were all part of the agency, including the alleged head of the group, Mikhail Bystrov, a former Russian police official in St. Petersburg.

Prigozhin is known as the Kremlin's caterer and made millions by selling food to the Russian government. He also was involved in setting up the private Russian military company known as the Wagner group that is believed to be funded by GRU military intelligence service.

U.S. military forces recently killed dozens of Russian mercenaries from the Wagner group in Syria during airstrikes against pro-Syrian government forces.

The Russian operation was exposed in September when it was reported the special counsel was investing the use of American social media by Russia to influence the election.

The report prompted one of the indicted Russians to send a note that read: "We had a slight crisis here at work. The FBI busted our activity. So I got preoccupied with covering tracks together with my colleagues."