WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A Russian propaganda arm oversaw a criminal and espionage conspiracy to tamper in the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign to support Donald Trump and disparage Hillary Clinton, said an indictment released on Friday that revealed more details than previously known about Moscow’s purported effort to interfere.
The office of U.S. Special Counsel Robert Mueller charged 13 Russians and three Russian companies, including St. Petersburg-based Internet Research Agency known for its trolling on social media. The official who oversees Mueller’s work said the investigation was not finished.
The court document said those accused “had a strategic goal to sow discord in the U.S. political system, including the 2016 U.S. presidential election.”
The indictment said Russians adopted false online personas to push divisive messages; traveled to the United States to collect intelligence, visiting 10 states; and staged political rallies while posing as Americans.
In one case, it said, the Russians paid an unidentified person to build a cage aboard a flatbed truck and another to wear a costume “portraying Clinton in a prison uniform.”
The surprise 37-page indictment could alter the divisive U.S. domestic debate over Russia’s meddling, undercutting some Republicans who, along with Trump, have attacked Mueller’s investigation.
“These Russians engaged in a sinister and systematic attack on our political system. It was a conspiracy to subvert the process, and take aim at democracy itself,” said Paul Ryan, Republican Speaker of the House of Representatives.
The indictment is silent on the question of whether the Trump campaign colluded with the Kremlin, which Mueller is investigating.
In a tweet on Friday, Trump gave his most direct acknowledgement that Russia had meddled in the election, which he has frequently disputed.
“Russia started their anti-US campaign in 2014, long before I announced that I would run for President. The results of the election were not impacted. The Trump campaign did nothing wrong - no collusion!” Trump wrote.
Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova denounced the allegations as “absurd” and ridiculed the notion that so few Russian nationals could undermine U.S. democracy.
“13 against the billions’ budgets of the secret services?” she asked in a Facebook post.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov declined to comment on Saturday on the U.S. indictments, telling a security conference in Munich that U.S. Vice President Michael Pence and others had raised questions about the investigation.
“You may publish anything you want to. So until we see the facts, everything else is just blather,” Lavrov said.
The accused Russians are unlikely to be arrested or appear in a U.S. court on the charges, which include conspiracy to defraud the United States, wire fraud, bank fraud and identity theft, as there is no extradition treaty between the United States and Russia.
The indictment broadly echoes the conclusions of a January 2017 U.S. intelligence assessment, which found Russia had meddled in the election, and that its goals eventually included aiding Trump. In November 2016, Trump won a surprise victory over Democratic Party candidate Clinton.
Mueller’s indictment did not tie the meddling effort to the Russian government. But the earlier U.S. intelligence assessment said Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered a campaign to influence the U.S. election.
Trump has never unequivocally accepted the U.S. intelligence report and has denounced Mueller’s probe as a “witch hunt.”
Some of those charged, posing as Americans, “communicated with unwitting individuals associated with the Trump campaign,” the indictment said.
Last year, Mueller charged Trump’s former campaign manager and his deputy with money-laundering and other crimes, and accepted guilty pleas from two former foreign policy aides for lying to the FBI.
Friday’s 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.
U.S. stocks had been up more than half a percent but lost nearly all those gains after the indictment came out.
U.S. Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein told a press conference that the defendants allegedly conducted “what they called information warfare against the United States, with the stated goal of spreading distrust toward the candidates and the political system in general.”
The indictment describes a sophisticated and well-funded multi-year operation, dubbed “Project Lakhta,” by Russian entities, to influence the election, beginning as early as May 2014.
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, the indictment said.
Mueller also on Friday reached an agreement with an American named Richard Pinedo, who pled guilty to aiding and abetting interstate and foreign identity fraud by creating, buying and stealing hundreds of bank account numbers that he sold to individuals to use with large digital payment companies.
According to a source familiar with the indictments, Pinedo is the person cited in the document as helping the Russian conspirators launder money, as well as purchase Facebook ads and pay for rally supplies, through PayPal Holdings Inc.
Pinedo’s attorney, Jeremy I. Lessem, said in a statement that “Mr. Pinedo had absolutely no knowledge of the identities and motivations of any of the purchasers of the information he provided.”
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.
Facebook said in a statement it had previously disclosed the Internet Research Agency’s activity on its platform. “We know we have more to do to prevent against future attacks,” said Joel Kaplan, Facebook’s vice president of global policy.
Twitter, whose platform was also used, echoed that view, saying in a statement: “Any activity of this kind is intolerable, and we all must do more to prevent it.”
Experts said these companies would struggle to stop such activities.
“They can’t out of hand stop it, because it’s very difficult for them to trace those things,” said Ann Ravel, a former member of the U.S. Federal Election Commission. The clandestine purchase of advertising on the site through fake personas was particularly alarming, she said.
The Internet Research Agency was registered with the Russian government as a corporate entity in July 2013 and St. Petersburg “became one of the organization’s operational hubs,” for the project, the indictment said.
The organization employed hundreds of people, from creators of fictitious identities to technical experts, and by September 2016 its monthly budget exceeded $1.2 million, the court document said.
Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats told the Senate Intelligence Committee on Tuesday 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.
The indictment said the Russians it charged tried to destroy evidence of their crimes.
For example, in September 2017, one defendant wrote an email to a relative stating: “We had a slight crisis at work: the FBI busted our activity (not a joke). So, I got preoccupied with covering tracks together with colleagues.”
The email continued: “I created all these pictures and posts, and the Americans believed that it was written by their people.”
Reporting by Warren Strobel, Dustin Volz and Jonathan Landay; Additional reporting by Lisa Lambert, Patricia Zengerle, Mark Hosenball, David Shepardson, David Alexander, Steve Holland, David Ingram, Noel Randewich, with Jack Stubbs and Christian Lowe in Moscow; Editing by Grant McCool and David Holmes