Saturday, February 17, 2018

Russia investigation not such “fake news” anymore after indictments of Russians linked to Kremlin

The announcement that Robert Mueller obtained the indictment of 13 Russian nationals—including Vladimir Putin’s “chef”—means that the investigation into Russian tampering in the 2016 election has entered a dangerous new phase, not just for Donald Trump, but the country as a whole. Dangerous for Trump because the Mueller investigation now only has to look for persons involved in the Trump campaign who have any connections with the indicted persons to prove collusion—and dangerous to this country, because the indictment demonstrates how easy it was for the Russians to undermine the integrity of the electoral process—no doubt with tactics learned from Putin’s own efforts to undermine the democratic process in Russia.

Unknown to most in this country, Trump has “suspended” recently passed sanctions against Russia by Congress in regard to Russian interference in the election; will any pressure on Trump to invoke the sanctions lead to more of his “fake news” bluster? Some might call it more evidence of a conspiracy to obstruct justice by Trump and his administration. Remember that Trump learned from attorney Roy Cohn—the notorious “right-hand man” of Joe McCarthy in destroying hundreds of innocent lives—that lying and denying loudly while crafting a knowingly false narrative is the “best defense.” In private, only a limited number people may be affected, but as the President of the United States, this is poisonous to the body politic. 

Unlike most people I have taken the time to read the 37-page indictment against the Russian conspirators. A key figure here is Yevgeniy Viktorovich Prigozhin, the oligarch who besides half-jokingly tasked to serve Putin’s “palate,” also seems to serve his appetite for international machination. Those who claim that no Russian government official is named in the indictment means no Russian government involvement can liken themselves to Nazi high officials who claimed to know nothing of the Holocaust. Here are excerpts from the first count of the indictment:

Defendant:  INTERNET  RESEARCH  AGENCY  LLC  (“ORGANIZATION”)  is  a  Russian  organization  engaged  in  operations  to  interfere  with  elections  and  political  processes.   Defendants MIKHAIL  IVANOVICH  BYSTROV,  MIKHAIL  LEONIDOVICH  BURCHIK,  ALEKSANDRA YURYEVNA  KRYLOVA,  ANNA  VLADISLAVOVNA  BOGACHEVA,  SERGEY  PAVLOVICH POLOZOV,  MARIA  ANATOLYEVNA  BOVDA,  ROBERT  SERGEYEVICH  BOVDA, DZHEYKHUN  NASIMI  OGLY  ASLANOV,  VADIM  VLADIMIROVICH  PODKOPAEV,  GLEB IGOREVICH  VASILCHENKO,  IRINA  VIKTOROVNA  KAVERZINA,  and  VLADIMIR VENKOV  worked  in  various  capacities  to  carry  out  Defendant  ORGANIZATION’s  interference operations  targeting  the  United  States.   From  in  or  around  2014  to  the  present,  Defendants knowingly  and  intentionally  conspired  with  each  other  (and  with  persons  known  and  unknown  to the Grand Jury) to defraud the United States by impairing, obstructing, and defeating the lawful functions of the government through fraud and deceit for the purpose of interfering with the U.S. political and electoral processes, including the presidential election of 2016. 

Beginning as early as 2014, Defendant ORGANIZATION began operations to interfere with the U.S. political system, including the 2016 U.S. presidential election. Defendant ORGANIZATION received funding for its operations from Defendant YEVGENIY VIKTOROVICH PRIGOZHIN and companies he controlled, including Defendants CONCORD MANAGEMENT AND CONSULTING LLC and CONCORD CATERING (collectively “CONCORD”). Defendants CONCORD and PRIGOZHIN spent significant funds to further the ORGANIZATION’s operations and to pay the remaining Defendants, along with other uncharged ORGANIZATION employees, salaries and bonuses for their work at the ORGANIZATION. Defendants, posing as U.S. persons and creating false U.S. personas, operated social media pages and groups designed to attract U.S. audiences. These groups and pages, which addressed divisive U.S. political and social issues, falsely claimed to be controlled by U.S. activists when, in fact, they were controlled by Defendants. Defendants also used the stolen identities of real U.S. persons to post on ORGANIZATION-controlled social media accounts. Over time, these social media accounts became Defendants’ means to reach significant numbers of Americans for purposes of interfering with the U.S. political system, including the presidential election of 2016.

Certain Defendants traveled to the United States under false pretenses for the purpose of collecting intelligence to inform Defendants’ operations. Defendants also procured and used computer infrastructure, based partly in the United States, to hide the Russian origin of their activities and to avoid detection by U.S. regulators and law enforcement. Defendant ORGANIZATION had a strategic goal to sow discord in the U.S. political system, including the 2016 U.S. presidential election. 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 (“Trump Campaign”) and disparaging Hillary Clinton. Defendants made various expenditures to carry out those activities, including buying political advertisements on social media in the names of U.S. persons and entities. Defendants also staged political rallies inside the United States, and while posing as U.S. grassroots entities and U.S. persons, and without revealing their Russian identities and ORGANIZATION affiliation, solicited and compensated real U.S. persons to promote or disparage candidates. Some Defendants, posing as U.S. persons and without revealing their Russian association, communicated with unwitting individuals associated with the Trump Campaign and with other political activists to seek to coordinate political activities. 

In order to carry out their activities to interfere in U.S. political and electoral processes without detection of their Russian affiliation, Defendants conspired to obstruct the lawful functions of the United States government through fraud and deceit, including by making expenditures in connection with the 2016 U.S. presidential election without proper regulatory disclosure; failing to register as foreign agents carrying out political activities within the United States; and obtaining visas  through false and fraudulent statements. From in or around 2014 to the present, in the District of Columbia and elsewhere, Defendants,  together  with  others  known  and  unknown  to  the  Grand  Jury,  knowingly  and intentionally  conspired  to  defraud  the  United  States  by  impairing,  obstructing,  and  defeating  the   lawful  functions  of  the  Federal  Election  Commission,  the  U.S.  Department  of  Justice,  and  the  U.S. Department  of  State  in  administering  federal  requirements  for  disclosure  of  foreign  involvement in  certain  domestic  activities.  

The indictment goes on reveal many specific examples of the content of this activity. For instance, it revealed that the Russians sought to aid the Trump campaign not just by direct support, but creating fictitious far-left or minority “organizations” meant to alienate or frighten white voters:

ORGANIZATION employees, referred to as “specialists,” were tasked to create social media accounts that appeared to be operated by U.S. persons. The specialists were divided into day-shift and night-shift hours and instructed to make posts in accordance with the appropriate U.S. time zone. The ORGANIZATION also circulated lists of U.S. holidays so that specialists could develop and post appropriate account activity. Specialists were instructed to write about topics germane to the United States such as U.S. foreign policy and U.S. economic issues. Specialists were directed to create “political intensity through supporting radical groups, users dissatisfied with [the] social and economic situation and oppositional social movements.” 

Defendants and their co-conspirators also created thematic group pages on social media sites, particularly on the social media platforms Facebook and Instagram. ORGANIZATION controlled pages addressed a range of issues, including: immigration (with group names including “Secured Borders”); the Black Lives Matter movement (with group names including “Blacktivist”); religion (with group names including “United Muslims of America” and “Army of Jesus”); and certain geographic regions within the United States (with group names including “South United” and “Heart of Texas”). By 2016, the size of many ORGANIZATION-controlled groups had grown to hundreds of thousands of online followers. 

The indictment shows that the Russians hid their identities and agenda by constantly reviewing and revamping content, and their social media activities were quite successful in reaching a large number of people:

Defendants and their co-conspirators also created and controlled numerous Twitter accounts designed to appear as if U.S. persons or groups controlled them. For example, the ORGANIZATION created and controlled the Twitter account “Tennessee GOP,” which used the handle @TEN_GOP. The @TEN_GOP account falsely claimed to be controlled by a U.S. state political party. Over time, the @TEN_GOP account attracted more than 100,000 online followers. To measure the impact of their online social media operations, Defendants and their coconspirators tracked the performance of content they posted over social media. They tracked the size of the online U.S. audiences reached through posts, different types of engagement with the posts (such as likes, comments, and reposts), changes in audience size, and other metrics. Defendants and their co-conspirators received and maintained metrics reports on certain group pages and individualized posts. 

Defendants and their co-conspirators also regularly evaluated the content posted by specialists (sometimes referred to as “content analysis”) to ensure they appeared authentic—as if operated by U.S. persons. Specialists received feedback and directions to improve the quality of their posts. Defendants and their co-conspirators issued or received guidance on: ratios of text, graphics, and video to use in posts; the number of accounts to operate; and the role of each account (for example, differentiating a main account from which to post information and auxiliary accounts to promote a main account through links and reposts). 

The indictment shows that in 2014 the Russians were already in the planning phase to discredit a potential Clinton campaign (as if she hadn't already done enough of that on her own). Because of their antipathy toward Clinton, the Russians did not seek to harm the Sanders' campaign; this does not so much discredit Sanders, but is another reason why so many of us were angry that the media and the Democratic establishment was foisting on voters such an unpopular and unethical candidate who was highly vulnerable to negative imagery. It was also charged that when the candidate most perceived as Russia’s “friend,” Trump, became “viable” during the primaries, the conspirators engaged in activities meant to discredit his Republican rivals:

By approximately May 2014, Defendants and their co-conspirators discussed efforts to interfere in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. Defendants and their co-conspirators began to monitor U.S. social media accounts and other sources of information about the 2016 U.S. presidential election. By 2016, Defendants and their co-conspirators used their fictitious online personas to interfere with the 2016 U.S. presidential election. They 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. 

On or about February 10, 2016, Defendants and their co-conspirators internally circulated an outline of themes for future content to be posted to ORGANIZATION-controlled social media accounts. Specialists were instructed to post content that focused on “politics in the USA” and to “use any opportunity to criticize Hillary and the rest (except Sanders and Trump—we support them).” On or about September 14, 2016, in an internal review of an ORGANIZATION created and controlled Facebook group called “Secured Borders,” the account specialist was criticized for having a “low number of posts dedicated to criticizing Hillary Clinton” and was told “it is imperative to intensify criticizing Hillary Clinton” in future posts. 

The indictment showed that the Russians paid for and promoted under false pretenses and illegally in contravention of the foreign agent statute numerous advertisements and campaign rallies, either in support of Trump, or to alienate voters against Clinton:

To pay for the political advertisements, Defendants and their co-conspirators established various Russian bank accounts and credit cards, often registered in the names of fictitious U.S. personas created and used by the ORGANIZATION on social media. Defendants and their coconspirators also paid for other political advertisements using PayPal accounts. The political advertisements included the following: 

April 6, 2016 “You know, a great number of black people support us saying that #HillaryClintonIsNotMyPresident” April 7, 2016 “I say no to Hillary Clinton / I say no to manipulation” April 19, 2016 “JOIN our #HillaryClintonForPrison2016” May 10, 2016 “Donald wants to defeat terrorism . . . Hillary wants to sponsor it” May 19, 2016 “Vote Republican, vote Trump, and support the Second Amendment!” May 24, 2016 “Hillary Clinton Doesn’t Deserve the Black Vote” June 7, 2016 “Trump is our only hope for a better future!” June 30, 2016 “#NeverHillary #HillaryForPrison #Hillary4Prison #HillaryForPrison2016 #Trump2016 #Trump #Trump4President” July 20, 2016 “Ohio Wants Hillary 4 Prison” August 4, 2016 “Hillary Clinton has already committed voter fraud during the Democrat Iowa Caucus.” August 10, 2016 “We cannot trust Hillary to take care of our veterans!” October 14, 2016 “Among all the candidates Donald Trump is the one and only who can defend the police from terrorists.” October 19, 2016 “Hillary is a Satan, and her crimes and lies had proved just how evil she is.” 

Starting in approximately June 2016, Defendants and their co-conspirators organized and coordinated political rallies in the United States. To conceal the fact that they were based in Russia, Defendants and their co-conspirators promoted these rallies while pretending to be U.S. grassroots activists who were located in the United States but unable to meet or participate in person. Defendants and their co-conspirators did not register as foreign agents with the U.S. Department of Justice. In order to build attendance for the rallies, Defendants and their co-conspirators promoted the events through public posts on their false U.S. persona social media accounts. In addition, Defendants and their co-conspirators contacted administrators of large social media groups focused on U.S. politics and requested that they advertise the rallies. 

The indictment shows that the Russians attempted to destroy the evidence of their activities following the Facebook revelations:

Media  reporting  on  or  about  the  same  day  as  Facebook’s  disclosure  referred  to Facebook  working  with  investigators  for  the  Special  Counsel’s  Office  of  the  U.S. Department  of  Justice,  which  had  been  charged  with  investigating  the  Russian government’s  efforts  to  interfere  in  the  2016  presidential  election.  Defendants  and  their  co-conspirators  thereafter  destroyed  evidence  for  the  purpose of  impeding  the  investigation.   On or  about  September  13,  2017,  KAVERZINA wrote  in  an  email  to  a  family  member:   “We  had  a  slight  crisis  here  at  work:  the FBI  busted  our  activity  (not  a  joke).   So, I  got  preoccupied  with  covering  tracks together  with  the  colleagues.”   KAVERZINA  further  wrote,  “I  created  all  these pictures  and  posts,  and  the  Americans  believed  that  it  was  written  by  their  people.” 

The second count of the indictment shows just how useless security programs like Life Lock are when it comes to “protection” against identity theft “pros”:

From in or around 2016 through present, in the District of Columbia and elsewhere, Defendants INTERNET RESEARCH AGENCY LLC, DZHEYKHUN NASIMI OGLY ASLANOV, and GLEB IGOREVICH VASILCHENKO, together with others known and unknown to the Grand Jury, knowingly and intentionally conspired to commit certain offenses against the United States, to wit: to knowingly, having devised and intending to devise a scheme and artifice to defraud, and to obtain money and property by means of false and fraudulent pretenses,  representations,  and  promises,  transmit  and  cause  to  be  transmitted,  by means  of  wire  communications  in  interstate  and  foreign  commerce,  writings,  signs, signals,  pictures,  and  sounds,  for  the  purposes  of  executing  such  scheme  and artifice,  in  violation  of  Title  18,  United  States  Code,  Section  1343;  and to  knowingly  execute  and  attempt  to  execute  a  scheme  and  artifice  to  defraud  a federally  insured  financial  institution,  and  to  obtain  monies,  funds,  credits,  assets, securities  and  other  property  from  said  financial  institution  by  means  of  false  and fraudulent  pretenses,  representations,  and  promises,  all  in  violation  of  Title  18, 

 The  conspiracy  had  as  its  object  the  opening  of  accounts  under  false  names  at  U.S.  financial  institutions  and  a  digital  payments  company  in  order  to  receive  and  send  money  into  and  out  of the  United  States  to  support  the  ORGANIZATION’s  operations  in  the  United  States  and  for  self-enrichment. Beginning  in  at  least  2016,  Defendants  and  their  co-conspirators  used,  without  lawful  authority,  the  social  security  numbers,  home  addresses,  and  birth  dates  of  real  U.S.  persons without their  knowledge  or  consent.  Using  these  means  of  stolen  identification,  Defendants  and  their  coconspirators  opened  accounts  at  a  federally  insured  U.S.  financial  institution.

And there’s more, a lot more. Trump’s election voter “fraud” committee might be dead and buried, but thanks in part to his insistence that this is all “fake news” and a “witch hunt” against him, many states are not even acknowledging the possibility of Russian undermining of the election process or protecting voting systems from tampering. For those who are concerned about this, it should be clear now that the Kremlin was directly involved in instigating and overseeing these activities, and even in being caught, as Julian Sanchez wrote in The New York Times, it served the purpose of undermining in Americans' minds confidence in their own democratic process. Anyone who believes Putin’s denials is either a fool, unpatriotic or stands just this side of treason; you tell me which one (or all) best describes Trump.

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