13 Russians charged for U.S. election meddling

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(CBS News)- Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein announced Friday the indictment of Russian nationals and entities accused of breaking U.S. laws to interfere with the 2016 presidential election. The defendants conducted information warfare against the U.S., Rosenstein announced Friday. Twelve of the individual defendants worked at various times for Internet Research Agency, based in St. Petersburg, he added.

They set up a virtual private network in the U.S. – making it appear that the social media accounts they were using were controlled by people in the U.S., Rosenstein said.

There’s no allegation that any American was knowingly involved in the conspiracy, Rosenstein said. Nor was there an allegation that the efforts of the defendants affected the outcome of the election. The indictment, he told reporters, is a reminder that “people are not always who they appear to be.” He said the defendants wanted to undermine confidence in our democracy. 

Rosenstein and FBI Director Christopher Wray briefed President Trump on the indictments Friday, CBS News’ Major Garrett reports, according to two sources familiar with the talks. They told him that that the indictments did not allege cooperation or collusion with Trump campaign. 

The briefing was designed to give Mr. Trump maximum information to avoid eliciting an over-reaction from President Trump on Twitter or elsewhere. The imperative, the sources said, was to make sure the president would not “break any glass” over this. The briefing was on the indictments and no other part of the Mueller investigation.

On Friday, a D.C. federal grand jury returned an indictment against the Internet Research Agency, a Russian organization which has connections to Russian President Vladimir Putin — it names 13 Russian nationals and three Russian entities that accuses them of violating U.S. criminal laws to meddle in U.S. elections and political processes. According to a spokesman for the special counsel’s office, the indictment charges all of the defendants with conspiracy to defraud the U.S., as well as “three defendants with conspiracy to commit wire fraud and bank fraud, and five defendants with aggravated identity theft.”

The Internet Research Agency is funded by Yevgeniy Viktorovich Prigozhin, the indictment says. Prigozhin is a St. Petersburg-based businessman who’s known in Russian media as “Putin’s chef” because his restaurants host Putin’s dinners.

According to the indictment, “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.”

Working with the Internet Research Agency, the defendants “posted derogatory information” about several candidates, the indictment says, and by mid-2016, their efforts included “supporting the presidential campaign of then-candidate Donald J. Trump and disparaging Hillary Clinton,” the indictment says. Beginning in April, 2016, the defendants concealed their identities in order to purchase political advertisements on U.S. social media and other online sites. These ads were paid for using Russian bank accounts and registered in the names of fictitious U.S. residents. 

Starting around 2014, the defendants began to track and study groups on U.S. social media dedicated to American politics and social issues.  They used metrics to track the performance of various social media groups. They then travelled to the U.S. (or in some cases, tried to travel to the U.S.) to collect intelligence for their interference operations.  They posted as Americans and contacted U.S. political and social activists and learned they should target “purple” states, like Colorado, Virginia and Florida. 

They created hundreds of social media accounts and used them to develop fictitious U.S. personas into “leaders of opinion in the U.S.” The defendants worked day and night shifts to pump out messages, controlling pages targeting a range of issues, including immigration, Black Lives Matter, and they amassed hundreds of thousands of followers. They set up and used servers inside the U.S. to mask the Russian origin of the accounts. 

The Internet Research Agency employed hundreds of people for these purposes — administrators, creators of personas, technical support — and spent the equivalent of millions of dollars for these efforts. By September 2016, defendants had a monthly budget of $1,250,000, the indictment says. They used Social Security numbers and birthdates of U.S. citizens without their consent to set up PayPal accounts that they used to buy ads on social media sites. 

In addition to disparaging Clinton, they denigrated other candidates, “such as Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio,” and they supported Bernie Sanders and then Donald Trump. In the latter half of 2016, they used groups to discourage minorities from voting in the 2016 presidential election. 

Social media posts

The indictment documents efforts by the defendants to suppress minority voting with social media: 

  • In the month before the election, in Oct. 2016, they used one of their Instagram accounts, “Woke Blacks,” to post this message: “[A] particular hype and hatred for Trump is misleading the people and forcing Blacks to vote Killary. We cannot resort to the lesser of two devils. Then we’d surely be better off without voting AT ALL.” 
  • Days before Election day, on Nov. 3, 2016, the Internet Research Agency bought an Instagram ad for its “Blacktivist” account that said, “Choose peace and vote for Jill Stein. Trust me, it’s not a wasted vote.”
  • Also in November 2016, their “United Muslims of America” accounts posted messages like this: “American Muslims [are] boycotting elections today, most of the American Muslim voters refuse to vote for Hillary Clinton because she wants to continue the war on Muslims in the middle east and voted yes for invading Iraq.”

Social media advertisements

From April – Nov. 2016, the defendants “began to produce, purchase and post advertisements” on social media and other online sites that expressly advocated for Mr. Trump’s election or opposed Clinton’s election. Here are some of the ads identified in the indictment:

  • April 6 2016: “You know, a great number of black people support us saying that #HillaryClintonIsNotMyPresident;”
  • Apr. 19, 2016: “JOIN our #HillaryClintonForPrison2016;”
  • May 10, 2016: “Donald wants to defeat terrorism…Hillary wants to sponsor it;”
  • June 7, 2016: “Trump is our only hope for a better future;”
  • Aug. 10, 2016: “We cannot trust Hillary to take care of our veterans!”
  • Oct. 19, 2016: “Hillary is a Satan, and her crimes and lies had proved just how evil she is.”

Rallies

The defendants also organized rallies from afar, in New York, Pennsylvania and in Florida, for instance. They asked real U.S. citizens to help organize the rallies and offered money to some of them to help cover the expenses for the rallies. In once case, they found a volunteer to provide signs for a “March for Trump” rally in New York.  

For a “Florida Goes Trump” rally organized by the defendants, real Americans were tasked with building “a cage on a flatbed truck,” while another American was asked to “wear a costume portraying Clinton in a prison uniform.” The individuals were paid by the defendants for these assignments. 

The indictment also shows how the defendants used social media to make their requests of unwitting individuals. Using the fake persona and Facebook account of “Matt Skiber,” the defendants wrote to a real account, “Florida for Trump:”

Hi there! I’m a member of Being Patriotic online community. Listen, we’ve got an idea. Florida is still a purple state and we need to paint it red. If we lose Florida, we lose America. We can’t let it happen, right? What about organizing a YUGE pro-Trump flash mob in every Florida town?

 Their message goes on to say that they’re contacting local activists to organize events “everywhere in FL.” They produced and bought ads for their rally and reached 59,000 Facebook users in Florida — over 8,300 responded by clicking on the ads.

Voter fraud accusations

In August, according to the indictment, the Russians also began buying ads on Facebook that promoted a post accusing Clinton of voter fraud. “Hillary Clinton has already committed voter fraud during the Democrat Iowa Caucus,” the post read. Another claimed that “tens of thousands of ineligible mail in Hillary votes” were being reported in Broward County, Florida. 

Post-election

After the election of Donald Trump, the defendants allegedly planned rallies in support of President Trump. They also planned rallies against Trump titled, “Trump is NOT my President.”

“the FBI busted our activity (not a joke)

In September 2017, social media companies began disclosing that they’d found Russian spending on their platforms for political and social ads, and they informed U.S. authorities of the activity, including the special counsel and Justice Department. Thereafter, the indictment notes, the defendants and co-conspirators destroyed evidence. One defendant, Viktorovna Kaverzina, emailed her family: “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 colleagues.” She added, “I created all these pictures and posts, and the Americans believed that it was written by their people.”

Copyright 2019 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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