Skip to main content

Twelve Russian spies have been charged with running a sweeping hacking campaign to damage Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton in the 2016 U.S. presidential election – with the indictment landing three days before Donald Trump is set to meet Vladimir Putin.

Special counsel Robert Mueller accuses the agents with the Main Intelligence Directorate, a Kremlin spy agency known as the GRU, of installing spyware on the computers of Democratic Party staffers to monitor their work during the campaign; stealing embarrassing e-mails and other documents; and making off with voter information on 500,000 Americans from a state election agency.

The spies set up fake personas online to release the stolen documents. They also allegedly fed the information to an “organization” – unnamed in the indictment, but which appears to be Wikileaks – as well as a congressional candidate, a lobbyist and a journalist. And they communicated with someone who was “in regular contact” with Mr. Trump’s campaign to offer “help.”

Friday’s charges outline the extent of Russia’s stunning attack on the electoral system of the most powerful country in the world. And they lift the curtain on 21st-century cyber warfare that caught the U.S. government completely unprepared.

Mr. Mueller has previously indicted Russian hackers with ties to the Kremlin, but Friday’s charges are the first against government intelligence agents. He is investigating Moscow’s interference in the election, and trying to determine whether Mr. Trump’s campaign colluded with Russia.

The U.S. President, speaking on a visit to Britain before the charges were laid, accused the investigation of hurting his attempts to build a relationship with Mr. Putin.

“I would call it the rigged witch hunt,” Mr. Trump said. “It really hurts our relationship with Russia. We would have a chance to have … a very good relationship with President Putin.”

During the campaign, Mr. Trump publicly encouraged Russia to hack Ms. Clinton’s e-mails and frequently referenced the hacked documents to assail his opponent.

Politicians across the spectrum demanded that Mr. Trump cancel his Monday summit with Mr. Putin in Finland – or at the very least confront him about the hacking allegations.

“President Trump must be willing to confront Putin from a position of strength and demonstrate that there will be a serious price to pay for his ongoing aggression,” Republican Senator John McCain said in a statement. “If President Trump is not prepared to hold Putin accountable, the summit in Helsinki should not move forward.”

While U.S. intelligence agencies have long blamed Russia for the hack, Friday’s indictment lays out for the first time the details of how it is believed to have been carried out by two Moscow-based GRU departments, Units 26165 and 74455.

The spies started by sending spearphishing e-mails to members of Ms. Clinton’s campaign and other Democratic officials, the indictment says. One March, 2016 e-mail, disguised to look like a security alert from Google, tricked campaign chair John Podesta into entering his password into a GRU-created website. The Russians then stole more than 50,000 emails from his account.

A similar e-mail the following month fooled a staffer at the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. This single slip-up allegedly enabled the spies to enter not only her computer, but the DCCC server and the computers of the Democratic National Committee as well.

Once inside, the GRU agents are accused of installing a spyware program called X-Agent, which allowed them to view the screens of party officials and log their keystrokes. They stole thousands more e-mails, and rooted through the computers for sensitive documents.

Then the spies set up a website, Facebook page and Twitter account called “DCLeaks” to publish the material, Mr. Mueller alleges. They also created a fake identity, Guccifer 2.0, who claimed to be a Romanian hacker with “totally no relation to the Russian government.”

One unnamed group allegedly approached “Guccifer” requesting documents that would drive a wedge between Ms. Clinton and Bernie Sanders, her rival for the Democratic presidential nod, ahead of the party’s nominating convention. The Russians complied. The group appears to be Wikileaks, which published tens of thousands of the stolen documents in the summer of 2016.

Three other people, all unnamed in the indictment, also received documents from the Russians: A congressional candidate, who contacted the spies seeking damaging information on an opponent; a lobbyist who got information on Democratic donors; and a reporter who co-ordinated with the Russians on putting out information about Black Lives Matter.

And the spies, posing as Guccifer, allegedly communicated with someone connected to Mr. Trump’s associates, saying “please tell me if i can help you anyhow … it would be a great pleasure to me.” Roger Stone, a long-time friend of Mr. Trump’s, has previously acknowledged exchanging messages with Guccifer.

There is no evidence that any of these people realized that they were dealing with Russian spies, and none has been charged.

On Friday, Mr. Trump seemed unconcerned at the notion of Russian hacking, suggesting there was not much he could do if Mr. Putin denied it.

“I don’t think you’ll have any ‘Gee, I did it. I did it. You got me.’ There won’t be a Perry Mason here,” he said. “But I will absolutely firmly ask the question.”

Follow related authors and topics

Authors and topics you follow will be added to your personal news feed in Following.

Interact with The Globe