Russian Military Intelligence Officials Indicted for 2016 Election Hacks

A federal grand jury indicted a dozen members of Russia’s Main Intelligence Directorate of the General Staff – the military intelligence agency more colloquially known as the GRU – on eleven counts in connection with the hacking and publication of Democratic Party and campaign organization emails during the 2016 election. Just Security has a good recap of the six major takeaways from today’s indictment, which is well worth reading. I would also recommend listening to the newest episode of the Lawfare Podcast which focuses entirely on various aspects of the indictment.

This is the latest in a series of indictments produced by Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s office in the 17 months or so since he was appointed to the post.  This makes a total of 191 charges against 35 defendants, according to CNN’s Marshall Cohen. Previous indictments focused on Paul Manafort’s shady foreign business dealings, as well as guilty pleas from members of the Trump campaign’s inner circle, and an indictment of Russian individuals and agencies who were behind the social media effort during the election.

Journalists and observers who have been following the special counsel’s work had expected charges in connection with the hacks.  Why is this one so important? This indictment goes to the heart of the crimes that were committed during the 2016 election.  Remember, the chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee and several senior staffers lost their jobs because of these emails.  Subsequent batches of hacked emails from Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta’s account upended the final month of the presidential race. This operation had an impact in real time, and is at the heart of the collusion accusations.

The timing for the announcement was probably not a coincidence.  Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein was holding a press conference announcing the indictment at the same time that President Donald Trump and his wife were meeting with Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip, just days before a scheduled summit in Helsinki with Russian President Vladimir Putin. An anonymous White House official told Politico, “It’s a big FU from Mueller.”

The emerging Democratic position in the wake of the indictment was to call for the President to cancel his meeting with Putin next week. Some Democrats have even gone so far as saying that President Trump should demand the extradition of the indicted Russians, and in the likely event that Putin declines, to use that as an excuse to cancel the summit.

There are a few things still missing or outstanding from the latest indictment, which could turn up later in a superseding indictment or a separate indictment altogether. First, as Lawfare points out, is the thorny issue of what – if any – First Amendment protections WikiLeaks might have as a publisher when considering charges against the organization and its leader Julian Assange. This current indictment did not even address that question, but did make a few passing references to WikiLeaks as “Organization 1” as a recipient of hacked materials from Guccifer 2.0 – an online alter ego for the GRU, according to the indictment.

Assange insists WikiLeaks is a journalistic enterprise, but its actions in this episode suggest otherwise.  According to the indictment, WikiLeaks sent a private message to Guccifer 2.0 on June 22, 2016 reading, “Send any new material [stolen from the DNC] here for us to review and it will have a much higher impact than what you are doing.” A subsequent message from WikiLeaks reads, “we think trump has only a 25% chance of winning against  hillary. . . so conflict between bernie and hillary is interesting.” In other words – they wanted to meddle and create controversy during the election to help Donald Trump win.  If Mueller subpoenaed Twitter to get access to all of the direct messages in the WikiLeaks Twitter account, assume he has more of these messages in which Assange or his subordinates reveal their true intentions.

Second, it should be noted Mueller has probably reached a tipping point where, unless there are more unforeseen names and charges pending, the only logical place left for him to go in this investigation is to start naming and indicting American collaborators. The unidentified American in the indictment who was in contact with Guccifer 2.0 is Roger Stone, who may still be at risk of greater legal jeopardy down the line. Buried at the bottom of page 15 is this tantalizing allegation which pretty much fits the criteria for collusion that journalists have been looking for:

One former Democratic House member from Nebraska went public on Facebook and announced that the Russians hacked his campaign’s emails in the 2016 cycle.  It’s not clear if he was the victim in the instance named in the indictment.

The big guessing game among political and congressional journalists for the next several days will be to try and figure out the identity of the campaign that solicited and received stolen emails from Guccifer 2.0. If this person is an elected state or federal official, he or she will be under tremendous political pressure to resign.  He or she may also face legal jeopardy, depending on what (if any) additional facts emerge.

Beyond the references to Stone and the unidentified congressional candidate, the big question is what happens if Mueller indicts a major figure who is close to the president – for example, Jared Kushner or Don Jr.

Third, is Vladimir Putin an unindicted co-conspirator? This may be a question for Mueller himself once he finishes his investigation, but it will be interesting to see if he takes a play from the Department of Justice’s past and slaps that dubious label on the Russian leader and implicate him directly in the hacks.

Fourth, what is the status of the obstruction of justice probe in connection with the firing of FBI Director James Comey? Rudy Giuliani has repeatedly moved the goal posts to set the criteria to grant a presidential interview, most recently arguing that they won’t allow it unless Mueller presents evidence that the President committed a crime. Mueller could get a subpoena to compel the President’s testimony, which would eventually lead to a protracted legal battle in which Mueller would likely prevail because of the Supreme Court’s decision in Clinton v. Jones.  If the case ever went that far, and an appeals court or the Supreme Court ruled in Mueller’s favor, that would create a permanent, binding legal precedent against the executive branch. The other question about the obstruction of justice investigation would be if and when Mueller would submit a final report to Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, and if that report were to become a public document. As the calendar gets closer to Election Day, Mueller may wind up postponing any subpoena or report until after the elections.

Watch this space.

October Surprise Watch: The Russia Investigation

Amid all the hoopla about the Supreme Court in the past several days, it’s easy to overlook the fact that there has been some movement in the Russia investigation. Here is a list of events that are already known and set on the calendar, scheduled to happen before the election:

  • July 25: Paul Manafort Virginia trial begins.
  • August 24: Mueller will update the court on sentencing hearing for Michael Flynn.
  • September 7: George Papadopoulos sentencing hearing. (Could be postponed to October, depending on judge’s availability)
  • September 17: Paul Manafort DC trial begins.
  • November 6: Election Day

Trials can be messy affairs – witness examination and cross-examination, as well as presentation of evidence by both sides virtually guarantees that a lot of Paul Manafort’s dirty laundry will be aired out in public for the world and a grand jury to see. While the charges focus on Manafort’s work as a lobbyist for a pro-Russian political clients in Ukraine, it is entirely possible that facts and allegations about Manafort’s time as Donald Trump’s campaign chairman come out during the trial.

Keep in mind, these are events we know about, based on court filings and public statements.  It is entirely possible Mueller could drop another bombshell or two. For example: a subpoena to get the president’s testimony, or the long-expected indictment surrounding the email hacks that caused so much chaos during the 2016 election. The thinking is Mueller will indict Russians who were involved in the hacks in the same way he indicted Russian individuals and organizations in connection with the social media efforts. If this is the case, the potential wildcards are if he indicts WikiLeaks as an organization, Julian Assange as an individual and the head of that organization, and if any Americans are named or indicted as well.

All of this does not take into account any potential developments in the Michael Cohen case, which may or may not overlap with the Russia investigation. (Reminder: it was Mueller’s office who referred the case to the Southern District of New York) When the FBI raided his home, office and hotel room, they seized more than 3.7 million items which federal prosecutors could potentially use as evidence. As of this writing, the judge overseeing the case has ordered that a review of documents and data files seized as evidence in the case must be finished by the first week of July.  (Reminder: federal agents seized eight boxes worth of documents, approximately 30 cell phones, iPads and computers, and the contents of a shredder)

The court-appointed special master has for the most part rejected claims of attorney-client privilege by Cohen.  According to a court document from earlier this month, out of nearly 300,000 items reviewed, only 161 were privileged and seven of them were conversations between Cohen and a legal client containing legal advice. This means that the vast majority of the evidence seized in the raids is fair game for prosecutors.

There has been reporting that Cohen is leaning toward cutting a deal and collaborating with a government but no concrete evidence of that yet. There has also been reporting that Cohen has had a falling out with his former boss and the Trump family, which might make him more willing to talk to federal investigators – whether it by the Southern District of New York or Robert Mueller’s office.

Watch this space.

CIA Concludes Russia Wanted to Help Trump Get Elected, Will Congress Investigate?

The Washington Post dropped a bombshell yesterday revealing the existence of a secret CIA assessment that Russia’s interference in the 2016 election was done with the intended purpose of helping him get elected, as opposed to the previous theory, which was that it was about creating chaos and mistrust in the American political process:

Intelligence agencies have identified individuals with connections to the Russian government who provided WikiLeaks with thousands of hacked emails from the Democratic National Committee and others, including Hillary Clinton’s campaign chairman, according to U.S. officials. Those officials described the individuals as actors known to the intelligence community and part of a wider Russian operation to boost Trump and hurt Clinton’s chances.

“It is the assessment of the intelligence community that Russia’s goal here was to favor one candidate over the other, to help Trump get elected,” said a senior U.S. official briefed on an intelligence presentation made to U.S. senators. “That’s the consensus view.”

The article also notes that the intelligence was challenged by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. Donald Trump himself repeatedly questioned the accusation that the Russians were behind the hacked DNC and John Podesta emails being published by WikiLeaks during the presidential campaign, and the Trump Transition put out the following statement last night in response to the story:

Setting aside the inaccuracy of their claim of “one of the biggest Electoral College victories in history,” the Post’s reporting was subsequently confirmed by the New York Times, which added another detail to the story: Russians hacked Republican National Committee computer systems, but did not publish any of the information they obtained.

Democrats and some congressional Republicans are asking (and in some cases, promising) investigations into various angles of the Russian hacking.

From the Trump transition team’s perspective, this Russia hacking assessment would put another asterisk on their election victory, the first being that Hillary Clinton won the popular vote by more than 2.8 million votes. The fact that Trump himself and Republicans in general gleefully cited the emails being dumped daily by WikiLeaks during the campaign, as well as the fact Trump himself called on Russia to hack Hillary Clinton’s email, does not help their case either.  The Washington Post’s Aaron Blake wrote a good article about the political dilemma Republicans find themselves in regarding how to handle this. As national security columnist John Schindler pointed out on Twitter:

Watching this story play out from the perspective of international leaders who will have to deal with President Trump for the next four years, those leaders can draw two conclusions: first, the President-elect only receives an intelligence briefing once a week, according to Reuters; second, that the president will not believe or openly dispute the findings of his own intelligence agency. The latter may wind up undermining Trump himself later on. If he has to rally international support for diplomatic action against a country or organization, and he cites U.S. intelligence findings as his evidence, who is to say that a skeptical country such as China or Russia or Venezuela won’t come back with a response along the lines of “Why should we believe your intelligence when you don’t even believe in it yourself?”

It will be interesting to see to what extent the Republican Congress is willing to investigate this in the months ahead, and if they do, how deep the rabbit hole goes.

UPDATE: NBC’s Andrea Mitchell is reporting that Donald Trump has chosen Exxon CEO Rex Tillerson as his Secretary of State, according to two sources. According to the Wall Street Journal, Tillerson has ties to Putin and Russia:

Among those considered for the post, Mr. Tillerson has perhaps the closest ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin, having negotiated a 2011 energy partnership deal with Russia that Mr. Putin said could eventually be worth as much as $500 billion. In 2012, the Kremlin bestowed the country’s Order of Friendship decoration on Mr. Tillerson.

This pre-existing relationship with Mr. Putin complements Mr. Trump’s push to improve U.S.-Russia ties. A number of Republicans have urged him to be wary of working closely with Russia, warning that it is trying to expand its influence in a way that runs counter to U.S. interests in places such as Ukraine and Syria.

Exxon has a large global presence, and this could introduce sticky conflicts of interest if Mr. Tillerson is selected. The company explores for oil and gas on six of the world’s continents and has operations in more than 50 countries.

Mr. Tillerson, who is slated to retire next year, has retirement funds worth tens of millions of dollars, a value that could potentially be affected by State Department activities. For example, he could benefit from such potential department actions as the lifting of sanctions on Russia.

In light of the CIA assessment on Russia’s role in the election, this confirmation hearing will be a lot more interesting than if Trump had chosen a more conventional nominee like Mitt Romney or Bob Corker.

UPDATE II: Mitchell also reporting that former Undersecretary for Arms Control and UN Ambassador John Bolton is Trump’s choice for Deputy Secretary of State. Democrats wouldn’t allow a confirmation vote on Bolton for the UN ambassador nomination during the Bush years, so he was a recess appointment.