The U.S. special council looking into Russia's role in the U.S. elections has charged 13 Russian nationals and three Russian entities with interfering in the U.S. political process, from as early as 2014, Robert Mueller's office said on Friday.
They are charged by a grand jury with conspiracy to defraud the U.S. Five of them are charged with aggravated identity theft. According to the indictment, they posed as Americans and created online personas to "sow discord in the U.S. political system, including the 2016 U.S. election."
Some of them also allegedly contacted "unwitting individuals" in the Trump campaign, posing as American nationals. A number of them are also charged with conspiracy to commit wire fraud.
According to court documents, the suspects traveled to the U.S. to set up computer infrastructure to hide the Russian origin of their online activities. Using false online identities they organized rallies in the U.S. and bought political advertising while posing as grassroots U.S. organizations.
According to the indictment, the defendants, along with The Internest Research Agency, a Russian organization, commenced work in 2014 to interfere in U.S. elections. They used stolen U.S. identities, including fake driver’s licenses, and contacted news media outlets to promote their activities. Posing as American political and social activists, they traveled around the U.S. to gather intelligence for their operation. They used clandestine methods to communicate and gather information, employing special cameras, “drop phones” and “evacuation scenarios” to ensure security.
In a Feb. 10, 2016 planning memo, the Russians were instructed to “use any opportunity to criticize Hillary and the rest (except Sanders and Trump - we support them).”
The operations also denigrated Repulican candidates Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio, Trump’s rivals in the 2016 Republican primary, the indictment said.
In September 2016, the group ordered one worker to “intensify criticizing Hillary Clinton” after a review found insufficient anti-Clinton activity.
According to the indictment, by 2016 the monthly budget for team was over 1.2 million. The group also spent thousands of dollars monthly on advertisements in social media groups whilst tracking the size of U.S. audiences reached.
Rallies were promoted via Facebook ads, including one dubbing Hillary Clinton "a Satan", claiming her crimes and lies "proved just how evil she is."
The group also created numerous Twitter accounts designed to appear as U.S. groups or people. One fake account, @TEN_GOP, attracted more than 100,000 online followers.
The effort went well beyond social media. According to the indicment, the Russians were paying Americans to participate in rallies or perform tasks at them. One American was paid to build a cage on a flatbed truck; another was paid to portray Clinton in a prison uniform.
Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein said on Friday that the U.S. has had no communication with Russia regarding the indictments and will follow ordinary extradition process. He added that there is No allegations that Americans knowingly intervened on Russia's behalf or that meddling tipped election results.
After the indictment's publication, Trump tweeted that Russia had begun their anti-U.S. campaign long before he announced his candidacy, thus proving he had not colluded with them.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told Reuters on Friday he was not yet familiar with a U.S. indictments.
Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova commented on the allegations on through her Facebook account, calling them "absurd."
"13 people interfered in the U.S. elections?! 13 against an intelligence services budget of billions? Against intelligence and counterintelligence, against the latest developments and technologies? Absurd? Yes," she wrote.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov echoed that tone on Saturday, telling participants at the annual Munich Security Conference that even U.S. Vice President Michael Pence and others had raised questions about the U.S. investigation. "So until we see the facts, everything else is just blather," he said.
Prosecutors also charged Yevgeniy Viktorivich Prigozhin, a Russian restaurateur and caterer widely known as “Putin’s chef” for hosting his state dinners with foreign dignitaries, and two of his companies. The companies, Concord Catering and Concord Management and Consulting, have Russian government contracts. The special counsel alleges that they provided the financing for the Internet Research Agency’s operations.
Russian businessman Evgeny Prigozhin said he was not upset about his indictment, RIA news agency reported.
“Americans are very impressionable people, they see what they want to see. I have great respect for them. I’m not at all upset that I ended up on this list. If they want to see the devil - let them see it,” Prigozhin told RIA Novosti.