Bombshell indictment details Russian election interference operations

A bombshell indictment released Friday by the office of Special Counsel Robert Mueller accused 13 individuals and a trio of Russian companies of “interference operations targeting the United States.”

The indictment primarily details the efforts of the Internet Research Agency — the Russian organization responsible for spearheading Moscow’s social media interference operations during the 2016 U.S. election. While the 37-page indictment doesn’t identify any new Facebook or Twitter accounts created by the IRA, it does detail the methods with which the Russian operatives skirted and allegedly broke U.S. law — as well as hints at the Americans with whom they communicated.

The biggest takeaway from the indictment — alongside the details of the operations, from bank transfers to false identities — likely comes with the confirmation that Russian social media interference operations were dedicated to “supporting the presidential campaign of [Donald Trump] and disparaging Hillary Clinton.” As the indictment reads:

[Russian operatives] 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… 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).

One Russian operative, according to the indictment, was even “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 describes how Russian operatives impersonated Americans, traveled to the U.S. for intelligence gathering operations, and, in at least one instance, “communicated with a real U.S. person affiliated with a Texas-based grassroots organization.” The indictment doesn’t identify the individual or the organization, but notes that the “U.S. person [said] they should focus their activities on ‘purple states like Colorado, Virginia & Florida.’”

All told, the defendants are accused of “conspir[ing] 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.”

While questions remain as to which Americans the Russian operatives communicated with, the indictment makes clear that the Russian operatives tried to primarily support Trump’s campaign, while undercutting Clinton’s. Indeed, some of those identified “communicated with unwitting individuals associated with the Trump Campaign,” as well as “other political activists to seek to coordinate political activities.”

Coordinating with a number of LLCs and operating out of St. Petersburg, Russia, the operation, per the indictment, “employed hundreds of individuals for its online operations, ranging from creators of fictitious personas to technical and administrative support,” including data analysis and a graphics department. Approximately 80 employees within the broader Russian apparatus focused primarily on YouTube, Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter accounts.

Some of those employees, including defendants like Aleksandra Krylova — at one point the third-highest ranking employee in the organization — traveled to the U.S. “under false pretenses for the purpose of collecting intelligence to inform” their operations. Others “oversaw the procurement of U.S. servers… that masked the [organization’s] Russian location when conducting operations within the U.S.”

The Russian operatives traveled extensively through the U.S., including to states like Nevada, California, New Mexico, Colorado, Illinois, Michigan, Louisiana, Texas, and New York — all “to gather intelligence.” An additional trip to Atlanta provided further intelligence. While in the U.S., the defendants, according to the indictment, “posed as U.S. persons and contacted U.S. political and social activists.”

As it is, the indictment doesn’t shed any new light on specific fake Russian Facebook or Twitter accounts; rather, it details the efforts of groups already identified, including “Secured Borders,” “United Muslims of America,” “Blacktivist,” and “Heart of Texas,” confirming that the size of many of the pages “had grown to hundreds of thousands of online followers.” According to the indictment, the Russian operatives further tracked engagement using an assortment of metrics. As the indictment reads:

Defendants and their co-conspirators also regularly evaluated the content posted by specialists… to ensure they appeared authentic — as if operated by U.S. persons. Specialists received feedback and directions to improve the quality of their posts.

The indictment also details some of the methods with which the defendants purportedly purchased ads on Facebook as well as disbursed money, including opening PayPal accounts with fake identities. The operatives further “used, possessed, and transferred… the social security numbers and dates of birth of real U.S. persons without those persons’ knowledge or consent.”

But the efforts weren’t solely dedicated to undercutting Clinton’s campaign, or to sowing division across the U.S. As the indictment points, the Russian operatives “began to encourage U.S. minority groups not to vote in the 2016 U.S. presidential election” — or even to support third party candidates like Jill Stein. As one post read, “Choose peace and vote for Jill Stein. Trust me, it’s not a wasted vote.”

Mueller’s office announced an additional guilty plea on Friday. The plea, connected to Mueller’s ongoing Russia probe, details how a California man named Richard Pinedo “offered a variety of services designed to circumvent the security features of large online digital payment companies,” while also selling bank account numbers online. Pinedo, according to the plea, additionally “knew that many of the persons to whom he sold bank account numbers were outside the United States.” The plea does not detail where Pinedo’s customers were located.

This is a developing story and will be updated with additional information.