Robert Mueller. Alex Wong/Getty Images
The special counsel Robert Mueller on Friday indicted 12 Russian intelligence officers suspected of playing a role in the hack of the Democratic National Committee during the 2016 US election.
The charges represent the first time that Mueller's office has directly pointed a finger at the Russian government for interfering in the election.
The US intelligence community found in early 2017 that the Kremlin ordered an elaborate and multi-faceted campaign to meddle in the race. A key pillar of that campaign, according to US intelligence, was the hacking of the DNC and the subsequent dissemination of emails intended to hurt Democrats and the campaign of then Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton.
Friday's indictment names 12 members of the GRU, Russia's military intelligence unit, and accuses 11 of them of conspiring to interfere with the election by hacking into computers, stealing documents, and releasing those documents with the intent to interfere. It charges one of the defendants and a 12th Russian intelligence officer with conspiring to infiltrate computers that contain critical election-related software and information. The document also charges the defendants with money laundering and aggravated identity theft.
In addition to accusing the defendants of engaging in malicious cyber operations to steal and disseminate information, the indictment specifically names the Russia-linked hacker Guccifer 2.0 and the website DCLeaks.
The charging document says the defendants falsely claimed that DCLeaks was controlled by American hackers, and that Guccifer 2.0 was a Romanian hacker, when in fact both were created and controlled by the GRU, Russia's main military intelligence unit.
In addition, the indictment says that the conspirators — in this case, Guccifer 2.0 — also communicated with US persons about the release of stolen documents. In one instance, the document says the conspirator posing as Guccifer 2.0 contacted a person who was "in regular contact with senior members of the presidential campaign of Donald J. Trump."
The conspirator allegedly wrote to this person thanking them for "writing back" and asked if they found "anything interesting in the documents I posted."
The document does not name or charge any Americans with committing crimes. Previous reporting has found that Roger Stone, the longtime Republican strategist and an informal adviser to the Trump campaign, was in touch with Guccifer 2.0 during the election.
The indictment also alleges that the defendants transferred stolen documents to an unidentified third party organization and used it to release information and discuss the timing of those releases so they would have the maximum impact during the election.
Though the document does not name the organization, evidence strongly suggests it was WikiLeaks, the self-described radical transparency group that released batches of emails in the run-up to the November election to hurt the Clinton campaign. WikiLeaks says it has no affiliation with the Russian government, but then CIA director Mike Pompeo described the group as a non-state hostile intelligence service. US intelligence also believes that the Kremlin used WikiLeaks as a propaganda tool during the election.
Stone was in touch with WikiLeaks as well, as was Trump's eldest son, Donald Trump Jr.
Friday's document says the defendants worked for two separate GRU units — one of which engaged in active cyber operations by stealing information, and another which focused on disseminating that information.
It says they used two techniques to accomplish their goals. The first was to engage in spearphishing, which involves sending misleading emails to trick users into disclosing passwords and other sensitive security details. The second was to hack into computer networks and install malicious software allowing them to spy on users, register key strokes, take screenshots, and remove data from computers.
In addition to accessing the email accounts of volunteers and employees, including the Clinton campaign chairman, in March 2016, the defendants also hacked into and covertly monitored the computer networks of the Democratic congressional campaign committee and the DNC, and planted hundreds of files with malicious computer code.
The indictment said that in order to conceal their connections to Russia, the defendants used a network of computers around the world that were paid for by cryptocurrency.
Meanwhile, the defendants also engaged in a separate conspiracy to hack into the website of a state election board and steal information about 500,000 voters, the document said. Specifically, the hackers targeted state and local officials by sending spearphising emails to people involved in administering elections.
The indictment does not allege that any of the actions the Russians took changed the vote count or altered the result of the election.