WASHINGTON — Twelve Russian military intelligence officers were charged Friday in a far-reaching hacking scheme that targeted the Democratic National Committee and the Clinton presidential campaign as part of the Kremlin's effort to undermine the 2016 election, the Justice Department announced.
The 11-count indictment, unveiled just days before President Donald Trump was set to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Helsinki, Finland, asserts that the Russian suspects "engaged in a sustained effort'' to penetrate the most sensitive repositories of information held by the Democratic Party.
Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein announced the action, part of the continuing investigation into Russia's interference in the 2016 campaign by special counsel Robert Mueller, as some Democratic lawmakers called on the White House to immediately punish the Kremlin by canceling the Putin meeting.
The White House did not immediately address that demand Friday, but rather reasserted that the indictment had not implicated anyone connected to the campaign.
"Today’s charges include no allegations of knowing involvement by anyone on the campaign and no allegations that the alleged hacking affected the election result," White House spokeswoman Lindsay Walters said. "This is consistent with what we have been saying all along.”
While Friday's announcement came as Trump was meeting with Queen Elizabeth II during his trip to the United Kingdom, Rosenstein said that he had briefed Trump earlier this week before his departure abroad.
At the heart of the case, Mueller's team charged that the Russian operatives sought to "steal documents" from the Democrat computer systems and "stage the release... to interfere with the 2016 U.S. presidential election."
The charges build on a case Mueller brought in February, charging 13 Russian nationals and three businesses – including an internet firm tied to the Kremlin – with waging "information warfare against the United States" with the goal of "spreading distrust toward the candidates and the political system."
Still, Friday's indictment contained no allegations that the actions altered the vote count or changed the outcome of the 2016 presidential elections.
"Free and fair elections are hard-fought and contentious, and there will always be adversaries who work to exacerbate domestic differences and try to confuse, divide and conquer us," Rosenstein said. "So long as we are united in our commitment to the shared values enshrined in the Constitution, they will not succeed."
Among the jarring disclosures in the 29-page indictment included the allegation that the Russian intelligence officials first sought to penetrate email accounts associated with Clinton's personal offices on July 27, 2016.
Earlier that same day, then-candidate Trump appeared to enlist Russia in a similar effort.
"Russia, If you’re listening, I hope you’re able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing,” Trump said at the time, referring to Clinton's use of a private email server while she was secretary of State.
Also contained in Friday's court documents, federal prosecutors said that the Russian operatives in August 2016 "received a request for stolen documents from a candidate for U.S. Congress."
According to court papers, the suspects posing as online activists later sent the unnamed candidate stolen information related to the candidate's opponent.
The group also allegedly conspired to hack into computers of state election boards, secretaries of State and U.S. companies that supplied software and other technology related to election administrations. According to court papers, the personal information of at least 500,000 voters was stolen from one state election organization.
Because the Russian officials remain in Russia, it is highly unlikely that they will ever be prosecuted in the United States. Nevertheless, the U.S. action follows a practice of so-called "naming and shaming" of foreign government operatives implicated in actions against the U.S.
The indictment included charges of conspiracy, aggravated identity theft and money laundering. Federal prosecutors asserted that the Russian hackers corresponded with "several" Americans. But Rosenstein said there was no evidence that the Americans were aware that they were corresponding with Russian intelligence officers.
The deputy attorney general said the announcement of the charges were made with "no regard to politics," adding that the evidence was "sufficient" to bring the case.
The suspects, according to the indictment, were attached to two military divisions of Russia's Main Intelligence Directorate, known as the GRU — Unit 26165 and Unit 74455. In 2016, Unit 26165 operatives allegedly launched spearphishing campaigns — sending misleading emails to targets in attempts to steal usernames, passwords and other personal information — against the Clinton campaign.
Those stolen credentials, according to federal prosecutors, were used to hack into the DCCC and the DNC. At the same time, the suspects were able to "monitor" the activities of dozens of staffers and "implant hundreds of malicious files to steal passwords and maintain access to these networks."
Democratic National Committee Chairman Tom Perez said that while the DNC was a primary target of the attack, the indictment outlines a vast disruption effort.
"Donald Trump has desperately been calling this investigation a witch hunt. But once again we have cold hard proof that he is absolutely wrong," Perez said. "This is not a witch hunt. This is not a joke. This is an attack on our democracy.”
Democratic lawmakers described the charges as only further proof of what the U.S. intelligence community determined long ago: that Russia sought to tilt the election to Trump's favor.
"President Putin is an adversary who interfered in our elections to help President Trump win," Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said. “President Trump should cancel his meeting with Vladimir Putin until Russia takes demonstrable and transparent steps to prove that they won’t interfere in future elections. Glad-handing with Vladimir Putin on the heels of these indictments would be an insult to our democracy.”
Schumer was joined in the call by a coalition of Democrat lawmakers, including Virginia Sen. Mark Warner, the senior Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee.
House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi said the indictment highlighted "a massive, concerted operation to interfere in our elections," and she warned that the Kremlin "will do so again in the fall."
"Strong, immediate action is needed to secure our state election systems," Pelosi said.
She continued: “The stakes for the upcoming Trump-Putin meeting could not be higher. President Trump must demand and secure a real, concrete and comprehensive agreement that the Russians will cease their ongoing attacks on our democracy. Failure to stand up to Putin would constitute a profound betrayal of the Constitution and our democracy."
Arizona Sen. John McCain, the Republican chairman of the Armed Services Committee, also urged Trump to use Friday's indictment to confront the Russian leader.
"If President Trump is not prepared to hold Putin accountable, the summit in Helsinki should not move forward," McCain said.
Republican House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ed Royce of California, meanwhile, argued that the charges demonstrate that the Trump administration was holding Russia "accountable."
"For years, we’ve known about the Kremlin’s campaign to weaponize information and chip away at our institutions," Royce said. "And yet for years, we have not done enough to counter it. I’m glad that’s begun to change, thanks in part to Congress, but there’s much more to be done."
Sen. Ben Sasse, R-Neb., said the criminal charges should serve to unite Americans to push back against the Kremlin's disruption campaign.
"This is not a Republican or a Democrat view -- it is simply the reality," Sasse said. "All patriotic Americans should understand that Putin is not America's friend, and he is not the president's buddy."
Contributing: Brad Heath and Nicole Gaudiano