The Justice Department has brought its first criminal case over alleged Russian interference in the 2018 midterm elections.
Elena Khusyaynova, 44, a St. Petersburg, Russia-based accountant, was charged in a criminal complaint with conspiracy to defraud the United States for taking part in a scheme to spend in excess of $10 million since the beginning of the year on targeted social media ads and web postings intended “to sow division and discord in the U.S. political system.”
Khusyaynova, who is not in U.S. custody, allegedly works for Concord, a Russia-based firm that special counsel Robert Mueller's office indicted in February for alleged interference in the 2016 election.
The unsealing of the new charge Friday appears to signal that U.S. law enforcement is not letting up in its efforts to investigate, deter and publicize alleged Russian interference in U.S. politics. The release was coordinated with a statement from President Donald Trump’s top national security leaders warning about the foreign interference efforts from Russia, China and Iran.
These “ongoing campaigns” seek to “undermine confidence in democratic institutions and influence public sentiment and government policies,” Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats and the heads of the FBI and the departments of Justice and Homeland Security said in a joint statement. They added that the activities are an attempt to sway voter opinions and decisions about the upcoming election as well as ahead of the 2020 presidential vote.
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Notably, the latest Russia meddling indictment is not being handled by Mueller’s team. Instead, federal prosecutors in Alexandria, Va., will tackle the case — an apparent signal to President Donald Trump that Mueller’s investigation won’t become an open-ended probe continuing through the 2018 election or beyond.
While U.S. authorities have painted the Russian efforts in the 2016 election as aimed, at least eventually, at electing Trump president, the complaint against Khusyaynova suggests a campaign of disruption and political troublemaking without any particular political bent.
“The Conspirators’ activities did not exclusively adopt one ideological viewpoint; they wrote on topics from varied and sometimes opposing perspectives,” FBI Special Agent David Holt wrote in the complaint, which was signed by a magistrate judge in September.
The FBI agent went to great pains to describe efforts by Khusyaynova and others working for Russian firms to appeal to Americans at both ends of the political spectrum as well as ethnic, racial and sexual orientations.
According to the complaint, an unnamed member of the conspiracy advised: “If you write posts in a liberal group …you must not use Breitbart titles. On the contrary, if you write posts in a conservative group, do not use Washington Post or BuzzFeed titles.”
The tactics allegedly used by the Russians demonstrate a degree of sophistication coupled with crude stereotyping.
“Colored LGBT are less sophisticated than white, therefore complicated phrases and messages do not work. Be careful dealing with racial content. Just like ordinary Blacks, Latinos and Native Americans, colored LGBT people are very sensitive towards #whiteprivilege,” read translated Russian-language instructions to the social media team members, according to the FBI.
The complaint alleges the effort targeting the 2018 election is part of a broader campaign dubbed Project Lakhta, which authorities say dates to 2014 or earlier. The St. Petersburg-based Internet Research Agency and Concord Management and Consulting are said to be at the center of the political interference drive.
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The firms are linked to Yevgeny Prigozhin, a Russian businessman and restaurateur known as President Vladimir Putin’s “chef.” Prigozhin was charged as a defendant in the criminal case filed in February but is not charged or mentioned by name in the complaint unsealed Friday.
While no Mueller prosecutors are listed on the new case, the complaint does include mentions of the investigation. The FBI says the Russians went after the special counsel probe in some of their social media posts intended to polarize Americans — different messages either supported or criticized the investigation.
“Dear @realdonaldtrump: the DOJ indicated 13 Russian nationals at the Internet Research Agency for violating federal criminal law to help your campaign and hurt other campaigns. Still think this Russia thing is a hoax and a witch hunt? Because a lot of witches just got indicted,” one Twitter account linked to the Russian campaign retweeted earlier this year, according to the complaint.
“Trump says he will meet with Kim Jong Un in May. But he might not even be president by then. Mueller is coming!” another liberal-oriented account allegedly controlled by the Russian group wrote.
However, another account involved with the Russian effort took a very different view, the complaint says.
“Russians indicted today: 13 Illegal immigrants crossing Mexican border indicted today: 0 Anyway, I hope all those Internet Research Agency f*ckers will be sent to gitmo,” someone with the Twitter handle @JohnCopper16 wrote. “We didn’t vote for Trump because of a couple of hashtags shilled by the Russians.”
The “gitmo” tweet was also included in trove of 10 million tweets that Twitter released earlier this week as part of an effort to reveal the full scope of foreign influence operations on the social media platform.
The charge against Khusyaynova carries a maximum penalty of five years in prison. However,
more here: https://www.politico.com/story/2018/10/19/first-criminal-case-filed-over-russian-interference-in-2018-midterms-916787