Six Big Takeaways from Mueller’s Indictment of Russian Intel Officers

Special Counsel Robert Mueller released an indictment today of 12 Russian intelligence officers, accusing them of hacking the Democratic National Committee (DNC), the Hillary Clinton campaign and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC).

The document contained an extraordinary amount of detail about how Russian intelligence carried out its operation. The Justice Department, in a press release, noted that the indictment contained no allegation that any American “was a knowing participant in the alleged unlawful activity or knew they were communicating with Russian intelligence officers,” a point seized upon by the White House and President Donald Trump’s personal lawyer in their responses to the news.

Still, the indictment does refer to Americans being in communication with Guccifer 2.0, an online persona who released some of the Democratic emails and who first claimed to be a lone Romanian hacker, but has since been exposed as a front for Russian intelligence (an allegation confirmed now by the indictment itself). Roger Stone, Trump’s longtime confidante and political adviser, communicated with Guccifer 2.0 in the summer of 2016. The indictment also reveals that in August 2016, Guccifer 2.0 “received a request for stolen documents from a candidate for the U.S. Congress.” Russian intelligence, using the Guccifer 2.0 persona, responded and “sent the candidate stolen documents related to the candidate’s opponent.”

Here is a roundup of the biggest takeaways from the indictment.

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1. WikiLeaks Collaboration with Russian Intelligence: Based on these allegations, WikiLeaks was deeply involved in a Russian intelligence operation. One of the areas in which Wikileaks may be most exposed, under U.S. law, is the apparent advice it gave to the Russians on the significance and timing of some releases. Wikileaks told the Russians that it was important to release stolen documents about Clinton in early July “because the DNC is approaching and she will solidify bernie supporters behind her after.” The Russians responded, “ok … i see.” And Wikileaks explained the tactical importance further.

A few words of caution: The indictment does not allege that Wikileaks knew that it was engaging with Russian intelligence officers, and alleges instead that Wikileaks was communicating with “the Conspirators, posing as Guccifer 2.0.” That said, the exchanges between Wikileaks and the Russian front organization occurred well after the news media reported that Russians were behind the DNC hack.

2. Russian State Attribution: Special Counsel Robert Mueller and a grand jury have endorsed the Intelligence Community’s judgment that the the Russian government  interfered in our election in order to aid Trump’s presidential campaign. The special counsel’s earlier indictment of 13 Russian nationals and 3 Russian organizations did not allege Russian State responsibility. That’s something new here. To this day, Trump continues to refuse to affirm that view. At a press conference on Friday with British Prime Minister Theresa May, Trump said he’d ask Putin about Russia’s “meddling” in the U.S. election, but that he did not expect a “Perry Mason moment.”

3. Americans’ Liability: This indictment serves as a firm foundation for subsequent indictments for any Americans’ collusion with the Russians (i.e., conspiracy or complicity liability). Roger Stone appears particularly vulnerable. The fact that Stone was in communication with Guccifer 2.0 (and Wikileaks, though that’s not mentioned in the indictment) is old news. But the indictment alleges that Stone was at the relevant times “in regular contact with senior members of the presidential campaign of Donald J. Trump.” That exposes the campaign itself–as an organization–to potential criminal liability as well as those unnamed senior members of the campaign.

These allegations also potentially expose some individuals to perjury if they intentionally covered up Stone’s connection to the campaign in statements made to the FBI or Congress. Senate staff, for example, asked Donald Trump Jr., “Who did deal with Roger?” to which he responded, “I don’t know if anyone did. I don ‘t know that he had an actual role in our campaign.”

On Friday, Stone told CNN that he did not think he was the unnamed person in the indictment because his contact with the campaign in 2016 was with Trump alone. “I was not in regular contact with campaign officials,” he said.

4. Media Introspection Time: WikiLeaks & Guccifer 2.0 could be covered as newsmakers, covered as newsworthy subjects or cultivated as sources. The latter seems like a problem. It would be a good time for some internal reviews among the big media dogs about their relevant coverage and ties to these organizations. One line in the indictment reads, “the Conspirators, posing as Guccifer 2.0, sent a reporter stolen documents pertaining to the Black Lives Matter movement. The reporter responded by discussing when to release the documents and offering to write an article about their release.”

[Update: Thanks to Barton Gellman for pointing out that the anonymous “reporter” referenced in this quote from the Indictment appears to be Lee Stranahan who was then at Breitbart and subsequently at Sputnik. It is worth noting earlier reporting such as the New York Times in March 2017: “During the campaign, Guccifer 2.0 used social media to invite individual reporters and Republican operatives to request specific caches of documents. Not long after, reports began circulating that Russia was behind the hacks, and that the materials were being spread as part of a campaign to undercut the candidacy of Mrs. Clinton. Still, that did not stop journalists and Republican operatives from dealing with Guccifer 2.0, and Mr. Stone was hardly alone in having contact with the hackers.”]

5. Mueller Investigation Vitality: Notwithstanding the laments and wishful thinking from people like Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.) and Rudy Giuliani, Trump’s personal lawyer, that the Mueller investigation should wrap up, this investigation is in its prime.

6. The Level of Detail: The indictment is impressive in its detail and the specificity of its allegations. It indicates that Mueller has developed extremely good evidence. Where is it coming from? Does he have an insider who has provided some of the key information? We may never know.

Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

 

About the Author(s)

Andy Wright

Senior Fellow and Founding Editor of Just Security, former Associate Counsel to the President in the White House Counsel’s Office. You can follow him on Twitter @AndyMcCanse.

Alex Whiting

Professor of Practice, Harvard Law School; former federal prosecutor at the Department of Justice and the U.S. Attorney's Office in Boston; served as Investigations Coordinator and Prosecutions Coordinator at the International Criminal Court. Follow him on Twitter (@alexgwhiting).

Ryan Goodman

Co-Editor-in-Chief of Just Security, Anne and Joel Ehrenkranz Professor of Law at New York University School of Law, former Special Counsel to the General Counsel of the Department of Defense (2015-2016). You can follow him on Twitter @rgoodlaw.

Kate Brannen

Editorial Director of Just Security; nonresident senior fellow at the Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security at the Atlantic Council; previously senior reporter covering the Pentagon for Foreign Policy Follow her on Twitter (@K8brannen).