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Report: Mueller’s next targets are the Russian agents who hacked DNC emails
The White House / CCL
While Russian cyber spies began a “spear phishing” campaign in 2015 designed to gain access to potentially compromising information on American lawmakers, Special Counsel Robert Mueller began a fishing expedition of his own two years later. The former FBI director has spent that last year trolling for evidence to prove that the Donald Trump campaign was working in collusion with the Russian government to discredit the political opposition, but his investigation has so far come up short.
Now, in an attempt to justify the very existence of the special counsel and its growing budget, Mueller has shifted focus and is now solely targeting Russian criminal suspects. After issuing indictments against 13 Russian individuals and 3 Russian entities accused of facilitating a social media campaign designed to undermine the U.S. democratic process, the special counsel is now reportedly building a case against the Russian agents responsible for hacking the computers of the Democratic National Committee (DNC) and John Podesta in the run-up to the 2016 U.S. presidential race.
Building a case
An NBC News report citing “multiple current and former government officials familiar with the matter” claimed on Thursday that Mueller is considering when and how to pursue conspiracy charges, as well as violations of election law and the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act.
Although the same sources explained that Mueller is expected to move forward with indictments in the next few weeks or months, the special prosecutor may decide to issue charges under seal so that the public does not learn of them until much later.
These new indictments are expected to reveal the identity of Russian operatives and the hackers they hired to penetrate computer networks and steal emails from both the DNC and Hillary Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta.
Embarrassing and compromising information obtained from these sources by the Russians was gradually leaked in the months leading up to the Nov. 8, 2016 election.
Still, just like the social media campaign engineered by Russian trolls in 2016, there is no evidence that the hacking operation significantly altered the result of the presidential election.
After the special counsel issued their indictments last week against the Russian Internet research firm responsible for the social media propaganda effort, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein admitted that there is no evidence that the outcome of the election was affected by Russian interference at all.
But the questionable impact of the Russian hacking operations hasn’t stopped the special counsel and U.S. intelligence services from moving full speed ahead with prosecutorial and counterintelligence efforts aimed at pursuing those responsible for these acts.
Still, the Russian cyber-espionage agents and those who funded their operations are unlikely to be punished for their crimes; the purpose behind the possible indictments is likely simply to “send a message” to Moscow.
Sending a message
The Justice Department has pursued this impotent policy in the past, issuing indictments against five Chinese military hackers in 2014, and doing the same to seven Iranian hackers who targeted U.S. banks two years later. In both cases, none of the accused were arrested.
Still, several U.S. intelligence agencies have been collecting forensic information and completing analyses aimed at uncovering the source of the 2015 “spear phishing” campaign that targeted the computer networks of Democratic Party officials. The Office of the Director of National Intelligence handed over these files to the special counsel long ago.
There is no word so far indicating whether or not Mueller will charge any active Russian government officials, a move that would require consultation with other government institutions. The Kremlin likely contracted their hacking operation out to private citizens, complicating efforts to prove complicity by the Russian government.
Still, prosecutors have reportedly assembled evidence proving that at least six Russian officials were involved in the conspiracy to hack DNC computers in 2015. In addition, the intelligence community is said to possess highly sensitive information tying Russian President Vladimir Putin to the cyber-campaign.
While Mueller may eventually “send a signal” by indicting Russian agents and freelance contractors, this may not be the message he intends to communicate. Without tying the cyber espionage operation to any complicit American sources, the special counsel succeeds only in proving that America is powerless to do anything about it.
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