Special Counsel Robert Mueller filed charges against 12 Russian military intelligence officers on Friday for hacking the Democratic Party’s computer networks. The indictment is available here on the Justice Department’s website.
In compelling detail, the indictment reveals how the Russian government engaged in a massive campaign to steal the Democrats’ computer files and then “stage releases of the stolen documents to interfere with the 2016 U.S. presidential election.”
The details are eye-catching, particularly the elaborate measures that the GRU—the premier Russian Military Intelligence agency—took to cover its tracks. For example, paragraph 58 alleges that the Russians “used bitcoin when purchasing servers, registering domains, and otherwise making payments in furtherance of [the election] hacking activity.” Paragraph 59 reveals additional methods the GRU adopted to escape detection:
“To further avoid creating a centralized paper trail of all of their purchases, the Conspirators purchased infrastructure using hundreds of different email accounts, in some cases using a new account for each purchase. The Conspirators used fictitious names and addresses in order to obscure their identities and their links to Russia and the Russian government.”
The GRU’s effort to conceal its role in the 2016 election failed. The indictment identifies the 12 defendants with extraordinary precision, including their names, many of their ranks, and even the location of the buildings where they worked in Moscow.
But the remarkably detailed charges raise a serious concern of their own: has the indictment itself potentially compromised the American intelligence community’s sources and methods? If so, why would Mueller take that risk?
Make no mistake, Friday’s indictment represents an awe-inspiring display of American intelligence capabilities. Take, as just one example, paragraph 18 of the indictment, which states:
“Defendant ALEKSANDR VLADIMIROVICH OSADCHUK (Осадчук Александр Владимирович) was a Colonel in the Russian military and the commanding officer of Unit 74455. Unit 74455 was located at 22 Kirova Street, Khimki, Moscow, a building referred to within the GRU as the ‘Tower.’ Unit 74455 assisted in the release of stolen documents through the DCLeaks and Guccifer 2.0 personas, the promotion of those releases, and the publication of anti-Clinton content on social media accounts operated by the GRU.”
The indictment relates every step of the GRU hacking operation, including the domain and account names the officers used, the servers they leased in Arizona and Malaysia, the GRU’s interactions with a Romanian company and Wikileaks, the GRU’s fake Facebook and Twitter accounts, and the precise hacking tools the GRU employed to gain access to the Democrats’ documents.
The astonishing skill displayed by the American intelligence agencies in reverse engineering the GRU’s operations is tremendously impressive. Indeed, as the staff at Lawfare pointed out over the weekend, Mueller’s indictment reveals
“a significant and successful U.S. counterintelligence operation that gives insights into the breadth and scope of U.S. attribution capabilities—technical, financial and intelligence-led attribution down to which individuals within the Russian government were behind aspects of the hack, their responsibilities within the organization, their communications and even the specific terms they searched for as they worked.”
Similarly, former U.S. Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul praised the American intelligence coup, writing on Twitter: “I’m very impressed that Mueller was able to name the 12 GRU officers in the new indictment. Demonstrates the incredible capabilities of our intelligence community.”
But the problem with disclosing this information is it provides valuable intelligence for the Russians too. In response, they will undoubtedly adopt new countermeasures to conceal their officers’ identities in future operations.
So why did Mueller file the indictment against the 12 GRU officers despite the intelligence risk it entails?
The Accountability Argument
One reason could be to emphasize that the United States holds accountable individuals, not just foreign governments, for attacks on America.
In the case of the GRU officers, they undermined America’s democratic institutions by meddling in a presidential election. Basic principles of accountability would thus justify the risk of potentially compromising some sources and methods.
But the problem with that line of argument is that none of the Russian military officers named in the indictment will ever be held accountable by U.S. courts. The GRU officers now know we are on to them. From this point forward, none will ever set foot in the United States or in any country that might extradite them to the U.S.
So the July 13 indictment does not serve the interests of justice, at least with regard to the 12 named defendants.
The Public’s Right to Know?
But perhaps one could argue that the indictment is justified by the importance of informing the public of the nature of the Russian attack on American democracy.
The problem with that argument, however, is that Mueller’s indictment doesn’t really break new ground. Friday’s filing provides specific and interesting details, but the general story was already told 18 months ago in the January 6, 2017 report of the Director of National Intelligence, “Assessing Russian Activities and Intentions in Recent US Elections.” A joint product of the Central Intelligence Agency, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and the National Security Agency, the 2017 DNI report revealed that “Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered an influence campaign in 2016 aimed at the US presidential election.” As the CIA, FBI, and NSA explained in the report, “the Kremlin sought to advance its longstanding desire to undermine the US-led liberal democratic order, the promotion of which Putin and other senior Russian leaders view as a threat to Russia and Putin’s regime.”
To undermine the American-led liberal democratic order, Putin wanted Donald Trump to win the 2016 presidential election. As the January 2017 DNI report makes clear in its central conclusion:
“Russia’s goals were to undermine public faith in the US democratic process, denigrate Secretary Clinton, and harm her electability and potential presidency. We further assess Putin and the Russian Government developed a clear preference for President-elect Trump. We have high confidence in these judgments.”
Mueller’s filing on Friday elaborates on the DNI’s conclusion by providing a detailed explanation of how the GRU went about implementing the Kremlin’s directive to hurt the Clinton campaign and help the Trump campaign.
But in the big picture, the July 2018 indictment doesn’t add much to the January 2017 intelligence report. Mueller gives us some remarkable details, but the indictment does not materially change what we already knew about Russian involvement in the 2016 election.
More Shoes to Drop
So why did the special counsel file the indictment on Friday?
After a long and distinguished career in government—a tenure that includes service as a Marine combat officer in Vietnam, as a federal prosecutor, and as FBI Director—Robert Mueller would never risk disclosing American intelligence methods unless he had a compelling reason to do so.
We do not yet know what that reason might be. But in light of Mueller’s track record, the most logical explanation of Friday’s events is that the charges against the 12 GRU officers simply set the stage for future—and, ultimately, much more important—indictments. Only indictments that reveal American co-conspirators, or that shed light on why Putin so adamantly wanted Trump elected, would justify exposing sources and methods on the scale of Friday’s charges.
It thus seems reasonable to conclude that the biggest shoes in the Russia investigation have not yet dropped.