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Twelve Russians charged with 2016 election hacking

Special counsel Robert Mueller indicted 12 Russian military officials on Friday and accused them of hacking into two Democratic Party computer systems to sabotage the 2016 presidential election.

The indictments were announced Friday by Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein as part of the ongoing special counsel probe into potential coordination between the Trump campaign and Russia.

Rosenstein announced the indictment, filed in federal district court in Washington, just days before a scheduled Monday summit in Helsinki between President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin. U.S. intelligence agencies have assessed that Putin ordered a Russian effort to manipulate the 2016 election in Trump’s favor.

Rosenstein said the Russians stole and released Democratic documents after planting malicious computer codes in the network of the Democratic National Committee as well as the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. The Russians also illegally downloaded data related to some 500,000 voters from a state database, he charged.

While many of the indictment's details confirmed previous news reports and other assessments, it dramatically shifts the context for Trump's upcoming meeting with Putin, whom U.S. intelligence services have concluded was behind the 2016 election interference scheme. Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer quickly called on Trump to cancel the planned meeting.

Speaking at a press conference at Justice Department headquarters in Washington, Rosenstein said he briefed Trump about the upcoming criminal charges earlier this week. He said the indictment’s timing was “a function of the collection of the facts, the evidence, and the law and a determination that it was sufficient to present the indictment at this time.”

“I'll let the president speak for himself,” Rosenstein told reporters when asked if Trump—who just this morning in Great Britain again blasted the Russia investigation as a “rigged witch hunt”—supported the latest step in the nearly 14-month old Mueller probe.

“Obviously it was important for the president to know what information we've uncovered because he's got to make very important decisions for the country. So he needs to understand what evidence we have for an election interference,” he added.

The indictment alleges that the Russian military officials in 2016 sent spearphishing emails to volunteers and employees of Clinton’s campaign, including its chairman, John Podesta. Through those tactics, they stole user names and passwords from several people and used the information to both steal emails and hack into other Clinton campaign computers, according to the charges. The Russians allegedly funded their online hacking network with cryptocurrency.

Prosecutors say Russian officials also gained access to computer networks at the DCCC and DNC, where they covertly monitored the online activity of dozens of employees while implanting hundreds of files of malicious computer code to steal passwords and stay on their networks. The techniques allowed the Russians to get into cloud-based services in September 2016 that contained "test applications related to the DNC's analytics," the indictment says. From there, the hackers created backup files and then moved the backups to other cloud accounts the hackers controlled, the charges say.

In late May and early June, the indictment adds, the Russians took "countermeasures" to maintain access to DNC and DCCC networks after the Democratic groups hired a security company to fight off the intrusions. Those measures included attempts to "delete traces of their presence on the DCCC network using the computer program CCleaner. They also spent seven hours trying to reactive a hacking tool known as "X-Agent" that the security company had disabled, according to the indictment.

According to the indictment, the Russians employed a wide variety of tactics, including the creation of a fake website that mimicked the progressive with the goal of siphoning contributions from Democratic donors. The Russians allegedly used stolen login credentials to insert the fraudulent link on the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee's website, where donors would click on it.

On April 6, 2016, the Russians allegedly sought to access the emails of more than 30 Clinton campaign officials, creating a fake email address that nearly matched one of the campaign officials and including an attachment that appeared to be about Clinton's poll numbers.

The charges filed in U.S. District Court in Washington against the Russians include criminal conspiracy to commit offense against the U.S. through cyber operations and attempting to hack into state election officials, aggravated identity theft and money laundering.

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