In a bombshell early morning report, the Wall Street Journal - the same news organization that published claims about Kaspersky Labs’ international espionage efforts that were swiftly refuted by the German government - said the US Department of Justice is preparing to bring criminal charges against more than six members of the Russian government who it believes are responsible for the hacking of the DNC.
If the DOJ follows through, the charges are expected to be announced early next year.
As Democrats remember all too well, thousands of the DNC’s emails and other data, as well as emails from the personal account of John Podesta, who served as campaign chairman to 2016 Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton, were made public by WikiLeaks last year, revealing a widespread effort by then-chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz and her cronies to swing the Democratic country in Hillary Clinton’s favor after Sen. Bernie Sanders - who is according to some polls the most popular politician in America - mounted a surprisingly strong challenge against the party’s anointed “front-runner”.
WSJ claims that if a case is filed - and there’s still no guarantee that one will be - it would “provide the clearest picture yet of the actors behind the DNC intrusion.” US intelligence agencies have attributed the attack to Russian intelligence services, but haven't provided detailed information about how they concluded those services were responsible, or any details about the individuals allegedly involved. Of course, this conclusion has been disputed by the Russians, and by Wikileaks founder Julian Assange, who claims he has evidence to definitely prove the emails that were leaked to his organization didn’t stem from a Russian source.
As we reported over the summer, the cybersecurity firm called CrowdStrike was the only organization allowed by the DNC to inspect their email server...an inspection which quickly resulted in the very 'convenient' conclusion that Russia was the culprit of the hack...even though minimal details supporting that conclusion were ever revealed to authorities.
News of possible criminal charges is also surprising because, as we reported over the summer, the DNC had initially been reluctant to allow the bureau to scrutinize its servers, where most of the evidence of the hacking attacks would be. Not only did the DNC refuse to cooperate with the FBI, but it also rebuffed the Department of Homeland Security and Robert Mueller's independent investigation. Which begs the question: Why?
But apparently, the FBI didn’t let this obstacle impede their investigation, as WSJ claims the “pinpointing of particular Russian military and intelligence hackers highlights the exhaustive nature of the government’s probe.” Of course, the idea that Russia would ever extradite members of President Vladimir Putin’s government is laughable. Instead, filing charges would accomplish two goals: Naming - and shaming - the individuals, while also making it difficult to travel to countries that have extradition treaties with the US, which is...a lot of countries.
If the DOJ does move forward with the indictments next year, it wouldn’t be the first time the US has indicted Russian officials on hacking charges. Back in March, the US indicted four people — including two Russian FSB intelligence officers, i.e. "spies" — in a pair of computer hacks against Yahoo that we now know compromised all of Yahoo’s 1.3 billion customer accounts. One of the individuals, a Russian national living in Canada, was eventually taken into custody.
Charges would represent a significant escalation in the US’s push to hold Russia accountable for the DNC hacks. Last December, the Democratic administration of then-President Barack Obama imposed sanctions on Russia’s military-intelligence agency, which uses the acronym GRU, and Russia’s Federal Security Service, Russia’s equivalent to the Central Intelligence Agency, in response to the DNC and other hacks. One of the individuals named was eventually charged for the Yahoo hacks.
Federal prosecutors and federal agents working in Washington, Pittsburgh, San Francisco and Philadelphia have been collaborating on the DNC investigation. The inquiry is being conducted separately from Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation of alleged Russian meddling in the 2016 election and any possible collusion by President Donald Trump’s associates. WSJ reported.
This, of course, begs the question: If the FBI was denied access to the DNC’s email server, where did it find the “smoking gun” to justify these charges?
Even as President Trump has blasted the intelligence community’s claim that Russian President Vladimir Putin is directly responsible for the hack - calling these accusations a hoax and an excuse by Democrats for losing an election they thought they had in the bag - high-ranking US intelligence and law-enforcement officials have consistently stood by the intelligence community’s January assessment.
In that document, the intelligence community said GRU, “probably began cyber operations aimed at the U.S. election by March 2016.” It said the GRU had exfiltrated “large volumes of data” from the DNC by May.
By the time Mueller was appointed special counsel in May, the Justice Department and FBI investigation into the DNC hack had been under way for nearly a year, by prosecutors and agents with cyber expertise, before Mueller was appointed in May.
Rather than take over the relatively technical cyber investigation, Mueller and the Justice Department agreed that it would be better for the original prosecutors and agents to retain that aspect of the case, the people familiar with the Justice Department-FBI probe said, WSJ reported.
It is unclear if prosecutors will hold back filing charges until Mueller completes his investigation or wait to identify others who may have played a role in the DNC hack. Investigators believe dozens of others may have played a role in the cyberattack, the people said.
The Russia news mirrors the charges brought by the US three years ago against five members of a clandestine Chinese military unit for stealing secrets from US companies. The US has long struggled to counteract what the intelligence community refers to as ‘economic espionage’ - efforts by the Chinese to steal technology from US companies either through spies or hacking attacks. The charges against the Chinese men apparently forced China to scale back its corporate espionage efforts.
However, as Vladimir Putin has demonstrated in the past, he’s far less willing to countenance actions against his political allies by the US. When Congress passed the Magnitsky Act, which brought withering sanctions against several Putin allies, he responded by banning adoptions of Russian children by US families.
In an amusingly ironic twist, news of the charges comes as Donna Brazile, a former Clinton ally who admitted to leaking debate questions and town-hall topics to the Clinton campaign after her activities were exposed by the hacked emails, has turned on her former ally, publishing a screed accusing the DNC and Clinton campaign of "rigging" the primary.
Circling back the possible charges, we wonder: How Putin would respond to a criminal complaint? And, since it’s already been acknowledged that the US engages cyber espionage against the Russians and other countries including its own allies, would Putin use this as an opportunity to bring reciprocal charges of his own?