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From breaking into computers
to paying for a megaphone, Russian efforts to undermine the U.S.
political system have been spelled out in detail by Special
Counsel Robert Mueller, who has described an elaborate campaign
of hacking and propaganda during the 2016 presidential race. While Mueller has yet to submit to U.S. Attorney General
William Barr a final report on his investigation into Russia’s
role in the election, the former FBI director already has
provided a sweeping account in a pair of indictments that
charged 25 Russian individuals and three Russian companies.

Key questions still to be answered are whether Mueller will
conclude that Trump’s campaign conspired with Moscow and whether
Trump unlawfully sought to obstruct the probe. Trump has denied
collusion and obstruction. Russia has denied election
interference. Here is an explanation of Mueller’s findings about Russian
activities and U.S. intelligence assessments of the ongoing
threat.

WHAT IS KNOWN ABOUT RUSSIAN “TROLL FARMS”? On Feb. 16, 2018, Mueller charged 13 Russian individuals and
three Russian entities with conspiracy to defraud the United
States, wire and bank fraud and identity theft. It said the
Internet Research Agency, a Russian-backed propaganda arm known
for trolling on social media, flooded American social media
sites Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and Instagram to promote Trump
and spread disparaging information about his Democratic rival
Hillary Clinton. The indictment said the Russian efforts dated
to 2014, before Trump’s candidacy, and were intended to sow
discord in the United States.

The St. Petersburg-based so-called troll farm employed
hundreds of people for its online operations and had a
multimillion-dollar budget, according to the indictment. It had
a management group and departments including graphics, data
analysis and search-engine optimization. Employees worked day
and night shifts corresponding to U.S. time zones. Its funding was provided by Evgeny Prigozhin, a businessman
who U.S. officials have said has extensive ties to Russia’s
military and political establishment, and companies he
controlled including Concord Management and Consulting and
Concord Catering. Prigozhin has been described by Russian media
as being close to President Vladimir Putin. He has been dubbed
“Putin’s cook” because his catering business has organized
banquets for Russia’s president.

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The Russians targeted Americans with information warfare,
adopting false online personas and creating hundreds of social
media accounts to push divisive messages and spread distrust of
candidates and America’s political system in general, the
indictment said. They aimed to denigrate Clinton and support the
candidacies of Trump, who won the Republican presidential
nomination, and Bernie Sanders, her rival for the Democratic
nomination. HOW WERE AMERICANS UNWITTINGLY RECRUITED?

In Florida, a pivotal state in U.S. presidential elections,
the Russians steered unwitting Americans to pro-Trump rallies
they conceived and organized. The indictment said the Russians
paid “a real U.S. person to wear a costume portraying Clinton in
a prison uniform at a rally” and another “to build a cage large
enough to hold an actress depicting Clinton in a prison
uniform.” The accused Russians used false Facebook persona “Matt
Skier” to contact a real American to recruit for a “March for
Trump” rally, offering “money to print posters and get a
megaphone,” the indictment said. They created an Instagram
account “Woke Blacks” to encourage African-Americans not to vote
for “Killary,” saying, “We’d surely be better off without voting
AT ALL.” Fake social media accounts were used to post messages
saying American Muslims should refuse to vote for Clinton
“because she wants to continue the war on Muslims in the Middle
East.” Alternatively, they took out Facebook ads promoting a
June 2016 rally in Washington, “Support Hillary. Save American
Muslims” rally. They recruited an American to hold up a sign
with a quote falsely attributed to Clinton that embraced Islamic
sharia law, the indictment said.

Some of the accused Russians traveled around the United
States to gather intelligence, the indictment said, visiting at
least 10 states: California, Colorado, Georgia, Illinois,
Louisiana, Michigan, Nevada, New Mexico, New York and Texas. WHAT ROLE DID RUSSIAN MILITARY OFFICERS PLAY?

On July 13, 2018, Mueller charged 12 Russian military
intelligence officers with hacking Democratic Party computer
networks in 2016 to steal large amounts of data and then time
their release to damage Clinton. The Russian hackers broke into
the computer networks of the Clinton campaign and Democratic
Party organizations, covertly monitoring employee computers and
planting malicious code, as well as stealing emails and other
documents, according to the indictment. Using fictitious online personas such as DCLeaks and
Guccifer 2.0, the hackers released tens of thousands of stolen
emails and documents. The Guccifer 2.0 persona communicated with
Americans, including an unidentified person who was in regular
contact with senior members of the Trump campaign, the
indictment said. Guccifer 2.0 cooperated extensively with
“Organization 1” – the WikiLeaks website – to discuss the timing
of the release of stolen documents to “heighten their impact” on
the election.

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On or about July 27, 2016, the Russians tried to break into
email accounts used by Clinton’s personal office and her
campaign, the indictment said. The same day, candidate Trump
told reporters: “Russia, if you are listening, I hope you’re
able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing,” referring to
emails from a private server Clinton had used when she was
secretary of state. To hide their identity, the Russians laundered money and
financed their operation through cryptocurrencies including
bitcoin, Mueller’s team said.

IS THE THREAT OVER? The U.S. intelligence community’s 2019 Worldwide Threat
Assessment report cited Russia’s continuing efforts to interfere
in the American political system. It stated, “Russia’s social
media efforts will continue to focus on aggravating social and
racial tensions, undermining trust in authorities, and
criticizing perceived anti-Russia politicians. Moscow may employ
additional influence toolkits – such as spreading
disinformation, conducting hack-and-leak operations or
manipulating data – in a more targeted fashion to influence U.S.
policy, actions and elections.”

The report said Russia and “unidentified actors” as recently
as 2018 conducted cyber activity targeting U.S. election
infrastructure, though there is no evidence showing “any
compromise of our nation’s election infrastructure that would
have prevented voting, changed vote counts or disrupted the
ability to tally votes.” (Reporting by Doina Chiacu; Editing by Will Dunham)



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