Bloomberg Politics / YouTube Mueller  s Indictment of Russians...
Bloomberg Politics / YouTube

In 2014, Russia created an operation specifically meant to interfere with upcoming U.S. elections by multiple means. That operation represents a conspiracy against the United States—an act of information warfare.

More so than most court documents, special counsel Robert Mueller’s Friday afternoon indictment of 13 Russian nationals tells a single, coherent narrative. And it’s a fantastic narrative. One that shows how engaged Russia was in this project, and shining light on an extent that few people realize. It has all the trappings of a Le Carré novel, including stolen identities, false fronts, and clandestine meetings. It also has moments of incredibly brazen behavior—such as Russian agents coming to the United States to stage a “grass roots rally,” and getting away with it.

In fact, that could be the central theme of the indictment: Russia game loaded for bear, while the U.S  was completely unprepared for almost every aspect of the “information warfare” that was being waged against it. As has happened in the past, Russia exploited both the relative openness and the freedom that Americans have to infiltrate and corrupt.

They also demonstrated a masterful understanding of how the tools that Americans had built for sharing baby pictures and selling high-end vitamins could be put to use spreading lies. And as they have for decades, they pounded America on those points where it’s weakest. On racism. On sexism. On guns. Using the cracks that already existed to drive their wedges deep.

Robert Mueller’s indictment is just 37 pages long, but it tells a story of espionage, lies, and corruption powerful enough to fill a shelf of novels. It’s a jaw-dropping, terrifying story of how a handful of operatives set out to take down a giant.

And how incredibly successful they were.

False social media accounts and groups

The digital conspiracy started by establishing accounts on social media, and creating multiple false U.S. personas for the Russian operatives. Some of these were completely fictional. Some used the stolen documents of U.S. citizens. These groups and identities were established early, so that they had extensive “histories” by the time the election cycle came around.

The pages and groups created by the false personas were passed off as U.S.-based grassroots organizations. These groups often focused on two areas where Russia has been particularly successful at spreading discord in the United States: race and guns. Sites including “Blacktivist” were run by Russian operatives pretending to be violent black extremists, to increase racial tension. Sites like “Defend the 2nd” hyped the idea that the government, and in particular Hillary Clinton, was the enemy of gun owners.

Defendent … had a special goal to sow discord in the US political system, including the 2016 presidential elections.

Russian operatives in the United States

Some members of the operation came to the United States to collect information, sign deals with U.S. computer firms, and most incredibly to hold rallies for their make-believe ‘grass-roots’ organizations.

By siting some of their material on U.S.-based servers, they hoped to further disguise the real origin of the false information. Operating from inside the United States, these “groups” could then avoid the scrutiny that might be given international traffic.

From ‘sowing discord’ to ‘supporting Trump’

One of the most important points of the indictment is that the goal of these groups changed over time. When they were established in 2014, the target was to be ready to simply ‘sow discord.’ But it didn’t stay that way. As the candidates for the election became clear, the goals were definitively altered.

Defendants operations included supporting the campaign of then-candidate Donald J. Trump and disparaging Hillary Clinton.

To support Trump, the groups not only created their own fake stories, pushed by their fake news sites, fake social media groups, and fake personas, they purchased advertisements on social media that were targeted to help Trump and harm Hillary.

And in what has to be the most brazen act cited …

Defendants also staged political rallies inside the United States, and while posing as US grassroots entities and US persons, and without revealing the Russian identities and organizational affiliation, solicited or compensated real US person to promote or disparage candidates.

Russian operatives came to the United States, arranged rallies to support Trump, and paid Americans to disparage Hillary. And Americans did it.

Some of those Russian operatives also coordinated activities with the Trump campaign—though the indictment states that, in this case at least, the campaign was unaware of their true nature.

The conclusion

The information in Mueller’s indictment is detailed, and it shows just how large, complex, and effective these operations were. Far from being a few trolls spreading comments on Twitter, these operations were years in the making, and included physical, on-the-ground operations including renting U.S. IT infrastructure and, incredibly, conducting actual rallies sponsored by their false-front groups.

The purpose of these operations started out as simply increasing discord not just in United States elections, but in the United States, by creating groups that made blacks, Muslims, and immigrants look more dangerous while making it seem as if whites conservatives were under threat.

As the election neared, the Russians turned these tools toward assisting Trump and attacking Clinton. According to the indictments, the Trump campaign worked with these groups unknowingly, which is sure to be the point that is emphasized by Republicans when discussing the indictments today.

But keep in mind that, as huge as this information may seem, it’s only a small part of Russia’s involvement in the 2016 election. This indictment doesn’t cover either of the groups involved in breaking into and stealing private U.S. information, the attacks on state voter databases, or the dissemination of stolen information through WikiLeaks.

It also doesn’t include anything about the people who offered that stolen information to the Trump campaign, or what they hoped to achieve.

All those indictments are still ahead.

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This is a Creative Commons article. The original version of this article appeared here.


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