Home / Security & Virus / Hacking / Mueller eyes charges against Russians who stole, spread Democrats' emails – NBCNews.com

Mueller eyes charges against Russians who stole, spread Democrats' emails – NBCNews.com

WASHINGTON — Special counsel Robert Mueller is assembling a case for criminal charges against Russians who carried out the hacking and leaking of private information designed to hurt Democrats in the 2016 election, multiple current and former government officials familiar with the matter tell NBC News.

Much like the indictment Mueller filed last month charging a different group of Russians in a social media trolling and illegal-ad-buying scheme, the possible new charges are expected to rely heavily on secret intelligence gathered by the CIA, the FBI, the National Security Agency (NSA) and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), several of the officials say.

Mueller’s consideration of charges accusing Russians in the hacking case has not been reported previously. Sources say he has long had sufficient evidence to make a case, but strategic issues could dictate the timing. Potential charges include violations of statutes on conspiracy, election law as well as the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act. One U.S. official briefed on the matter said the charges are not imminent, but other knowledgeable sources said they are expected in the next few weeks or months. It’s also possible Mueller could opt not to move forward because of concerns about exposing intelligence or other reasons — or that he files the indictment under seal, so the public doesn’t see it initially.

The sources say the possible new indictment — or more than one, if that’s how Mueller’s office decides to proceed — would delve into the details of, and the people behind, the Russian intelligence operation that used hackers to penetrate computer networks and steal emails of both the Democratic National Committee (DNC) and Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta. The release of embarrassing Democratic emails through WikiLeaks became a prominent feature in the 2016 presidential election, cited at least 145 times by Republican candidate Donald Trump in the final month of the campaign. At one point he publicly urged “Russia” to find and release emails Trump believed were missing from Democrat Hillary Clinton’s private server.

DHS and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) released a joint statement in the month before the 2016 election saying officials were “confident that the Russian government directed the recent compromises” that led to leaked emails being published by DCLeaks.com, WikiLeaks and an online persona known as Guccifer 2.0. — all considered to have been acting as Russian agents.

No criminal charges have been filed, however. In July 2016 the FBI began a counterintelligence investigation into how the Russians carried out the operation and whether any Americans, including members of the Trump campaign, were involved. Mueller took over the probe in May 2017. His office has filed more than 100 criminal charges against 19 people and three companies, securing guilty pleas and cooperation agreements from three members of the Trump campaign.

It is unlikely that the United States would be able to extradite alleged Russian hackers or their paymasters, but an indictment would “send a signal” both to Russia and to any Americans who may have participated, a government official said. In 2014, the Justice Department filed charges against five Chinese military hackers, accusing them of economic espionage. In 2016, authorities indicted seven hackers associated with the government of Iran, accusing them of hacking into bank websites and a computer system that controlled a small New York state dam. None of the accused in either case are in custody.




Image: Robert Mueller departs after a closed-door meeting

Special counsel Robert Mueller departs after a closed-door meeting with members of the Senate Judiciary Committee about Russian meddling in the election and possible connection to the Trump campaign, at the Capitol in Washington on June 21, 2017.