National Security

12 Russians accused of hacking Democrats in 2016 have plenty of Florida connections

Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein speaks during a news conference at the Department of Justice, Friday, July 13, 2018, in Washington.
Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein speaks during a news conference at the Department of Justice, Friday, July 13, 2018, in Washington. AP

The Department of Justice’s indictment on Friday that accused 12 Russian military officials of directly meddling in the 2016 election has myriad connections to South Florida, where stolen emails eventually brought down Democratic National Committee chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz, stolen internal documents aired unflattering details about a Democratic primary race and a Florida-based provocateur with connections to President Donald Trump was in contact with the hackers.

Special Counsel Robert Mueller charged 12 Russian military officials with engaging in cyber operations that involved releases of stolen documents from the Hillary Clinton presidential campaign, the DNC and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. The indictment, announced by Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, claims the Russian agents were trying to interfere with the 2016 presidential election, and tried to hide their connections to the Russian government by creating false identities and using cryptocurrency to pay for the operation.

Emails stolen by hackers showed that then-DNC chair Wasserman Schultz expressed frustration with Sen. Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign, contradicting claims by Wasserman Schultz that the Democratic Party remained neutral during the presidential primary between Clinton and Sanders. Wasserman Schultz resigned as DNC chairwoman on the eve of the 2016 Democratic convention.

“The Democratic National Committee was the first major target of the Russian attack on our democracy, and I strongly believe that every individual who helped carry it out — foreign or domestic — should be held accountable to the fullest extent of the law,” Wasserman Schultz, a Weston Democrat, said in a statement. “I’m pleased that the Justice Department is following the facts wherever they may lead, despite Donald Trump’s dangerous distortions and his refusal to acknowledge the conclusions reached by the American Intelligence Community.”

Russian government officials using the pseudonym Guccifer 2.0 also released hundreds of internal documents from the DCCC, the organization that seeks to elect Democrats to Congress. The documents included information on former Miami Rep. Joe Garcia and current state Sen. Annette Taddeo, who were running in a primary to unseat Republican Rep. Carlos Curbelo.

The information in the documents was unflattering for Garcia and Taddeo, as Democrats talked candidly about each candidate’s shortcomings, though the information itself was not new. But the indictment said Guccifer “received a request for stolen documents from a candidate for U.S. Congress” on Aug. 15, 2016, the same day that the stolen DCCC documents related to five Florida congressional campaigns and research files on seven Democratic candidates in Florida were released to the public by the hackers. Guccifer hackers later released more documents on congressional races in other states.

In the indictment, the Justice Department did not name the congressional candidate who sought stolen documents.

“The hacks impacted Democrats’ chances, because the information was solely focused on anti-Democrat messaging and no Republican candidates were touched,” said Juan Penalosa, the executive director for the Florida Democratic Party who helped run Garcia’s campaign in 2016. “Democratic candidates had to spend a month responding to the information included in the documents, even when it wasn’t new — while Republicans were able to focus on issues. And today’s information that candidates, most likely Republicans, reached out to Russians for information that would influence American elections is particularly disturbing.”

A 2017 report by the Wall Street Journal highlighted that Florida GOP operative Aaron Nevins was in contact with the Guccifer hackers, and that a campaign consultant for Republican congressional candidate Brian Mast adjusted voter targets based on the stolen information. Mast’s campaign manager said to TCPalm on Friday that the campaign did not use stolen data. Curbelo’s campaign also said it did not use stolen data.

“Congressman Curbelo has and continues to condemn any and all foreign interventions in the American democratic process, and neither he nor anyone on his campaign has ever contacted any foreign agent to request illegally obtained documents or information,” Curbelo campaign spokesperson Joanna Rodriguez said. “He welcomes today’s indictments and strongly encourages the Department of Justice to reveal the identity of the candidate for Congress who allegedly engaged a Russian agent.”

Rep. Ron DeSantis, a North Florida Republican who has called for Mueller to end his investigation and who is now running for governor, said he never contacted or received any contact from the Guccifer hackers. The 2016 document release included a file on Democrat George Pappas, who finished fourth in the Democratic primary for DeSantis’ seat.

“Congressman Ron DeSantis has never contacted or been contacted by Guccifer 2.0,” spokesperson David Vasquez said in an email.

Longtime South Florida Trump confidant Roger Stone had previously confirmed that he was in touch with the hackers, though he told CNN Friday that he didn’t think he was the person referred to in the indictment as “a person who was in regular contact with senior members” of the Trump administration who also communicated with the Guccifer hackers.

“I don’t think it is me because I wasn’t in regular contact with members of the Trump campaign,” Stone said to CNN. “Look, Rosenstein said in his comments that they knew of no crime by U.S. citizens. They included my exchange with Guccifer which is now public, in the indictment. And it’s benign. So I don’t know that it refers to me.”

Federal investigators said the Russians used a technique known as “spearphishing” to steal passwords and gain access to computers beginning by at least March 2016.

“This is not a witch hunt, and it is certainly not a joke, as Donald Trump has desperately and incorrectly argued in the past,” DNC chair Tom Perez said in a statement. “The Kremlin’s efforts to disrupt our electoral process have grave implications for our democracy.”

The White House in a statement said that Friday’s indictment includes “no allegations of knowing involvement by anyone on the [Trump] campaign and no allegations that the alleged hacking affected the election result.”

The Justice Department said “there is no allegation in the indictment that any American was a knowing participant in the alleged unlawful activity or knew they were communicating with Russian intelligence officers. There is no allegation in the indictment that the charged conduct altered the vote count or changed the outcome of the 2016 election.”

President Trump is set to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin next week in Finland.

Alex Daugherty, 202-383-6049, @alextdaugherty
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