Federal prosecutors said Friday they thwarted a new attempt by Russia to create phony personae of American political activists and stir up trouble on divisive issues like immigration and gun control to sway U.S. voters in the run-up to midterm elections.
The Justice Department unsealed a criminal complaint that charged a Russian woman, Elena Alekseevna Khusyaynova, 44, with taking part in aRussian effort to sow political divisions in the United States, Europe and the Ukraine.
The charges came on a day in which top U.S. intelligence and security officials sought to reassure Americans, barely two and a half weeks before midterm elections, that they have strengthened defenses against hacking of U.S. election systems and have not detected any successful breaches.
But the complaint underscored the broad and sustained nature of Russia’s efforts to interfere in campaigns.. It said the mastermind of the campaign was Yevgeniy Prigozhin, a caterer known as Putin’s chef. U.S. prosecutors had already indicted Prigozhin and 12 other Russians in February for their alleged roles in a sprawling influence campaign aimed at creating confusion among U.S. voters and helping Donald Trump win the presidency in 2016.
Prosecutors did not say why they waited to unseal the complaint, which was filed in Virginia on Sept. 28. It may suggest that the FBI held out hope of apprehending Khusyaynova outside of Russia.
The complaint accused Khusyaynova of serving as the accountant for “Project Lakhta,” an influence campaign that began in early 2016 with a proposed operating budget of $35 million. Just for the period of January to June of this year, the proposed budget “totaled more than $10 million.”
The latest complaint described a campaign that overlapped broadly with the one unveiled by U.S. prosecutors earlier this year. It said Russian operatives used “thousands of social media and email accounts” to spread inflammatory opinions, it said.
“The conspiracy allegedly used social media and other internet platforms to address a wide variety of topics, including immigration, gun control and the Second Amendment, the Confederate flag, race relations, LGBT issues, the Women’s March, and the NFL national anthem debate,” the complaint said.
The Russian operatives, it said, also sought to capitalize on the 2015 shootings of black church members in Charleston, S.C., the Las Vegas shooting last year and the killing at a “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Va.
Khusyaynova is the 27th Russian to face criminal charges in connection with the Kremlin’s attempt to influence U.S. elections. Of those, only gun rights activist Maria Butina is in U.S. custody, facing charges she conspired to influence the 2016 election without registering as a foreign agent. The others are believed to be in Russia, outside the reach of U.S. authorities, because the two countries have no extradition treaty.
The 38-page criminal complaint made clear that the FBI has gained access to extensive internal financial information and messaging about Russia’s social media campaign.
Khusyaynova appears to have a limited footprint on the Internet under her full name. Russian-language websites that provide details on businesses show a woman of that name opening a company that bore her name in St. Petersburg in 1997, and that it was closed by tax authorities in 2005. These sites placed her in Sestroretsk, near St. Petersburg.
The Russian operatives were directed to create “political intensity through supporting radical groups, users dissatisfied with [the] social and economic situation and opposition social movements,” the complaint said. It quoted one alleged conspirator as saying Russia sought to “effectively aggravate the conflict between minorities and the rest of the population.”
Social media posts listed in the complaint showed that Russian operatives also attacked Republicans, including taking swipes at Trump.
On around March 18, 2018, the complaint said, a member of the conspiracy posted a Twitter message saying: “Fun fact: the last time a new Republican president was elected without electoral fraud was 1988,” a reference to former President George H.W. Bush.
@Wokeluisa may have sought to create chaos at the polls, reminding people to “pre-register to vote if you are 16 y.o. or older.” The voting age in America is 18.
According to the charges, the Russians appear to have crafted psychological playbooks for targeting certain groups. Guidance for approaching gay African-Americans, for example, noted that they are “less sophisticated than white” and are “very sensitive towards #whiteprivilege and they react to posts and pictures that favor white people.”
After a news article in the summer of 2017 quoted Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona berated Donald Trump’s proposal to build a wall along the Mexican border as “crazy,” a Russian operative advised his comrades: “Brand McCain as an old geezer who has lost it and who long ago belonged in a home for the elderly.. Emphasize that John McCain’s pathological hatred towards Donald Trump and towards all of his initiatives crosses all reasonable borders and limits.”
The operatives were guided, the complaint said, to brand House Speaker Paul Ryan as “a complete and absolute nobody incapable of any decisiveness” and Special Counsel Mueller as “a puppet of the establishment.”
FBI Director Christopher Wray said the new campaign is a sign that U.S. enemies continue to try their hand at “creating social and political division, spreading distrust in our political system, and advocating for the support or defeat of particular political candidates.”
In a rare joint statement, the FBI, the departments of Justice and Homeland Security and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence voiced concern about ongoing campaigns by Russian, China and Iran to undermine confidence and sway U.S. opinion before the Nov. 6 midterm elections.
But the statement said that officials have not gathered “any evidence of a compromise or disruption” that would allow hackers to discourage voting, change ballot counts or otherwise disrupt tallying of votes.
“Some state and local governments have reported attempts to access their networks, which often include online voter registration databases, using tactics that are available to state and non-state cyber actors. Thus far, state and local officials have been able to prevent access or quickly mitigate these attempts,” the statement said.
Separately, a top cybersecurity official, Christopher Krebs, who is undersecretary at DHS for the National Protection and Programs Directorate, noted that administration cyber officials have not seen “anything anywhere remotely close to ’16,” when the Russian campaign was in full swing.
But Krebs issued a cautionary note: “We’re looking for those things that can pop up at the last minute.”
Kevin G. Hall contributed to this report.