Thursday, October 17, 2019

We’ve reached a turning point in the Russia investigation

Special Counsel Robert Mueller has sent a clear message to Russians and Putin: we know exactly what you did, and if we can penetrate your organizations to this extent, imagine what else we know.

At long last the curtains have finally opened on Act I (“The Influence Campaign”) of Russia’s effort to interfere in our political processes and create chaos in our social structures and state institutions. Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s recent indictment has established to the satisfaction of a grand jury that a private company in the Russian Federation launched a sustained, well-organized, well-financed, and technically sophisticated “information warfare” effort to influence the 2016 presidential election.

Mueller identified this effort as a “criminal” enterprise, which lays the groundwork for criminal prosecution of the co-conspirators. Although the 13 Russian conspirators named in the indictment will probably never put themselves in a position to be extradited from Russia or a third-party country, it is safe to assume that those within the Special Counsel’s reach will soon be under investigation.

This indictment sends crucial messages to many audiences. To the Russian government and its enablers, it says: do not doubt our ability and willingness—even in the face of many of our own leaders’ opposition—to discover and expose the true extent of these crimes.

The indictment’s stunning detail makes it clear that a deep and sustained intelligence effort successfully penetrated the core of the Russian influence campaign. The responsible organization—the Internet Research Agency in Saint Petersburg—was identified; its goals, strategies, and tactics outlined; its monthly budget ($1.25 million) revealed; and its leadership, down to its major divisions, identified (with full names and the start and end dates of their involvement).

The message to the Russians is clear: we know exactly what you did, and if we can penetrate your organizations to this extent, imagine what else we know.

That message will also be heard by co-conspirators in the U.S. and abroad. They now fully understand their criminal liability and their vulnerability to being prosecuted by special investigators armed with extraordinarily powerful tools. They won’t be able to claim that whatever they did to aid this effort amounted to mere informal cooperation and information exchanges protected by the First Amendment. Those who are “known to the grand jury” will ultimately surface, and some will begin making arrangements with the Special Counsel to assist in this investigation.

And they should take no comfort in Trump’s assertion that the influence campaign’s early start in 2014 proves “no collusion” occurred in his presidential campaign, which began in June 2015. Clearly, given the magnitude of the Russian effort, extensive preparations were needed well before the election campaign itself. The indictment details some of the early groundwork, including Russian intelligence operatives being sent here to investigate the political and social settings and a U.S. internet server network being created to conceal the origins of the Russian postings.

The early launch of the influence campaign may simply suggest that the Russians anticipated Trump’s presidential bid. Certainly, his presidential aspirations were no secret to anyone. As David Cay Johnston notes in his book The Making of Donald Trump, Trump mounted an aborted presidential bid as a Reform Party candidate in 2000; he floated the idea of running for president in 1988; and he signaled his intentions to run for president as an independent in 2012. Some say that decision could have been predicted after his humiliating roasting by President Obama at the White House Correspondents Dinner in 2015.

A more ominous possibility is that, as part of a mutually supportive arrangement, the future presidential candidate shared his plans with the Russians before he shared them with us. Trump’s visit to Moscow in November 2013 for the Miss Universe Competition would have provided ample opportunities for him to discuss his plans with the Russians. Four months after his return from Russia, Trump addressed CPAC and gushed at the warm reception he’d received in Moscow and the “beautiful present” and “beautiful note” sent to him by Vladimir Putin. He said he “spoke with all of [Putin’s] people.” Trump also praised Putin’s cleverness in waiting until the day after the Sochi Olympics closed to “start with Ukraine” by “taking Crimea” (“where all of the money is”).

The next act of this Russian drama (“The Hacking”) could focus on the criminal penetration of the Democratic computer networks and the dissemination of stolen data to WikiLeaks and other witting and unwitting enablers. Separating the witting from the unwitting conspirators will be a fascinating aspect. Those who knowingly conspired with the hackers in the timing and packaging—the weaponization—of the stolen data will be subject to criminal prosecution. The unwitting enablers will include the technical, political, and journalistic entities that helped disseminate the stolen data for their own purposes. One wonders where in this broad spectrum will the owner of the “Russia, if you are listening” appeal fit?

The third act (“Infrastructure Attacks”) could focus on the efforts of Russian IT specialists to penetrate U.S. national computer infrastructures supporting our election processes. Here, the players will most likely be state actors and the discourse highly technical, with more of the story hidden from public view.

Thankfully, there is yet another message implicit in the Special Counsel’s indictment. It is a profound affirmation of the strength and resiliency of our institutions, particularly those of our justice system and the intelligence community. Robert Mueller has now given us reason to believe that these institutions and their leaders will be strong enough to resist those intent on “deconstructing” our most vital institutions. How this will play out will be the great American drama of our time. And the drama is now underway.