September 23, 2020

The Russians Are Coming Again, and They’re Winning

On a warm fall evening in late 2018, I received a message on Twitter from a group of self-described “anonymous hackers” who claimed they’d swiped Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s database.“We are like hundreds of others, but we are the one and only who got the Special Counsel Mueller database,” the message read, busted English and all. The self-described hackers claimed they’d tapped into a local Russian server, accessing all and sundry from what Mueller and his team had already compiled. The hackers passed along a series of files, a supposed good-faith offer of their findings, so that I could amplify Mueller’s findings, Mueller’s work, Mueller’s accusations far and wide.“You might wonder why we want to share all this information with you,” the message giddily closed. “So, you’re just one of the few who can handle it in the right way. You are the one who can tell people the truth!”Russian Trolls Release Fake Dirt on Robert MuellerAnd much of what they sent was “the truth,” just not the whole truth or nothing but the truth. Much of the material in the files had come directly from Mueller’s investigation into Russia’s social media interference efforts. There were the memes and photos, images of Hillary Clinton as Satan and Barack Obama as a Nazi-in-Chief, the garbled texts and histrionics all aimed at tearing Americans apart. As someone who’d spent far too many hours knee-deep in material published by Russia’s Internet Research Agency trolls, all of the posts fit the mold we’d come to expect.Buried in the files, though, were other sites and other posts that no one—none of the researchers or journalists, none of the experts or policy analysts—had ever linked to Russian efforts. Popular Facebook pages like Occupy Democrats, popular Instagram accounts like Baller Alert, feeds with millions of followers were supposedly, per this database, fingered by the Mueller investigation as part of the Russian schemes.After bouncing the database off of a number of other experts, it quickly became clear that these accounts were plants: honeypots, so to speak, designed to lure us into believing that Mueller had claimed these immensely popular feeds were also, at their core, Russian. It was, as one of the other researchers who received the files later said, “some galaxy brain stuff they wanted us to believe.”It didn’t take long to learn what the trolls’ ultimate aim was. A few months later, Mueller’s office filed court documents revealing that the self-described “hackers” had specifically attempted “to discredit the investigation” by trying to “make it appear as though the irrelevant files… were the sum total evidence” Mueller and his team had already uncovered. That is, these “hackers” had somehow gotten hold of Mueller’s actual database, and then injected a slew of clearly non-Russian pages and accounts in the hopes of painting Mueller’s investigation as a bumbling, McCarthyite operation, accusing any and all of being secret Russian accounts.And without saying as much, there was a clear implication in the prosecution’s filings: that the Russian defendants in Mueller’s case had funneled Mueller’s database to the self-proclaimed hackers. And they’d hoped to use me, and the handful of others these “hackers” contacted directly, to disseminate that material far and wide.Thankfully, none of us bit, and Mueller’s prosecution against Russia’s troll farm operators proceeded apace. While Mueller’s other prosecutions faltered under pressure from the White House, the prosecution of the trolls who stoked Texas secessionists and racial fissures pushed on.Or it did, until last Monday, when the Justice Department dropped charges against a pair of the shell companies involved in Russia’s social media interference operations. The reason? Prosecutors were no longer confident that sensitive information shared with the defendants—information about sources, about investigative methods, about findings as a whole—would remain confidential, or for defendants’ eyes only. And this was thanks in large part to questions about the relationship between the shell companies and the self-described “hackers” who slipped their messages to me in late 2018.According to prosecutors, these companies—connected directly to sanctioned Russian figure Yevgeny Prigozhin, known colloquially as “Putin’s chef”—“refused” to “comply with its obligations as a party to this litigation.” The companies had “been eager and aggressive in using the judicial system to gather information about how the United States detects and prevents foreign election interference.”The decision was, to say the least, a blow to Mueller’s prosecutorial legacy, and to the broader efforts at holding Russian entities responsible for their election meddling in 2016. But it also pointed to another strain of Russian interference efforts that’s gotten less acclaim, and less attention, than others over the past few years, centering on upending American judicial proceedings.These efforts are understandably less splashy than secretly organizing, say, armed white supremacists on the streets of downtown Houston, or whipping up support for neo-Confederates online. But they’ve nonetheless chipped away that much further at potential ramifications for those responsible for Russian interference efforts more broadly—and exposed holes in the American judicial system, calling into further question whether any costs will actually be incurred for those in Moscow and St. Petersburg.In 2018, for instance, the Atlantic Council’s Anders Aslund detailed a raft of Russian efforts aimed at deflating or upending American judicial proceedings against Kremlin proxies and those in Moscow’s good graces. Much of this has centered—like the Mueller proceedings—on obtaining information about the American prosecutions’ methods, and even, in some cases, tracking down plaintiffs themselves.One 2017 case saw a U.S. federal subpoena issued against a former shareholder of a private Russian bank, who’d fled to the U.S. after backing Russia’s flagging opposition. When the defendant (accurately) detailed how sanctioned Russian figures had helped orchestrate the subpoena—which would have transmitted sensitive data back to pro-Kremlin forces—the American court nonetheless allowed it to proceed, no matter what sensitive information may come out. Another recent case saw a subsidiary of Russia’s state-owned, and notoriously corrupt, Rosneft energy behemoth convince a U.S. court to permit discovery against an associate of a Russian national who’d fallen out of the Kremlin’s favor. (The American court, Aslund wrote, “was not swayed by the evidence of rampant corruption by the Russian Federation and [the subsidiary’s] affiliates.”) And then, of course, there’s the Kremlin’s rampant abuse of Interpol’s Red Notice system to try to convince American authorities to haul in dissidents and political opponents alike.The examples run on and on. Some have tossed cold water on the notion that this presents “interference,” insofar as all of these moves remain technically legal. But the intent remains the same: capsizing judicial proceedings against Kremlin proxies and their supporters.It’s unclear what the next steps for the prosecution may be, or what Mueller’s ultimate legacy will be. But one thing appears certain: Russia’s victory last week in our courts is only going to further embolden the trolls as we go through the 2020 election. Self-described “hackers” are going to accelerate their efforts to try and con support from those of us who can “tell people the truth!”—and who will continue to be the target of hacking, trolling, and interference operations that are pushing on and amping up, with little reason to stop now. Read more at The Daily Beast.Get our top stories in your inbox every day. Sign up now!Daily Beast Membership: Beast Inside goes deeper on the stories that matter to you. Learn more.

Via:: The Russians Are Coming Again, and They’re Winning