WASHINGTON - The Justice Department on Friday charged a Russian woman for her role in a conspiracy to interfere with the 2018 U.S. election, marking the first criminal case prosecutors have brought against a foreign national for meddling in the upcoming Midterms.
Elena Khusyaynova, 44, was charged with conspiracy to defraud the United States. Prosecutors said she managed the finances of "Project Lakhta," a foreign influence operation they said was designed "to sow discord in the U.S. political system" by pushing arguments and misinformation online about a whole host of divisive political issues, including immigration, the Confederate flag, gun control, and the NFL national anthem protests.
The charges against Khusyaynova came just as the Office of the Director of National Intelligence warned that it was concerned about "ongoing campaigns" by Russia, China and Iran to interfere with the upcoming Midterm elections and even the 2020 race - an ominous warning that comes just weeks before voters head to the polls.
In a statement, the Director of National Intelligence said officials "do not have any evidence of a compromise or disruption of infrastructure that would enable adversaries to prevent voting, change vote counts or disrupt our ability to tally votes in the midterm elections." But the statement noted, "We are concerned about ongoing campaigns by Russia, China and other foreign actors, including Iran, to undermine confidence in democratic institutions and influence public sentiment and government policies. These activities also may seek to influence voter perceptions and decision making in the 2018 and 2020 U.S. elections."
The announcement, which was joined by the Justice Department, FBI and Department of Homeland Security, comes on the eve of a trip National Security Advisor John Bolton is making to Moscow, where he is expected to raise the issue with his counterparts.
Court papers said Khusyaynova's operation was funded by Russian oligarch Yeveniy Prigozhin and two companies he controls, Concord Management and Consulting LLC and Concord Catering. A criminal complaint filed against the woman charges that she managed the finances of Project Lakhta, including detailed expenses for activities in the U.S. such as paying for activists, advertisements on social media, registering domain names, the purchase of proxy servers, and promoting news postings on social media.
Between 2016 and 2018, Project Lakhta's proposed operating budget exceeded $35 million, although only a portion of that money targeted the U.S., prosecutors said.
Investigating Russian interference in U.S. elections has largely been the purview of special counsel Robert Mueller - though his probe is focused on the 2016 election and the Trump campaign.
Mueller, whose work is ongoing, charged a dozen Russian military officers with hacking Democrats' computers, as well as 13 people and three companies who his prosecutors' allege ran an online propaganda operation to push voters away from Hillary Clinton and toward Donald Trump in 2016. What remains to be seen is how and whether Mueller can connect President Trump or his campaign to those efforts.
The Justice Department has separately been assessing how it should respond to foreign influence operations in U.S. elections, and this summer, issued a lengthy report on the topic. U.S. officials have warned repeatedly about foreign attempts to influence the 2018 Midterms.
Both the FBI and the Homeland Security Departments have set up foreign influence task forces to detect such operations and share threat information within the government, with tech firms and state and local election officials. Senior officials have said that while foreign actors continue to engage in activities targeting social media and election systems, they have not seen the level of activity that they witnessed in 2016.
Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein in July announced a new policy to alert the public to foreign operations targeting U.S. democracy, such as the one Russia undertook in 2016. Trump also signed an executive order last month authorizing additional sanctions against countries or people who interfere in U.S. elections, though some lawmakers say the measure does not go far enough.
The issue is a particularly fraught one for federal prosecutors. Justice Department policies call for investigations of election-related crimes to be conducted in such a way that minimizes the impact the probe could have on the election, and prosecutors are generally instructed to avoid taking overt steps in cases near in time to an election. The Justice Department's recent report, though, noted that "public exposure and attribution of foreign influence operations can be an important means of countering the threat and rendering those operations less effective."
Former FBI Director James Comey faced criticism for talking publicly on the eve of the election about the bureau resuming its investigation of Hillary Clinton, while keeping secret the separate probe into possible ties between the Kremlin and the Trump campaign.
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