In announcing the indictment against 12 Russian military intelligence officers on Friday, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein made a plea to the American public: "When we confront foreign interference in American elections, it's important for us to avoid thinking politically, as Republicans or Democrats, and instead to think patriotically, as Americans."
This is sound advice: Whether or not special counsel Robert Mueller finds that Americans assisted Russia in its election interference efforts -- which would constitute "collusion" -- what the indictment reveals already should alarm all Americans and merits a unified response.
Where these charges fit into the big picture
There are three major threads in the elections interference operations conducted by the Kremlin that we collectively refer to as "active measures."
The first is Russia's disinformation campaign on social media, for which Mueller has already returned indictments against 13 Russian nationals and three Russian companies. The second is the alleged hacking and intrusion into the Democratic Party's emails and state voter data, which is covered in the most recent set of charges.
A third line of inquiry, which Mueller is still investigating and which may still yield charges, is Russia's alleged attempt to funnel illegal campaign contributions using individuals or organizations in the United States.
Importantly, the most recent indictment directly identifies Russia as the actor behind the computer hacking efforts during the election. The earlier indictment against the Russian individuals and companies involved in social media disinformation included entities like the Internet Research Agency, Russia's "troll farm," which has close ties to the Kremlin but is not an official state entity.
By contrast, the current charges name intelligence officers from the GRU, Russia's military intelligence agency (roughly analogous to our Defense Intelligence Agency), as defendants. That would mean that if the allegations are true, President Vladimir Putin himself authorized their actions.
Why charging Russians is important
Mueller does not expect to ever get the GRU officials he charged into a courtroom, considering that Putin will never voluntary extradite them to the US. Nevertheless, he achieves several goals by indicting them.
Most importantly, the indictment offers Mueller a vehicle to explain to the American public exactly how Russia hacked into political party and state election emails and voter data. This is critical because unlike, say, a terrorist attack -- which would be visible and leave clear evidence of destruction behind -- Russia's active measures are covert, and therefore not apparent to the general public.
When combined with the President's own assertions that claims of Russian election interference are a "hoax," Americans could be skeptical that any such attack took place at all. These indictments provide indisputable facts and evidence to support the US intelligence community's attribution of election hacking to Russia and brings to light an otherwise invisible attack.
The indictments also send a strong message to Russia. In the world of intelligence and counterintelligence, countries typically don't reveal to their adversaries what they have uncovered. In fact, by filing a criminal complaint, Mueller is taking a chance: If Russia chooses to defend itself against the charges, Mueller may have to reveal his sources and methods in discovery, which could impact other investigations.
The fact that Mueller has decided to make this tradeoff means he has concluded that making it clear that exposing Russia's actions is a priority. He has sent a message to Putin that the GRU was unable to cover its tracks and that the FBI is on to his game.
Important next steps
Prior to leaving office, President Barack Obama expelled 35 Russian spies posing as diplomats in the United States -- the strongest response ever to a cyberattack against the United States.
Since then, however, Trump has failed to take many significant actions against Russia -- including slow-rolling the implementation of sanctions that were passed by an overwhelming bipartisan majority in August 2017 -- largely because he has refused to acknowledge Russia's culpability for attempts to interfere in the 2016 elections.
Although the administration finally implemented election-related sanctions after over six months of delay and pressure by Congress, Trump almost immediately indicated an unwillingness to impose any additional sanctions unless Russia engaged in new cyber attacks against the US.
Trump's impending meeting with President Vladimir Putin in Helsinki, Finland, offers an opportunity for America to send a strong, unified response to Russia's attack on our democracy. Until now, Trump has been content to accept Putin's denials that he was behind any election interference efforts.
However, now that there is evidence that Putin allegedly ordered a covert action, Trump should understand that Putin's words are merely attempts at "plausible deniability," which is part and parcel of covert intelligence operations -- and at this point, Putin's denials are no longer plausible.
Trump's acknowledgement of Russia's responsibility is critical. Under the 1991 Intelligence Authorization Act, US intelligence agencies cannot engage in covert actions abroad without a presidential finding that these operations are important to US national security.
That means that until Trump is willing to take the word of the US Intelligence Community over Putin's, our intelligence agencies cannot take affirmative countermeasures against Russia either in response to or to protect the US from further Russian election interference. As of February of this year, the heads of the CIA, the FBI, and the NSA all testified to Congress that Trump had not given them orders to counter future Russian cyber attacks.
If the most recent indictments do not convince Trump that Russia is squarely to blame and he does not make this issue front and center at Helsinki, he is giving Putin the green light for Russia to continue its efforts this November.
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