A recurring pattern of the Russiagate investigation is that whenever pressure increases on the FBI and on Special Counsel Mueller an indictment appears.
This happened in October when following the FBI’s admission that the Trump Dossier – the keystone in the “evidence” of collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia – could not be verified and the Wall Street Journal called for Special Counsel Mueller to resign, indictments against Paul Manafort, Rick Gates and George Papadopoulos appeared.
It happened again in December when growing demands from Congress – from Senator Lindsey Graham in particular – for another Special Counsel to be appointed were followed by the indictment of Michael Flynn.
It has now happened again.
Hot on the heels of the publication of the GOP memorandum, which catalogued a succession of breaches of due process by the Justice Department and the FBI in seeking surveillance warrants against Carter Page, we have a new indictment, this time against 13 Russian nationals and three Russian entities.
In every case the indictment is received with rapture by the Russiagate conspiracy theorists.
In every case the indictment appears to be intended to give the impression that progress in the Russiagate investigation is being made, presumably so as to justify keeping Special Counsel Mueller in his job.
In every case it turns out that the indictment is a damp squib, taking the whole Russiagate conspiracy theory no further forward.
The latest indictment against 13 Russian citizens and three Russian entities is a case in point.
The first thing to say about this indictment is that it is entirely declamatory.
There is no possibility that any of the Russians named in the indictment will ever be extradited to the US to stand trial there. Special Counsel Mueller cannot therefore obtain convictions against these people, which begs the question of why an indictment was issued at all.
The short answer is that the indictment is intended to give credence to the claim of ‘Russian meddling’ in the US election, which has been made both privately and publicly ever since campaigning in the US began in 2015.
Presumably, by giving that claim credence, more reasons can now be offered for keeping Special Counsel Mueller in his job.
The second thing to say about the indictment is that as even Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein has admitted, it makes no claim that any US citizen or any member of the Trump campaign in any way colluded with Russia or with any of the persons named in the indictment either before or after the election.
Rosenstein was very clear about this in the press conference he held directly following the publication of the indictment
Now, there is no allegation in this indictment that any American was a knowing participant in this illegal activity. There is no allegation in the indictment that the charged conduct altered the outcome of the 2016 election…..
QUESTION: On page 4 of the indictment, paragraph 6, it specifically talks about the Trump campaign, saying that defendants communicated with unwitting individuals associated with the Trump campaign.
My question is, later in the indictment, campaign officials are referenced, not by their name; by “campaign official 1” or “2” or “3.” Were campaign officials cooperative, or were they duped? What is their relationship with this?
ROSENSTEIN: Again, there’s no allegation in this indictment that any American had any knowledge. And the nature of the scheme was the defendants took extraordinary steps to make it appear that they were ordinary American political activists, even going so far as to base their activities on a virtual private network here in the United States so, if anybody traced it back to that first jump, they appeared to be Americans.
President Trump is treating this admission as further confirmation that there was no collusion between his campaign and Russia, and he is right.
Russia started their anti-US campaign in 2014, long before I announced that I would run for President. The results of the election were not impacted. The Trump campaign did nothing wrong – no collusion!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) February 16, 2018
The third thing to say about the indictment – and a point which has been almost universally overlooked in all the feverish commentary about it – is that it makes no claim that the Russian government was in any way involved in any of the activities of the persons indicted.
Nowhere in the indictment is the Russian government or any official of the Russian government or any agency of the Russian government mentioned at all. Nor at any point in the indictment is it suggested that any of the persons indicted were employed by the Russian government or were acting under its instructions or on its behalf.
Again Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein’s press conference is most revealing about this, with him speaking of the persons named in the indictment as if they were private persons
The indictment charges 13 Russian nationals and three Russian companies for committing federal crimes while seeking to interfere in the United States political system, including the 2016 presidential election.
The defendants allegedly conducted what they called information warfare against the United States, with the stated goal of spreading distrust towards the candidates and the political system in general.
According to the allegations in the indictment, 12 of the individual defendants worked, at various times, for a company called Internet Research Agency, LLC, a Russian company based in St. Petersburg.
The other individual defendant, Yevgeny Viktorovich Prigozhin, funded the conspiracy through companies known as Concord Management and Consulting, LLC; Concord Catering; and many affiliates and subsidiaries. The conspiracy was part of a larger operation called Project Lakhta. Project Lakhta included multiple components, some involving domestic audiences within the Russian Federation, and others targeting foreign audiences in multiple countries.
Internet Research Agency allegedly operated through Russian shell companies. It employed hundreds of people in its online operations, ranging from creators of fictitious personas, to technical and administrative support personnel, with an annual budget of millions of dollars.
Internet Research Agency was a structured organization headed by a management group and arranged into departments, including graphics, search engine optimization, information technology and finance departments.
In 2014, the company established a translator project focused on the United States. In July of 2016, more than 80 employees were assigned to the translator project. Two of the defendants allegedly traveled to the United States in 2014 to collect intelligence for their American influence operations.
Note that there is nothing here that ties any of the individuals or entities named by Rosenstein to the Russian government.
The arch conspirator is said to be a Russian businessman called Yevgeny Prigozhin, who is alleged to have masterminded and funded the whole project.
Prigozhin has in fact long been identified in Russia as the owner of the notorious Internet Research Agency, LLC, the supposed Russian “troll farm” operating out of a nondescript building in St. Petersburg (shown in caption photograph).
It has moreover often been suggested in Russia that Internet Research Agency, LLC, is Prigozhin’s own personal project.
Certainly no public information linking the Internet Research Agency, LLC, to the Russian government or to any Russian state institution has ever come to light.
Perhaps Rosenstein and Mueller have information that Prigozhin was indeed acting at the behest and on behalf of the Russian government. Perhaps they may have some reason for not disclosing the fact in their indictment.
However, for what it’s worth, the indictment lends support to the theory that the Internet Research Agency, LLC, is indeed Prigozhin’s own personal project, and that the Russian government is not involved in it.
I would add that the indictment shows that US intelligence has successfully hacked the Internet Research Agency, LCC, a fact which by the way suggests that its internal security systems are very weak. The result is that US intelligence is very well informed about its structure, funding, personnel and activities.
That suggests that if there really was some connection between the Internet Research Agency, LLC, and the Russian government the US authorities would be well informed about it.
The fact that neither the indictment nor Rosenstein in his press conference had anything to say about such a connection rather suggests that no evidence for a connection has been discovered, probably because it does not exist.
I would add – though this will be fiercely denied by some people – that it would be a grave mistake to think that it is impossible for an agency like the Internet Research Agency, LLC, to be set up in Russia on someone’s private initiative. On the contrary, those genuinely familiar with the country know that such things go on there all the time.
The fourth thing to say about the indictment is that it centres exclusively on the social media activities about which so much has been said in the last few months as the evidence of collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia has failed to appear.
I have said very little about this aspect of the Russiagate affair up to now because I have felt that this aspect of the affair was not in any way important.
This is because the social media activities of which the Internet Research Agency, LLC, and its employees have been accused of have looked both astonishingly incoherent (witness that the indictment says that they were promoting both pro- and anti-Trump rallies on the same day) and quantitatively insignificant, making their impact on the election inconsequential.
The indictment gives no reason to change that view.
The highest number of followers of any of the bogus social media accounts that were set up is alleged by the indictment to have been in the hundreds of thousands, whereas social media activity on any given day runs into the tens of millions.
The social media advertisements mentioned in the indictment appear to have been par for the course during the election, and to have attracted no special interest.
The indictment fails to give numbers for any of the rallies which the persons who have been indicted allegedly tried to organise via social media; that suggests that the number of persons who attended these rallies was insignificant.
The whole project seems to have cost around $1.2 million a month, spent it appears mostly on salaries in Russia, a trivial amount compared to the $2.4 billion spent in the 2016 US Presidential election as a whole, of which $768 million was spent by Hillary Clinton’s campaign, and $398 million by Donald Trump’s.
That even some of those involved were not taking the project wholly seriously is shown by this frivolous episode solemnly recorded in paragraphs 12 (a) and (b) of the indictment
a.PRIGOZHIN approved and supported the ORGANIZATION’s operations, and Defendants and their co-conspirators were aware of PRIGOZHIN’s role.
b.For example, on or about May 29, 2016, Defendants and their co-conspirators, through an ORGANIZATION-controlled social media account, arranged for a real U.S. person to stand in front of the White House in the District of Columbia under false pretenses and hold a sign that read “Happy 55th Birthday Dear Boss.” Defendants and their co-conspirators informed the real U.S. person that the sign was for someone who “is a leader here and our boss…our funder.” PRIGOZHIN’s Russian passport identifies his date of birth as June 1, 1961.
This silly stunt provides more reason for thinking Prigozhin was the author of the whole project.
I do not wish to trivialise what happened.
Assuming that the claims made in the indictment are true – as I believe they are – then multiple serious crimes were committed.
These included cruel deceptions of innocent people, as well as cases of identity theft. The latter especially is a very serious crime, the impact or seriousness of which should not be minimised.
However I cannot believe that any of this activity – which looks like a botched and amateur attempt by Prigozhin to copy some of the highly professional ‘colour revolution’ activities carried out around the world by various US and Western NGOs – had any conceivable bearing on the outcome of the US election.
No less a person than Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein has moreover said as much
There is no allegation in the indictment that the charged conduct altered the outcome of the 2016 election……
QUESTION: Jack, is there concern that this — the (ph) indictment undermines the outcome of the election?
ROSENSTEIN: Well, haven’t I (ph) identified for you the allegations in the indictment? There’s no allegation in the indictment of any effect on the outcome of the election.
In summary, the latest indictment to have come from Special Counsel Mueller’s team, far from causing problems for President Trump, actually helps him.
In the one part of the Russiagate conspiracy theory in which some evidence of Russian activity exists – the part relating to social media – it turns out that President Trump’s campaign was not involved, and those members of his campaign who got drawn into the activities of Prigozhin and his people were completely innocent dupes.
As for the activity itself, the indictment shows that it was carried out on far too small a scale and in far too amateur and disorganised a way for it to have had any impact on the election, and the US authorities do not claim that it did.
It is also my personal view that what we are looking at is a private project cooked up by Yevgeny Prigozhin, who appears to fancy himself a sort of Russian anti-Soros.
If I am right about that then it is clear that Prigozhin has neither the high level backing nor the skill to play that role successfully, and his clumsy attempts to do so have instead simply caused Russia embarrassment and trouble.
I accept that the latter view will be disputed by many – though the evidence in my opinion supports it – but even if I am wrong about that, it does not detract from the fundamental fact that no evidence of collusion between anyone in the Trump campaign and Russia appears in the latest indictment, and that the activities catalogued in the indictment can have had no effect on the outcome of the election, and the US authorities do not say that they did.