A federal judge allowed the Justice Department to drop charges against two Russian companies accused by special counsel Robert Mueller of funding social media disinformation efforts aimed at the 2016 presidential election.
Concord Management and Consulting and Concord Catering, both run by a Russian oligarch named Yevgeniy Viktorovich Prigozhin, were indicted in February 2018 for their role in funding the disinformation activities of the St. Petersburg-based Internet Research Agency, which Mueller’s report said “carried out the earliest Russian interference operations identified by the investigation — a social media campaign designed to provoke and amplify political and social discord in the United States.”
But the Justice Department backed away from the prosecution, citing the evasiveness of the Concord companies, its refusal to provide information, and the potential for national security secrets to be revealed during the upcoming trial, scheduled to kick off in early April. Jury selection for the trial was only two weeks away.
“There is a substantial federal interest in defending American democratic institutions, exposing those who endeavor to criminally interfere with them, and holding them accountable, which is why this prosecution was properly commenced in the first place,” Timothy Shea, the U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia told the federal court Monday. “In light of the defendant’s conduct, however, its ephemeral presence and immunity to just punishment, the risk of exposure of law enforcement’s tools and techniques, and the post-indictment change in the proof available at trial, the balance of equities has shifted. It is no longer in the best interests of justice or the country’s national security to continue this prosecution.”
Prigozhin, a military contractor dubbed Russian President Vladimir Putin’s “chef” because of his catering company and ties to the Kremlin, was one of 13 Russians indicted in February 2018, along with the IRA and his two Concord companies. Concord Management and Consulting hired a U.S. law firm to defend itself.
U.S. District Court Judge Dabney Friedrich repeatedly expressed frustration with what she saw as Concord’s incomplete and evasive responses to court orders.
Eric Dubelier, an attorney with Reed Smith, a global firm, represented Concord during the proceedings and insisted the company was complying the Justice Department’s subpoenas.
The Justice Department said on Monday that “Concord has demonstrated its intent to reap the benefits of the Court’s jurisdiction while positioning itself to evade any real obligations or responsibility.” Prosecutors cited “recent events and a change in the balance of the government’s proof due to a classification determination” and “other facts described in more detail in a classified addendum” which led them to believe that continuing the prosecution “promotes neither the interests of justice nor the nation’s security.”
Prosecutors noted that the Russian company “has been eager and aggressive in using the judicial system to gather information about how the United States detects and prevents foreign election interference.”
The Justice Department said it “must also weigh the potential risks to the national security that are necessarily associated with a trial of this nature” because it “risks publicizing sensitive law enforcement information regarding measures used to investigate and protect against foreign influence over the political system.”
Prosecutors said “a classification determination bearing on the evidence the government properly gathered during the investigation limits the unclassified proof now available to the government at trial” and “that forces the prosecutors to choose between a materially weaker case and the compromise of classified material.”
The Justice Department determined the prosecution would be more trouble than it was worth and insisted that it had acted in “good faith” during the court proceedings while lamenting that “sensitive non-public information in discovery has gone to Russia.”
Mueller’s report stated “the first form of Russian election influence came principally from” the IRA funded by Prigozhin and his Concord companies.
“The IRA conducted social media operations targeted at large U.S. audiences with the goal of sowing discord in the U.S. political system,” Mueller said. “These operations constituted ‘active measures’ (активные мероприятия), a term that typically refers to operations conducted by Russian security services aimed at influencing the course of international affairs.”
The special counsel said “the IRA later used social media accounts and interest groups to sow discord in the U.S. political system through what it termed information warfare.”
Mueller’s 448-page report, released last April, found that the Russians had interfered in the 2016 election in a “sweeping and systematic fashion” but he “did not establish” any criminal conspiracy between the Trump campaign and Russia.
Earlier this month, the head of the State Department’s Global Engagement Center told Congress that Russia has mobilized “an entire ecosystem” of disinformation to prey on global fears that have accompanied the outbreak of the coronavirus. “We’ve been watching the narratives that are being pushed out — false narratives — around coronavirus,” Lea Gabrielle testified. “Unfortunately, we have been able to assess that accounts tied to Russia — the entire ecosystem of Russian disinformation — has been engaged in the midst of this world health crisis.”
FBI Director Christopher Wray testified to Congress in February that Russian efforts “to sow discord on both sides of an issue and to generate controversy and to generate distrust in our democratic institutions on our election process” have “never stopped” which remains a “24/7, 365 days a year threat.”
The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The Duran.