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Russian Charged in Election Meddling   10/21 10:36

   WASHINGTON (AP) -- The U.S. accused a Russian woman on Friday of helping 
oversee the finances of a sweeping, secretive effort to sway American public 
opinion through social media in the first federal case alleging foreign 
interference in the 2018 midterm elections.

   The criminal complaint against Elena Alekseevna Khusyaynova alleges that 
Russians are using some of the same techniques to influence U.S. politics as 
they relied on ahead of the 2016 presidential election, methods laid bare by an 
investigation from special counsel Robert Mueller into possible coordination 
between Russia and Donald Trump's campaign.

   Justice Department prosecutors claim that Khusyaynova, of St. Petersburg, 
helped manage the finances of a hidden but powerful Russian social media effort 
aimed at spreading distrust for American political candidates and causing 
divisions on hot-button social issues like immigration and gun control.

   The Justice Department unsealed the criminal complaint on the same day that 
U.S. intelligence agencies, in a rare public statement , asserted that Russia, 
China, Iran and other countries are engaged in continuous efforts to influence 
American policy and voters in the upcoming elections and beyond. National 
security adviser John Bolton heads to Russia on Saturday.

   The U.S. is concerned about the foreign campaigns "to undermine confidence 
in democratic institutions and influence public sentiment and government 
policies," said the statement from national security officials. The statement, 
which provided no details about any such efforts, said, "These activities also 
may seek to influence voter perceptions and decision-making in the 2018 and 
2020 U.S. elections."

   The national security agencies said they currently do not have any evidence 
that voting systems have been disrupted or compromised in ways that could 
result in changing vote counts or hampering the ability to tally votes in the 
midterms, which are 2 weeks away.

   "Some state and local governments have reported attempts to access their 
networks, which often include online voter registration databases, using 
tactics that are available to state and nonstate cyber actors," they said.

   But so far, they said, state and local officials have been able to prevent 
access or quickly mitigate these attempts.

   Prosecutors allege that Khusyaynova worked for the same social media troll 
farm that was indicted earlier this year by Mueller, and the social media 
effort they outlined Friday largely mirrors the special counsel's criminal case 
against three Russian companies, including the Internet Research Agency, and 13 
Russians --- including a close ally to Russian President Vladimir Putin.

   The conduct singled out Friday runs afoul of criminal laws that bar foreign 
nationals from attempting to influence American elections or from engaging in 
political activities without first registering with the attorney general, 
prosecutors said. The new prosecution was brought not by Mueller but by the 
Justice Department's national security division and prosecutors from the 
Eastern District of Virginia. There is no allegation in the complaint of 
coordination with the Trump campaign.

   Asked about the new accusation against the Russians, Trump responded that it 
had "nothing to do with me."

   The court papers pull back the court papers on a Russian effort to use 
thousands of fake social media profiles, and email accounts that appeared to be 
from people inside the U.S., to influence American politics. The goal was not 
necessarily to espouse one political ideology over another, prosecutors say, 
but rather "create and amplify divisive social and political content" including 
on significant current events such as deadly shootings in South Carolina and 
Las Vegas, prosecutors said.

   One fake persona, registered to "Bertha Malone," made over 400 Facebook 
posts containing inflammatory content. One post falsely alleged ties between 
President Barack Obama and the Muslim Brotherhood. Another fake Facebook 
account, in the name of "Rachell Edison," made more than 700 posts focused on 
gun control and the Second Amendment.

   The Russian organizers of the conspiracy advised that the posts should 
reflect various viewpoints, and they gave specific instructions to only share 
articles from certain news websites to correspond to specific political views, 
prosecutors said.

   "If you write posts in a liberal group...you must not use Breitbart titles," 
one of the group's members warned, court papers say. "On the contrary, if you 
write posts in a conservative group, do not use Washington Post or BuzzFeed's 
titles."

   After one news article targeting Republican Sen. John McCain appeared online 
with the headline "McCain Says Thinking a Wall Will Stop Illegal Immigration is 
'Crazy,'" members of the group were told to brand him as "an old geezer who has 
lost it and who long ago belonged in a home for the elderly." They were also 
told to say that McCain had a "pathological hatred toward Donald Trump and 
toward all his initiatives."

   McCain, a longtime foe of Putin's, died in August of brain cancer.

   After another article appeared about Mueller, members of the troll farm were 
told to share the article and say Mueller was a "puppet of the establishment" 
who had connections to the Democratic Party and "who says things that should 
either remove him from his position or disband the entire investigation 
commission."

   Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said recently that Russia has 
no intention of interfering in the midterm elections.

   Friday's separate statement about foreign influence in U.S. elections was 
issued just weeks before the Nov. 6 elections by the Office of the Director of 
National Intelligence, the Justice Department, the FBI and the Department of 
Homeland Security.

   Given the breadth of alleged interference by Russia, which includes the 
hacking of Democratic email accounts ahead of the 2016 presidential election, 
it was notable that the intelligence community identified two other nations, 
China and Iran, in the same statement.

   Vice President Mike Pence recently blasted China in a speech, saying 
Russia's influence efforts in America pale in comparison with the covert and 
overt activities of the Chinese to interfere in the midterms and counter 
Trump's tough trade policies against Beijing. But top administration officials 
have provided little evidence that China's activities are comparable to 
Russia's massive covert measures spelled out in previous indictments obtained 
by Mueller.

   The officials have cited largely public steps taken by China, such as aiming 
tariffs at politically important states and pressuring U.S. businesses to speak 
out against the Trump administration.

   Other countries are using social media to amplify divisive issues in 
American society and sponsor content in English-language media, such as 
Russia's RT and Sputnik news outlets, the security agencies' statement said. 
They also distribute propaganda and plant disinformation against political 
candidates, the departments said.

   Intelligence agencies have not publicly released evidence of Iran working to 
meddle in U.S. elections. In March, however, the Trump administration announced 
criminal charges and sanctions against Iranians accused in a hacking scheme to 
pilfer sensitive information from hundreds of universities, private companies 
and American government agencies.

   Lawmakers said the newest criminal complaint is proof that Russian meddling 
did not stop in 2016.

   "Russian disinformation efforts are ongoing and sophisticated, and they are 
intent on dividing us and weakening our society and political system," said 
California Rep. Adam Schiff, the ranking Democrat on the House intelligence 
committee.


(KA)

 
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