Russian intelligence hackers ran a massive four-year disinformation campaign in which they obtained sensitive information from targets that included the world’s leading soccer organization, the World Anti-Doping Agency and the Democratic Party, the Justice Department said Thursday in a coordinated legal offensive with allied Western governments against Russian cyber operations.
In a clearly orchestrated set of announcements, the Justice Department charged seven officers of the Russia GRU military intelligence agency with hacking international organizations, Britain and Australia linked the GRU to a massive cyberattack on Ukraine and leaks in the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign, and Dutch officials said Russian hackers tried to break into the systems of the world’s chemical weapons watchdog, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), as well as the agency investigating the downing of a passenger jet over Ukraine in 2014.
“Where Russia acts in an indiscriminate and reckless way, where they have done in terms of these cyberattacks, we will be exposing them,” British Defense Secretary Gavin Williamson told reporters in London, denouncing Russia as a “pariah state.”
Officials from the Russian Foreign Ministry dismissed the charges as “Western spy mania.” Konstantin Kosachev, the head of the foreign affairs committee in the upper house of Russia’s parliament, told the TASS news agency that the revelations were “a synchronized and unanimous reaction by the West” to justify future action against Russia.
In Washington, Justice Department officials detailed a 10-count indictment against operatives from the GRU’s secretive Unit 26165, alleging that they tried to retaliate against the U.S. and international anti-doping agencies after Russian athletes were caught doping and banned from the Olympics and other major sporting events.
The hackers attacked computers, stole and leaked personal information, and tried to combat damaging news by crafting their own narratives that embarrassed the anti-doping agencies and hundreds of athletes, U.S. officials said, accusing the hackers of wire fraud, aggravated identity theft and money laundering.
The OPCW was targeted because it had been investigating the chemical attack earlier this year on a Russian ex-spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter on the streets of the British city Salisbury, U.K. officials said.
Justice Department prosecutors laid out what they said was a sophisticated, Kremlin-backed hacking operation that began in December 2014 and lasted through at least of May 2018. The GRU’s targets were chosen as revenge for the U.S. publicly supporting a ban on Russian athletes in international sports competitions.
“Embarrassed by the truth, Russia fought back by retaliating against the truth-tellers,” said John C. Demers, assistant attorney general for national security.
The indictment handed up by a federal grand jury in Pennsylvania listed some of the targets of the hack, including the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency, the World Anti-Doping Agency, the Canadian Center for Ethics in Sports, and FIFA, the international governing body for soccer. Some 250 athletes also were also targeted by the hackers, the government said.
The Russians also targeted Westinghouse Electric Corp., a nuclear energy company based outside of Pittsburgh. Scott Brady, the U.S. attorney for the Western District of Pennsylvania, said the hacks caused real harm to the targets and their employees.
“When the GRU targets American corporations to steal trade secrets and technology, it costs American companies billions of dollars in lost R&D and capital investment, and there is a real cost to American workers,” he said.
Three of the seven Russian military officers indicted in the hacking scheme were previously charged by special counsel Robert Mueller with hacking the Democratic National Committee and Hillary Clinton’s campaign during the 2016 presidential election.
Mr. Demers said Thursday’s indictment did not arise out of Mr. Mueller’s work, but declined to say if there was any coordination or discussions with the special counsel’s office.
The Russian operatives remain overseas so it is unlikely that they will ever be prosecuted. But Mr. Brady said the government is determined to see the seven Russians ultimately tried in a U.S. courtroom.
“Our goal in this case is the same as in every case that we charge,” he said. “We seek to arrest those who have broken the law.”
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