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Grand Jury Indicts Russians Over Election Interference

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Special counsel Robert Mueller has indicted 13 Russians for an elaborate effort to interfere in the 2016 presidential campaign. Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein made the announcement yesterday.

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ROD ROSENSTEIN: 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.

SIMON: How did they wage this information warfare? NPR's Tim Mak joins us. Tim, thanks so much for being with us.

TIM MAK, BYLINE: Of course. Thank you.

SIMON: Who are the people indicted? What do the indictments tell us?

MAK: So this indictment paints a very vivid picture of the Russian operation. The indictment includes - the indictment is against 13 members of so-called troll factory. This is based in St. Petersburg, and it's called the Internet Research Agency. So essentially, they had hundreds of employees running a very sophisticated effort to create chaos in the American democratic system. They were well-funded. They were sophisticated. They had a monthly budget that reached $1.25 million at one point. They had an IT team. They had a finance department, a graphics department and a team dedicated to looking at metrics just to figure out what messages were most effective.

SIMON: And what did they do with this factor?

MAK: Well, ultimately, they had both covert and overt operations. They had a team of some 80 people who were called specialists. And they studied American political culture and figured out ways that they could best message to divide Americans against each other. So they would create groups that appeal to different segments of society - Muslim-Americans, African-Americans, Christians, conservatives. And they would try to accumulate hundreds and thousands of followers, which they ultimately managed to do. And so they would use this following to spread divisive messages and, in some cases, also to try to depress minority voter turnout.

SIMON: And I was struck by the fact this wasn't just in cyberspace, was it?

MAK: No. I mean, they had these social media operations. But they also managed to organize real-life rallies. They would organize pro-Trump rallies. Then they would organize the anti-Trump rally. They would try to create rallies all across the country. And we see evidence in this indictment of rallies in New York, Florida, Pennsylvania and North Carolina.

They would actually send out press releases. They would recruit volunteers. They would even kind of reach out to the Trump campaign and get lawn signs or protest signs from unwitting Trump campaign aides. In one case - and this is one of the most interesting anecdotes in the entire indictment - they actually commissioned and created and built a cage that would fit an actress dressed up like Hillary Clinton in a prison outfit and then hired an actress to play that role at one of these rallies in West Palm Beach, Fla.

SIMON: The president said in a statement - saying no collusion. Is that backed up by the indictment?

MAK: So when he announced these indictments, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein - he said that there's no allegation in this indictment that any American had any knowledge. So what we're - what he's essentially saying is this indictment doesn't cover anything, doesn't move the so-called collusion ball forward. The indictment describes unwitting American individuals who didn't realize that they were talking to Russian operatives throughout this operation. But we know that Mueller's probe is far broader than this.

And several former Trump aides have already been indicted on unrelated charges. Some of them such as Michael Flynn, the former NSA, are already cooperating with this investigation. So ultimately, the investigation has been pretty opaque, and we don't know exactly what's going happen next. In fact, we didn't even know that Friday's indictments were incoming. And here we are.

SIMON: Quick final question - will there actually be any trials? Because these folks are in Russia. Not likely to be extradited, are they?

MAK: Well - so they're Russian nationals, and they're unlikely to ever see the inside of an American courtroom. But that doesn't mean that there isn't some sort of effect because of these charges. These folks are going to find that it's difficult to travel the countries with an extradition treaty with the United States. And it's kind of a black mark on them. They were named in this indictment. The most powerful government in the world has an arrest warrant out for them.

SIMON: NPR's Tim Mak, thanks so much for being with us. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.


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