MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
The U.S. joined European governments today in accusing a group of Russian military intelligence officers of more cyber mischief. The indictment from the U.S. Justice Department describes hacks against sports stars and against anti-doping agencies in the U.S. and in Canada. It also says Russians targeted a Dutch group that was studying the poison used to try and kill a former Russian spy.
NPR national justice correspondent Carrie Johnson was at the Justice Department today, as she is most days, and she is back here in the studio now with details. Hey, Carrie.
CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: Hi, Mary Louise.
KELLY: OK, so tell me more about the Russian intelligence officers being charged and why now. What's the timing?
JOHNSON: Yeah, the defendants are seven current Russian military officers. Today's charges include conspiracy and money laundering. A few of the defendants are also charged with wire fraud or identity theft. Court papers say some of the cyberactivity here started in 2014 when allegations about Russia cheating to avoid drug tests for the Olympics first came to light. But some of the behavior extended up till this summer in 2018.
KELLY: Oh, so it's - this is very current.
JOHNSON: Yeah, when the hackers were in touch with reporters who wanted access to documents these hackers got their hands on.
KELLY: Now, I gather all of these seven Russian officers are in Russia. And there is no U.S. extradition treaty in place. So why bother charging them?
JOHNSON: Well, FBI officials point out sometimes they get lucky. These guys travel to European countries where there are extradition treaties in place. But even if that doesn't happen, the DOJ says its practice of naming and shaming does make a difference because it shows the hackers America knows how to find them and describe what they did. And sometimes other parts of the government impose sanctions on individual hackers or the people who fund them. The assistant attorney general for national security, John Demers, told reporters that Russia launched this cyber effort because it was embarrassed by allegations that its athletes were evading drug tests.
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JOHN DEMERS: Embarrassed by that truth, Russia fought back by retaliating against the truth-tellers and against the truth itself.
JOHNSON: Now, Mary Louise, the Justice Department says it's exposing those activities and that this indictment tells the real story.
KELLY: I was asking you earlier about the timing of these charges, Carrie, and I have another question along those lines. The U.S. announced these charges just hours after Britain and the Netherlands announced their own accusations against Russians. Is that coincidence or coordinated?
JOHNSON: Very much coordinated. The Justice Department actually thanked its international law enforcement partners for their help at the press conference here in D.C. today. They highlighted how the Dutch were actually able to disrupt a hacking plot in April where four Russian men carrying diplomatic passports traveled to the Hague and rented a car and then filled it with electronic equipment. They parked that car next to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons. The goal was to penetrate the Wi-Fi networks there. But the Dutch were on to them, so the men abandoned that car and left the country. And this was at the same time this organization, the OPCW, was examining a substance used to poison a former Russian military intelligence officer and his daughter in the U.K. this year.
KELLY: This is the Sergei Skripal case.
KELLY: OK. I mean, here's my big question, which is, what do these charges tell us, if anything, about the ongoing effort to protect U.S. elections? I mean, this is all, you know, something we're talking about still because of 2016 and hacks against Democratic servers and institutions. Are we any closer to knowing about efforts to protect the upcoming midterms from further Russian interference?
JOHNSON: The DOJ wouldn't touch that question today. But there is something worth pointing out here. The new indictment does include three of the same people accused earlier this year of hacking the 2016 presidential election, which begs the question, are they at it again? If so, the U.S. government has just singled them out all over again. And one unusual thing stood out this morning. The DOJ actually had a warning for news media both here and around the world. Be careful, they said, about using material that comes from these hacks. It can be false or misleading, or the hackers can have a sinister motive, as the Russian government allegedly did in this case.
KELLY: NPR's Carrie Johnson, thank you.
JOHNSON: My pleasure.
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