Special Counsel Robert Mueller indicted 12 Russian intelligence officers for hacking offenses related to the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign.
The 12, who are members of the GRU, a Russian intelligence agency, are accused of stealing usernames and passwords of volunteers in Democrat Hillary Clinton’s campaign, including its chairman John Podesta. They also hacked into the computer network of the Democratic National Committee and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, in an operation starting around March 2016.
The charges include conspiracy to commit an offense against the U.S., aggravated identity theft and conspiracy to launder money. They are accused of releasing the stolen emails on the web, AFP reports.
The announcement came only three days before President Donald Trump is to meet Russian President Vladimir Putin in Helsinki.
Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein told reporters Friday that “I briefed President Trump about these allegations earlier this week. The president is fully aware of the department’s actions.”
Rosenstein said two separate Russian units of the GRU intelligence agency stole emails and information from Democrats and then disseminated it via online personas, DCLeaks and Guccifer 2.0. He also said there’s no allegation in the indictment that any American was involved in the operation.
“The object of the conspiracy was to hack into the computers of U.S. persons and entities involved in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, steal documents from those computers, and stage releases of the stolen documents to interfere with the 2016 U.S. presidential election,” the indictment said.
The Russians masked their activities by using cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin to buy servers, register Internet domains and make other payments in the hacking operation, according to the indictment. It said the Russians also funded the operation in part by “mining” Bitcoin.
With the charges, Mueller’s prosecutors have marked out another Internet pathway they say Russia used to influence the U.S. election. On Feb. 16, his prosecutors charged 13 Russians and three Russian entities they said were part of a broader effort to sow discord among U.S. voters through social media — which they used to impersonate Americans, coordinate with unwitting U.S. activists and even plan rallies.
Trump told reporters in London Friday that he will “absolutely firmly” ask Putin about the finding by U.S. intelligence agencies that he authorized the campaign of interference. But he added, “I don’t think you’ll have any ‘Gee, I did it, I did it, you got me” confession.
Trump has frequently dismissed the Russia probe as a “witch hunt” and expressed his anger that Attorney General Jeff Sessions recused himself from overseeing the investigation. That put Rosenstein in charge, and he promptly appointed former FBI Director Mueller as special counsel.
Meanwhile, a Northwestern University law professor who clerked for Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia is causing a stir as he makes the rounds of national media and lays out his case that special counsel Robert Mueller’s entire operation is unconstitutional.
Steven Calabresi, the Clayton J. and Henry R. Barber professor of law and a co-founder of the Federalist Society, reiterated that view Friday on a conference call with reporters and legal professionals. He said the appointment of Mueller violates the appointments clause of the Constitution.
The consequences of that conclusion, should it prove accurate, could be sweeping for Mueller’s open-ended investigation into allegations of Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election and possible collusion with President Donald Trump’s campaign.
“All actions taken by Mueller since his appointment on May 17, 2017, are, therefore, null and void,” he said.
That would include all the indictments Mueller has brought, the plea bargains he has negotiated, the controversial searches his team has conducted, and the referral he made of records seized from the home and offices of Trump lawyer Michael Cohen.
Calabresi predicted the courts would throw out any evidence given to the U.S. attorney’s office in Manhattan as the “fruit of a poisonous tree.”
Whether any of that will actually come to pass is hard to predict. It would require a target of the Mueller investigation to challenge the constitutionality of his appointment and then the courts — and most likely the Supreme Court — would have to adopt Calabresi’s argument.
Several factors weigh against that, most prominently the extreme reluctance of federal courts to issue decisions that would be as disruptive as one that would declare Mueller’s appointment unconstitutional and invalidate every action his team has taken over the past year.
And there is a Supreme Court precedent upholding the constitutionality of the law allowing for the appointment of a special prosecutor by a three-judge panel. That law, which eventually lapsed because Congress declined to renew it, was more suspect than the current statute because it involved questions of separation of powers — could another branch appoint an official of the executive branch who is completely independent of it?
The Supreme Court answered that question in 1988, with a 7-1 ruling in a case involving a special prosecutor who investigated possible false statements to Congress by Theodore Olson, who at the time was an official in the Environmental Protection Agency. (Olson later went on to serve as solicitor general in the George W. Bush administration, representing the federal government in matters before the Supreme Court.)
Calabresi sees six votes on high court. But Calabresi — who clerked for Scalia when the late justice wrote the dissent in that case — said he believes there are five, and possibly six, votes on the high court to strike down Mueller’s appointment.
Under interpretation of the appointments clause, a “principal officer” must be nominated by the president and confirmed by the Senate. If he is an inferior officer, he can be appointed by another government official without input from the president or confirmation by the Senate. (Continue reading here.)
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