6 Russian Intelligence Officers Charged In High-Profile Cyberattacks

Oct 19, 2020
Originally published on October 20, 2020 12:33 pm
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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Six Russian intelligence officers are facing federal charges in connection with a series of high-profile and destructive cyberattacks. The charges detail hacks targeting the 2017 French elections and the 2018 Winter Olympics, among others. NPR justice correspondent Ryan Lucas is here to tell us more.

Hi, Ryan.

RYAN LUCAS, BYLINE: Hi there.

SHAPIRO: First, what do we know about the defendants and what they've been charged with?

LUCAS: The Justice Department says that these six defendants are all current or former officers with Russia's military intelligence agency. That's the GRU. It's the same agency that was behind the hacks in the 2016 U.S. election. Now, there's no allegation in this indictment of any hacking tied to the 2020 vote, the one in a couple of weeks. The defendants in this instance face seven counts in all. Those include hacking conspiracy, wire fraud, computer fraud and identity theft. And this is for a really stunning string of cyberattacks over the past five years. U.S. officials say this is the single-most disruptive and destructive series of cyberattacks that have ever been attributed to just one group.

SHAPIRO: What were those attacks? Tell us about them.

LUCAS: Well, it's a long list. It includes hacks in 2015 and 2016 that targeted Ukraine's power grid. Those knocked more than 200,000 customers offline at one point. Or as one U.S. official said today, it turned out the lights and turned off the heat in the middle of an Eastern European winter. There's also a devastating attack known as NotPetya that began in Ukraine and spread across the globe that crippled companies and industries and hospitals. It caused billions of dollars in damages, including here in the U.S. There are hacks targeting the investigations by British and international authorities into the use of a Russian nerve agent to poison a former Russian spy in the U.K.

SHAPIRO: That was the episode involving the spy Sergei Skripal and a few others, right? Each of these incidents has been widely reported on their own. It's interesting to see all of these people tied together with all of them.

LUCAS: Exactly right. And there's actually even more in the indictment. There are cyberattacks that targeted the 2018 Winter Olympics in South Korea. And then there's the hack and leak operation against the 2017 French elections that targeted the political party of France's now-President Emmanuel Macron. So it is really quite a list.

SHAPIRO: Any insight into why the defendants allegedly chose those targets?

LUCAS: The Justice Department says that all of these hacks furthered Russia's interest, furthered Russia's geopolitical aims. You look at Ukraine - Russia has been in a grinding war with the government there in the east. In the 2018 Olympics, Russian athletes couldn't compete under the country's flag because of a massive doping scandal. In the case of the nerve agent poisoning, British and international authorities had pinned the blame for that attack on the Kremlin. And in the case of France's elections, the operation there fits into Russia's geopolitical goals. Now, the head of the Justice Department's national security division, John Demers, said today that Russia stands alone in the sort of destructive cyberattacks that its agents conduct. Here's a bit of what he said.

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JOHN DEMERS: No country has weaponized its cyber capabilities as maliciously and irresponsibly as Russia, wantonly causing unprecedented collateral damage to pursue small, tactical advantages and fits of spite.

SHAPIRO: So, Ryan, these defendants are presumably still in Russia and not in U.S. custody. What does that mean about next steps for this case?

LUCAS: Well, none of these men are in U.S. custody. You're right with that. And it is unlikely that any of them will ever face trial here in the United States. One of them actually is already facing charges in the U.S. He was charged by special counsel Robert Mueller in connection with Russia's hacking in the 2016 election. So there is a big question of just how effective bringing charges like these are. But Justice Department officials say it's important to put the weight of the U.S. government behind these sorts of allegations. It helps expose what hackers are up to and the methods that they use. It also makes clear to the international community what Russia is doing. And while it may not be as satisfying as seeing the defendants in court, U.S. officials say it is still a valuable thing to do.

SHAPIRO: NPR's Ryan Lucas, thank you.

LUCAS: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF ALBERT HAMMOND JR.'S "SPOOKY COUCH") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.