Opinion

The Mueller Russian indictment

February 21, 2018

Anyone who enjoys spy thrillers will be captivated by the 37-page indictment from the US Department of Justice charging 13 named Russians with criminal meddling in the 2016 Presidential election.

US investigators claim a St Petersburg company called the Internet Research Agency sought to influence the result of the election by setting up a multi-million dollar “Internet troll” campaign. This used fake and stolen American social media identities along with fictitious bank accounts. From 2013, thousands of messages were sent backing Trump for the Republican nomination and then the White House. At the same time, the “trolls” were busy running down Hillary Clinton as well as Trump’s Republican rivals for the GOP ticket.

Once Trump became the candidate, the Internet Research Agency is alleged to have sought five US visas for its people giving false credentials. Two of the applications succeeded and in June 2016 these individuals spent 20 days travelling the United States researching and under the guise of US citizens, contacting activists.

One of the most insidious moves was to set up a group called United Muslims of America that urged voters to boycott the vote because Clinton had backed the Iraq invasion. Messages also said that Shariah law would ensure freedom for US Muslims. A similar tactic was used by a “Blacktivist” social media thread that recommended that the election be ignored.

Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov has dismissed the allegations in the indictment as “just blabber” saying no details are provided. However, reading the document produced by US Special Counsel Robert Mueller, it is clear that using their own Internet hackers, the Americans have broken into the Internet Research Agency’s servers and the personal accounts of some of its workers. The detailed evidence that Lavrov said is lacking has almost certainly been collected and will be revealed if the case goes to trial.

Two interesting points emerged from the indictment. The first is that Mueller makes clear that Trump campaign involvement with the Russians was “unwitting”. To the dismay of the US liberal establishment, there is here no smoking gun to show that Trump was a “Manchurian candidate”, put into the White House by the Kremlin.

The second point is that the Internet Research Agency also used its phony online presence to back Hillary Clinton’s key Democrat challenger Bernie Sanders, constantly accusing Clinton for instance of fixing the Iowa caucus vote. The indictment repeatedly says the Russians were seeking to interfere in the US democratic process.

While this is undoubtedly an extremely serious crime, it might be thought that, given the regular paralysis on Capitol Hill caused by America’s deeply polarized legislators, such interference might actually have benefited the country’s political system, even if that was not the Russians’ intention. Both Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump promised a radical shakeup in Washington. For all the vituperative scorn that has been poured upon him, Trump has already made a difference with his deep tax cuts. He is, however, still a long way from “draining the political swamp in Washington”. A Democrat president Sanders would probably have done no better, driven as he was by ideology rather than Trump’s hard-nosed, if often capricious, realism.

Whatever the outcome of the Mueller indictment, perhaps Americans should reflect that when it comes to interfering and reforming their ossified political system, they could use some, albeit illegal, outside help.


February 21, 2018
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