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What Could Come Of The Indictments Of Russian Agents For Election Interference

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

So far this year, special counsel Robert Mueller has charged some two dozen Russian cyberoperatives. None of them is expected to come to trial. The Russian government almost certainly will not send them to the United States. So why take the time and effort to actually ask a grand jury to indict them?

NPR national security editor Phil Ewing is with us now to try to answer that question. Hey, Phil.

PHILIP EWING, BYLINE: Hi, Ailsa.

CHANG: So how often has the government been using indictments to try to deter cybercrimes like this?

EWING: Everything in cyber is relatively new in historic terms, so it doesn't happen that often. But there have been a few cases - and they've been growing in number in recent years - in which the U.S. government has leveled these kinds of charges against the government hackers that have attacked the United States in the past. The U.S. has filed cases against hackers in China, in Russia and in Iran. And last Friday, the special counsel, Robert Mueller, issued these charges against hackers that work for the Russian military intelligence agency known as the GRU.

CHANG: Yeah. These are people in the GRU, so the FBI can't just run out and arrest them. They're in Moscow, so...

EWING: Right.

CHANG: And the Russians almost certainly would not extradite them to the United States. So why go through all the work required with collecting the evidence and involving a grand jury?

EWING: The deputy attorney general, Rod Rosenstein, brought all this up when he was at the Aspen Security Forum on Thursday. And let's listen to what he said about that.

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ROD ROSENSTEIN: Some critics argue against prosecuting people who live in foreign countries that are unlikely to extradite their citizens. I think that's a shortsighted view.

EWING: He gave several reasons for doing this. One is you show everyone in the world - not just Americans but everyone overseas, including these Russians - how much you know about what has taken place, including with what level of specificity. The detail in some of these indictments is really amazing. The Americans knew, for example, that after the FBI revealed one day that there had been this cyberattack on a state-level election system, one of the Russians at the GRU sitting at his desk, at his computer workstation, deleted his browser search history. So they had that level of detail about who he was and where he was working and what he was doing.

It's also a way of showing them - the Russians in this case - that you're inside their system. So they're attacking American systems. These indictments allow the United States to say, we're inside of your systems, the GRU. And if I know intelligence agencies, people at the GRU are probably going crazy taking their hair out, trying to figure out how the Americans got in their systems and were able to learn all this.

CHANG: OK. So even of these officers, these GRU officers don't get extradited, will these indictments against them affect their lives in some real way in Russia?

EWING: They could. One thing Rosenstein said is that every once in a while one of these people who've been indicted by the United States will travel to a third country that has an agreement that enables them to be arrested and extradited. So what the United States has basically done is restricted how these guys can travel in places - for example, in Western Europe - where they might actually come into the power of Interpol or some allied government. The other thing that Rosenstein said is evidence in indictments is sufficient for the Treasury Department to impose sanctions. That's what happened with indictment earlier this year. So now the Treasury Department if it wants to can take the material from these court documents and sanction the financial activities of these Russians who've been identified.

CHANG: But does that mean there is also a national security risk involved with using indictments like this? I mean, the risk that the United States could tip its hand too much.

EWING: Yeah, that's always been part of the conversation inside the government. And there are people who don't want to reveal anything about what the United States can do, which is the tradeoff with revealing what the Justice Department has revealed in these most recent indictments. There's also limits to how effective they can be. There's no question about that. Here's what former Acting Attorney General Sally Yates told Congress about that last year.

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SALLY YATES: I think that we have to do more to deter the Russians. And it wouldn't hurt to prosecute a few folks, but I don't think we should kid ourselves that we'll be able to prosecute our way out of this problem.

EWING: Even though she said that last year, we've seen these indictments increase. And according to Rosenstein, this is a strategy that could very well accelerate as we go forward.

CHANG: All right, that's NPR's Phil Ewing. Thank you.

EWING: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.