Jon Elswick/AP

All Those Mueller Report Redactions Mean the U.S. is Still Investigating Moscow's Online Meddling in 2016

There's still a lot the public doesn't know about Russian interference operations.

We still don’t know the full extent of Russia’s interference in the 2016 election, and judging from the extensive redactions to the Mueller report made public today neither does the Department of Justice. After months of anticipation, the world today was shown pages and pages of heavy redactions that point to several ongoing law enforcement efforts directly targeting Russia’s Internet Research Agency, or IRA, the so-called troll farm that spread misinformation online before and after the election.

The section of the Mueller report titled “Russian Active Measures Social Media Campaign” first tells us what we already know about the shadowy farm run by Vladimir Putin ally Yevgeny Viktorovich Prigozhin that allowed Russians to pose as U.S. citizens and organize political events in the United States aimed at helping Donald Trump win the presidency. Some 80,000 Facebook posts between January 2015 and August 2017 reached as many as 126 million people. In January 2018, Twitter told 1.4 million people that they may have been subject to the misinformation effort. (Prigozhin is also suspected of running the Russian “Wagner” mercenary group that has been active in Eastern Europe, the Middle East, and Africa.)

But there is much more that Justice Department officials felt the public should not know. Other sections in the report titled “Structure of the Internet Research Agency,” “Funding and Oversight…,” “IRA Botnet Activities,” and others are so redacted as to be largely unreadable. The redactions cite “Harm to Ongoing Matter” as the cause.

That determination suggests that the Justice Department is continuing to investigate the IRA. “IRA employees violated US law through these operations, principally by undermining through deceptive acts the work of federal agencies charged with regulating foreign influence in US elections,” Mueller’s team wrote.

The report lays out how dozens of IRA “specialists” would track and surveil the Americans who liked or reposted their content, or who had organized rallies or events at their request. 

Moreover, the report says that members of the Trump campaign and Trump’s inner circle, including former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn, amplified the messages of IRA-run accounts on social media.

“The investigation identified two different forms of connections between the IRA and members of the Trump Campaign… First, on multiple occasions, members and surrogates of the Trump Campaign promoted--typically by linking, retweeting, or similar methods of reposting-- pro-Trump or anti-Clinton content published by the IRA through IRA-controlled social media accounts. Additionally, in a few instances, IRA employees represented themselves as U.S. persons to communicate with members of the Trump Campaign in an effort to seek assistance and coordination on IRA-organized political rallies inside the United States,” it reads. “In total, Trump Campaign affiliates promoted dozens of tweets, posts, and other political content created by the IRA,” including content that falsely alleged voter fraud and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s mishandling of classified information.

Last February, the Special Counsel issued an indictment against many members of the IRA group. It reads:

“Defendants, posing as U.S. persons and creating false U.S. personas, operated social media pages and groups designed to attract U.S. audiences. These groups and pages, which addressed divisive U.S. political and social issues, falsely claimed to be controlled by U.S. activists when, in fact, they were controlled by Defendants. Defendants also used the stolen identities of real U.S. persons to post on ORGANIZATION-controlled social media accounts. Over time, these social media accounts became Defendants’ means to reach significant numbers of Americans for purposes of interfering with the U.S. political system, including the presidential election of 2016.”

But the report on Thursday for the first time shows the degree to which Russian operators attempted to trick members of the Trump campaign and the broader public into spreading misinformation.  

U.S. Attorney General William Barr said the Department of Justice would send a bipartisan group of congressional leaders from select committees a separate version of the report with fewer redactions, which will further shed light on the ongoing Russian efforts, according to a statement. He did not say when the lawmakers would receive that version. 

More information is likely to emerge as congressional leaders look over the redacted portions of the report. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-NY, on Thursday called on Special Counsel Robert Mueller to appear before Congress. “The only way to begin restoring public trust in the handling of the Special Counsel’s investigation is for Special Counsel Mueller himself to provide public testimony in the House and Senate as soon as possible,” Pelosi tweeted Thursday.

House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff, D-Calif., issued an invitation for Mueller to testify before the committee minutes after the report was made public.

By mid-afternoon, House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., said there was “clear evidence” of obstruction of justice and that impeachment over the matter was “one possibility,” according to the Washington Post.

“The responsibility now falls to Congress to hold the president accountable for his actions,” said Nadler.  

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