The 13 Russians accused by special counsel Robert Mueller’s office of interfering with the 2016 US election might never see the inside of a US prison — but that probably wasn’t Mueller’s plan.
On Friday, Mueller's office unsealed the first indictments that specifically detail how Russians conspired to sow discord and anti-Hillary Clinton sentiment during the election, naming the owner and 12 employees of Russia’s Internet Research Agency, a propaganda company and “troll factory.” The IRA has long been reported as having created Twitter and Facebook campaigns, as well as several complicated campaigns to stage protests in the US, to oppose the candidacy of Hillary Clinton and support those of Bernie Sanders, Jill Stein, and in particular, Donald Trump.
There's no likelihood that Russia will extradite any of the 13 to face trial in a US court. Aside from the political implications of the indictments, the Russian Constitution forbids extraditing its citizens.
But that doesn't mean that the defendants will escape punishment. For one, the accused may never again travel safely to a country that's friendly to the United States. The US has successfully arranged the recent arrests of accused Russian hackers while they traveled in Spain, Greece, and the Czech Republic.
“DOJ has a long memory,” Robert Cattanach, a former federal prosecutor, told BuzzFeed News, referring to the Department of Justice. “I am aware of situations where indictments that were 13 years old that were successfully used when someone ventured out of a country without extradition into one that did. They decided they wanted to go for a vacation, they did, they were apprehended, brought back, tried, and convicted.”
“It’s not a meaningless gesture. These things don’t go away.”
Such charges also have the effect of "naming and shaming" the accused, and prosecutors hope that will deter other people from taking similar actions. While it's not illegal to create a political Twitter account, it is illegal to steal someone else's identity, engage in fraud by trying to cover your real identity, and conspiring to do those things.
All those crimes are relatively easy to prove, making them simple and straightforward cases to make should one of the accused fall into US hands.
“Most will say ho-hum, that doesn’t begin to describe the offensiveness of the conduct,” he said. “But if that’s the criminal statute that’s easiest to go get, and it’s got some teeth, I’m reasonably confident that they’re just using the most appropriate tool in the toolbox.”
On Tuesday, the nation’s top intelligence chiefs agreed in Senate testimony that Russia considered its efforts in 2016 a success and would attempt to replicate them for the 2018 midterm elections.
Senators who are aggressive in combating Russian interference said Friday’s indictment was a positive step, but highlighted that Congress itself had yet to pass any legislation to combat Russia or election interference and that the executive branch has also done little to organize a response to disinformation.
“What’s not clear is what Congress is going to do to prevent it from ever happening again,” said Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota.
Added Sen. Mark Warner, the Virginian who is the vice chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee: “There is still no one leading a coordinated, organized effort within the intelligence community to monitor and combat Russian disinformation campaigns on social media. I will continue pressing the nation’s intelligence leaders and the social media companies to be far more aggressive and proactive in responding to this threat.”