MUNICH -- Just hours after the Justice Department indicted 13 Russians in what it said was a broad conspiracy to sway the 2016 election, President Donald Trump's national security adviser, Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, accused Moscow of engaging in a campaign of "disinformation, subversion and espionage" that he said Washington would continue to expose.
The evidence of a Russian effort to interfere in the election "is now incontrovertible," McMaster said.
The statement at the Munich Security Conference stood in stark contrast to Trump's oft-repeated claim that Russian interference in his election victory was a hoax.
"The United States will expose and act against those who use cyberspace, social media and other means to advance campaigns of disinformation, subversion and espionage," McMaster said. "We are already improving our ability to defeat these pernicious threats."
McMaster's remarks appeared to mark a major turn in the administration's willingness to directly confront the government of President Vladimir Putin. Defense Secretary James Mattis and CIA Director Mike Pompeo also attended the Munich conference, and while they did not speak publicly, in private meetings with others they reiterated similar statements.
The comments highlighted a sharp division inside the administration about how to talk about the Russian covert efforts, with only Trump and a few of his close advisers holding back from acknowledging the Russian role or talking about a larger strategy to deter future attacks.
The indictment characterized the cyberattacks and social media fraud as part of a larger effort by Russia to undermine the United States. A senior administration official called the effort to confront Russia "a significant point of contention" within the administration.
After the indictment Friday, Trump declared in a Twitter post that "the results of the election were not impacted. The Trump campaign did nothing wrong -- no collusion!" He made no mention of Russia as a "revisionist power," the description used in his own National Security Strategy, or of the elaborate $1.2 million-a-month effort that the indictment indicated Russia's Internet Research Agency spent in an effort to discredit the election system and ultimately to support his candidacy.
Vice President Mike Pence, speaking last week in Washington, misstated U.S. intelligence conclusions about the election hacking, arguing "it is the universal conclusion of our intelligence communities that none of those efforts had any effect on the outcome of the 2016 election." The intelligence chiefs have said they have not, and cannot, reach such a conclusion.
Russian officials had disdainful words Saturday for the U.S. indictment.
Sergey Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, cited Pence's comments during the session Saturday to make the case that Russia did nothing wrong. "So until we see the facts, everything else is just blabber," he said.
"You can publish anything, and we see those indictments multiplying, the statements multiplying," he added.
But Lavrov did not say what he specifically disputed in the indictment.
Konstantin Kosachyov, head of the foreign affairs committee of the Russian upper house of parliament, portrayed the indictment as an attack on Trump by his foes and said he expects pressure on Russia to increase as the investigation moves forward.
"This will escalate as there's no way back for them," Kosachyov said in an interview. "This isn't an attack on Russia, it's an attack on Trump. As long as Trump remains in power, this will all continue to be staged by his opponents. Russia is just a hostage."
The man who served as the Russian ambassador to the United States during the period covered by the indictments, Sergey Kislyak, picked up on a favorite theme of Trump's: questioning the credibility of the FBI and intelligence agency assessments.
"I have seen so many indictments and accusations against Russians," Kislyak said Saturday afternoon. "I am not sure I can trust American law enforcement to be the most truthful source against Russians." He added, "The allegations being mounted against us are simply fantasies."
Kislyak, who has been caught up in the investigation because of meetings with Trump campaign officials during his time as ambassador, went on to cite a study, which he said he was keeping in his briefcase, that proved the "main source of computer attacks in the world is not Russia. It is the United States."
"We never got involved as a government in the political life of the United States," he added. "It's your fight."
The White House cybercoordinator, Rob Joyce, was particularly direct in his accusations that Russia was behind a broad attack on Ukraine last June, called "NotPetya." He described the attack as "indiscriminate" and noted that it paralyzed operations far beyond Ukraine, the intended target, and included the Maersk shipping system. He said the United States would retaliate, but did not say how, adding "we will not telegraph these punches."
Joyce is no newcomer to offensive cyberoperations; previously he ran the Tailored Access Operations unit of the National Security Agency, overseeing U.S. cyberaction against other countries. "We are going to conduct cyberoperations," he said. But "we need to do it in a responsible, balanced way."
McMaster, in his comments, argued that Russia had bridged the partisan divides in the United States, citing a 98-2 vote in the Senate to impose Russian sanctions. He did not mention that the administration has yet to impose those sanctions, saying the threat of them alone has begun to change Russian behavior.
"That sanctions bill has not yet been used as a tool against the Russians," said Christopher Painter, a former coordinator for cyberissues at the State Department, who also attended the conference. "The question now is whether they will actually use it to create consequences. I don't know."
McMaster was questioned by the chairman of the foreign affairs committee of the Russian Federation Council, the country's equivalent of the Senate, about whether the United States was ready to enter into some kind of negotiation with Russia about the use of cyberweapons.
It was not the time for that yet, McMaster said, adding, "I'm surprised there are any Russian cyberexperts available based on how active they have been in undermining the democracies" of the world.
Earlier this month, Richard Pinedo, 28, of Santa Paula, Calif., pleaded guilty to one count of identity fraud as part of the election-meddling investigation, according to court documents made public Friday by special counsel Robert Mueller.
Although Friday's news linked Pinedo to the ever-expanding investigation into Russia's role in Trump's election night victory, his attorney painted him as an unwitting accomplice who has been cooperative ever since he was contacted by investigators.
"He was obviously shocked and his response was to acknowledge his wrongdoing, take responsibility and assist the special counsel's office in their investigation," attorney Jeremy Lessem said in an interview with the Los Angeles Times.
According to court documents, Pinedo operated an online auction service called Auction Essistance that "offered a variety of services designed to circumvent the security features of large online digital payment companies." The company's LinkedIn page touts Auction Essistance as a haven for users who have been unfairly banned from Amazon or eBay because of negative reviews or false allegations.
Through the company, Pinedo sold bank account numbers to users, according to court documents. He often purchased stolen bank information over the Internet to sell to his clients.
Pinedo confessed to selling some stolen accounts to users outside the United States, including those the special counsel's office accused of being involved in the plot to swing the election.
While the criminal charge against Pinedo says he knowingly dealt with people outside the U.S. -- in buying and selling account numbers -- a law enforcement official told the Los Angeles Times there is no evidence that he knew he was dealing with a Russian intelligence operation.
Pinedo had no criminal convictions, according to court records. He is not in custody, according to Lessem, who declined to disclose his client's whereabouts.
Information for this article was contributed by David E. Sanger of The New York Times; by Griff Witte and Michael Birnbaum of The Washington Post; by Patrick Donahue and Henry Meyer of Bloomberg News; by Desmond Butler, David Rising, Lolita Baldor, Jim Heintz, Geir Moulson and Iuliia Subbotovska of The Associated Press; and by Matt Hamilton, James Queally, Michael Livingston, David S. Cloud and Joseph Tanfani of Tribune News Service.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, speaking Saturday at the security conference in Munich where national security adviser H.R. McMaster acknowledged Russian interference in the U.S. presidential election, said that “until we see the facts, everything else is just blabber.”
A Section on 02/18/2018
Print Headline: Russia gets a scolding from Trump adviser