A Few Thoughts on the ‘Troll Farm’ Indictment

The first takes on the Mueller-team indictment of the Internet Research Agency ‘troll farm’ have, perhaps predictably, reflected as much about the interests, goals and predilections of the authors as anything else. To Trump and his cohorts, it “proves” no collusion, because the text describes Russians pretending to be Americans in their contacts. To those still hoping for impeachment, it is “proof” that Putin stole the presidential elections for Trump. Of course, the truth is at neither end of the spectrum.

This is just one indictment. It is the start of the process, not likely the end. There is no point saying “is that all they have?” when it is patently clear that it is not.

None of this should come as a surprise. We’ve known about the Internet Research Agency since it was reported in Novaya gazeta in 2013. We’ve known about the twitter and other social media hacking. We’ve know… You get the message. This is not about “putting Russia on notice” nor about some revelation about which we should pretend to be shocked. This is the tradecraft of modern information war, and a certain amount of modern advertising too, for that matter. It is rather, I would presume, about demonstrating that the Mueller investigation is ongoing and, above all, that…

This is a political – with a small p – statement. None of these Russians are likely ever to see the inside of a US courtroom, and the apparent bankroller, Evgeni Prigozhin, is already on the US sanctions list. This is not about a trial, it is about laying down a marker to the effect that the Mueller team believes there is evidence of a Russian attempt to influence the elections.

This is about crime rather than politics. Of course it is deeply political, but the remit of the Mueller investigation is not about whether the Russians were naughty, immoral, or whatever (for a start, please don’t try and tell me that none of these techniques are also known to and used by Western intelligence services in some of their missions), but whether crimes were committed under US law. The effort to prove that they were is perhaps the single most important element of this indictment.

Everyone is innocent until proven guilty. There seems a widespread willingness to accept the indictment as somehow proof (and we have also seen that about statements from typically anonymous intelligence sources). It is not. Now, I am perfectly willing to believe the broad thrust, that Russia did try to influence the elections, but unless and until there is proof, we ought to be cautious, especially in accepting the detailed elements of the indictment. (I write this knowing that now elements such as “$1.25 million per month were spent on hacking the US elections” will be reported ad nauseam as demonstrated fact. Such is the modern media environment.*)

*And by the way, even the indictment says that money was spent on a project with “multiple components, some involving domestic audiences within the Russian Federation and others targeting foreign audiences in various countries, including the United States.” So from this, we don’t know if a million dollars or a hundred were being spent on messing with America.

Mueller is working with covert and/or inside sources. This ought to have been pretty obvious, but the indictment makes this much clearer. A great deal of the detail within it can be gathered through normal means, given that so much of the activities cited left fingerprints within US jurisdiction, from visa applications to setting up fake accounts. However, there are elements, especially when asserting what the IRA and its people themselves described as their roles, which I cannot see how they would be able to state in an indictment without such non-regular sources.

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  1. Thank you. Look forward to coming back to the article as the comments start coming in. As you say, many of these are likely to reflect the positions held by the respondent on Trump, russia ( or both, or a lot of other things for that matter). I will be interested in hearing views from European countries, not least in view of this weekend’s Munich conference and the discussions on EU – UK ( and by extension, US) cooperation of law enforcement and intelligence matters. Excellent article on this in the Times (London) today – 17th – but some of the comments are disturbingly ill informed and dogmatic.

  2. It’s still early in the process, so many of these indictments (in US) are designed to elicit plea bargains, when people have the resources to adequately fight them (thinking of James Giffin in Kazakhstan related case) it turns out the “evidence” is either lacking or illegally procured so lets see. From what one can see in the public domain I suspected US (funded) involvement in the Brexit referendum dwarfs Russian interference (I also see that it mentions 56% happened after the elections…) in US elections, so personally i remain very skeptical of all this.

  3. A smart and fair-minded take on the Mueller indictment. One small objection. The “everyone is innocent until proven guilty” claim is a legal principle that entails vague standards of proof (e.g., “beyond a reasonable doubt”) and elaborate procedures about allowable evidence, fact and expert witnesses, and so on. It doesn’t really transfer easily to everyday life (despite its ubiquity), except in the general sense that you need evidence, to one degree or another, to confirm an empirical truth claim. In the indictment, there are countless fact claims that litigating attorneys would treat as stipulated (uncontested) facts because they are obviously true, and defense attorneys would accordingly lose credibility if they contested them (e.g., “we deny that there there was any IRA operation whatsoever”). Morever, I suspect that, given the quality of the investigating team and the stakes involved, there are few fact claims in the indictment that an defendant’s attorney would, in court at least, try to contest because they could expect a wealth of evidence to support them in they did). Mark references one possible exception (the costs of the IRA operation), but I doubt there are many, and even fewer that matter. It wouldn’t matter much, for example, if the figure on expenditures were wrong (unless it were wrong by lot) — what a jury, or the discerning public, would or should care about more would be the number of people employed in the operation, the size and quality of the facilities and equipment, and what they said their instructions were, and so on. But IMO Mark’s general point is a good one – the discerning observer should distinguish between fact claims that we can in effect “stipulate” as true and those that a defense attorney might reasonably contest, especially if they are important claims.

    • Mark Galeotti

       /  February 17, 2018

      I take your point but the fundamental one is not that I am seriously suggesting that, say, Prigozhin is a poor little lamb, maligned by a vindictive America, but that if there is one thing that has been very evident in the story is that when statements come out, too many take them as proven facts. I expect that the technical details, especially of the two specific cases developed, are likely to be absolutely accurate. Issues of *specific* intent, focus, etc are a lot fuzzier.

  4. Fair minded caveats to this process. But Mueller seems pretty confident he can get a conviction of the 13 with his evidence. If he does, it means that a crime has been committed and proven. And if anyone has tried to conceal that crime, that would be “obstruction of justice.”

    Just sayin’…

  5. I’d be curious to hear some analysis of Mueller’s timeline of when the troll farm (what Mueller describes as “The Organization”) was set up and began operations.

    The Organization allegedly registered with the Russian government “in 2013” and began operations in earnest in early 2014. This was before Trump had declared his candidacy (let alone was being taken seriously).

    I think this adds credibility to the argument that the intention was to sow “general distrust of the political system.”

    But wouldn’t this time frame also imply that the meddling campaign may have been motivated by the Kremlin’s narrative of US meddling in the 2012 Russian Presidential Election, and the protests that followed?

    • Mark Galeotti

       /  February 18, 2018

      We shouldn’t assume that the IRA’s main or only role was its US operations; frankly, it was a commercial operation as well, and especially concerned with the domestic infosphere. Supporting Trump was never the end, just the means, and after 2014 and the sharp downturn in US-Russian relations, that’s when the IRA began to be used more aggressively in that direction, at least as near as I can tell.

  6. Agree your premise that the likelihood of any seeing a US court room is slim, but it is a real possibility if any travel outside of Russia … recent arrests in the Maldives ( Roman Seleznev arrested in the custom zone where the individual had not yet entered the country was perhaps the most creative and then jetted to the US for trial) and Bangkok where the Thai police arrested Sergey Medvedev. Medvedev is a US wanted person and is now in holding for extradition. It may take time, but like the Texas Rangers, I think the DOJ might put some emphasis on getting their man/woman in this case, should they make themselves available.

    • Mark Galeotti

       /  February 18, 2018

      Agreed – but for that reason I think they’d be pretty dumb to go anywhere with an extradition treaty with the USA…

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