Twelve Russian military intelligence officers hacked into the Clinton presidential campaign and the Democratic Party, releasing tens of thousands of stolen communications, in a sweeping effort by a foreign government to meddle in the 2016 US election, according to a grand jury indictment.
- The indictment is the first to implicate the Russian Government directly
- The Russian state has never interfered is US elections, Mr Putin's adviser says
- The indictment does not allege Trump campaign associates were involved in the hacking efforts
The indictment — announced days before US President Donald Trump's summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin — stands as the clearest Justice Department allegation yet of Russian efforts to interfere, through illegal hacking, in the election before Americans went to the polls.
It is the first to implicate the Russian Government directly. It had been sought by special counsel Robert Mueller.
US intelligence agencies have said the meddling was aimed at helping the Trump campaign and harming the election bid of his Democratic opponent, Hillary Clinton.
The effort also included bogus Facebook ads and social media postings that prosecutors say were aimed at influencing public opinion and sowing discord on hot-button social issues.
The indictment lays out a sweeping effort starting in March 2016 to break into key Democratic email accounts, such as those belonging to the Democratic National Committee, the Clinton campaign and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.
Among those targeted was John Podesta, the Clinton campaign chairman.
The Kremlin denied anew it tried to sway the election.
"The Russian state has never interfered and has no intention of interfering in the US elections," Mr Putin's foreign affairs adviser, Yuri Ushakov, said.
But the indictment identifies the defendants as officers with Russia's Main Intelligence Directorate of the General Staff, also known as GRU.
It accuses them of covertly monitoring the computers of dozens of Democratic officials and volunteers, implanting malicious computer code known as malware and using spear phishing emails to gain control of the accounts of people associated with the Clinton campaign.
By June 2016, the defendants began planning the release of tens of thousands of stolen emails and documents, the indictment alleges. The messages were released through fictitious personas like DCLeaks and Guccifer 2.0.
The charges come as Mr Mueller continues to investigate potential coordination between Russia and the Trump campaign to influence the presidential election.
The indictment does not allege that Trump campaign associates were involved in the hacking efforts or that any American was knowingly in contact with Russian intelligence officers.
The indictment also does not allege that any vote tallies were altered by hacking.
Still, Deputy Attorney-General Rod Rosenstein said the internet "allows foreign adversaries to attack Americans in new and unexpected ways".
"Free and fair elections are hard fought and contentious and there will always be adversaries who work to exacerbate domestic differences and try to confuse, divide and conquer us," he said.
'I love getting along with other countries': Trump
Before Friday, 20 people and three companies had been charged in the Mueller investigation. The 20 are four former Trump campaign and White House aides, three who have pleaded guilty to different crimes and agreed to cooperate, and 13 Russians accused of participating in a hidden but powerful social media campaign to sway US public opinion in the election.
If the involvement of the GRU officers in the hacking effort is proved, it will shatter the Kremlin denials of the Russian state's involvement in the US elections.
The GRU, which answers to the Russian military's General Staff, is part of the state machine and its involvement would indicate that the orders to interfere in the US election came from the very top.
Hours before the Justice Department announcement, Mr Trump complained anew that the special counsel's investigation is complicating his efforts to forge a better working relationship with Russia.
Mr Trump and Mr Putin are scheduled to hold talks on Monday in Finland, a meeting largely sought by Mr Trump.
After the indictments were announced, top Senate Democrat Chuck Schumer called on Mr Trump to cancel his meeting with Mr Putin until Russia takes steps to prove it will not interfere in future elections.
He said the indictments were "further proof of what everyone but the President seems to understand — President Putin is an adversary who interfered in our elections to help President Trump win".
Mr Trump said at a news conference on Friday near London with British Prime Minister Theresa May that he was not going into the meeting with Mr Putin with "high expectations".
Referring to Mr Mueller's probe, he said: "We do have a political problem where, you know, in the United States we have this stupidity going on. Pure stupidity. But it makes it very hard to do something with Russia. Anything you do, it's always going to be, 'Oh, Russia, he loves Russia'.
"I love the United States. But I love getting along with Russia and China and other countries."