Twelve Russian intelligence officers were indicted on Friday for hacking into servers of senior Democrats, including its presidential candidate Hillary Clinton in 2016.
This comes days ahead of the crucial meeting of President Donald Trump with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin in Helsinki, Finland on July 16.
The indicted officers are members of the GRU, a Russian Federation intelligence agency within the Main Intelligence Directorate of the Russian military.
These GRU officers engaged in a sustained effort to hack into the computer networks of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, the Democratic National Committee, and the presidential campaign of Hillary, and released that information on the Internet under the names "DCLeaks" and "Guccifer 2.0" and through another entity, the indictment said.
According to the indictment, Russian intelligence officials in 2016, began spear phishing volunteers and employees of the presidential campaign of Hillary Clinton, including the campaign's chairman.
Through that process, officials in this unit were able to steal the usernames and passwords for numerous individuals and use those credentials to steal email content and hack into other computers.
They also were able to hack into the computer networks of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) and the Democratic National Committee (DNC) through these spearphishing techniques to steal emails and documents, covertly monitor the computer activity of dozens of employees, and implant hundreds of files of malicious computer code to steal passwords and maintain access to these networks.
To avoid detection, these Russian intelligence officials used false identities while using a network of computers located around the world, including the United States, paid for with cryptocurrency through mining bitcoin and other means intended to obscure the origin of the funds.
This funding structure supported their efforts to buy key accounts, servers, and domains. For example, the same bitcoin mining operation that funded the registration payment for DCLeaks.com also funded the servers and domains used in the spearphishing campaign, the indictment said.
"The Internet allows foreign adversaries to attack America in new and unexpected ways," Deputy Attorney General Rod J Rosenstein said.
"Together with our law enforcement partners, the Department of Justice is resolute in its commitment to locate, identify and seek to bring to justice anyone who interferes with American elections," he said.
"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. So long as we are united in our commitment to the shared values enshrined in the Constitution, they will not succeed," Rosenstein added.
The White House said there were allegations in this indictment that Americans knew that they were corresponding with Russians. "There is no allegation in this indictment that any American citizen committed a crime. There is no allegation that the conspiracy changed the vote count or affected any election result," the White House Deputy Spokesperson Lindsay Walters said.
"Today's charges include no allegations of knowing involvement by anyone on the campaign and no allegations that the alleged hacking affected the election result. This is consistent with what we have been saying all along," Walters said in a statement.
The opposition Democratic party demanded that Trump cancel his July 16 meeting with Putin. "These indictments are 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," Senate Minority Leader, Chuck Schumer said.
"President Trump should cancel his meeting with Vladimir Putin until Russia takes demonstrable and transparent steps to prove that they won't interfere in future elections. Glad-handing with Vladimir Putin on the heels of these indictments would be an insult to our democracy, Schumer demanded.
Senator Patrick Leahy said the indictment charging 12 Russian intelligence officers with conspiring to interfere with our presidential election is no witch hunt.
"The President needs to put America first and stop undermining this crucial national security investigation," Leahy said.
Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic Party leader, said that the Russians waged a massive, concerted operation to interfere in US elections, and they will do so again in the fall.
"Strong, immediate action is needed to secure our state election systems, yet Republicans are wasting the country's time with sham hearings while refusing to provide a single additional penny to protect our elections," she said.
"The stakes for the upcoming Trump-Putin meeting could not be higher. President Trump must demand and secure a real, concrete and comprehensive agreement that the Russians will cease their ongoing attacks on our democracy. Failure to stand up to Putin would constitute a profound betrayal of the Constitution and our democracy," Pelosi said.
(With PTI inputs)