Two federal cases charging violations of the Foreign Agents Registration Act (“FARA”) by Russian companies and individuals alleged to have acted as unregistered foreign agents to interfere in the 2016 and 2018 elections are still pending. The cases are part of a larger effort by the Department of Justice (“DOJ”) to more aggressively enforce FARA.
Internet Research Agency
In February 2018, a grand jury in the District of Columbia returned an eight-count indictment of 13 Russian nationals and three Russian companies, among them the Internet Research Agency, alleging that the defendants sought to interfere in the U.S. political system, including the 2016 presidential elections. Count One charges the defendants with conspiracy to violate FARA.
The indictment alleges that the Internet Research Agency worked with other defendants to pose as Americans, create false personas, and operate social media groups to attract U.S. audiences in order to interfere with the U.S. political system. They allegedly used email accounts hosted by U.S. email providers, computer servers located inside the U.S., and stole the identities of U.S. citizens. The defendants, according to the indictment, were “directed to crate ‘political intensity through supporting radical groups, users dissatisfied with [the] social and economic situation and oppositional social movements’” in order to sow discord in the political process. In their alleged attempts to influence the 2016 election, they communicated derogatory information about then-candidate Hillary Clinton and expressed support for then-candidates Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump and promoted allegations of voter fraud by the Democratic Party through their fictitious social media accounts. They also allegedly produced and purchased advertisement on U.S. social media expressly advocating for the election of then-candidate Trump.
The case has not yet proceeded to trial.
In a related case, Elena Alekseevna Khusyaynova, a Russian national, was charged by criminal complaint for her alleged role in the conspiracy involving Internet Research Agency and other Russian entities. The September 2018 complaint alleges, among other charges, conspiracy to violate FARA.
According to the complaint, Khusyaynova managed the finances of “Project Lakhta,” a Russian influence campaign whose “stated goal in the United States was to spread distrust toward candidates for public office and the political system in general.” Project Lakhta allegedly operated through, among other Russian entities, Internet Research Agency. Members of the conspiracy allegedly sought to influence U.S. public opinion, including the 2018 midterm elections, by posing as U.S. citizens and operated fictitious social media accounts to comment on divisive political issues and advocate for certain candidates. The complaint alleges that Khusyaynova oversaw all aspects of Project Lakhta’s financing, managing expenses associated with social media, web contact, and advertising campaigns. Khusyaynova allegedly compiled budgets for Project Lakhta detailing expenses for such activities as “purchasing posts for social networks,” “advertisement on Facebook, “promoting news postings on social networks.”
Shortly after the complaint was unsealed, a woman purporting to be Khusyaynova denied the charges in a video released by a Russian media outlet. The video suggests that Khusyaynova has not been arrested in the United States and is in fact still in Russia. It remains to be seen whether Khusyaynova will end up in U.S. custody.