PARIS -- Nine months into his mandate to investigate possible Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, special counsel Robert Mueller has finally found some actual Russians to indict. Unfortunately, by pointing the finger at these Russians, he has exposed hypocrisy within the U.S. system.
Last year, Mueller's investigation produced indictments against four former Trump campaign advisors who had dealings with Russians during their international business careers before joining the campaign. Most of what those indictments covered could have fallen under the purview of the Internal Revenue Service and seemed out of place in a multimillion-dollar investigation into alleged electoral subversion.
But now, we actually have some indicted Russians -- 13 individuals who supposedly had a hand in the 2016 electoral outcome. How so? Primarily by screwing around on social media.
The U.S. Justice Department has charged these 13 Russian nationals with conspiracy to defraud the United States. Supposedly, the accused tried to pollute the sacred electronic institutions of truth that recently brought us fascinating (but false) political information such as "President Trump orders the execution of five turkeys pardoned by Obama" (a story that provoked 914,429 social media interactions, according to a 2017 year-end analysis by Buzzfeed News).
Former FBI director Mueller's long arm of the law has reached into that pristine electronic river of democracy, which was also home to this viral Facebook post about his own former bureau: "FBI seizes over 3,000 penises during raid at morgue employee's home" (1,145,470 interactions). How lucky we are that Mueller and the Justice Department are saving us from any disinformation that those Russians might be spreading.
The 13 Russians are accused of creating "hundreds of social media accounts" under fake identities. They then allegedly pretended to be U.S.-based activists on social media, posting election-related opinions in an effort to influence the outcome in favor of Donald Trump and, during the primary elections, Democratic candidate Bernie Sanders.
The indictment implies that the operation was linked to the Russian government, and that a St. Petersburg-based company called the Internet Research Agency failed to register as a foreign agent before purchasing paid advertisements on social media. Silly Russians -- you're supposed to pay a lobbying firm in Washington to do all that for you on the down-low.
There are obviously some slippery slopes here.
Does Mueller wish to set the precedent that foreigners can't exercise freedom of speech about another country's elections without it being considered a criminal act? If this standard were to be adopted by other countries, then U.S. government-funded media, State Department-funded NGOs or virtually any private contractor with a U.S. government contract could be subjected to prosecution by foreign governments. Such organizations wouldn't even necessarily have to operate on foreign soil, since the indictment makes it clear that periodic travel, a banking transaction or data passing through a server within the prosecuting country would justify a criminal charge.
James Woolsey, a former director of the CIA, was recently asked by Fox News host Laura Ingraham whether the U.S. interferes in other countries' elections, as the indictment accuses these Russians of doing.
"Well, only for a very good cause in the interests of democracy," Woolsey answered.
He added that such interference would be anti-communist in nature. That would be a valid excuse if it were 1980 and not 2018. Does this latest indictment mean that the U.S. will now butt out of the domestic politics of all foreign countries?
The indictment also sets a precedent with its attack on astroturfing -- that is, the use of fronts to promote a political cause by making it look like a grassroots movement when it's really not. The indictment accuses the Russians of organizing both pro- and anti-Trump rallies after the November 2016 election. It's a drop in the bucket when you consider the foreign lobbying cash paid to Washington lobbyists to organize activism within the U.S. on behalf of their clients. It means that billionaire U.S. investors are colluding against America's economic interests if they engage with oil producers in countries such as Saudi Arabia, where private enterprise and the foreign government are one in the same.
According to a 2014 report by Republican members of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, a "Billionaires Club" of wealthy individuals "directs the far-left environmental movement. The members of this elite liberal club funnel their fortunes through private foundations to execute their personal political agenda."
The report also accuses the billionaires of "collabora[ting] with offshore funders to maximize support for the far-left environmental movement."
By indicting these 13 Russians, whose contribution to the alleged usurpation of American democracy is downright comical, Mueller has inadvertently exposed a treasure trove of hypocrisy.