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Russia's Military Intelligence Agency Under Pressure


Russia's military intelligence agency, known as the GRU, is under pressure today. First, the Dutch government accused the GRU of targeting the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, or OPCW, in a cyberattack. Then, the U.S. government indicted seven Russian military officials with conspiracy and money laundering. U.S. authorities say the men hacked into sports federations, multiple anti-doping agencies and the accounts of more than 250 elite athletes.

Here's John Demers from the Justice Department speaking this morning.


JOHN DEMERS: The crux of this indictment is the GRU's targeting of the World Anti-Doping Agency, the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency and the Canadian Centre for Ethics in Sport, which is Canada's anti-doping body.

MARTIN: NPR national justice correspondent Carrie Johnson is in the studio with us to talk about this case. Good morning, Carrie.

CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: Good morning, Rachel.

MARTIN: So some of the same people charged today appeared earlier this year in an indictment about the hacking of the 2016 presidential election. So are these cases related?

JOHNSON: Well, Assistant Attorney General John Demers says, not really. This case does not spring from the special counsel investigation into Russian election interference, even if 3 of the 7 Russian men charged today popped up in that earlier election-hacking case.

Authorities say this one seems to be a relatively simple crime. The Russians got caught cheating using performance-enhancing substances or gaming the doping system. They were banned from the Olympics. And then they retaliated by hacking into sports federations, anti-doping agencies and even the accounts of some high-profile athletes, looking for personal health information about these people.

U.S. Attorney Scott Brady in Pennsylvania says no American citizen, let alone our best athletes, should have to endure this kind of crime.

MARTIN: So let me ask you about this alleged cyberattack into the OPCW, the chemical weapons agency regulator. Dutch officials said that they've disrupted part of this particular cyber campaign. What can you tell us?

JOHNSON: Yeah. The Dutch government says it caught red-handed earlier this year four Russians who traveled to The Hague on diplomatic passports. These men allegedly rented a car filled with computer equipment targeting the Wi-Fi systems and parked it next to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons. They were apparently trying to hack into that office just as it was evaluating a substance used to poison a former Russian GRU officer and his daughter in the United Kingdom earlier this year.

Those four Russians, apparently, got away. They were allowed to leave the country under diplomatic passports, but they left the car with all the equipment sitting next-door to the anti - the OPCW. And the Justice Department says those men now appear to be back in Russia.

MARTIN: All right. So what about these - getting back to these seven Russians who the U.S. government has now indicted. How does the U.S. bring them to account? I mean, if they're in Russia, presumably, Vladimir Putin is not going to hand them over.

JOHNSON: Yeah. That's a good question. The FBI's Eric Welling pointed out this morning sometimes these people decide to travel to countries in Europe or other places where the U.S. actually does have an extradition treaty. But U.S. authorities do believe there's some value in naming and shaming to demonstrate they know how to find out who breaks into computer systems and what those people did there.

As the Justice Department said today, the Russian government was trying to retaliate against truth-tellers, the anti-doping investigators and against the truth itself. And he also issued - he, John Demers of the DOJ - issued a warning to media here in the U.S. and overseas. Be careful about how you use material that comes from these big hacks. It can be false or phony, or there can be deeper and more sinister motives at work behind the scenes, like the motives of the Russian government in this case, he said.

MARTIN: All right. NPR justice correspondent Carrie Johnson for us this morning. Thank you so much.

JOHNSON: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Carrie Johnson is a justice correspondent for the Washington Desk.
Rachel Martin is a host of Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.