Whether Russian interference had a significant impact on the 2016 election results, the Department of Justice has been tasked with determining the source. On July 13, 2018, they released an indictment charging 12 Russian nationals with interfering in the 2016 US presidential elections. According to the DoJ press release, the DoJ is alleging that this activity was funded with Bitcoin.
The news of this indictment was released immediately following the US House of Representatives questioning of Peter Strzok. In that hearing, Republicans wanted to determine whether his anti-Trump bias influenced the FBI investigation into Russian collusion with the Trump campaign. The basis of the line of questioning about his bias was a text message exchange between Strzok and Lisa Page, where Page asked him, “He’s not ever going to become president, right? Right?!” and Strzok replied, “No. No he won’t. We’ll stop it.”
Strzok was defiant in his testimony, claiming that his bias in no way impacted his ability to do his job as the FBI Chief of the Counterespionage Section. While this dominated the news cycle on July 12, the news of Russian collusion indictments has replaced it on July 13, with the issuance of this press release.
According to the announcement, Russian officials from two units of the Main Intelligence Directorate (GRU) funded their operation with Bitcoin. The report alleges that the Bitcoin may have been mined, or obtained by other means, and was used to pay people to hack into computers managed by the Democratic Party, Hillary Clinton’s campaign, and various US elections boards.
According to a grand jury in Washington DC, and various FBI cyber teams in Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, San Francisco, and the National Security Division, the Russian officials bought accounts on remote servers with the digital funds. These servers allegedly ran “spearphishing” software that gave them access to the various computer networks associated with the Democratic campaign for the presidency.
The emails were then released through DCLeaks.com by a group of “American hacktivists” and were later picked up by WikiLeaks, where they drew widespread attention. These emails contained information that suggested that the Hillary Clinton campaign used their pull within the Democratic Party, in the media and elsewhere to “rig the election” in Hillary’s favor. While the activities of the Hillary Clinton campaign were questionable, the indictment was not about the information captured, but rather the illegal method in which it was obtained.
In the indictment, the DoJ claims that the 12 defendants laundered approximately $95,000 through cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin to fund their hacktivist campaign. While this may have been their intent, the indictment shows that it was not a successful attempt to anonymize the payments, assuming that the DoJ’s information is accurate.
In addition to the probe into the alleged Russian hacking campaign, the DoJ is currently pursuing other investigations into cryptocurrency-related activities, including possible Bitcoin and Ethereum price manipulation. In addition, just two days before this DoJ press release, Trump announced a new task force on consumer fraud, with a focus on “crypto-crime” according to Bloomberg. The question is whether the timing was coincidental, or if Trump was aware of the indictment and timed his own crypto-news accordingly.