The Justice Department announced the indictment of 13 Russians on charges of attempting to defraud the United States by meddling in the 2016 presidential campaign, but a former federal prosecutor says the charges may have a chilling effect on free speech here at home and around the globe.
On Friday, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein announced the indictments handed down from a grand jury connected to the investigation of Special Counsel Robert Mueller into Russian activities during the race for the White House.
While all 13 Russians face defrauding charges, some of them also face wire fraud and bank fraud charges as well.
However in addition to the indictments, Rosenstein also announced that any Americans participating in the operation did so unwittingly. Many media outlets immediately went wall-to-wall with breathless coverage of the news, but former federal prosecutor Andrew C. McCarthy isn’t sure what the bombshell is.
“I don’t think there was any doubt that the Russians were trying to meddle in our election because I think they meddle as much as they can in all our elections. In fact, this indictment says this particular scheme to meddle in the elections goes back about five years. So it’s long before there even was a Donald Trump campaign,” said McCarthy.
McCarthy further says there is a big gray area about what sort of foreign involvement in American politics is legal and what is not. In this case, he says the indictments suggest Mueller sees the Russian bot activity as an in-kind political contribution.
He also says the plan is deeply frowned upon by the Justice Department, which cannot properly register those involved in the plot as foreign agents since they operate anonymously. The State Department also has reason to be furious since the Russians came to the U.S. on visas, giving very different reasons for being here.
But while McCarthy urges the government to prosecute visa fraud as aggressively as possible, he says the Mueller indictments might create more problems than they solve.
“I don’t really understand the point of this. I don’t even know if these people are prosecutable. I don’t know that there’s a chance you actually get these people physically into a federal criminal court in the United States,” said McCarthy.
However, he says the long-term impact of this could create problems for the United States.
“It seems to sweep into it, potentially, a lot of behavior that Americans engage in and may result in retaliation on the part of foreign governments on activities that are pretty important to the spreading of American messages that we want to spread throughout the world,” said McCarthy.
And he says political involvement on the internet could also be greatly impacted by Friday’s actions.
“You’re talking about regulation of political expression of a variety that a lot of Americans engage in. It seems like they’re doing this as a sweeping prohibition on a theory that these government agencies have had their missions frustrated by the way that this scheme took place,” said McCarthy, noting that such freedom could be at risk all for a case that may never be tried.
McCarthy painted another unsettling scenario.
“Are we now saying that every time that somebody champions a candidate or a cause in social media that that’s an in-kind campaign contribution and that if you’re doing it anonynously or under a pseudonym that you’re defrauding the United States?” asked McCarthy.
“It would seem to me that that would be absurd, but it’s less absurd after reading this indictment than it would have been before,” said McCarthy.
In addition to the actual charges announced Friday, McCarthy says it is significant that Mueller and Rosenstein conclude that no Americans knowingly collaborated with Russian attempt to cause mischief in the campaign. They also pointed out that the bots stirred up partisans on both sides, certainly in the wake of the elections.
“It does say that to the extent Americans were involved in this it was “unwitting,” which means that if that’s the full extent of it, there obviously can’t be a collusion conspiracy because you can’t collude – I mean collusion is a nonsense word legally anyway.
“To be a criminal conspirator, you have to have an agreement to violate the law and that’s not something that someone can do unwittingly,” said McCarthy.
So much like every other development in this case, both sides of the Russia debate see vindication in Friday’s developments.
“Anybody who was interested in championing something that I think should have been beyond dispute – namely that the Russians tried to meddle in our elections – they get to say, ‘See, Russians meddle in elections.’
“And anybody who had a political interest in saying that Trump didn’t collude, they can now come away and say, ‘See, this thing shows there’s no collusion,'” said McCarthy.