Judy Woodruff:

American and Dutch officials today accused the Russian government of a widespread series of computer attacks aimed at agencies investigating Moscow's alleged crimes.

As William Brangham reports, it is the latest major effort against what Western leaders are calling Moscow's brazen cyber-attack.

John Demers:

Thank you all for joining us today as we announce an indictment charging seven Russian military officers.

Ank Bijleveld:

The MIVD disrupted a cyber-operation conducted by the Russian military intelligence surface, GRU.

William Brangham:

The two different charges coming from two different governments allege a complex computer hacking effort by a Russian military intelligence unit known as the GRU.

The Russians' goal was to attack and compromise several investigations into Moscow's wrongdoing.

Andrew Weiss worked on the National Security Council, the State Department and the Department of Defense. He's now with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Andrew S. Weiss
Weiss is the James Family Chair and vice president for studies at the Carnegie Endowment, where he oversees research in Washington and Moscow on Russia and Eurasia.
More >

Andrew Weiss:

The Russian military intelligence service, which is commonly referred to by its former acronym, GRU, has become the pointy end of the spear for the Russian government.

What we're seeing now, though, is that they keep using, it seems, the same teams in multiple locations.

William Brangham:

In the Netherlands, Dutch officials said, back in April, these four Russian agents tried to hack into computers at the OPCW, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons in The Hague. It's the international watchdog that monitors the storage and use of those weapons.

The OPCW is investigating several alleged chemical weapons attacks by the Russians. One of those was the use of a banned nerve agent in an assassination attempt on the former Russian Sergei Skripal in England this past March.

The Dutch say the four men were men at the airport by a man from the Russian Embassy. He's the one obscured on the right. The Russians then parked of this car outside the OPCW headquarters. In the trunk, investigators found devices they allege were used for the hacking.

Onno Eichelsheim (through translator): The GRU operation was aimed at hacking and infecting the Wi-Fi network of the OPCW from close quarters.

Andrew Weiss:

So, by breaking into this organization's computers, it was presumably to get an inside track on both the investigation and to give Russia a leg up on how to embarrass that organization or challenge its analytical findings.

William Brangham:

The Russian Foreign Ministry denied the allegations, calling them — quote — "Western spy mania."

But to bolster their case, the Dutch say one of the cell phones recovered from the men had been recently activated outside the GRU's Moscow headquarters. Another man was carrying this taxi receipt showing a trip straight from the GRU to a Moscow airport.

Since the men were all traveling on diplomatic passports, they were expelled from the country, rather than arrested.

In Washington today, the Department of Justice indicted seven members of the GRU, four of the same man named by the Dutch and three others.

John Demers:

This indictment alleges a conspiracy to use computer hacking to obtain nonpublic personal health information about athletes and others and the files of anti-doping agencies and sporting federations in multiple countries, and to release that stolen information selectively and sometimes misleadingly.

William Brangham:

The seven were implicated in a separate series of attacks intended to disrupt the investigation into alleged Russian doping during the 2014 Sochi Olympics.

The World Anti Doping Agency, or WADA, reported that, in 2014, the Russians ran a widespread doping program during the Games and banned Russian athletes from subsequent Olympics. Today's incitement alleges that after WADA's actions the GRU agents hacked into the computers of anti-doping officials in four different countries, stole sensitive information and data and publicized much of it online.

That included personal information about U.S. athletes, including Serena and Venus Williams and gymnast Simone Biles. The indictment alleges — quote — "The stolen information was publicized by the GRU as part of a related influence and disinformation campaign designed to undermine the legitimate interests of the victims, further Russian interests, retaliate against Russia's detractors, and sway public opinion in Russia's favor."

Andrew Weiss:

They're trying to say, see, we have caught you red-handed, we know what you're doing, we're going to work more aggressively to harden ourselves against your influence operations and to expose your cyber-operations whenever we can.

Whether that deters Russia is an entirely different question. Russia has shown repeatedly that it's not embarrassed, that it really doesn't care what the outside world thinks. It's not clear that this effort today will change that. But it certainly pours a tremendous amount of scorn on Russia's GRU, military intelligence efforts.

William Brangham:

Given that all seven men are now believed to be back in Russia, it's unlikely any of them will be extradited to face charges.

Three of those indicted today were also indicted by special counsel Robert Mueller earlier this summer on a raft of charges for interference in the 2016 U.S. election.

For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm William Brangham.

This was originally broadcasted on PBS' NewsHour.