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US indicts Russian woman for interfering in 2018 election

media The US Justice Department has indicted the accountant for Russia's leading troll farm, alleging she took part in efforts to use social media to influence the 2018 election AFP/File

The finance chief of Russia's leading troll farm was indicted by the US Justice Department on Friday for interfering with US elections, the first person to face charges involving the 2018 congressional midterms.

The indictment said Elena Alekseevna Khusyaynova was involved in a criminal conspiracy as the chief accountant for Project Lakhta, a broad political interference operation in the Saint Petersburg-based Internet Research Agency.

Since 2014, Khusyaynova has been handling the finances for operations to sow disinformation and stir up divisiveness in US elections, according to prosecutors.

She also budgeted millions of dollars this year for online social media efforts directed and the United States and Europe.

"Today's charges allege that Russian national Elena Alekseevna Khusyaynova conspired with others who were part of a Russian influence campaign to interfere with US democracy," said Assistant Attorney General John Demers.

The Internet Research Agency is controlled by a close ally of President Vladimir Putin, Yevgeny Prigozhin, through his Concord Management and Consulting group, prosecutors said.

Prigozhin, sometimes dubbed "Putin's chef" because he has managed catering for the Russian leader, was already indicted in February along with 12 other IRA employees over their disinformation campaigns during the 2016 presidential election.

In that effort, they pumped out millions of postings via Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and other platforms designed to stir up animosity between political camps and groups in society.

The campaign aimed to boost Donald Trump's chances of winning the presidency, according to US intelligence.

- $10 million budgeted for troll farm -

The indictment against Khusyaynova details her budgeting for Project Lakhta month by month for the first six months of 2018, a total of more than 650 million rubles, or $10 million, details that suggested US investigators have gained detailed inside knowledge of the IRA's operations.

Between January 2016 and June 2018, Project Lakhta had a proposed operating budget of more than $35 million for all of its operations, including those directed at the United States.

The money was for expenditures for IRA activists, social media advertising, registering domain names and buying proxy servers, all needed for the group's influence operations.

"The conspirators allegedly took extraordinary steps to make it appear that they were ordinary American political activists," by setting up thousands of accounts made to appear to be owned by Americans, the Justice Department said.

The accounts were used "to create and amplify divisive social and political content targeting US audiences."

In an odd bit of timing, the indictment was announced just minutes after the Office of the Director of National Intelligence expressed concern that China, Iran and Russia could seek to undermine confidence in the November 6 mid-term elections, when control of the US Congress is up for grabs.

The ODNI statement did not, however, say that such efforts had taken place.

It said there had not been any evidence that foreign hackers had compromised any election infrastructure such as voter registration databases or voting machines.

"Increased intelligence and information sharing among federal, state and local partners has improved our awareness of ongoing and persistent threats to election infrastructure," ODNI said in a joint statement with the FBI, the Justice Department and the Department of Homeland Security.

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