Administration sanctions foreign attempts at political influence

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WASHINGTON — The Trump administration has charged a Russian national in a plot to sow distrust in the American political process and imposed sanctions against a Russia-linked Ukrainian lawmaker accused of interfering in the U.S. presidential election.

Those actions on Thursday, combined with a Microsoft announcement on hacking attempts targeting U.S. political campaigns, parties and consultants, underscore the extent to which the cyber intrusions and foreign influence operations of the 2016 White House race remain a concern today.

The administration has also raised concerns about Chinese meddling.

The criminal charges accuse Artem Mikhaylovich Lifshits of serving as a translation manager in a Russian effort that since at least 2014 has tried to disrupt the political system in the United States and other countries and spread distrust about candidates. Members of the initiative, known as Project Lakhta, traveled to the United States to collect intelligence and operated bogus social media accounts.

The group operated through entities including the Internet Research Agency, the Russian troll farm charged by special counsel Robert Mueller with stirring up discord before the 2016 election, according to a criminal complaint charging Lifshits with using stolen identities to open fake accounts at banks and digital currency exchanges.

“Project Lakhta members did not exclusively adopt one ideological viewpoint; rather, they wrote on topics from varied and sometimes opposing perspectives,” a Secret Service agent wrote in an affidavit supporting the complaint. “Project Lakhta members also developed strategies and guidance to target audiences with conservative and liberal viewpoints, as well as particular social groups.”

The Justice Department complaint does not accuse Lifshits or other Project Lakhta members of promoting a particular presidential candidate in the 2020 race.

Lifshits was one of four people cited on Thursday by the Treasury Department, including Andrii Derkach, a Ukrainian lawmaker who was characterized by the U.S. government as “an active Russian agent” for over a decade. Officials say he has interfered in the 2020 election by releasing edited audio recordings designed to denigrate Biden.

The other three people who were sanctioned are connected to the IRA.

Also on Thursday, Microsoft said that the same Russian military intelligence outfit that hacked the Democrats in 2016 has attempted similar intrusions into the computer systems of more than 200 organizations, including political parties and consultants.

Most of the infiltration attempts by Russian, Chinese and Iranian agents were halted by Microsoft security software and the targets notified.

—AP stories contributed to this report.

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