Mueller probe could find ties between racketeers, Putin government
WASHINGTON» The U.S. government has long warned that Russian organized crime poses a threat to democratic institutions, including “criminally linked oligarchs” who might collude with the Russian government to undermine business competition.
Those concerns, ever-present if not necessarily always top priorities, are front and center once more.
An ongoing special counsel investigation is drawing attention to Russian efforts to meddle in democratic processes, the type of skullduggery that in the past has relied on hired hackers and outside criminals. It’s not clear how much the investigation by former FBI Director Robert Mueller will center on the criminal underbelly of Moscow, but he has picked lawyers with experience fighting organized crime. And as the team looks for financial entanglements of Trump associates and relationships with Russian officials, its focus could land again on the intertwining of Russia’s criminal operatives and its intelligence services.
Russian organized crime has manifested over the decades in more conventional forms of money laundering, credit card fraud and black market sales. Justice Department prosecutors repeatedly have racked up convictions for those offenses.
In recent years, though, the bond between Russian intelligence agencies and criminal networks has been especially alarming to American law enforcement of- ficials, blending motives of espionage with more old-fashioned greed. In March, for instance, two hired hackers were charged along with two officers of Russia’s Federal Security Service in a cyberattack on Yahoo in 2013.
Former law enforcement officials say Russian organized crime has been a concern for at least a couple of decades, although not necessarily the most pressing demand given finite resources and budget constraints. The threat is diffuse and complex, and Russia’s historic lack of cooperation has complicated efforts to apprehend suspects. And the responsibility for combating the problem often falls across different divisions of the FBI and the Justice Department, depending on whether it’s a criminal or national security offense — a sometimes-blurry boundary.
“It’s not an easy thing to kind of grasp or understand, but it’s very dangerous to our country because they have so many different aspects, unlike a traditional cartel,” said Robert Anderson, a retired FBI executive assistant director who worked counterintelligence cases and oversaw the criminal and cyber branch.
Former FBI Director Robert Mueller leaves Capitol Hill after a meeting. A 2001 report from the Justice Department said “criminally linked oligarchs” might work with the Russian government to undermine competition in gas, oil and other markets.