The U.S. Justice Department on Thursday charged seven Russian intelligence officers with hacking anti-doping agencies, tied to the Fancy Bears group that went public two years ago, and other organizations hours after Western officials leveled new accusations against Moscow’s secretive GRU military spy agency.
“This began with a disclosure of Russian state-sponsored doping programs for its athletes. In other words, Russia cheated,” U.S. Attorney Scott Brady said. “They cheated, they got caught, they were banned from the Olympics, they were mad, and they retaliated. And in retaliating, they broke the law, so they are criminals.”
A group that called itself Fancy Bears began posting medical records of Olympians online in 2016. WADA previously said Fancy Bears originated in Russia.
The Department of Justice said Fancy Bears released stolen information that included private or medical information of approximately 250 athletes from almost 30 countries. Fancy Bears posted medical data of Simone Biles, Venus Williams, Bradley Wiggins and Chris Froome, among others, in 2016.
Victims also included “U.S. and international anti-doping agencies such as WADA, USADA, CCES [Canada’s anti-doping agency], the Court of Arbitration for Sport, the International Association of Athletics Federation [IAAF, track and field’s international governing body], FIFA and as many as 35 other anti-doping or sporting federations,” Brady said.
The U.S. indictment said that the GRU targeted its victims because they had publicly supported a ban on Russian athletes in international sports competitions and because they had condemned Russia’s state-sponsored athlete doping program.
“Using social media accounts and other infrastructure acquired and maintained by GRU Unit 74455 in Russia, the conspiracy thereafter publicly released selected items of stolen information, in many cases in a manner that did not accurately reflect their original form, under the false auspices of a hacktivist group calling itself the ‘Fancy Bears’ Hack Team,'” according to the Department of Justice. “As part of its influence and disinformation efforts, the Fancy Bears’ Hack Team engaged in a concerted effort to draw media attention to the leaks through a proactive outreach campaign. The conspirators exchanged e-mails and private messages with approximately 186 reporters in an apparent attempt to amplify the exposure and effect of their message.”
Throughout its doping scandals, Russia has tried to stay close to the International Olympic Committee, but the indictment alleges the IOC wasn’t immune from attack.
Two hackers allegedly traveled to the Rio Olympics to steal information from sports officials via their Wi-Fi networks. The Dutch Ministry of Defense even released a photo showing one of the accused posing for a picture at an Olympic arena.
The indictment says hackers targeted the beachfront hotel where Olympic doping cases were heard, including some involving leading Russian athletes, and intercepted an IOC anti-doping official’s username and password to break into WADA’s files.
Eventually, the IOC banned Russia from the PyeongChang Olympics — its athletes were allowed to apply to participate as neutrals — as punishment for doping offenses in Sochi four years earlier.
The impact on the U.S. included athletes — some world-famous — whose medical data was released even where there was no evidence they’d done anything wrong.
The U.S. Anti-Doping Agency was a prime target. As USADA’s CEO Travis Tygart issued stinging attacks on Russian athletes’ drug use, science director Matthew Fedoruk’s email was hacked at the 2016 Olympics. The Fancy Bear website then posted medical data of dozens of U.S.-based athletes who’d asked permission to use otherwise-banned substances for medical reasons.
Tygart called’s indictments it “a reassuring outcome for clean athletes everywhere, especially those whose private information was leaked as a result of the despicable and illegal hacking activity.”
“Let’s not forget that these cyber attacks, which we now know were perpetuated by officials in the Russian government, illegally obtained information during the 2016 Olympic and Paralympic Games in Rio to try to smear innocent athletes’ reputations and make it look like they did something wrong, when in fact they did everything right,” Tygart said in a statement. “These illegal and malicious acts were a desperate attempt to divert attention away from Russia’s state-sponsored doping program and were part of a broader scheme of corrupt and unethical behavior by the Russian government to manipulate international Olympic sport, of which the world now has the incontestable facts: a system that was abusing its own athletes with an institutionalized doping program has now been indicted for perpetrating cyber-attacks on innocent athletes from around the world while yet again trying to win by any means.”
The Russian Foreign Ministry fired back with its own accusations Thursday, accusing USADA of going easy on U.S. dopers and seeking to sideline their Russian rivals.
“American pretentions to leading the fight for clean sport are no more than unfair competition,” ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said, speaking after British and Dutch officials outlined the hacking accusations, but before the full U.S. indictment was published.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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