Will Donald Trump Free This Russian Superhacker?
A Putin ally and his criminal son bet big on Trump winning the White House. Will the new president reward their faith in him?
The Federal Detention Center near Seattle is home to 563 men and women who are all waiting for something. Some are accused criminals approaching trial, others are immigrants facing deportation, a few are serving a sentence and waiting for their release date to arrive. For the last year, Russian hacker Roman Seleznev has been waiting for Donald Trump.
Seleznev, 32, was once among the United States’ most-wanted computer criminals, sought for stealing credit-card numbers from restaurant point-of-sale systems and selling them in underground internet forums for millions. Then in July 2014 he made the mistake of leaving his native Russia for a resort vacation in the Maldives. U.S. officials persuaded local police to pick up Seleznev and turn him over to Secret Service agents, who hustled him onto a private jet, then onward to the U.S. Pacific island of Guam for easy extradition to Seattle.
In some ways, Seleznev’s rendition was not extraordinary. Russia has no extradition treaty with America, so U.S. cops have learned to indict Russian nationals in secret, then seek their arrest when they travel abroad. That’s what happened in January when police in Barcelona arrested 32-year-old Stanislav Lisov, wanted for allegedly looting U.S. bank accounts. And in October, Czech police picked up Russian national Yevgeny Nikulin in Prague on allegations he hacked DropBox and LinkedIn. Both men are fighting extradition to the U.S.
Seleznev, though, is not just another Russian hacker. His father is Valery Seleznev, an outspoken member of the Russian parliament in the ultranationalist Liberal Democratic Party of Russia, and a political ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin. The arrest immediately put added strain on U.S.-Russian relations already tested by Putin’s annexation of Crimea and the U.S.-led sanctions that followed. Russia’s foreign ministry held a press conference lashing out at the “kidnapping,” while the senior Seleznev insisted his son was no hacker, telling a Russian news agency, “This is some monstrous lie and provocation.”
Adjudicating Seleznev’s cases has been slow going for the U.S. In the last year alone the hacker has twice fired his lawyers, winning months-long postponements in his court dates each time. In April, frustrated prosecutors accused Seleznev of using delay tactics to try and put off the proceedings until after the 2016 election. “Defendant’s false and naïve belief that U.S. politics have any bearing on his case has been a constant theme in his conversations with his father.”
Prosecutors traced Seleznev’s election insights to a cryptic Dec. 15, 2015, phone call between the hacker and his father. On that day, Roman called Valery in Moscow to break the news that he’d lost a key motion attacking the lawfulness of his arrest. The senior Seleznev told him to keep his chin up, according to a translation by the Bureau of Prisons.
Valery: “You can be mad, but don’t go wild with rage.”Roman: “No, I mean I need to keep going to go to the trial. I will keep going.”Valery: “Absolutely.”Roman: “Yes.”Valery: “Besides, the relationships between the countries can improve. You know what I mean?”Roman: “That’s what I am hoping for.”Valery: “Well, they will get better, I am sure about that.”Roman: “Well, some day they will get better for sure.” [Giggles]Valery: “No, I think that they are already better.”Roman: “Really?”Valery: “Uh-huh.”Roman: “OK, OK.”Valery: “Yes.”
It’s unclear what inside information, if any, Valery Seleznev possessed on Dec. 15, 2015. Secretary of State John Kerry was in Moscow that day for preliminary meetings on the Syria crisis, which might have given the Russian lawmaker hope for better U.S. relations.
The phone call occurred months after Russian government hackers first infiltrated the network of the Democratic National Committee, and was sandwiched between two milestones in Putin-Trump relations. Just five days earlier, on Dec. 10, 2015, retired U.S. Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn attended a Moscow conference celebrating the 10th anniversary of the Kremlin-controlled television network RT. Flynn was a paid speaker at the event. Vladimir Putin was the guest of honor at the evening gala that followed, and photographs and video from the dinner showed Flynn seated at his right hand—something barely noted at the time, but which drew renewed attention last month when Trump appointed Flynn as his National Security Advisor.
Then on Dec. 17, Putin spoke publicly on GOP-primary frontrunner Donald Trump for the first time. “He is a bright and talented person without any doubt,” he said, describing Trump as “the absolute leader of the presidential race.” Trump returned the praise later that day. “It is always a great honor to be so nicely complimented by a man so highly respected within his own country and beyond.”
By Dec. 20, Seleznev’s father was urging his son to engineer a delay in his trial by claiming he and his lawyers needed an additional year to examine the voluminous evidence in the case. “What I am saying is that one year will pass and another reporting period will start,” he said. “You know?” Seleznev decided to reject a government plea offer of 17 years in prison. “It seems like the political relationships are getting better,” he told his girlfriend that day. “Trump will be their president. He and Putin seem to be getting along.”
Despite the delays, Seleznev went to trial last August, and was convicted of 38 counts of computer intrusion and credit-card fraud. (Seleznev’s attorney didn’t respond to telephone and email inquiries for this story.) He’s looking at around 25 years in prison under America’s merciless federal sentencing guidelines, and still faces additional charges in Atlanta and Las Vegas for bank fraud and racketeering. His sentencing is set for April 2017.
Since his trial, of course, Roman Seleznev has been proven right about the outcome of the election, and last month Donald Trump was sworn into the office he won with the covert support of Kremlin-controlled hackers. The question is whether Roman and Valery Seleznev were also right that Trump’s election would improve Roman Seleznev’s lot.
Such an intervention could take many forms, ranging from pressuring prosecutors to seek a shorter sentence, all the way to executive clemency, in the mold of Obama’s commutation of Chelsea Manning’s 35-year sentence in January. The easiest and least politically fraught would be to wait for Seleznev’s cases to run their course, then quietly send him home to Russia in a “treaty transfer.” Officially, Seleznev would then be expected to serve his sentence in a Russian prison, but he’d be subject to that country’s rules on early release or parole. Given his political connections he might just be cut loose, but even if he wasn’t he’d be better off than in the U.S. federal system, which has no parole.
But former prosecutors interviewed by The Daily Beast are doubtful that Trump will pull strings for the Russian hacker.
“I would be shocked,” said David Hickton, who resigned in November as the U.S. attorney for the Western District of Pennsylvania, where he oversaw significant indictments against Russian criminal hackers, and the first-ever indictment against intruders from the Chinese government. “I think there would be all sorts of uproar if the practice of this administration were for the White House to interfere with cases being handled by the Department of Justice.”
Hickton, now director of the University of Pittsburgh Institute for Cyber Law, Policy and Security, says previous administrations kept a strict written policy governing contact with Justice. “It was generally not appropriate for people in the Department of Justice to talk to the White House about any particular case,” he told The Daily Beast. “No partisan interfering, no political interfering, and no interference from above.”
If Trump holds to the same ethical norms—and, given the first few weeks of this administration, that’s by no means a sure bet—Seleznev’s prospects are limited. The president could legitimately pardon the hacker or commute his sentence, or enact a general policy that benefits future Russians targeted by U.S. prosecutors. Only time will tell. And Roman Seleznev has plenty of that.