WASHINGTON — In September, as the first detailed evidence surfaced of Russia’s hijacking of social media in the 2016 election, Irina V. Kaverzina, one of about 80 Russians working on the project in St. Petersburg, emailed a family member with some news.
“We had a slight crisis here at work: the F.B.I. busted our activity (not a joke),” she wrote of the project in Russia. “So, I got preoccupied with covering tracks together with the colleagues.” She added, “I created all these pictures and posts, and the Americans believed that it was written by their people.”
A 37-page indictment, handed up on Friday by a Washington grand jury and charging Ms. Kaverzina and 12 other people with an elaborate conspiracy, showed that she and her colleagues did not, in fact, hide their tracks so well from United States investigators. The charges, brought by Robert S. Mueller III, the special counsel, introduced hard facts to a polarized political debate over Russia’s intervention in American democracy, while not yet implicating President Trump or his associates.
The indictment presented in astonishing detail a carefully planned, three-year Russian scheme to incite political discord in the United States, damage Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign and later bolster the candidacy of Donald J. Trump, along with those of Bernie Sanders and Jill Stein. The precise description of the operation suggested that F.B.I. investigators had intercepted communications, found a cooperating insider or both.
The Russians overseeing the operation, which they named the Translator Project, had a goal to “spread distrust toward the candidates and the political system in general.” They used a cluster of companies linked to one called the Internet Research Agency, and called their campaign “information warfare.”
The field research to guide the attack appears to have begun in earnest in June 2014. Two Russian women, Aleksandra Y. Krylova and Anna V. Bogacheva, obtained visas for what turned out to be a three-week reconnaissance tour of the United States, including to key electoral states like Colorado, Michigan, Nevada and New Mexico. The visa application of a third Russian, Robert S. Bovda, was rejected.
The two women bought cameras, SIM cards and disposable cellphones for the trip and devised “evacuation scenarios” in case their real purpose was detected. In all, they visited nine states — California, Illinois, Louisiana, New York and Texas, in addition to the others — “to gather intelligence” on American politics, the indictment says. Ms. Krylova sent a report about their findings to one of her bosses in St. Petersburg.
Another Russian operative visited Atlanta in November 2014 on a similar mission, the indictment says. It does not name that operative, a possible indication that he or she is cooperating with the investigation, legal experts said.
The operation also included the creation of hundreds of email, PayPal and bank accounts and even fraudulent drivers’ licenses issued to fictitious Americans. The Russians also used the identities of real Americans from stolen Social Security numbers.
At the height of the 2016 campaign, the effort employed more than 80 people, who used secure virtual private network connections to computer servers leased in the United States to hide the fact that they were in Russia. From there, they posed as American activists, emailing, advising and making payments to real Americans who were duped into believing that they were part of the same cause.
The playing field was mainly social media, where the Russians splashed catchy memes and hash tags. Facebook has estimated that the fraudulent Russian posts reached 126 million Americans on its platforms alone.