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Mueller adds veteran cyber prosecutor to special-counsel team

Special counsel Robert S. Mueller III on Capitol Hill in June. (Andrew Harnik/AP)

Special counsel Robert S. Mueller III has added a veteran cyber prosecutor to his team, filling what has long been a gap in expertise and potentially signaling a recent focus on computer crimes.

Ryan K. Dickey was assigned to Mueller's team in early November from the Justice Department's computer crime and intellectual-property section, said a spokesman for the special counsel's office. He joined 16 other lawyers who are highly respected by their peers but who have come under fire from Republicans wary of some of their political contributions to Democrats.

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Dickey's addition is particularly notable because he is the first publicly known member of the team specializing solely in cyber issues. The others' expertise is mainly in a variety of white-collar crimes, including fraud, money laundering and public corruption, though Mueller also has appellate specialists and one of the government's foremost experts in criminal law.

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Zainab Ahmad and Brandon Van Grack have handled some cybercrime issues in the past, though they are recognized more for their work on terrorism and national security.

Mueller was appointed in May to investigate any possible links or coordination between the Russian government and the Trump campaign to influence the 2016 election, and any matters that might arise out of that work.

He has charged or negotiated plea deals with four former Trump campaign or administration officials, including former national security adviser Michael Flynn and former campaign manager Paul Manafort, though Manafort's charges have nothing to do with his work for Trump.

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Flynn and another former campaign adviser, George Papadopoulos, are now cooperating with the Mueller team. Mueller recently indicated to Trump's legal team that his office is likely to seek an interview with the president, though Trump offered ambiguous comments Wednesday as to whether he would be willing to do that, denying he had colluded with Russia and saying, "It seems unlikely you'd even have an interview."

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Mueller's work has long had an important cybersecurity component — central to the probe is Russia's hacking of Democrats' emails in an effort to undermine confidence in the U.S. electoral system and help Trump win. The original FBI counterintelligence probe was launched in part because a Trump campaign adviser was said to have told an Australian diplomat that Russia had emails that could embarrass Democrats, and in July 2016, private Democratic messages thought to have been hacked by Russia began appearing online.

Mueller also is in possession of information from Facebook about politically themed advertisements bought through Russian accounts.

Legal analysts have said that one charge Mueller might pursue would be a conspiracy to violate the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, if he can demonstrate that members of Trump's team conspired in Russia's hacking effort to influence the election.

Some in the legal world had wondered why Mueller had not previously tapped a cyber prosecutor to join his team.

Trump has long denied any wrongdoing and has decried the probe as a "witch hunt." He tweeted Wednesday: "The single greatest Witch Hunt in American history continues. There was no collusion, everybody including the Dems knows there was no collusion, & yet on and on it goes. Russia & the world is laughing at the stupidity they are witnessing. Republicans should finally take control!"

Dickey, who previously worked as an assistant U.S. attorney in the Eastern District of Virginia, has participated in a number of high-profile computer-crime prosecutions — including the ongoing case against the file-sharing site Megaupload and the investigation of the Romanian hacker known as "Guccifer."

Guccifer, whose real name is Marcel Lehel Lazar, penetrated email, Facebook and other online accounts of celebrities and political figures, including former secretary of state Colin Powell, former Bill Clinton aide Sidney Blumenthal and a family member of George W. Bush. His hacking inadvertently revealed that Hillary Clinton was using a private email account when she was secretary of state.

Someone using the moniker Guccifer 2.0 in June 2016 claimed credit for hacking the Democratic National Committee's network, though the intelligence community later assessed that the Russian spy agency GRU had used the persona and two websites to release data hacked from the Democrats. Lazar had long been in custody by that time; he was sentenced in September 2016 to four years and four months in U.S. prison.