Tale of sex, deception emerges about suspected Russian agent
By CHAD DAY and ERIC TUCKER
Thursday, July 19
WASHINGTON (AP) — A 29-year-old gun-rights activist suspected of being a covert Russian agent was likely in contact with Kremlin operatives while living in the United States, prosecutors said Wednesday, accusing her of using sex and deception to forge influential connections.
The woman, Maria Butina, was photographed by the FBI dining privately with a Russian diplomat suspected of being an intelligence operative in the weeks before the envoy’s departure from the U.S. last March, prosecutors said. She also had contact information for people who investigators believe were employees of Russia’s Federal Security Services, or FSB, the successor intelligence agency to the KGB.
The allegations add to the portrait of a Russian woman who the Justice Department says worked covertly to establish back-channel lines of communication to the Kremlin and infiltrate U.S. political organizations, including the National Rifle Association, and gather intelligence for a senior Russian official to whom she reported.
Prosecutors also alleged she had a personal relationship with an American political operative and offered sex to another person in exchange for a position with a special interest organization.
Court papers do not name the individuals or the special interest group.
Butina awaits trial on charges of conspiracy and acting as an unregistered foreign agent for Russia. She pleaded not guilty Wednesday during a hearing in which U.S. Magistrate Deborah Robinson ordered her held in jail as the case moves forward, saying she was a flight risk.
After the hearing, Butina’s attorney, Robert Driscoll, told reporters his client respected but strongly disagreed with the judge’s decision.
“She’s been aware of a criminal investigation into her conduct for months and made no attempt to flee,” Driscoll said, saying Butina was not a Russian agent but rather a “young student seeking to make her way in America.”
Citing her intelligence ties, the government had argued that Butina’s legal status in the U.S. was based on “deception,” saying her student visa and enrollment at American University were a cover for her covert work. They also argue she posed an “extreme” risk of fleeing the U.S.
Butina was arrested over the weekend amid signs that she planned to leave the Washington area and possibly the country, prosecutors said. Her lease on an apartment ends later this month, her belongings were packed at the time of her arrest and she had applied for a visa that would allow her to travel to and from the United States, prosecutors said.
Her personal ties, “save for those U.S. persons she attempted to exploit and influence,” are to Russia, according to the government court filing.
“She has every incentive to flee,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Erik Kenerson said during the hearing,
The government was particularly concerned Butina would attempt to leave the U.S. using Russian diplomatic facilities or vehicles, Kenerson said, noting that American authorities would be powerless to stop her due to immunity protections. The U.S. has no extradition treaty with Russia, he said.
During the hearing, prosecutors showed a photo of Butina having dinner with a man they said was suspected of having ties to Russian intelligence. They also read from notes found in her home that included reference to a potential job offer from the FSB and noted she had been photographed with Russian diplomatic personnel, including Sergey Kislyak, Russia’s former ambassador to the U.S.
Prosecutors said Butina was also regarded as a covert agent by a Russian official with whom she was in touch, with text messages discovered by the FBI showing how the official likened her to Anna Chapman, a Russian woman who was arrested in 2010 and then deported as part of a prisoner swap.
In March 2017, following news coverage of Butina, the Russian official wrote: “Are your admirers asking for your autographs yet? You have upstaged Anna Chapman. She poses with toy pistols, while you are being published with real ones,” according to the court filing.
Butina and the official messaged each other directly on Twitter, prosecutors said. One such exchange occurred a month before the U.S. presidential election, when Butina said she understood that “everything has to be quiet and careful.”
They also spoke on January 20, 2017, when Butina sent the official a photo of herself near the U.S. Capitol on the day Donald Trump was inaugurated president. According to court papers, the Russian official responded: “You’re a daredevil girl! What can I say!” Butina responded, “Good teachers!”
Authorities have not named the Russian official, but during Wednesday’s hearing, Driscoll said it is Alexander Torshin, a former legislator who is now a senior official in the Central Bank of the Russian Federation.
Torshin, who became an NRA life member in 2012, was among a group of Russian oligarchs and officials targeted in April by Treasury Department sanctions for their associations with Russian President Vladimir Putin and their roles in “advancing Russia’s malign activities.”
During the hearing, Driscoll said Butina was “famous” in Russia for her gun-rights work before coming to the U.S. and developed legitimate relationships with the NRA through that advocacy and Torshin, whom he described as a mentor. The NRA has not commented on the charges against Butina.
Driscoll also dismissed the case against her as “minor” and said prosecutors were wrong to think she would flee the country now. Butina cooperated with the Senate intelligence committee, faced a barrage of media coverage and endured a search warrant months ago without attempting to leave the U.S., he said.
He also disclosed that Butina had offered to assist the government in an unrelated fraud investigation, led by the U.S. Attorney’s office in South Dakota, into her boyfriend, who is identified as “U.S. Person 1” in court papers.
Prosecutors confirmed the investigation in court, but provided no further details other than to say it was unrelated to Butina’s charges in Washington.
Prosecutors have alleged that she used her relationship with the unnamed American political operative, with whom she was living, “as simply a necessary aspect” of her covert activities on behalf of Russia.
Authorities say the relationship with the operative shouldn’t be seen as a “strong tie” to the U.S., noting she “offered an individual other than U.S. Person 1 sex in exchange for a position within a special interest organization.”
Follow Chad Day and Eric Tucker on Twitter: https://twitter.com/ChadSDay and https://twitter.com/etuckerAP
What’s Behind Trump’s Attacks on Europe?
Maybe Putin has some dirt on Trump. But the real problem is Trump thinks like Putin.
By John Feffer | Jul 18, 2018
Donald Trump didn’t fly to Europe to meet with NATO, European leaders, and Russian President Vladimir Putin. He got there by stepping through the looking glass.
Once on the other side, he made a series of extraordinary statements.
He accused Germany of being “totally controlled by Russia.” He declared that the European Union is a “foe” of the United States. He told British Prime Minister Theresa May she should sue the EU instead of negotiate with it.
And, just days after the U.S. intelligence community and special counsel Robert Mueller confirmed once again that the Russian government interfered in the 2016 elections, Trump said that he believed in Vladimir Putin’s claims of Russian innocence.
Why on earth would Trump embark on this surrealistic misadventure in foreign policy? Does Russia have some dirt on him?
Maybe. But whatever else is going on, Trump’s erratic behavior reflects a very specific worldview. Trump is attacking Europe and siding with Russia for political — and not just personal — reasons.
A segment of the U.S. right wing, which has now coalesced around Trump, has always been skeptical about Europe. It hates the social democratic ideals baked into the European system. Indeed, any U.S. politician that leans in that direction inevitably gets branded a “European socialist.”
Then there are the more pacifist inclinations of Europe. Old hawks like Donald Rumsfeld famously railed against EU stalwarts like France and Germany that opposed the U.S. misadventure in Iraq. (Remember “freedom fries”?)
These trends converge in the Euroskepticism expressed by media outlets like Fox News, a sentiment that heavily influenced the George W. Bush administration. To them, the European Union represented a kind of super-socialism that was spreading eastward and threatening U.S. global dominance.
The other major contribution to Trump’s worldview comes from Europe itself. Right-wing nationalist movements like the Brexit campaign have tried to unravel the European Union.
These Euroskeptics view Brussels as an outside force trying to impose unwelcome regulations, immigrants, and political customs. For instance, the Polish and Hungarian governments are establishing illiberal regimes that challenge freedom of the press, judicial independence, and the free functioning of civil society the EU demands.
But there’s another strong Euroskeptic voice: Vladimir Putin.
Under Putin, Russia has supplied rhetorical and financial support for far-right wing parties throughout Europe — the National Front in France, the Freedom Party in Austria, the Northern League in Italy. Putin and the Euroskeptics are anti-immigrant and anti-liberal, and they favor nationalist and law-and-order policies.
But Putin also sees opportunity in Euroskepticism. A weaker EU won’t be able to attract new, post-Soviet members like Ukraine or Moldova. A weaker EU will be more dependent on Russian energy exports. A weaker EU would have less power to criticize Russia’s political and foreign policy conduct.
Which brings us back to Donald Trump.
The president has declared Europe an enemy because of its trade policies. But that’s just a red herring. He actually has a more systemic critique of the EU that coincides with the worldview of Vladimir Putin, Europe’s right-wing nationalists, and Euroskeptics among America’s conservatives.
This is very bad news. If the crisis in transatlantic relations were just about trade, it could be handled by some hardnosed negotiating. If the disputes with the EU and NATO were simply about Trump’s disruptive style, then everything could be resolved by a regime change at the polls in 2020.
But Trump has launched a much larger, ideological assault on European institutions and values. What’s worse: It’s part of the same attack on liberal values here in the United States.
Forget about NATO: Maybe we need a transatlantic alliance against Trump.
John Feffer wrote the dystopian novel Splinterlands and directs Foreign Policy In Focus, where a longer version of this piece appeared. Distributed by OtherWords.org.