Later On

A blog written for those whose interests more or less match mine.

Maria Butina, the spy who wasn’t

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James Bamford writes in the New Republic:

On a steamy Sunday last July, at about half-past noon, a caravan of unmarked SUVs exited the FBI’s Washington, D.C., field office, an eight-story concrete building that exudes all the charm of a supermax prison. The cars moved swiftly across the city; speed was critical. There were indications that the target, who had canceled the lease on her apartment and packed her belongings, was about to take flight.

Just before one o’clock, the SUVs turned off Wisconsin Avenue and into a parking lot at 3617 38th Street NW, a low, red-brick apartment building near American University. Armed agents in bulletproof vests filled a narrow corridor outside apartment 208. Inside, Maria Butina was watching the Wimbledon men’s final on TV and preparing for a long drive in a U-Haul truck to South Dakota. Having just graduated from American University with a master’s degree in international affairs, she was about to start working as a consultant in the cryptocurrency industry. Her boyfriend of five years, a 57-year-old Republican activist named Paul Erickson, would be traveling with her to his home in Sioux Falls.

“Everything was boxed up,” Erickson told me. “The last thing to do was to pack the electronics, to unplug the TV and the internet. And then pound! Pound! Pound! I answered the door, and there was a team of six agents in the hallway.” Three of the agents surrounded Erickson while the other three went after Butina. “The team went in, dragged her out, spun her around, cuffed her in the hallway, and announced her arrest,” Erickson said.

According to federal prosecutors, Butina’s graduate studies, and her relationship with Erickson, were just a cover; in reality she was a clandestine Russian agent sent to the United States to use sex and seduction to infiltrate conservative political circles and influence the White House’s policies toward Russia. Denied bail out of fear she might run to the Russian Embassy, or jump into an embassy car, she was charged with violating Section 951 of the U.S. Code: acting as an unregistered agent of a foreign power, as well as with a conspiracy charge associated with it. She is the only Russian arrested to date in the government’s ongoing investigation into the Kremlin’s efforts to interfere with the 2016 presidential election.

Slim and stylish, with long red hair flowing halfway down her back, Butina seemed to fit the stereotype of a Russian spy popularized by figures like Anna Chapman, the Russian sleeper agent arrested in New York in 2010, as well as the fictional spy-seductress played by Jennifer Lawrence in the movie Red Sparrow and the Soviet operative played by Keri Russell in the TV series The Americans. “Real-life ‘Red Sparrow’? Court Filings Allege Russian Agent Offered Sex for Access,” blared an ABC News headline. “Maria Butina, Suspected Secret Agent, Used Sex in Covert Plan, Prosecutors Say,” declared The New York Times.

Since August 17, Butina has been housed at the Alexandria Detention Center, the same fortresslike building that holds Donald Trump’s former campaign manager, Paul Manafort. On November 10, she spent her 30th birthday in solitary confinement, in cell 2F02, a seven-by-ten-foot room with a steel door, cement bed, and two narrow windows, each three inches wide. She has been allowed outside for a total of 45 minutes. On December 13, Butina pleaded guilty to conspiracy to act as an unregistered agent of the Russian Federation. She faces a possible five-year sentence in federal prison.

With anti-Russia fervor in the United States approaching levels directed at Muslims following the attacks of September 11, 2001, it was easy for prosecutors to sell the story of Butina as a spy to the public and the press. But is she really? Last February, Robert Mueller, the special counsel leading the Russia probe, indicted 13 Russian spies for interfering with the 2016 election. And in July, two days before Butina was arrested, Mueller charged twelve more Russians with hacking into email accounts and computer networks belonging to the Democratic National Committee and Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign. It is not inconceivable that Butina is among their ranks.

Yet a close examination of Butina’s case suggests that it is not so. Butina is simply an idealistic young Russian, born in the last days of the Soviet Union, raised in the new world of capitalism, and hoping to contribute to a better understanding between two countries while pursuing a career in international relations. Fluent in English and interested in expanding gun rights in Russia, she met with Americans in Moscow and on frequent trips to the United States, forging ties with members of the National Rifle Association, important figures within the conservative movement, and aspiring politicians. “I thought it would be a good opportunity to do what I could, as an unpaid private citizen, not a government employee, to help bring our two countries together,” she told me.

The government’s case against Butina is extremely flimsy and appears to have been driven largely by a desire for publicity. In fact, federal prosecutors were forced to retract the most attention-grabbing allegation in the case—that Butina used sex to gain access and influence. That Butina’s prosecution was launched by the National Security Section of the District of Columbia federal prosecutor’s office, led by Gregg Maisel, is telling in itself: According to a source close to the Mueller investigation, the special counsel’s office had declined to pursue the case, even though it would have clearly fit under its mandate.

Despite the lack of evidence against Butina, however, prosecutors—abetted by an uncritical media willing to buy into the idea of a Russian agent infiltrating conservative political circles—were intent on getting a win. In the context of the Mueller investigation, and in the environment that arose after Trump’s election, an idealistic young Russian meeting with influential American political figures sounded enough like a spy to move forward.

Butina told me her story over a number of long lunches starting last March at a private club in downtown Washington, D.C. She was always early, except on April 25, when she didn’t show up.

She later apologized; a dozen FBI agents had raided her apartment. “They knocked on the door, and that knock I will never forget,” she told me. “They pushed me inside, told me to sit down. I was completely in shock, but what could I do?” The agents searched her apartment for approximately seven hours, apparently looking for hidden transmitters or other evidence of spy-craft. “It was a horrible day in my life,” Butina said. The FBI found nothing, however. There was no mention of spy gear in her indictment, and there were no charges of espionage.

This was the second time the U.S. government had sifted through Butina’s personal life. Nine days earlier, in response to a request from the Senate Intelligence Committee, she voluntarily turned over more than 8,000 documents and electronic messages and testified in a closed hearing for eight hours. But they also uncovered nothing incriminating.

“Look, I imagined I could be in prison in Russia. I could never imagine I could go to jail in the United States. Because of politics?” Butina told me over the phone a few weeks after she was taken into federal custody. It was one of a series of exclusive interviews I conducted with Butina, Erickson, and other prominent figures involved in the case, none of whom have spoken previously to the media. “I didn’t know it became a crime to have good relations with Russia—now it’s a crime,” she told me earlier. “They hate me in Russia, because they think I’m an American spy. And here they think I’m a Russian spy.”

“If I’m a spy,” she added, “I’m the worst spy you could imagine.”


Butina was born on November 10, 1988, in the remote Siberian city of Barnaul. Part of the first post-Communism generation, she developed a passion for politics and international relations. In 2010, she graduated from Altai State University in Barnaul with master’s degrees in political science and education. After running unsuccessfully for a position in the local government, she opened a small chain of furniture stores. Hoping to expand her business, she moved to Moscow in August 2011, at the age of 22, but quickly realized that the commercial competition in the capital was too great for her to succeed. Instead, she turned back to political activism and the issue of gun rights.
 . .

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Written by LeisureGuy

11 February 2019 at 10:13 am

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