By: Terresa Monroe-Hamilton
Frankly, when this first came to my attention a few days ago, I didn’t believe it. I should have because it looks very credible. A 29 year-old Russian woman named Maria Butina is now being formally accused of working as a foreign agent — read Kremlin spy — while living and going to school here in the United States. She also allegedly offered to have sex with an unnamed person in return for a job in the U.S. according to prosecutors. That’s called a ‘honey pot’ trap.
U.S. officials claim that Maria Butina’s ties with Russian intelligence make her a “grave” flight risk. She was packing to flee either to South Dakota or to Russia when she was arrested. Bail how now been denied in this case for that reason, not to mention national security issues. Her lawyer says she has been cooperating with the U.S. government for several months. This infiltration is not related to the alleged Russian election meddling either. Butina was arrested Sunday and appeared today in a U.S. court in Washington, D.C. That kind of adds some doubt to her attorney’s claim that she has been cooperating with authorities.
“Her last tie to the District of Columbia — her apartment lease — ends on July 31, 2018, and there were boxes packed in her apartment consistent with a move at the time of her arrest on July 15, 2018,” U.S. Attorney Jessie K. Liu wrote. “All of Butina’s known personal ties, save for those U.S. persons she attempted to exploit and influence, reside in the Russian Federation.” Butina has been in contact with Russia’s FSB intelligence agency “throughout her entire time” in the United States, according to court papers.
From Business Insider:
The DOJ also says in its filing that Butina and US Person 1 took steps “consistent with a plan to leave” Washington, DC, in the days leading up to her arrest last weekend.
Those steps, according to the document, included applying for a visa that would allow her to travel to and from the US, looking into getting a moving truck and purchasing moving boxes, making a wire transfer of $3,500 to an account in Russia, packing up her belongings, and leaving a letter telling her landlord she and US Person 1 would end their lease by the end of July.
The document also says that even if Butina was planning on leaving only the immediate DC area, US Person 1 was her “sole real tie” to the US. This person, it says, was “instrumental in aiding her covert influence operation, despite knowing its connections to the Russian Official.”
From Fox News:
Prosecutors also said Butina was 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 her near the U.S. Capitol on the day Donald Trump was inaugurated as president. According to court papers, the Russian official responded, “You’re a daredevil girl! What can I say!()” Butina responded, “Good teachers!”
Butina is facing charges of failing to register as a foreign agent and conspiring against the U.S. government. She is not charged with espionage… yet. Moscow’s foreign ministry got their fur up over this and said that Butina’s arrest was designed to undermine the “positive results” of a summit between President Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin in Helsinki on Monday. I highly doubt that. This investigation has been going on for several months as I understand it and her apartment was already searched in April.
Butina is allegedly living and sleeping with Paul Erickson, 56, a South Dakota-based conservative political activist. He is widely thought to be identified in documents as US Person 1 that she had a “personal relationship” with. “But this relationship does not represent a strong tie to the United States because Butina appears to treat it as simply a necessary aspect of her activities,” said the court papers. In other words, she was sleeping with him to get to others higher up the political food chain. It’s Spycraft 101. There are pics on Facebook and Twitter showing Butina with Paul Erickson, as well as in a variety of poses with guns for Russia’s GQ magazine. She accompanied Erickson to President Trump’s inauguration.
In fact, Butina “expressed disdain for continuing to cohabitate with” the American man, according to documents seized by the FBI. Prosecutors say that she didn’t appear to take the relationship seriously because “on at least one occasion, Butina offered an individual other than US Person 1 sex in exchange for a position within a special interest organization.” That particular organization is not named in the documents. Her social media accounts frequently mentioned the National Rifle Association, however, and it is thought that is the organization being referred to here. She also was connected to the Conservative Political Action Conference and David Keene.
Butina’s attorney, Robert Driscoll, is denying all charges and allegations. I would expect nothing less. The Department of Justice alleges that Butina worked “under the direction and control” of a senior Russian official who is not named in charging documents. Court papers say the Russian official acted as her handler and coached her through online messages. “Right now everything has to be quiet and careful,” Butina allegedly wrote to her contact through a private Twitter message, a month before the 2016 presidential election. On the night of the vote, court filings say she messaged the Russian official: “I’m going to sleep. It’s 3 a.m. here. I am ready for further orders.” Butina was trying to form a back channel for communication to “penetrate the US national decision-making apparatus,” the Justice Department said.
Butina came to the U.S. in 2016 under an F-1 student visa – that was while Barack Obama was still president. She has since cultivated relationships with conservative pro-gun groups. At one point during the 2016 election, Butina and a Russian official allegedly tried to set up a meeting between Trump and Putin. That never materialized. At a town hall meeting in July 2015, she asked then-candidate Donald Trump about his views on Russia. The following year she met his son, Donald Trump Jr., at an NRA convention. She met a number of well-known politicians including Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker and Sheriff David Clarke.
Butina was politically savvy and ambitious. She traveled to gun shows and right-wing events from the Freedomfest in Las Vegas to a National Rifle Association meeting in Indianapolis, according to her own social media posts. Along the way, she gave speeches at a high school and university in South Dakota.
Walker only posed for a photo, but Clarke was connected to Butina through the NRA. When then-Milwaukee County Sheriff David Clarke went on a six-day trip to Russia in 2015, a group founded by an alleged Russian agent paid his expenses. They appeared together during the trip. Clarke was part of an NRA delegation to Russia.
Butina appears to be seated behind Clarke in a video of the NRA delegation’s tour of Russian firearms company Orsis. The video, posted by Orsis deputy chief executive Stanislav Novoselov, shows Clarke being complimented for his shooting ability while test-firing a gun. Clarke and other members of the NRA group received watches from Orsis. In a photo posted by Butina’s group, The Right to Bear Arms, she and Clarke are posing in a group photo in front of a sign that reads, “Welcome to Russia comrades.”
The Right to Bear Arms paid $1,200 for Clarke’s meals — an average of $200 per day he was in the country, according to Clarke’s financial disclosure form. Butina’s group also paid $3,000 for Clarke’s hotel, $1,000 for his transportation in Russia and $800 for an expense labeled “excursions.” The NRA paid for the rest of Clarke’s $40,000 expenses for a 16-day overseas trip that also included a stop in Israel.
According to Maria’s LinkedIn page, she recently completed a Masters degree in international relations from American University in Washington, D.C. She is a talkative networker, who freely shares her story with conservatives she meets at events around the U.S. In 2015, she told a U.S. radio show that she grew up in the woods of Siberia and was taught to hunt by her father. After a brief career as the owner of a chain of furniture stores, she said she moved to Moscow where she founded a group called the Right to Bear Arms, which advocated for private gun ownership in Russia. All of this sounds like a backstory for a Russian plant.
Her handler seems to be Alexander Torshin, a deputy governor of Russia’s Central Bank and a well-connected ex-Russian senator from President Putin’s political party. He became an NRA life member in 2012. Torshin was targeted by US Department of Treasury sanctions in April. Maria posted pics of herself with Torshin on social media as well. She claims to have been previously employed as a special assistant to Torshin. He has not been charged yet and sources seem to think investigators are trying to get Butina to flip on him, as well as other Russian officials.
There’s more. Orange County GOP Rep. Dana Rohrabacher met in Russia in 2015 with a woman, Butina, who was later charged by federal officials for allegedly acting as an unregistered agent of the Kremlin in a covert endeavor to shape American politics. For two decades, Representative Dana Rohrabacher has been of value to the Kremlin, so valuable in recent years that the FBI warned him in 2012 that Russia regarded him as an intelligence source worthy of a Kremlin code name. News of the 2015 meeting was confirmed Tuesday by Rohrabacher’s office. He told Politico that Monday’s indictment of 29 year-old Maria Butina was “bogus” and “stupid,” saying he believes the allegations are part of a larger plot to undermine President Trump’s relationship with Russia.
Rohrabacher’s spokesman, Ken Grubbs, said Rohrabacher is unsure if he’s the unnamed congressman discussed in the affidavit. But Grubbs confirmed that Rohrabacher and an American delegation attended a breakfast with Torshin, organized by Butina, in a hotel in St. Petersburg (not Moscow) in Aug. 2015.
According to The Mercury News:
Congressional records show that Rohrabacher and New York Democrat Rep. Gregory Meeks – the two top-ranking members of the House Foreign Affairs’ subcommittee on Europe, Eurasia and Emerging Threats – traveled to Russia from Aug. 4 to Aug. 6, 2015. An aide for Meeks said the New York congressman did not recall meeting with Butina and said that Meeks was there to act as a counterbalance to Rohrabacher’s pro-Russia views.
Grubbs said Rohrabacher remembered Butina only as an aide to Torshin and “pretty minimal and inconsequential otherwise.” Rohrabacher talked with Torshin “about a range of issues: natural resources, strategic issues,” Grubbs said.
“This is what he does as chairman of the (Foreign Affairs) subcommittee,” Grubbs said. “He’s very guarded in what he says and always tries to pick up information. He makes an automatic assumption that the people he meets in these foreign countries, that they could be doing more than the job they have. He didn’t think that (Butina) fit the profile of a spy.”
Rohrabacher has asserted in the past that some in the federal government want to perpetuate a Cold War with Russia, while he said he wants to warm relations. He repeated that claim on Monday, telling Politico that “deep-state” American operatives were attempting to “undermine the president’s ability to have better relationships with Russia.”
On Butina’s blog she posted a photo of the Indianapolis airport, comparing it favorably to Barnaul and described doing yoga and jogging along the river. She bragged of conducting “industrial espionage” into gun lobbying in the U.S. by buying “masses of gifts” at an NRA show. Among those she met in Moscow was political expert Andrei Kolyadin, who used her as an interpreter when he attended a National Prayer Breakfast in the U.S. and said he spoke with her just before her arrest about the World Cup, held in Russia. He denied she was in intelligence.
The Washington Post reported Wednesday that Butina tried to interview a left-leaning civil rights group about its cyber vulnerabilities last year. She is said to have told the group that she wanted to set up the interview as part of a school project when she was studying as a graduate student at American University. Her attempt was unsuccessful.
If convicted, Butina could face a maximum penalty of 10 years in prison on the charge of acting as an agent of the Russian government and a maximum of five years in prison on the conspiracy charge. That’s if espionage is not eventually added to the charges. Butina is far from alone out there… there are many Russian plants on both sides of aisle and everywhere else they can insert their influence here in the U.S.