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US Arrests Woman Acting as Russia Agent07/17 06:11

   A 29-year-old gun-rights activist served as a covert Russian agent while 
living in Washington, gathering intelligence on American officials and 
political organizations and working to establish back-channel lines of 
communications for the Kremlin, federal prosecutors charged Monday.

   WASHINGTON (AP) -- A 29-year-old gun-rights activist served as a covert 
Russian agent while living in Washington, gathering intelligence on American 
officials and political organizations and working to establish back-channel 
lines of communications for the Kremlin, federal prosecutors charged Monday.

   The announcement of the arrest of Maria Butina came just hours after 
President Donald Trump met with Russian President Vladimir Putin and just days 
after special counsel Robert Mueller charged 12 Russian intelligence officials 
with directing a sprawling hacking effort aimed at swaying the 2016 election.

   Mueller didn't file the charge against Butina, but court papers show her 
activities revolved around American politics during the 2016 campaign and 
included efforts to use contacts with the National Rifle Association to develop 
relationships with U.S. politicians and gather intelligence for Russia.

   Court papers also reveal that an unnamed American who worked with Butina 
claimed to have been involved in setting up a "private line of communication" 
ahead of the 2016 election between the Kremlin and "key" officials in an 
American political party through the NRA.

   The court papers do not name the political party mentioned in the October 
2016 message, but they contain details that appear to refer to the Republican 
Party. The documents don't say whether the back channel was ever established.

   The NRA, which has previously been connected to Butina in public reporting 
and information released by members of Congress, did not immediately respond to 
requests for comment.

   Butina, a Russian national who has been living in the U.S., was charged with 
conspiracy to act as an unregistered agent of the Russian government. A federal 
judge in Washington ordered her jailed until a hearing set for Wednesday, 
according to a statement from the Justice Department and Jessie Liu, the U.S. 
Attorney for the District of Columbia.

   In a statement, Butina's attorney, Robert Driscoll, called the allegations 
"overblown" and said prosecutors had criminalized mundane networking 
opportunities. Driscoll said Butina was not an agent of the Russian Federation 
but was instead in the U.S. on a student visa, graduating from American 
University with a master's degree in international relations.

   "There is simply no indication of Ms. Butina seeking to influence or 
undermine any specific policy or law or the United States --- only at most to 
promote a better relationship between the two nations," Driscoll said in a 
statement. "The complaint is simply a misuse of the Foreign Agent statute, 
which is designed to punish covert propaganda, not open and public networking 
by foreign students."

   He said Butina's Washington apartment was raided by the FBI in April, and 
said she had offered to answer questions from the Justice Department and 
Mueller's team but the special counsel's office "has not expressed interest."

   Court papers filed in support of Butina's arrest accuse her of participating 
in a conspiracy that began in 2015 in which an unnamed senior Russian official 
"tasked" her with working to infiltrate American political organizations with 
the goal of "reporting back to Moscow" what she had learned.

   The charging documents include several emails and Twitter direct message 
conversations in which she refers to the need to keep her work secret or, in 
one case, "incognito."

   Authorities did not name the Kremlin official accused of directing Butina's 
efforts, but details in the court papers match the description of Alexander 
Torshin, a Russian official who has been publicly connected to her.

   Torshin, who became an NRA life member in 2012, was among a group of Russian 
oligarchs and officials targeted in April with Treasury Department sanctions 
for their associations with Putin and their roles in "advancing Russia's malign 
activities." Torshin, who was listed as "State Secretary-deputy Governor of the 
Central Bank of the Russian Federation," was designated under the sanctions as 
a Russian official.

   The sanctions affect the targeted Russians by freezing all of their assets 
subject to U.S. jurisdiction and banning Americans and U.S. businesses from 
conducting transactions with them.

   Prosecutors say Butina, at the official's direction, met with U.S. 
politicians and candidates, attended events sponsored by special interest 
groups --- including two National Prayer Breakfast events --- and organized 
Russian-American "friendship and dialogue" dinners in Washington as part of her 
work.

   Court papers also show that after the 2016 election, Butina worked to set up 
a Russian delegation's visit to the 2017 National Prayer Breakfast, describing 
it in an email as an effort to "establish a back channel of communication." 
After the visit, Butina emailed the organizer of the breakfast thanking him for 
a gift and "for the very private meeting" that followed the breakfast.

   "A new relationship between two countries always begins better when it 
begins in faith," Butina wrote, saying she had "important information" that 
would further the new relationship.

   Two days later, she emailed another American who had been involved in some 
of the email communication surrounding the prayer breakfast and her efforts to 
arrange several dinners between Russians and people involved in U.S. politics.

   "Our delegation cannot stop chatting about your wonderful dinner," Butina 
wrote. "My dearest President has received 'the message' about your group 
initiatives and your constructive and kind attention to the Russians."

   Butina has previously surfaced in U.S. media reports related to her 
gun-rights advocacy.

   In 2011, she founded a pro-gun organization in Russia, the Right to Bear 
Arms, and she has been involved in coordinating between American gun rights 
activists and their Russian counterparts, according to reports in The New York 
Times, Time and the Daily Beast.

   Butina hosted several leading NRA executives and pro-gun conservatives at 
her group's annual meeting in 2015, according to those reports. Among those who 
attended were former NRA President David Keene, conservative political 
operative Paul Erickson and former Milwaukee County Sheriff David Clarke, later 
a strong Trump supporter.

   Butina also says she met with Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker at his 
presidential campaign launch event in 2015, according to a report by Mother 
Jones magazine earlier this year.


(KA)

 
 
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