02/11/19 1:55:56 PM
...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 Clintons presidential campaign. It is not inconceivable that Butina is among their ranks.
Yet a close examination of Butinas 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 governments 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 casethat Butina used sex to gain access and influence. That Butinas prosecution was launched by the National Security Section of the District of Columbia federal prosecutors office, led by Gregg Maisel, is telling in itself: According to a source close to the Mueller investigation, the special counsels 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, prosecutorsabetted by an uncritical media willing to buy into the idea of a Russian agent infiltrating conservative political circleswere intent on getting a win. In the context of the Mueller investigation, and in the environment that arose after Trumps 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 didnt 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 Butinas 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.
It was a weak case. According to the FBIs affidavit, Butinas low-level networking with conservative activists and politicians, her efforts to help ONeill with his dinners, and even her idealistic thoughts about bringing the two countries closerthe affidavit cites a statement Butina made to Torshin that, by inviting NRA officials to Moscow, maybe you have prevented a conflict between two great nationswere part of a sinister, anti-American plot.