The Kremlin continues its full-throated campaign to #FreeMariaButina, the 29-year-old “student” who is accused of insinuating herself into conservative and pro-gun politics in the United States.
A Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman—Artyom Kozhin – Thursday, July 26, accused the U.S. of charging Butina with violating the foreign agent law, “though she has not worked for any foreign state, and studied at a Washington university.”
A criminal complaint issued on July 14 charged the Russian woman with conspiring with “others…including an official of the Russian Federation,” to violate the U.S. foreign agent law, through “an effort to advance the interests of the Russian Federation” without informing the U.S. government of her efforts.
We are tempted to call Kozhin’s comment “False,” as we did earlier this week regarding Russian comments calling the charges against Butina “trumped up.” Yet, it is likely Butina’s U.S. lawyer will attempt to convince a judge or jury, if the case gets that far, that she did not act as a foreign agent. So, with the fine point of the foreign agent law in front of the court, instead we will call his official government comment “Misleading,” mostly because Polygraph.info does not have a “Disingenuous” verdict.
From the U.S. court pleadings the U.S. government argues that Butina acted as more than a mere student, taking “direction” from a Russian official. From her own words on social media in Russia, it is clear Butina’s loyalties lie with her government and its policy positions.
A 17-page affidavit filed by FBI Agent Kevin Helson establishes that Butina “served as a Special Assistant to the RUSSIAN OFFICIAL” referenced in the allegations, both before she entered the U.S. on a student visa and afterwards.
Though the Russian official is unnamed, reporting in the Western press indicates the description matches the public profile of Alexander Torshin, who was once a member of the Federation Council, the upper chamber of Russia’s parliament, Russian legislative body and is a top official of Russia’s central bank.
The FBI agent’s affidavit details Butina’s contacts with a gun rights organization – identified in reporting as the National Rifle Association -- contacts with U.S. Republican Party political figures and successful efforts to bring Russian representatives to the National Prayer Breakfast in 2016 and 2017.
Helson writes he believes e-mail and Twitter conversations “represent BUTINA’s plan to conduct activities as an illegal agent of the Russian Federation in the United States through a Russian influence operation.”
The FBI agent quotes communications “that reflect direction and coordination of BUTINA’s efforts by the RUSSIAN OFFICIAL.”
Butina’s American lawyer, in an appearance on the U.S. network CNN, called the details “pretty thin gruel” for a women who’s been in the U.S. and “under surveillance” for two years.
"I think that, like most of the government's case, is taken completely out of context," Attorney Robert Driscoll told the network. "Those Twitter DMs -- which, by the way, most Russian spies don't communicate by Twitter DM -- which are unencrypted, there's thousands of them. ... There's Twitter DMs about picking up toothpaste in America. There's DMs with pictures of kids and dogs and everything else."
He said most of the government’s case “is taken completely out of context.”
Two former U.S. spies, who themselves maintain public social media profiles, say in Twitter postings that Butina did not appear to be a typical government spy.
“Butina is not a professional intelligence officer, but a source who develops access to people…to the pros so they know who is vulnerable and who to go after,” wrote John Sipher, a verified Twitter user who lists himself as formerly working in the “CIA Clandestine Service.”
Steven Hall, also apparently a former CIA officer, wrote “this does not look like a classical Russian intelligence operation,” on his unverified Twitter account.
“Butina was definitely in touch with oligarchs, all of whom work for Putin,” said Hall, whose account identifies him as “Retired CIA Chief of Russian Operations.” Hall also writes for The Cipher Brief, which says he retired from the CIA in 2015 “after 30 years of running and managing intelligence operations in Eurasia and Latin America.”
In an earlier fact check of a Russian Foreign Ministry statement, Polygraph.info established Butina’s social media presence in Russia. Russian and English profiles on the Russian social media platform vKontakte and blogs on the Livejournal.Ru website and Russian magazine Snob that left no question as to where her loyalties lie.