Arrest of alleged Russian agent reveals complexities of spy craft

WASHNGTON — Clad in an orange jail jumpsuit, she walked slowly into Courtroom 9 at D.C. federal court on Wednesday.

She stoically nodded when Judge Tanya Chutkan said, “Good morning.” She remained stone-faced throughout the nearly one-hour proceeding, glancing at her attorney only once or twice.

When she was arrested July 15, Maria Butina, a 29-year-old Russian, was portrayed in an online profile as a recent graduate of the American University’s Kogod School of Business, and still working there as a research assistant.

Andy Lalwani, of Los Angeles, was stunned when he checked his Facebook feed on July 16. The girl he sometimes sat near in his Finance 230 class, in the spring semester of 2018, had been arrested on what amounts to spying charges.

“I was so intrigued, because a lot of my former classmates in this finance course I took in my last semester of college were like: ‘Oh my gosh. I had no idea this girl was a spy.’ And they were asking if it was true,” Lalwani said in an interview.

After court documents were released, Lalwani mused in hindsight: “It kind of made you think like, ‘Wow, how did I not see this coming?’ Definitely, something stood out about her.”

That “something,” Lalwani said, was that the bright, bubbly, eager-to-learn student, “was on her second or, I believe, third master’s degree, so it seemed a little off for her to be in the [introduction to finance] course itself,” said Lalwani.

American University, while confirming Butina did graduate in the spring of 2018 with a master of arts degree, said she was not working at the university at the time of her arrest. Spokesman Mark Story declined to comment further, saying in a statement, “We are restricted in what we can say due to very strict federal government privacy laws.”

But others in D.C. are talking about Butina’s activities and her curious and sometimes-contradictory behavior.

John Gizzi of Newsmax and Philip Crowther of France 24, both White House correspondents, experienced it firsthand when they lunched together with her on Oct. 27, 2016.

Crowther said they pursued lunch with her after Gizzi mentioned that he’d met her at a party attended by influential conservatives in D.C.

They invited her, Crowther said, because “she was a young Russian in Washington, D.C. She was pro-gun rights. She was already pretty deeply into Republican circles. She already had contact to the NRA [National Rifle Association], and this came just two weeks exactly before the presidential election in November of 2016.”

“She was vivacious, highly intelligent, easy to talk to, and I might add, her accent was slight,” Gizzi said. “Her English was excellent, and she was clearly enjoying herself talking to reporters.”

But the spirited, relaxed nature of the conversation hit a wall at a key point during their lunch.

“All of that had a cutoff point when we said, ‘Would you go on camera with either or both of us and say what you have?’ No, she couldn’t do that. She was too involved in her studies and other things,” said Gizzi.

A bit perplexed, at first by her reluctance, Gizzi wondered why she didn’t have time to speak to them after accepting a lunch invitation with two television reporters.

He noted she had plenty of time “to go to a lot of conservative events,” including “Freedom Fest, where she met Donald Trump. She went to the Conservative Political Action Conference [CPAC], and she was later at the National Prayer Breakfast.”

She made no secret of her interest in gun rights, U.S. politics and graduate school activities, but Gizzi said, she never did “anything where she could be cross-examined” about her activities.

In fact, both men tried on numerous occasions to re-connect with her.

“I wrote to her five times and she responded twice. The last time she replied was March 28, 2018. She said she was busy but would like to get together soon. She was definitely somebody who was a very, very interesting source for us and somebody who we tried to stay in touch with in the last few years.” said Crowther.

But Butina, Crowther said, allowed only “minimal email contact, and anytime I wanted to meet her, she would essentially say she was too busy with her studies at American University.”

The case against Butina

Federal prosecutors, who watched her for several years, said in a detention memo, “although she attended classes and completed coursework with outside help, attending American University was Butina’s cover while she continued to work on behalf of the Russian Official.”

The “official” referenced in the memo was part of a group that allegedly included Butina and “known and unknown individuals who knowingly did combine, conspire, confederate, and agree together and with each other to commit an offense against the United States,” according to a criminal complaint from the U.S. attorney for D.C., Jessie K. Lui.

Simply stated, the indictment accused Butina of being a foreign agent affiliated with Russian intelligence — which some call a spy.

Without advising the U.S. Attorney General, she allegedly attempted “to exploit influential U.S. persons connected to American political organizations.”

Her task, according to the documents, was to allegedly develop “relationships with U.S. persons, and infiltrating organizations having influence in American politics, for the purpose of advancing the interests of the Russian Federation.”

In court Wednesday, prosecutors said they have more than 1 million files, many of which were collected from Butina’s computer, and personal effects that support their case.

She is what John Sipher — a retired CIA official who worked on its worldwide Russia program — described as an “access agent.” Her job was “to make a wide variety of contacts, and then report back to her handlers so they could be targeted.”

As she developed relationships, she was expected to assess them and make suggestions about “who might be vulnerable to a more-covert type of contact,” said Sipher.

It’s not clear how Butina’s arrest will impact Russian spy operations in the U.S., but former CIA covert operative Robert Baer said her deployment illustrated the length to which Russia has gone to infiltrate political circles in the U.S.

Baer, who spent close to a decade working on Russian intelligence, also believes she “was an agent of Russian intelligence, and the whole point of getting in the NRA was to spot potential recruits.”

Baer alleges “she used the NRA as a platform, identified people of interest to the FSB [Russian Security Service] whether they were political figures or military, and invited them to come to Russia, to see if they could be recruited. All of their information we now know from the prosecutor was going back to the FSB through a couple layers.”

Her attorney, Robert Driscoll, said after Wednesday’s status hearing, “I’m confident Miss Butina will be vindicated at the end of this process, and everyone will realize the truth of the matter.”

Russians spies ‘hyperfocused’ on the U.S.

The Russian government is believed to have hundreds of spies on American soil.

“They have somewhere on the order of 175 to 200 spies in the United States,” Sipher said on WTOP’s Target USA podcast in April.

“The Russians are hyperfocused on the United States. They see us as their main adversary, the main enemy. All the elements of state power — whether it be their diplomatic service or intelligence services or police services — are focused on the United States,” Sipher said.

Former CIA Director Michael Hayden told WTOP last week that Moscow has concentrated on the U.S. for decades and believes that now more than ever, Russian intelligence senses an opportunity to make strategic gains that would give it an international advantage, in part, because the U.S. has many other tough global problems to tackle.

“The United States is an easier and higher priority intelligence target of the Russian Federation than the Russian Federation is for the United States,” Hayden said.

Referring to the post-9/11 era, Hayden said, “We had shifted the weight of our effort toward the counterterrorism mission at the expense of some other things.”

But after the Trump/Putin summit in Helsinki, Hayden said, “Surely we [the U.S. government] are and have been putting more effort into the Russian target.” But citing the U.S. government’s “truly global interests,” it must also tend “to targets like China and North Korea and others in ways that the Russians do not have to.”

In 2010, Moscow’s aggressive, long-term spy plans in the U.S. were disrupted when a network of 12 deep-cover Russian spies were arrested in the U.S., including several in D.C. and in Cyprus. Russian court documents suggest that two others escaped.

Some U.S. intelligence experts have expressed concern that Butina might be one of a new generation of Russian spies in the U.S. And aside from the damage they could do with modern technological tools and tactics, they may be the beneficiaries of previous generations’ know-how.

Hayden said it is possible that each wave of Russian spies that comes to the U.S. is an extension of the previous generation. “Possibly they learn how to blend in, where to go and simple orientation and trade craft tips,” he said.

J.J. Green

JJ Green is WTOP's National Security Correspondent. He reports daily on security, intelligence, foreign policy, terrorism and cyber developments, and provides regular on-air and online analysis. He is also the host of two podcasts: Target USA and Colors: A Dialogue on Race in America.

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