The Dispute over the Accusation Maria Butina Is a Spotter Distracts from Clear Case She Should Be Sent Home

Let me start by saying that I think the government should put Maria Butina, who is currently scheduled to be sentenced Friday, on a plane and send her home. The impression given when she signed a plea deal is that she might get a six month sentence. She has cooperated fully — the government is submitting a sealed downward departure letter describing her cooperation — and the period of her cooperation has been extended a bit. She has already been detained nine months.

Even according to the government’s own sentencing memorandum, the defense can and should compellingly argue that she has served a fair sentence. The most directly relevant case the government points to in its memo is that of Evgeny Buryakov, one of the guys who tried to recruit Carter Page.

In United States v. Buryakov, No. 15-CR-73 (S.D.N.Y.), the defendant pled guilty to violating § 951, stemming from an agreement to take actions within the United States at the direction of a Russian government official. The parties agreed, pursuant to Fed. R. Crim. P. 11(c)(1)(C), to a sentence of 30 months of incarceration. The court accepted that agreement and imposed a sentence of 30 months.

Buryakov pled guilty, but after far more litigation, including some CIPA hearings. He did not (at least according to the public record) cooperate with the government at all. And while the government dropped some of their claims, they considered Buryakov as an undisclosed SVR Agent, someone who operated clandestinely as a trained professional, as compared to Butina, whom the government doesn’t claim is a trained intelligence officer and who operated overtly. The comparison with Buryakov, then, makes a solid argument that Butina should be shipped home immediately. She started cooperating early and the government deems her cooperation valuable. And the government agrees she’s not the same kind of clandestine spy that Buryakov was.

That, to me, seems like a slam dunk case supporting a just outcome, which would be for Butina to be on the next flight home.

All that said, I have a very different opinion than Butina’s defense attorneys on the government’s submission of a declaration from the former Assistant Director of FBI’s Counterintelligence Division, Robert Anderson Jr., accompanying their request for an eighteen month sentence. After the government submitted the declaration (which they claim they warned the defense about on April 10, though the defense complains they only learned Anderson’s identity on the April 17), the defense asked for it to be stricken, complaining that the government is submitting a new, unsubstantiated case.

Again, I think the government’s request for an eighteen month sentence is bullshit, given the facts that both sides agree on and the precedents they cite. And the defense is right about some of their complaints about Anderson’s declaration — most notably, that it doesn’t cite which case materials he relies on to make his declaration suggesting Butina functioned as a spotter for Russian intelligence.

But their complaints about the substance of Anderson’s declaration are made in isolation from the government’s sentencing memo. As such, they don’t address what I think are weaknesses of their own sentencing memorandum. Those weaknesses, put together with the claims the government and Anderson make, do leave the impression that the defense is trying to downplay Butina’s enthusiasm for a project that (exhibits presented by the government show) she believed would increase her own influence within Russia.

The defense explanation for Butina’s gun rights activism comes off as complete BS.

She returned to the issue of gun rights. Her father had taught her how to use a hunting rifle as a child, a hobby they both shared. Her gun rights advocacy had also been one of the most popular issues in her campaign for local office right after graduating, and she already started a small gun rights group in Barnaul. Using social networking websites, Maria was able to form a formidable group in Moscow, organizing demonstrations and protests, particularly on the issue of personal safety. Based on her admiration of western democratic freedoms, a group name was chosen: the Right to Bear Arms.

Notably, gun advocacy in Russia has little to do with gun advocacy in the United States. A hundred years ago, during the Russian Civil War, guns were confiscated by the precursor of the Soviet Union. With few exceptions, Russians today cannot carry or own most firearms. Yet, the issue of gun rights was important to Maria as a matter of self-defense, when for every five people murdered in the United States, there were fifteen murdered in Russia.1 For Maria, gun rights— however unpopular—was a means for personal safety, and Maria sought support for her advocacy from across the political spectrum. It didn’t matter to her whether the person was liberal, conservative, in government, or oppositional, and she had a slogan written on her office door that read “anyone who supports gun rights may come in, but you leave your flag behind.”

[snip]

As Maria’s group membership multiplied, she planned an annual convention for fall 2013, with similar gun-rights organizations from around the world invited to Moscow for the meeting. Torshin gave Maria the contact information for David Keene (a former NRA President), who Torshin met on a prior trip to the United States. Because Torshin did not speak or write English, Maria reached out to Keene to invite him and any other NRA members for her group’s annual meeting. Keene accepted the invitation and asked Paul Erickson to accompany him. Maria was elated.

This passage, and other parts of the memo, can’t decide whether Butina’s is a strictly Russian phenomenon or a way to solidify her ties with America. It admits Russia doesn’t support gun rights but doesn’t explain, then, the great support she got.

And the defense again claims that the government dropped all accusations she used romance for recruiting, except that’s not true. They never dropped the suggestion her relationship with Erickson was utilitarian — a claim bolstered by Butina’s willingess to cooperate against him and enthusiasm for returning home. And the defense discussion of the relationship between the two also rings hollow (as did their earlier efforts to make it look authentic), especially as it related to her project, Description of Diplomacy (a copy of which the government entered as an exhibit).

She also wished to be in the same hemisphere as her romantic interest. So Maria and Erickson explored both educational and business opportunities for her. This is the genesis of the Description of the Diplomacy Project proposal referenced in the Statement of Offense.

If the only reason she came to the US was to be with Erickson, grad school by itself would have been adequate.

The exhibits included — even before you get to the Anderson declaration — are why the government’s sentencing memo comes off as more credible as to the substance. Perhaps most compelling are Butina’s repeated concerns that she and Aleksandr Torshin remain the people with the handle on the Russian government’s exploitation of the NRA and National Prayer Breakfast as influence channels.

Following the Gun Rights Organization trip to Moscow, the defendant and the Russian Official discussed the need to “hold the spot” now that “everyone has realized that [the Gun Rights Organization] is a valuable contact,” and she noted that there will be “attempts to seize the initiative.” Exhibit 2. Butina has since confirmed that she was worried about others within the Russian government or a political group or activist noticing that the contacts she had built with the Gun Rights Organization were valuable and cutting her and the Russian Official out of the loop.

[snip]

According to a document written by Butina after the event, in the lead-up to the National Prayer Breakfast, she and the Russian Official were promised a private meeting with the President of the United States by one of the organizers of the event. A copy of this document is attached hereto as Exhibit 8. This promised meeting never materialized. After the event, and Butina’s and the Russian Official’s failure to meet privately with the President, she was worried that another Russian national (i.e., not the Russian Official) would attempt to seize the initiative, as demonstrated in her Twitter conversation with the Russian Official:

Butina: It would be good if you could talk directly with the MFA or the administration. Before [Russian national who attended the breakfast] worms his way in there.

Russian Official: Everything will be fine. I already conducted the necessary informal consultations on Saturday. I just don’t want to overload Twitter, which is read.

We need to build relationships with the USA, but there are many who oppose this! . . . According to Butina, this other Russian national referred to was another member of the Russian government whom Butina feared would overtake her and the Russian Official as the primary Russian point of contact for the National Prayer Breakfast.

If all this networking was exclusively about being close to Erickson, why would Butina care so much that she and Torshin were viewed as the brokers of these links to the US? And this kind of competitive oligarch-focused influence operation is the modus operandi we’ve seen from much of Russia’s efforts in recent years.

That’s why — caveats about the form of the declaration, which Butina’s lawyers will undoubtedly emphasize if sentencing happens Friday — I don’t have much problem with Anderson’s explanation of how the Butina collected could — and likely was — useful for Russia. I also don’t think the evidence presented is — as the defense claims — all that new (indeed, some reporters are claiming some of the details — such as that Butina claimed to have input over who would be Secretary of State — are new, but they are not).

I do recognize it’s probably an attempt to parallel construct stuff FBI knows via other channels that — by having an ostensible outsider deliver — they can make intelligence claims in an unclassified setting. As such, it surely serves as an opportunity for those close to the FBI to lay out a counterintelligence claim about Russia’s methods, generally, as it was interpreted as by Andrew Weiss. But neither of those things change the fact that what Butina did doesn’t compare to what Buryakov did, and by distinguishing those details from Buryakov, Butina’s lawyers could easily back their case it’s time to send her home.

I think prosecutors are being assholes for not letting Butina go. Holding her any longer is not going to serve as a deterrent to Russia, as they claim.

But that’s them about being asshole prosecutors generally (and, presumably, trying to use this case to boost their careers). Whatever the narrative about why Butina did what she did (and, again, the government’s is more credible at this point), the assertions made by both sides still only justifies sending her home.

Update: Judge Tanya Chutkan has denied this request, noting that she offered to give them more time to respond to it, but they didn’t take her up on it.

MINUTE ORDER as to Mariia Butina: Defendant’s 102 Motion to Exclude and Strike the Declaration of Robert Anderson, Jr. is DENIED. Defendant has had notice of the government’s intent to call Mr. Anderson as a witness or submit a Declaration from him since April 10, 2019. The court “may appropriately conduct an inquiry broad in scope, largely unlimited either as to the kind of information [the court] may consider, or the source from which it may come.” United States v. McCrory, 930 F.2d 63, 68 (D.C. Cir. 1991) (quotation marks and citations omitted); see also United States v. Beaulieu, 893 F.2d 1177, 1179 (10th Cir. 1990) (“[C]ourts have traditionally been allowed to consider all sources of information in formulating an appropriate sentence.”). The defense did not request additional time to prepare a rebuttal to Mr. Anderson’s Declaration, despite the court’s willingness to adjourn sentencing in order for it to do so. Therefore, the Sentencing Hearing will not be adjourned. Signed by Judge Tanya S. Chutkan on 4/25/2019.(lctsc3) (Entered: 04/25/2019)

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38 replies
  1. Ken Haylock says:

    Presumably prosecutors have a compelling interest in her getting a long base sentence that can be mitigated by a downward departure for co-operation to a straight ‘go home now’, because “here’s what you would have got if you hadn’t co-operated” is a useful marker to put down for the next of these agents of influence who gets picked up…

    • bmaz says:

      What?? Do you have any idea how plea negotiations, agreements, and federal sentencing works?

      Let me answer that. No, you do not. “Presumably”.

      • Brendan G says:

        Kind and helpful as always…

        [Welcome back to emptywheel. This is your third username, a variant of the second one you used. Please use the same username each time you comment so community members get to know you. Thanks. /~Rayne]

  2. dwfreeman says:

    Maria Butina was an unfortunate political pawn of the Trump-Russia election campaign in 2016. Not that she didn’t make her own bed and deserves what she gets in the process. She is a pawn of the state and accepted her role, remarkably in a highly successful effort, which, from the Russia perspective, continues to show remarkably favorable dividends.

    Butina is and was a spy.

    For the Republicans, Trumpites and their backers, she is also part of their political baggage in Trump’s election. The NRA should fucking own it like Trump’s electoral college win.

    She is part of the Barr summary of the Mueller probe that in the 2016 presidential election interference, you know, the effort that involved no direct connection, coordination or cooperation with the Trump campaign in a tacit or express written agreement with any foreign organization that continues to fuck with our country and political life on every level possible.

    So, I have no issue with Butina in the same way the Republicans have no issue with what Assange, Stone or Manafort or Gates did on behalf of their candidate to win election. I mean they were only part of the dead campaign workforce used by Trump’s whitewalker strategy to beat Crooked Hillary.

    And Butina only seems hard to accept because of her gender and birthplace, not because of what she was doing. I mean, in the end, fucking up the NRA on any level seems like God’s work.

      • dwfreeman says:

        It means what I said. She is a fucking spy who was dispatched by the Kremlin to ingratiate herself in our politics and come back to Russia with fruitful results whatever those were intended to be just like all the other Russians who worked their whiles with Trump and his organization. Mission accomplished. Do you dispute you this?

        Which part of that POV is not understandable? I don’t give a damn about her legal situation. She is what she is, a spy.

        • earlofhuntingdon says:

          “I don’t give a damn about her legal situation.”

          That’s why your opinion should be irrelevant to the court and the outcome of her trial and sentencing.

          As for her being a spy, whatever fruit came from that tree the Kremlin has already swallowed and repurposed in the potato fields. At this point, she is a shiny object. The DoJ has other bigger fish to fry, but one wonders whether Bill Barr gives a hoot.

        • bmaz says:

          Sharp response! Hard to argue with well thought out passages like:

          So, I have no issue with Butina in the same way the Republicans have no issue with what Assange, Stone or Manafort or Gates did on behalf of their candidate to win election. I mean they were only part of the dead campaign workforce used by Trump’s whitewalker strategy to beat Crooked Hillary.

          Jeebus. And while you may not “give a damn about her legal situation”, the law does, and we do care about the law around here. Listen, she has pled out per the government’s offer, to exactly what they requested, has cooperated fully and honestly, even after they sought an extension to work her more, and has been in custody the entire time, already for three months longer than the original sentence was structured to likely be.

          Sentence Butina to time served and immediate deportation. The DOJ are just being assholes here.

  3. Michael K says:

    I don’t understand: if her cooperation was truly valuable, then how could she go home or even want to? Wouldn’t she be at risk of retaliation for this “valuable” cooperation?

    • bmaz says:

      And your “understanding” should obviate the position of the defendant and her attorneys? Do tell.

      • Michael K says:

        Which of her attorneys took exactly what position? (And who is paying them?) How did you determine her sincere position?

        I don’t know the answers. Maybe she’s really a nobody who didn’t have any valuable information to give? Maybe she really is afraid for her safety? Otherwise how do you make sense of it?

        • P J Evans says:

          Maybe she thinks there are more politicians and VIPs she can get kompromat on. (There probably are – flatter a guy in the right way, and….)

          But she’s not likely to be in any danger when she goes back to Holy Mother Russia. She did pretty well with her assignment in the US.

          • BobCon says:

            I also think from a practical standpoint if the Russians kill every operative who gets caught, nobody will want to be an operative. Those who are working will be more tempted to defect.

            I suspect she was compartmentalized enough that she had limited info to give up. I wouldn’t be surprised if she is fine when she goes back.

              • Michael K says:

                Anna Chapman pled guilty and became part of a prisoner swap. But was she ever credited with providing “valuable” information?

                • Rayne says:

                  I don’t know. The Illegals Program spies were handled very differently — and they we called spies even though in Chapman’s case she was charged under 18 USC 951 for failure to register as agent of foreign nation. They were arrested on 27JUN and traded on 10JUL2010 if memory serves, not a lot of time to quiz for information. Much of what we know may have been collected by surveillance and the apparent lack of fruitful contact with key political and elected figures may have made a difference. Butina was far more successful because guns=access and may therefore have had far more information.

  4. Badger Robert says:

    Does she want to go back to Russia? If I am the court, I want her to be able to tell me the answer without her lawyers around.

      • Badger Robert says:

        Good. Unless she transferred military technology to the Russians, or compromised a military operation, she was low level spy, and we do the same thing in Russia. She should be sent home.

  5. earlofhuntingdon says:

    The FBI, part of the DoJ, coming in this late in the game seems weird. The DoJ took its best shot, made a deal, and got what it bargained for. It’s not as if Butina was free for the last nine months and committed new criminal acts.

    This looks like grandstanding that adds nothing to the pot but publicity. It is not a play that will reduce a threat, increase a reputation, add to a budget, or enhance justice. The DoJ should be limited to the arrangement it struck, let Butina go home, and move on to the no doubt other major problems Russia, Trump, and the world are creating for them to wrestle with.

  6. Tech Support says:

    My IANAL hot take on this piece is that it kind of feels like an open letter version of a “friend of the court” filing that basically says, “The defense is dumb but you should ignore the govt’s sentencing recommendation anyway.”

  7. Eureka says:

    Butina’s concern about her and Torshin keeping their influence lines obviously reminds of the (then-BuzzFeed) Sater-Cohen TT Moscow texts. I’d wondered then who Sater feared would horn in on the deal (from either end).

    And from the Weiss thread, I got the impression that the Anderson declaration might be some type of ~~speaking-addendum for broader audiences (or that it might function that way, whether initially intended to do so or not).

    • harpie says:

      That’s what I thought about the Weiss thread/Anderson declaration too, and you said it so well: “speaking-addendum for broader audiences” :-)

  8. Danno says:

    I know the FBI statement wasn’t meant for Charles Bamford (who now has Oliver Stone ‘supporting his version of the events) but it helps to have the media’s definition of spycraft updated for Russia’s actions today.

    Bamford’s defence of Butina seemed to be, in the end, that she didn’t act like a GRU or SVR agent — which no one alleged.

  9. viget says:

    I agree with Marcy and bmaz here. She’s a low level spy, she got caught. Her sentence should be time served, especially if she’s cooperated with a larger NRA investigation. If I were the judge, I’d want an ex parte filing with the full extent of her cooperation and what the plan is for how that’s going to be used in a larger NRA prosecution. If she’s been helpful, send her home.

    I also agree with Eureka and harpie. I suspect the declaration is exactly that a “speaking addendum” to let the American public know that, yes, this was part of the larger Russian campaign to elect Trump, and possibly to let the Russians know “hey we got some good info from her, you should be worried.”

    Perhaps the 18 month sentence recommendation is to delay the inevitable debriefing she will have on return to Russia, so as to implement counterintelligence measures prior to the Russkies finding out what she told us.

    However, from a criminal justice and rule of law perspective I totally agree with bmaz and EW, unless there is some compelling need to keep her, send her home now.

  10. jaango says:

    Perhaps, a little satire is appropriate?

    If I were a spy for the Sovereign Nation of Trumpudolandia, I would have to consider my possible access into the political arena, either through the Chamber of Commerce, Heritage Foundation and the NRA. And given that I would not qualify for either the Chamber of Commerce or the Heritage Foundation, and yet, I would easily qualify via the NRA.

    As such, I agree with Marcy and others here, and wholeheartedly!

    However, I am a self-defined and consumed/consummate ‘expert’ on behalf of the Latino Perspective. Thusly, Butina should be shipped home to Russia as a personal non grata. The same can be said of the federal government dropping the charges against Julian Assange, and further declared as persona non grata. As to Chelsea Manning, her being harassed by the federal government, this harassment should be dropped and she should be permitted to serve her plea in quietude for the remaining time left to her, before returning to a civilian status, and where as a felon, she is entitled to exercise her vote…

    Note: we, the military vets of Native American and Chicano or with more precision, the Indigenous Ancestry, we have identified Trump’s Legacy as the Era of Trumpudo. And if you’re unfamiliar wjth the rote for a Jaangulism of a rhetorical Flourish of a Trumpudo. it’s an understanding of simplemindedness for “all mouth and no brain.” As such, it’s our affectation for the historical Indigenous behavior that is continually being practiced within a ‘natural’ Democracy, and accomplished on a daily basis via our neighbors from across the street.

    • P J Evans says:

      Oh, you’ve elected yourself spokeperson for a large group of people, most of whom don’t know you from a hole in the ground.

      • jaango says:

        P.J.

        I write a regular and politically-oriented column for a military vet organization with a membership roster of 40,000 and where being a Private, a Corporal or a Sergeant, was a defining point for the demonstrable behavior for Hard Work, Self-Discipline and Ambition.

        And today, these self-identified members have went on to acquire their formal credentials in Medicine and Engineering, as well in the arenas of the Social Sciences and the assorted Business realm.

        Thus, my reading audience demands for more than just propaganda espoused from both sides of the political aisle.

        Need, I say more?

  11. Badger Robert says:

    The scam is accelerating. But sure, since we cannot get at Trump and McConnell, lets take it out on a Russian woman.

  12. harpie says:

    15 minutes ago:
    https://twitter.com/ZoeTillman/status/1121765232706293766
    6:17 AM – 26 Apr 2019

    Hello on this gray morning from the federal courthouse, where Maria Butina, who pleaded guilty to conspiring to act as an unregistered agent for Russia, will be sentenced. She’s asking for time-served and immediate deportation back to Russia. Prosecutors are asking for 18 months

  13. JamesP says:

    Well, that 18 month sentence seems pretty light to me. She came here to get Trump elected and to get Russia-friendly voices installed in influential government offices. She should have gotten a longer sentence for that. But if she gave up information that leads to some of her American collaborators getting convicted, I will feel better about it. We’ll see. Maybe.

Comments are closed.