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The Geography of Maria Butina’s Cooperation

The government had another embarrassing docket fail Friday, like the cut-and-paste release that disclosed charges filed in EDVA against Julian Assange.

Yesterday, a motion for permission to transport Maria Butina was briefly published to the docket, then withdrawn, but not before reporters who get automatic docket updates got copies. And the details in the filing suggest that Butina’s cooperation may be more limited than Mueller watchers would like.

The docket fail may stem from complaints that the judge in Butina’s case, Tanya Chutkan, made back on December 6, about how many details of Butina’s imminent plea deal attorneys were trying to keep sealed.

THE COURT: Why? Why is the fact that — you know, Mr. Driscoll, I have to tell you, I’m a little perplexed. In this case, you’ve filed several motions for transportation of your client to the U.S. Attorney’s Office, and you asked that that information be placed under seal; and that was certainly appropriate, and the government joined in that request. And I placed those requests under seal because the possibility of a defendant’s cooperation is always something that is very sensitive.

Since Butina’s plea, those prior motions to transport her that Chutkan referenced in her complaint — one dated September 21 asking to move her for a September 26 interview but lasting through October 25, and one dated October 23 specifically authorizing transport on November 7 but lasting through December 6 — were unsealed. Presumably, that’s why Friday’s order got filed unsealed, as well.

The problem, per CNN’s report, is that the latest one reveals Butina may be transported to testify before a grand jury in DC.

Russian political conspirator Maria Butina is set to meet with federal prosecutors in Washington and Virginia over the next several weeks, according to a court filing that was posted and quickly removed from a federal docket Friday afternoon.

Butina pleaded guilty Thursday to one criminal count of acting as an illegal foreign agent in the United States.
US attorneys may want to interview Butina in their offices well into January, according to the filing. She may also be requested to appear at the grand jury in Washington, according to the filing, which is a request to a federal judge to allow the currently detained Russian to be transported by the FBI for cooperation interviews.

“The purpose of the transfer is to interview the Inmate concerning an ongoing federal investigation,” the filing says.

So in addition to providing details about Butina’s future travel (possibly even a date) that might pose a security risk or put her in physical danger, it includes grand jury information that is supposed to remain secret.

All the filings together, however, reveal something of more interest: Butina has been proffering information to the Feds, probably primarily against her boyfriend, Paul Erickson, since September 26.

She was submitting to interviews in this investigation at a time when Erickson was regularly visiting her in jail.

Despite the ongoing investigations and his reported ties to Butina’s activities, Erickson frequently visits her in jail, two individuals with knowledge of the meetings told The Daily Beast. Erickson apparently expressed frustration to friends over the fact that jail staff forced him to sign into the main visitor log, fearing the media would find out.

You know how everyone hopes that a cooperating witness might wear a wire? In Butina’s case that could, potentially, have happened during her meetings with Erickson (though in the context of a jail visit, would hardly be necessary to capture the couple’s conversations). The period of her cooperation also sort of matches the time when she got moved from protective custody into the general population in Alexandria (67 days after her arrest would be September 20); she was subsequently put back in solitary, possibly because (as was discussed at the December 6 hearing) she had been communicating with the outside world via other detainees and at least one journalist.

While those revelations are of interest, what’s equally notable is the geography described, at least in the public filings. As noted, CNN says she’s cooperating on a federal investigation, singular, which is what the past motions said as well. And the locales to which she can be transported in the public filings — an interview room attached to the Alexandria jail, the DC US Attorney’s office, and a DC grand jury — don’t include Robert Mueller’s office, which is a different location in DC. There may be some involvement of the EDVA US Attorney’s Office (which might bode ill for the NRA, which is headquartered in that district). But thus far, there’s no sign that she’s being transported to cooperate with Mueller’s office.

That’s consistent with her plea, which only describes cooperation with the DC US Attorney’s office.

The plea deal is in no way definitive — after all, Mike Flynn’s plea said he’d cooperate “with this Office,” meaning SCO, but he has recently told us about cooperating with “other components of the Government” and the addendum to the government’s sentencing memo seems to reflect at least one criminal investigation outside of Mueller’s mandate (which is widely believed to involve Turkey).

But Butina has already been in custody almost as long as she’s likely to be sentenced to, meaning to do much more would entail holding her in jail to get her to cooperate for no benefit, something her lawyers presumably would be unwilling to countenance. So it may well be that she has told investigators about her boss (who, of course, retired suddenly not long ago) and her boyfriend. She may well even had gotten Erickson to incriminate himself in a venue where prosecutors easily collected it.

There’s no evidence, however, that she’s cooperating with Mueller or expected to.

Updating the Mueller Docket: What Has Zainab Ahmad Been Working On?

I’ve been meaning for some days to update my running commentary on what Mueller’s prosecutors are doing.

But yesterday’s Mike Flynn filing made a point that I’ve been meaning to make: counterterrorism and international extradition expert Zainab Ahmad remains on Mueller’s team, but we’ve barely heard from her.

I’ve recently updated my own running docket (which is far too unwieldy to fit on a page anymore). It also includes a number of related cases:

  • Michael Cohen’s SDNY prosecution
  • Sam Patten’s DC prosecution
  • Maria Butina’s DC prosecution
  • Elena Alekseevna Khusyaynova’s EDVA charges

I’ve also noted the departures of the prosecutors who have left (suggesting either that their part of the investigation is completed, or they’re bringing some part of it back to their home departments at DOJ to pursue).

One thing I’ve been following in recent Mueller activities is Jeannie Rhee’s seeming central role in what we’re seeing. If there’s a conspiracy-in-chief prosecution, she seems to be in charge of that.

Also of interest, Rush Atkinson appears to have ties to a seemingly disparate series of cases involving Russia: the IRA prosecution and related Pinedo case, the GRU prosecution. He’s also involved in both Michael Cohen’s Mueller prosecution and Jerome Corsi’s aborted cooperation. Notably, he’s not involved in the Andrew Miller subpoena, which may mean that he’s not involved in everything pertaining to Roger Stone. So his presence on a case may suggest a direct tie to Russians.

But perhaps the most interesting thing this docket shows is that, among the prosecutors (as distinct from the appellate specialists, though it’s unclear whether Elizabeth Prelogar is on the team for her Russian expertise as well as her appellate speciality or not), Zainab Ahmad is the only person whose work we’ve barely seen. While she has had a role in the Flynn cooperation, Brandon Van Grack (who’s in the process of transitioning back to his National Security Division home) took the lead on that.

As an experienced counterterrorism prosecutor normally located in EDNY (the district where JFK Airport is located), Ahmad is an expert in prosecutions involving extraditions (because of the JFK connection, many of those go through EDNY, and that’s where a lot of the important precedents are). Also of note, given the questions around whether there are two or three parts of a Mueller investigation on which Flynn cooperated, she’s an Arabic speaker.

We’ve not seen a substantive plea or charge related to what I’ll call the Middle Eastern graft (centered around, but not limited to, the Seychelles meeting Flynn attended), though we know that Mueller has spent a lot of time investigating it, and that’s an area where Flynn’s cooperation would be key. Given Ahmad’s skill set, it would make sense that she would be involved in those areas of the investigation.

As I disclosed in July, I provided information to the FBI on issues related to the Mueller investigation, so I’m going to include disclosure statements on Mueller investigation posts from here on out. I will include the disclosure whether or not the stuff I shared with the FBI pertains to the subject of the post. 

Birds of a Feather: Comparing ‘Sparrows’ Chapman and Butina

Name: Anna Vasilyevna Kushchyenko Chapman Maria Valeryevna Butina
Born:

Place:

23 February 1982

Volgograd, Volgograd Oblast, Soviet Union

November 10, 1988

Barnaul, Siberia, Soviet Union

Education Economics (Masters)

Moscow University or RUDN University (unclear)

Moscow, Russia

Political Science, teaching

Altai State University

Barnaul, Siberia, Russia

Marital Status: Divorced (2006) Single
First Entered U.S.: 2009 2011
Visa Y/N: Unclear Yes
Visa Type: Unclear – Acquired residency in U.S. as British citizen by marriage Initially traveled to/from U.S. with Russian official Aleksandr Torshin; applied for F-1 student visa in 2016
Work in U.S.: CEO, PropertyFinder LLC (real estate sales) Special assistant to Aleksandr Torshin; gun rights activist; student
Arrested: 06/27/10 07/15/18
Charged with: 18 USC 371 Conspiracy,

18 USC 951 Agents of Foreign Governments

18 USC 371 Conspiracy,

18 USC 951 Agents of Foreign Governments

Though Marcy has already discussed Maria Butina’s recent attempt to avoid prosecution as a Russian spy under 18 USC 951, it’s worth comparing two Russian women charged on different occasions with violating the same act.

There are some similarities including the hair color, and some key differences — Chapman and Butina aren’t clones. Their behavior and achievements in the U.S. on behalf of Russia suggest a change in methodology over time.

The indictment charging Chapman included her mission, decrypted from a 2009 message sent to Chapman and a co-conspirator:

Butina’s mission appears to be similar, but there’s no decrypted message included in the Department of Justice’s Arrest Affidavit to compare with that in Chapman’s indictment. We must rely on Butina’s translation of another document she shared by email with ‘US Person-1,” believed to be Paul Erickson.

Both Chapman and Butina had missions or assignments; Butina’s appears to be worded more loosely but a full text of the email is not publicly available to make a more accurate assessment. Both women were expected to get close to and develop relationships with U.S. policy makers.

What may explain why Butina’s mission is worded a little differently: between the time Chapman receives her assignment and Butina shares her mission with U.S. Person-1, the policymakers have changed from Democrats to Republicans.

The Democrats were also much more difficult and distant; we can see in other interactions between Illegals Program spies including Chapman that targets weren’t as readily engaged as U.S Person-1. Though Americans who interacted with Illegals Program spies were amazingly credulous, the spies still didn’t get very close to their intended target, Hillary Clinton.

By the time Butina began her work in 2011, methods had changed. Instead of tradecraft seen in the Buryakov case circa 2013-2015 and the earlier Illegals Program circa 2010, Butina is initially accompanied by a Russian official – no need for Butina to implement additional traditional tradecraft to report intelligence when they are their own channel, subordinate spy to superior and minder. Once a relationship between Butina and US Person-1 had been well established, tradecraft was even more nominal – we don’t see in the Arrest Affidavit anything more complicated than a commercially available laptop computer and cellphone.

The descriptive name of the assignment on which Butina worked also indicated a shift — “Project Description ‘Diplomacy'” —  to building constructive (konstrucktivnyh) relations with an organization central to influence over the Republican Party, with an understanding that they (Russia in concert with Political Party 1 and Gun Rights Organization) had some ‘right to negotiate’. This is far more substantive than Chapman’s assignment to seek and develop ties with key contacts.

Spying operations changed along the arrest and deportation of the Illegals Program spies and in sync with a transition in U.S. Politics:

— The shift in Congress from Democratic Party to GOP with the 2010 election may have been a trigger for a new approach once the 112th Congress was sworn in;
— The transition happened in sync with the embrace of Torshin by the National Rifle Association (NRA);
— Change from Clinton to Kerry as Secretary of State likely played a role given the expectation Clinton would be the front runner for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination.

But one key factor may have changed the tack Torshin and Butina took compared to Chapman and the Illegals: the Supreme Court decision in Citizens United, Appellant v. Federal Election Commission on January 21, 2010.

Now there was a means to funnel money to meet Torshin’s and Butina’s efforts without the level of difficulty other methods might have had before 2010. They could identify, meet, target, influence, and point to a candidate the NRA could fund using Russian money — in effect, developing and recruiting unwitting (or witting) agents.

They collected Republican members of Congress to exploit as useful idiots, in other words.

No wonder Butina had to hide behind a seemingly innocuous student status. Besides masking the reason why she was in the U.S., she needed to appear lower on the cultural status scale than the GOP’s easy marks on which she worked. In contrast, Chapman only needed the appearance of a real estate gig to enable her to poke around.

Note again in the excerpt from the DOJ’s Arrest Affidavit the ‘right to negotiate’ — does this suggest that Citizens United, combined with NRA’s welcome, that Russia felt it had an alternative (read: illegitimate) path to diplomacy, circumventing a Democratic White House between 2011 and 2017?

It’s clear something changed after 2010 at the NRA with regard to allocation of money between lobbying and campaigning.

Never mind that gun control advocacy group the Brady Foundation was outspent by an overwhelming amount. The NRA shifted its practice dramatically in 2012 from spending on lobbying instead to campaigning, just about the time Torshin had fully integrated Butina into a gun rights advocate as his “special assistant.”

In 2012 the NRA also transitioned away from relying as heavily on the  American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), doing more of its policy work and outreach directly through GOP candidates. ALEC executed a PR feint — backing away publicly from gun rights issues and the Stand Your Ground laws it helped promote — but in reality it was ceding to the NRA these efforts because ALEC was no longer needed after Citizens United as a legislative front. The NRA could handle their issues directly with candidates under the guise of campaign support.

The rest is history, with Butina taking selfies with NRA’s president David Keene and various GOP candidates to document her benchmarks along the way through Trump’s 2016 campaign.

(Conveniently, Trump trademarked his tagline, Make America Great Again, in November 2012.)

Butina’s legal team may argue against a charge of violating 18 USC 951 as a negotiating chip, claiming she didn’t spy. If either of these red-capped sparrows could have claimed they weren’t a spy, it wasn’t Butina. Her mission was successful in a way Anna Chapman could only have dreamed.

A Day after Maria Butina Argues Influence Operations Shouldn’t Be Charged as Spying, Plea Negotiations Start

As a number of people reported, on Friday, the government and Maria Butina got the court to delay her case by two weeks so they can try to resolve it, suggesting they’re in plea negotiations.

In support of this motion, the parties state that they continue to engage, as they did prior to yesterday’s defense filing, in negotiations regarding a potential resolution of this matter and that those negotiations would be potentially hindered by simultaneously engaging in motions practice. The parties further agree that to make the best and most efficient use of the Court’s time and resources to decide any motions in the event those negotiations are unsuccessful, it would be prudent to continue the upcoming hearing and its accompanying motions schedule for approximately two weeks.

As part of that delay, Butina withdrew a motion submitted on Thursday without prejudice (meaning she can resubmit it if plea talks fail). The motion asked the court to declare 18 USC 951 (which is what the US government charges foreign spies with) unconstitutional as applied to influence operations.

The motion lays out a bunch of hypothetical cases with vague parallels to Butina’s to lay out the danger of using 951 to prosecute those conducting influence operations. Some are farcical, in which a thoughtful grandmother takes on the role that Aleksandr Torshin does in Butina’s operation.

An unregistered, lonely grandson from an unpopular, provincial country accepts the advice of his grandmother about how to make friends. She thoughtfully directs him to go to prayer groups and same-interest meetups to meet people with common interests. He violates section 951 if the grandmother is a foreign official, even though the grandmother provided such direction while visiting the United States on holiday.

A non-hypothetical comparison, however, is more apt, arguing convincingly that an Israeli influence tour might be prosecuted if Israelis were treated with the suspicion Russians currently are.

Consider recent events regarding Israeli soldiers touring cities across the United States for the 11th Israeli Soldiers Tour to speak at venues, including college campuses, to raise awareness of the realities of their service.10 Sponsored by StandWithUs, an Israel advocacy group funded and supported by hasbara organizations and the Israeli government, these soldiers travel the United States to conduct influence operations intended to pacify U.S. views, change foreign policy, and put a human face on the Israeli military. Is there any doubt that such unregistered agents could be charged under the same interpretation of section 951 used against Maria– for operating in the United States as “agents” of Israel when directed to go to U.S. schools and then brief their IDF11 military commanders on their reception in the United States? Is there any doubt that they wouldn’t be? The point is not that such activities are improper. They are not. However, they are precisely the kind of educational exchanges and necessary uninhibited marketplace of ideas that are sought and encouraged when foreign students and visitors like Maria are admitted to U.S. universities.

The motion ultimately argues that before using 951 against an influence operation the statute should have the kind of limits that exist in the FARA statute.

To resolve the constitutional problem presented by the statute’s broad application, this court should—at least as to political activities—narrow the sweep of section 951 so that it aligns more closely with the constitutional safeguards recognized by Congress in the Foreign Agent Registration Act (known as “FARA”).

Worse, as for cases involving ‘political activities,’ it allows the government to pursue harsher penalties with additional restraints on individual liberty, compare 18 U.S.C. § 951 (10 years imprisonment) with 22 U.S.C. § 618 (5 years imprisonment), without enduring the additional cost of satisfying higher burdens of proof, see 22 U.S.C. §§ 611(o) and 618(a) (authorizing prosecution only for “willful” violations and specific kinds of “political activities”), thus circumventing the inherent check on government overreaching that the Fifth Amendment Due Process Clause was designed to instill. If left unchecked, federal investigators and prosecutors will have strong incentives to prosecute political activity cases under section 951 instead of FARA, so they can reap the law-enforcement benefits of section 951’s penalties without paying the price of higher burdens of proof.

To avoid that distortion, this court should consider the catch-all, sweeping application of section 951 when applied to political activities, in comparison with the statutory restraints of FARA as applied to the same, in assessing whether section 951 exposes Maria to the risk of arbitrary enforcement. Such an approach would provide an accurate answer to the doctrinal question at hand: whether section 951 is constitutionally deficient (and/or in need of a limiting construction) because it “confers on police a virtually unrestrained power to arrest and charge persons with a violation” thereby permitting “policemen, prosecutors, and juries to pursue their personal predilections.” Kolender, 461 U.S. at 358.

It’s a fair argument, at least in this case. Back in August, I did two posts pointing out there was little difference between what Paul Manafort was accused of in his DC case and Maria Butina was accused of.

It’s unclear whether the plea negotiations are a response to this motion or not. Some of the evidence against Butina described thus far suggests her operation has the approval of Putin himself (though the Israeli StandWithUs tour is the kind of thing Bibi Netanyahu likely loves). But other evidence — such as a claim she’s coordinating with FSB (which, after all, is the closest analogue to the FBI) appears sketchy. So while it’s possible that Butina is a privately funded spy running an influence operation on behalf of the Russian government, it’s also true that to prove that, the government may have to share more classified information than they care to. And while I’m skeptical the constitutional challenge to 951 would work (in part because courts are loathe to tamper with national security law, in part because the claim that Butina chose to come to the US as a student does seem to have been chosen with the influence operation in mind), the government probably wants to retain their ability to use it with clearcut spies engaging in influence operations.

So I could imagine the government might be willing to settle this with either a FARA plea (which would further reinforce the FARA regime Mueller has introduced) or a visa fraud charge, particularly if Butina were willing to implicate Paul Erickson and other Americans who had helped her efforts.

Maria Butina’s Legal Team Embraces Disinformation (with Help from Russia)

One key prong of Republican propaganda attempting to discredit the Mueller investigation has been to claim Trump associates were targeted by informants. Perhaps the most brazen example was when Roger Stone claimed a Russian whose offer of dirt he entertained (but claims to have refused to pay for) was an FBI informant. But George Papapdopoulos has spawned an entire subindustry of such claims.

It appears that Maria Butina’s attorneys have adopted that approach. In a letter to her attorneys the prosecutors posted to the docket the other day, they insist (as DOJ has had to insist to Republicans in Congress) that they are not sitting on evidence of approaches by informants.

During our previous discussions, you have advanced certain hypothetical scenarios involving your client, including a supposed “dangle” operation or the acquisition of exculpatory information from “Cis,” which we take to mean confidential government informants. It appeared at the time of our discussions, that you based these ideas not on firsthand knowledge of any events, but rather on speculation based on claims made in some unidentified media articles. Inexplicably, however, in your October 18, 2018 email, you–for the first time–firmly assert that “[w]e know this information exists [and] have called it out by name…” [emphasis added]. The government was surprised by this newly adamant assertion, and we invite you to provide us any additional information you may have concerning the provenance or existence of the information you request.

Notwithstanding its speculative nature, the government took your original request seriously and made specific inquiries about the hypothetical scenarios you advanced. Regarding the scenarios described in your October 18, 2018 email, based on our reviews to date, we are not aware of any information that would trigger any disclosure obligations regarding either a “dangle,” successful or otherwise, or information obtained from any confidential informant. We are aware of no surveillance targeting your client that occurred prior to in or around [redacted] We will obviously continue to review the government’s holdings for such information, as well as any additional surveillance records of your client and we will continue to discuss with you any other materials that you consider potentially exculpatory. If that ongoing review yields information that should be disclosed to you, we will certainly do so.

Don’t get me wrong. DOJ has a history of playing games with discovery, or of interpreting discovery narrowly so as to hide other prongs of an investigation. So the allegation from Butina’s lawyers, by itself, is not outrageous.

Except it seems to be a part of the Devin Nunes/Mark Meadows/Jim Jordan propaganda effort in Congress, driven by a bunch of half-wits who leak information that they don’t understand.

Indeed, this incident raises real questions for me on whether the House effort has now taken not only to defending Donald Trump, but also Maria Butina, an alleged foreign spy whose own writings indicate Putin knew of her operation.

Meanwhile, DOJ’s letter to Butina’s team reveals that they have not picked up a hard drive of discovery DOJ made available a month ago.

With respect to materials provided to you so far, we have made an FBI CART examiner available to you to help you navigate the electronic evidence, and we made a second hard drive of electronic evidence available to you over a month ago, which you have thus far reclined to retrieve.

The claim that Butina’s team has left evidence sitting for a month comes just days before Russia’s Foreign Affairs spokesperson, Maria Zakharova, claimed that DOJ has not handed over discovery to her and used that to claim DOJ is treating her unfairly.

It is baffling that the court considering Maria Butina’s case has not yet handed over the case material to her, although the hearing is scheduled for November 13. Unfortunately, this gives us yet another reason to doubt the impartiality of American justice system.

Again, it is not unheard of for DOJ to play games with discovery. But in this case, particularly in context of obvious propaganda serving Trump and other Republicans’ interest, it seems like Butina’s defenders both in and outside the country have decided on a disinformation strategy rather than a direct defense of her case.

Update: The parties just asked for Butina’s case to be put off for three weeks to deal with discovery. Maybe in the interim, the government will find the evidence of informants sidling up to Butina that the claim is not exculpatory.

Is a Tie with Vladimir Putin What Makes Mariia Butina More of a Spy than Paul Manafort?

Given my continued obsession with the border between the spying charge (18 USC 951) with which Mariia Butina got charged and the FARA charge (22 USC 611 et seq.) with which Paul Manafort got charged, I find this footnote from the government’s opposition to Butina’s request for bail of particular interest.

14 The defendant also attempts to rely on the government’s search warrant seeking “evidence of a potential violation under FARA.” ECF No. 23-1 at 7. As the defendant later acknowledges, id. at 15, the search warrants the government obtained for the defendant’s residence authorized it to search for potential violations of 18 U.S.C. §§ 371 and 951, as well as 22 U.S.C. § 611 et seq.

It reveals that at the time they searched Butina’s residence on April 25, 2018, the FBI had not determined whether they considered her just a sleazy foreign influence peddler or a spy. The government had explained that, in that or a subsequent search they found several pieces of evidence she had ties to the FSB, including a note reflecting a job offer. The search also included access to her devices, which revealed a slew of “taskings” from Aleksandr Torshin, which the government will use (if this ever goes to trial) to prove Butina worked as an agent for the Russian government.

So that may be one of the things that led them to charge her as a spy, rather than just a sleazy influence peddler.

The opposition filing provides more details, however, that may explain the charge.

Pre-meditation: the operation started in 2015

I had noted, here, that one difference between Butina and Manafort likely stemmed from her necessity to lie to get a visa, something the government repeats here.

In 2016, the defendant applied for and was granted an F1 student visa to study at American University in Washington, D.C. On her application, she identified her current employer as “Antares LLC” and described the Russian Official as a previous employer. Nonetheless, once resident in the United States, the defendant continued her efforts at the direction of the Russian Official to establish connections with U.S. Political Party 1 and other U.S. officials and political operatives.

They also defend a claim they made about her current visa, which she obtained to ensure she’d be able to travel back and forth from Russia, another detail the defense had spun to great effect.

The defense asserts, ECF No. 23-1 at 13 n.12 & ECF No. 23-8, that the government made a misrepresentation regarding the type of visa for which the defendant recently applied and implies that it did so intentionally. The government acknowledges the error in its Memorandum in Support of Detention regarding the label it applied to the visa. ECF No. 8 at 8. But the substance of the government’s contention—that the defendant could travel to and from the United States per her new visa’s terms, but not per the terms of her F-1 visa after her graduation—is true of the Optional and Practical Training visa extension for which the defendant applied. In other words, the “B1/B2” label the government used to describe the visa was incorrect, but its underlying its argument was correct.

But this filing also adds further details of how pre-meditated Butina’s plan was, describing a plan she wrote up in March 2015.

Beginning as early as 2015, the defendant wrote a proposal intended for Russian officials laying out her plan to serve as an unofficial agent or representative to promote the political interests of the Russian Federation vis-à-vis the United States.

[snip]

In 2015, the defendant created a document entitled “Description of the Diplomacy Project,” in March 2015, which included a proposal to cultivate political contacts in the United States.

Interestingly, amid a list of Russian officials the FBI has evidence she had contact with, is a phone call she had with Sergey Kislyak in May 2015, when this operation was still in the planning stages.

At the detention hearing on July 18, 2018, defense counsel argued, “There’s no evidence [the defendant has] been in a diplomatic car. There’s no evidence that she’s been to the embassy. There’s no evidence that she’s been in contact with the consulate. ECF No. 12 at 55:21-25. But after the government proffered that it had seen photos of the defendant with the former Russian ambassador to the United States, ECF No. 12 at 58:8-18, counsel admitted that he was aware of at least one photograph of the defendant with the former Ambassador at “a movie screening hosted by a Russian cultural group in Washington.” Id. at 59:19-21. The government now proffers that it possesses additional photographs of the defendant and the Russian Official with the former Russian ambassador to the United States; that the defendant’s calendar shows a call with the former ambassador in May 2015; and that the defendant’s journal reflects her plan to meet with the current Russian ambassador to the United States upon his arrival to the United States. The government also possesses a photograph of the defendant with the Russian ambassador dated October 2017. [my emphasis]

Putin’s personal involvement

Finally, as noted here, this filing provides more evidence of Putin’s involvement (even though one premise of the operation is to suggest some in Russia are planning for a post-Putin future). The filing describes Erickson calling Torshin “Putin’s emissary.”

The government has developed other evidence over the course of the conspiracy that establishes taskings by the Russian Official (whom U.S. Person 1 has referred to as “Putin’s emissary”) and actions within the United States in response to those taskings by the defendant

It describes Erickson pitching Putin’s involvement when arranging for the Russian delegation to the National Prayer Breakfast.

Reaction to the delegation’s presence in America will be relayed DIRECTLY to President Putin and Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov (who both had to personally approve the delegation’s travel to this event).

And that Putin involvement came at the last minute — the weekend of January 20-21, 2017.

[Erickson] noted, “I was ahead of this in December, but last weekend Putin decided to up his official delegation – if we can accommodate them, we can empower rational insiders that have been cultivated for three years.”

Diplomatic attention even beyond propaganda-making

All of which may explain why the Russians have made such an effort to pressure for Butina’s release.

Since the detention hearing in this case, the actions of the Russian Federation and its officials toward the defendant have confirmed her relationship with, and value to, her own government. To date, the Russian government has conducted six consular visits with the defendant. It also has passed four diplomatic notes to the U.S. Department of State.2 According to the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has spoken to the U.S. Secretary of State twice to complain about this prosecution.3 The official Kremlin Twitter account changed its avatar to the defendant’s face and started a #FreeMariaButina hashtag. RT, a Russian television network funded by the Russian government, has published numerous articles on its website criticizing this prosecution and the defendant’s detention.4 Russia has issued more diplomatic notes on the defendant’s behalf in the past month than for any other Russian citizen imprisoned in the United States in the past year. Put simply, the Russian government has given this case much more attention than other cases.

2 Diplomatic notes are used for official correspondence between the U.S. Government and a foreign government. The Department of State serves as the official channel for diplomatic communications between the U.S. government and a foreign government.

3 Press release on Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s telephone conversation with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, July 21, 2018 available at http://www.mid.ru/en/web/guest/foreign_policy/news/-/asset_publisher/cKNonkJE02Bw/ content/id/3302434 (last accessed Sept. 7, 2018); Press Release on Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s telephone conversation with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, August 23, 2018, available at http://www.mid.ru/en/web/guest/foreign_policy/news/-/asset_publisher/ cKNonkJE02Bw/content/id/3323966 (last accessed September 7, 2018).

4 See, e.g., “Accused ‘Russian Agent’ Butina moved to another jail, now in ‘borderline torture’ conditions,” RT, August 19, 2018, available at https://www.rt.com/usa/436301-butinamoved-torture-prison/ (last accessed Sept. 2, 2018); “‘A real witch hunt’: Moscow says student Butina is being held as ‘political prisoner’ by US,” RT, July 26, 2018, available

Though, of course, some of this is the simple counterpart to what Butina’s attorneys complain DOJ is doing: because she’s a pretty woman, she makes for good propaganda that Russia can use to accuse the US of abuse. Still — Butina has gotten more reported attention than even Yevgeniy Nikulin, another case the Russian government has shown exceptional interest in.

Spying doesn’t require tradecraft

Her lawyers’ opposition to a government bid for a gag order repeats, in more dramatic fashion, a claim they had made in their bid for bail: that the government has presented no evidence of traditional tradecraft.

Maria Butina is in a cell, pretrial, 22 hours a day for crimes she did not commit and for government falsehoods and never-tested theories of culpability that have not (and will never) pan out. For all of the government insinuation and media coverage of Hollywood style, spy-novel allegations, in reality this case is bereft of any tradecraft or covert activity whatsoever. There are no dead drops, no brush passes, no secret communication devices, no bags of cash or payoffs, no bribes, no confidential secret information gathering, no espionage type activity, and no agency or agreement to commit crime.

Ultimately, though, the government relies on the elements of the offense, and confirm what I had suggested here — “he mis-states what the materials say about exempting political activity, not least because, per other materials, section 611 can be a subset of a section 951 violation.”

The elements of a violation of 18 U.S.C. § 951 are that (1) the defendant acted in the United States as an agent of a foreign government; (2) that the defendant failed to notify the Attorney General of the United States that she would be acting in the United States as an agent of a foreign government prior to so acting; and (3) that the defendant acted knowingly, and knew that she had not notified the attorney general.

But neither the USAM nor the Criminal Resource Manual contain any provisions that “specifically exempt[] section 951 from applying to ‘foreign agents engaged in political activities.’” ECF No. 23-1 at 7. Setting aside whether the defendant’s alleged activities are “purely political”—which the government does not concede—the sections of the USAM and Criminal Resource Manual cited by the defendant do not specifically exempt political activity undertaken at the behest of a foreign government or foreign government official from prosecution under 18 U.S.C. § 951. Further, the Inspector General’s Report cited by the defendant, id. at 6, n.4, quotes National Security Division officials as stating, “unlike FARA . . . Section 951 can be aimed at political or non-political activities of agents under the control of foreign governments.” U.S. DOJ, Office of the Inspector General, Audit of the National Security Division’s Enforcement and Administration of the Foreign Agents Registration Act, at ii (Sep. 2016), available at https://oig.justice.gov/reports/2016/a1624.pdf (last visited Aug. 26, 2018). More importantly, the USAM “is not intended to, does not, and may not be relied upon to create any rights, substantive or procedural, enforceable at law by any party in any matter civil or criminal.” United States v. Goodwin, 57 F.3d 815, 818 (9th Cir. 1995) (quoting USAM § 1-1.100); cf. United States v. Caceras, 440 U.S. 741, 754 (1979) (IRS manual does not confer any substantive rights on taxpayers but is instead only an internal statement of penalty policy and philosophy). 14

One final thing: this opposition motion makes it clear how pissed Butina and Torshin were when news of the DNC hack broke, knowing it would focus more attention to their own operation.

In July 2016, in a series of revealing communications, the defendant, U.S. Person 1, and the Russian Official expressed concern about how their operation might be affected by news reports that Russia had hacked the emails of the Political Party 2 National Committee. U.S. Person 1 worried that “it complicates the hell out of nearly a year of quiet back-channel diplomacy in establishing links between reformers inside the Kremlin and a putative [Political Party 1] administration (regardless of nominee or president). . . . What a colossal waste of lead time.” The defendant told the Russian Official, “Right now I’m sitting here very quietly after the scandal about our FSB hacking into [Political Party 2’s] emails. My all too blunt attempts to befriend politicians right now will probably be misinterpreted, as you yourself can understand.” The Russian Official responded by telling the defendant, she was “doing the right thing.”

Parallel processing: Not just about Trump

And it describes Butina first latching on to Scott Walker before picking up with Trump.

At some point, she identified a particular candidate (“Political Candidate 1”), whom she believed to have the best chance of becoming Political Party 1’s nominee for President. On July 14, 2015, the Russian Official requested that the defendant send him a report about Political Candidate 1’s announcement of his candidacy for the Presidency. She did so the next morning. After recounting Political Candidate 1’s speech, the defendant reported that she had a “short personal contact” with Political Candidate 1, with whom she had had previous personal contact, as well as one of his three advisors in matters of international politics. The day prior, the defendant had written to the Russian Official, “Judging from American polls – our bet on [Political Candidate 1] is correct.”

It describes the arc of the operation as an attempt to be well-positioned after the 2016 election.

[Butina] was working as an undeclared agent on behalf of the Russian Federation to position herself and that official to exert Russian influence over U.S. policies towards Russia after the 2016 Presidential election.

All that leads me to believe that the government is beginning to view the Torshin operation as a parallel effort to the election hack one, an effort that had Putin’s direct involvement in.

So it’s not just that the government has decided she has real ties to Russia’s spooks. It’s that the scope of her effort, and the involvement of Putin, raises the stakes for her custody, but also for any attempt to learn how these operations fit together.

About That Styx Thing, A Re-Thinking

Had a busy day yesterday and then came to the stark understanding that a significant contributor to this blog had included a Styx Grand Illusion video in a post. I am hoping you can imagine my dismay! I still have not recovered.

I just….I cannot….even. Despite the ill video, the post was great and spot on. But, damn, that video. And placing that earwig junk in the minds of not just me, but countless others. Unforgivable.

Here is the real deal, from the time when Styx actually was more than bubblegum cheese. Midnight Ride. Currently WordPress is not allowing me to post it at the top where I want it, and normally would, but will do so at the bottom of this post.

There was a Styx period where they were okay, if not very decent. It was LONG before Grand Illusion, which is simply, and truly, horrible. The attached song Midnight Ride was from the James Young era, this is a live version off of the original on Equinox, before the pop rock crap of Dennis DeYoung and Tommy Shaw took control of a decent band. That was a long time ago. And if you want some more off of Equinox, go UTube Lonely Child and Suite Madame Blue.

How Russian Spies Cultivated the NRA and National Prayer Breakfast to Seek Republican Assets

DOJ just announced the arrest, over the weekend, of gun rights activist Maria Butina for conspiracy to spy for Russia. (complaint, affidavit)

The affidavit explains how, between March 2015 (when she expected the GOP would “likely obtain control over the U.S. government after the 2016 elections”) and 2017, Butina worked with Aleksandr Torshin and two US persons to cultivate Republicans and lay the groundwork for warmer relations between Republicans and Russia. She focused on the NRA, she explained, because “the NRA [is] the largest sponsor of the elections in the US congress.”

The person listed as USP 1 (who has been named but I’ll wait for confirmation) laid out precisely how she should pitch herself — not too critical of Obama, pretense that there was a post-Putin world on the horizon — and gave her all the introductions to friendly types she might need.

The end of the narrative laid out in the complaint describes meticulous details around the National Prayer Breakfast last year, on February 2, 2017. Trump very nearly met with Torshin at the meeting, only pulling out at the last minute.

I’ll have more to say about this indictment (there’s a bunch of screen caps on my Twitter feed). But understand that this indictment is not even part of the Mueller probe. Nevertheless, several parts of it get two degrees away from Trump and his spawn.