Posts

Matt Taibbi Attempts to Reinflate Patrick Byrne’s Maria Butina Story

The buzz around Patrick Byrne’s story about having an affair with Maria Butina has almost entirely subsided.

In spite of the fact that folks have moved on, Matt Taibbi, claiming that he’s writing now because Byrne “is taking a beating in the press,” has decided to write up the story.

The tale is now out, and Byrne, whom I’ve known and liked for almost a decade, is taking a beating in the press. It’s unfortunate, and the import of his story is going unnoticed because reporters are focusing instead on Byrne’s eccentricities.

Taibbi reveals that, “Byrne came to me months ago,” which would mean Taibbi was, like Sara Carter, one of the journalists Byrne told about this during the summer, which makes a second journalist who had not covered the Butina prosecution to whom Byrne chose to make claims about the Butina prosecution.

Taibbi explains that he didn’t tell Byrne’s story earlier because he couldn’t confirm it. “Unable to confirm enough of his story, I ended up hesitating.” He also admits that Byrne’s, “hyperbolic storytelling needs to be sorted with care.”

So let’s look at how Taibbi “sorts with care” this story.

He gets one of Byrne’s hyperbolic storytelling references wrong, claiming Byrne used “Men in Black” to refer to the “senior federal law enforcement officials, who encouraged him to pursue a relationship with the Russian.” While Byrne has always said his reasons for using this term would become clear, they never are, but he does explain that the “Men in Black” are actually the line agents who — he’s sure — felt horrible about making the request for him to reengage Butina in July 2016.

I wish to emphasize this: the Men In Black are honorable men and women, and they were extremely discomfited by this request. There was no leering. They felt horrible. I think they wanted me to refuse it. They insisted that in their careers they heard never heard of such a request.

And Taibbi continues to struggle when he discusses counterintelligence.

Taibbi misuses the term “agent” (which in spying lingo is the person recruited, not the one doing the recruiting), while making a big show of not using it to refer to Butina, even though that’s the legal charge she pled guilty to. “(I’m not using the words ‘Russian agent’ because the term is misleading: Butina was not convicted of espionage).” He then calls the 18 USC 971 charge — with which Anna Chapman and Carter Page recruiter Victor Podobnyy were also charged with — a technicality.

However, the government never made an espionage case, charging her with an obscure technicality: acting as an unregistered foreign agent.

While we were discussing this on Twitter, Taibbi made a technicality argument Butina’s lawyers tried but failed to make during the prosecution, that this was just like a FARA violation.

Then Taibbi argues that the real scandal about this is that DOJ took ‘no real action … for nearly a year.”

Byrne’s claims would be explosive if true in the smallest part. For instance, the government asserted in Butina’s sentencing memorandum that her “actions had the potential to damage the national security of the United States.”

If Byrne told authorities about Butina in July, 2015, and no real action was taken for nearly a year, that would fly in the face of the government’s assertions at sentencing about the threat she posed.

Aside from how difficult counterintelligence investigations are and all the reporting that shows Obama didn’t respond aggressively enough to Russian efforts, Taibbi’s story explains what happened. And that’s that she tried to get close to a presidential candidate’s son, and all of a sudden her aggressive effort to get close to politicians began to look different, which is when FBI reportedly came back to Byrne and asked him to help gather more information.

Then there’s the documentary sources Taibbi relied on to carefully sort Byrne’s “hyperbolic storytelling:”

  1. The CNN and Fox coverage of Byrne
  2. An ABC report on the initial filing that suggested Butina was engaged in a utilitarian relationship with Paul Erickson that addresses both the claim the defense refuted and the one that the defense offered a far less convincing rebuttal of; it does not link the filing
  3. The CNN report saying that Robert Mueller interviewed Butina about JD Gordon
  4. Byrne’s father’s NYT obituary
  5. An SI report on Bison Dele’s murder
  6. A WSJ report on changes to short selling after 2008
  7. A link to the main FreedomFest site
  8. A Business Insider account of Trump’s speech at FreedomFest
  9. A link to the website for Butina’s gun rights organization
  10. A link to Rolling Stone’s coverage of Russia, generally
  11. A link to a subpage on CFR’s website
  12. A link to a NYT story that includes the picture of her posing with Don Jr
  13. A KY story of Butina’s NRA appearance from after she was arrested
  14. The government’s sentencing memo in Butina’s case
  15. A preview of Peter Strzok’s public congressional testimony that Taibbi claims also featured Lisa Page (Page testified privately in July 2018, but those transcripts were not released until March of this year, so if they changed Byrne’s mind about the investigation it raises interesting questions about who told him about her testimony)
  16. A report of a NYT report on the filing where prosecutors retracted one, but not the second, claim to substantiate Butina’s relationship with Paul Erickson was overblown (neither the report itself nor the NYT story link to the filing)
  17. A WaPo report on Judge Chutkan’s admonishment of prosecutors in a hearing where she nevertheless granted their motion to deny Butina bail; the story also described Chutkan criticizing Butina’s lawyers’ public characterizations about evidence
  18. A CO report on the offer to give Butina her own reality TV show
  19. A Newsweek report about a NYT story on Butina’s effort to get a jet fuel deal with an NRA official’s wife; Butina’s lawyer, Robert Driscoll, presumably has access to the emails the NYT story is based on, but appears not to have shared them with Taibbi
  20. A NYT Report on John Durham’s appointment to review how the Russian investigation (which Taibbi of course calls “Russiagate”) got opened
  21. A Market Watch report deeming Byrne’s story “one of his most bizarre statements yet”

21 links. That’s a lot! Except just one of them is to a filing from the case, and the three stories most critical to Taibbi’s points about Butina’s treatment by the press don’t link to court filings themselves, which takes some doing.

That’s utterly crucial, because Taibbi misunderstands how the question of Butina’s possible use of sex came up in the case (indeed, he miscites what the WaPo report on Chutkan said). It was not a document about her tradecraft. Rather, it was part of what prosecutors used to argue that her relationship with Paul Erickson was utilitarian and therefore she should be denied bail.

During the course of this investigation, the FBI has determined that Butina gained access through U.S. Person 1 to an extensive network of U.S. persons in positions to influence political activities in the United States. Butina, age 29, and U.S. Person 1, age 56, are believed to have cohabitated and been involved in a personal relationship during the course of Butina’s activities in the United States. But this relationship does not represent a strong tie to the United States because Butina appears to treat it as simply a necessary aspect of her activities. For example, on at least one occasion, Butina offered an individual other than U.S. Person 1 sex in exchange for a position within a special interest organization. Further, in papers seized by the FBI, Butina complained about living with U.S. Person 1 and expressed disdain for continuing to cohabitate with U.S. Person 1.

The second allegation in that paragraph — that she bitched to a friend about living with Erickson — was not credibly refuted by her lawyers. In the followup filing that Taibbi references in a link claiming that Chutkan “threw out the sex charge,” prosecutors note that,

Even granting that the government’s understanding of this particular text conversation was mistaken, other communications and materials in the government’s possession (and produced to the defense) call into doubt the defendant’s claim that her relationship with U.S. Person 1 is a sufficiently strong tie to ensure her appearance in court to face the charges against her if she is released.

Given Byrne’s claims to have told the FBI about his relationship with her before all this, the reference to her using sex and prosecutors’ suggestion it may have happened more than once appears to be parallel construction to hide something the FBI otherwise believed (that she had initiated a sexual relationship with someone Torshin sent her to meet at a time she was supposedly romantically committed to Erickson), but the source of which they were trying to keep secret.

Especially if Byrne described that sexual relationship to the FBI like he described it in his own account, by loading his description of how they first slept together with insinuations about how spectacular she is.

A gentleman does not normally say, but it would be ridiculous to omit, given how germane it is: when I arrived, Maria made immediately clear that she had not been pretending. She had indeed watched my videos, and thought I was pretty cool. She, the Greater Moscow Powerlifting Champion (amateur) swept me and my liberalism off my feet. I was helpless, helpless I say….

Well, not really. About the “helpless” part, anyway. The rest is true. And I will say this: Maria is a spectacular woman. An unforgettable woman. So as to avoid returning to the subject, I will state once that every tryst with Maria she astonished me with her intellect, character, and intentions for the world. Great props to Mother Russia, for producing such a daughter.

To keep Church Ladies from hammering me on message boards, and because it is relevant: For Maria’s part, she sounded like there were some big-shot Republicans in her life in America she was seeing, she was back and forth to Russia, nothing was too serious, etc. I didn’t really pry.

Taibbi’s story replicates such insinuation, quoting Byrne describing Butina as having “one in a million” drive and ability in the same sentence addressing the two becoming intimate.

Later, Butina and Byrne made an arrangement to meet in New York. “We became intimate,” he says. Byrne says Butina impressed him as a being “one in a million” in terms of her drive and ability.

If you’re trying to convince people a woman is not a trained Red Sparrow, separate your comments about how spectacular she is from your descriptions of how she seduced you. And if you describe her this way, don’t be surprised if the government then goes on to make similar insinuations in court documents.

In other words, it may well be that the government made this claim because of what they knew about the timing and specifics of Byrne’s sexual relationship with Butina.

Taibbi seems to believe that people didn’t take this story more seriously because journalists covering it had to address Byrne’s eccentricities, just like he had to. What he utterly misunderstands — perhaps because he relied on thirdhand reports of the investigation rather than the source documents — is that Byrne’s story makes Butina’s far more damning.

I don’t doubt the main thrust of Byrne’s claim, that he had a serial affair with Butina and after it had ended the FBI asked him to resume contact. I do, however, know (because I did cover the Butina prosecution) that his story that Butina told him Aleksandr Torshin sent her to seek out Byrne confirms parts of the allegations against Butina. And Byrne’s story completely undermines two claims Butina made as part of her defense: that she had no idea she needed to register as a foreign agent (he warned her she did) and that she was truly in love with Paul Erickson.

There may be real questions about what Byrne’s relationship was and why the government didn’t disclose it to Butina’s lawyers. But any story about those questions should — as I do here — mention that Driscoll didn’t do two things (ask in writing and ask the government’s witness at sentencing, who likely also knew about Byrne) to pursue those questions either. It suggests he suspected he might not like the answers he would get.

Plus, there’s the question about why, if Byrne changed from believing there was a 2/3 chance she was a spy in July 2018 when she got arrested and referred in terms that may reflect what he told the FBI to believing she wasn’t, he didn’t do something about it then.

But Byrne’s story actually makes the government allegations against Butina stronger, not weaker and none of Taibbi’s “careful sorting” of Byrne’s “hyperbolic storytelling” changes that.

Maria Butina’s Lawyer Changes His Story about Her Romance with Paul Erickson

There are a number of inconsistencies and sketchy claims (about who he thinks was targeted by the FBI and the timing of his disclosures) in former Overstock CEO Patrick Byrne’s claims (Sara Carter’s story, NYT story, Fox Interview, Seth Hettena Q&A, Chris Cuomo interview) that he had been a “non-standard” informant for the FBI about Maria Butina.

The short version is that she sought him out in July 2015, telling him Aleksandr Torshin had asked her to do so, then started a sexual relationship with him, then later turned her attention to networking with presidential campaigns. All along the way, Byrne claims, he kept the FBI informed and acted on their requests regarding his relationship with Butina. Then, 9 months after she was arrested, in April 2019 and at a period too late to help her sentencing, he reached out to the FBI and first without counsel (in spite of his claim to Fox that a big Republican lawyer told him he’d go to jail for the rest of his life over this) and then with a lawyer told the FBI what had happened. He attributes coming forward to a conversation with Warren Buffet, though Buffet claims not to know what he was involved with.

I may return to the oddities in Byrne’s story.

For now, however, I’d like to examine what her lawyer Robert Driscoll has claimed about Byrne.

In a letter to John Durham, DOJ’s IG, and OPR (shared with Carter), Driscoll  suggested that he should have been provided details of what Byrne shared with the FBI as Brady information.

By email, letter, phone, and in person, the defense repeatedly pressed the government for any Brady material and was not provided any. In particular, we suggested to the government a strong suspicion that counterintelligence or other FBI investigators used confidential informants (“CIs”) in their investigation of Maria, and that information provided by such witnesses to the government might be relevant to guilt or sentencing. Moreover, we suggested that the government had presented Maria with one or more “dangles” — that is, orchestrated opportunities to provide the government  information unwittingly while being observed.

In writing, the government denied the existence of any such Brady material. Orally, during debrief sessions with Maria, I directly told the government that I believed Patrick Byrne, Chief Executive of Overstock.com, who had a sporadic relationship with Maria over a period of years prior to her arrest, was a government informant. My speculation was flatly denied. My associate Alfred Carry made similar assertions in a separate debrief that he covered and was also rebuffed.

Mr. Byrne has now contacted me and has confirmed that he, indeed, had a “non-standard arrangement” with the FBI for many years, and that beginning in 2015 through Maria’s arrest, he communicated and assisted government agents with their investigation of Maria. During this time, he stated he acted at the direction of the government and federal agents by, at their instruction, kindling a manipulative romantic relationship with her. He also told me that some of the details he provided the government regarding Maria in response was exculpatory — that is, he reported to the government that Maria’s behavior with him was inconsistent with her being a foreign agent and more likely an idealist and age-appropriate peace activist.

[snip]

Byrne evidently informed the government of many meetings with political and other figures that Maria had mentioned to him, often in advance of the meetings themselves. The government did not try to intervene or try to stop any meetings, nor did they express any concern. (This undercuts the government’s position at sentencing that Maria’s activities involved collection of information that could be of “substantial intelligence value to the Russian government” or pose a “serious potential to harm U.S. foreign policy interests and national security” as those same activities were observed and permitted for years.)

At some point prior to the 2016 election, when Byrne’s contact with Maria diminished or ceased, the government asked and encouraged him to renew contact with her and he did so, continuing to inform the government of her activities. Byrne states he was informed by government agents that his pursuit and involvement with Maria (and concomitant surveillance of her) was requested and directed from the highest levels of the FBI and intelligence community.

As time passed, Byrne became more and more convinced that Maria was what she said she was–an inquisitive student in favor of better U.S.-Russian relations–and not an agent of the Russian government or someone involved in espionage or illegal activities. He states he conveyed these thoughts and the corroborating facts and observations to the government.

Now, I absolutely don’t rule out the government withholding information that would be helpful to the defense. They do that far too often, and there are good reasons to doubt the prosecutors in this case. But Driscoll’s claim that this might be a Brady violation is premised on two things: first, that the FBI really considered Byrne an informant — which is what they denied when asked directly — and that the FBI considered anything he gave them to be exculpatory.

In fact, the story Byrne told is actually quite damning to Butina. From the very start, according to what he told Sara Carter, Butina was pursuing him, not vice versa. She told him, from the very start, she had been sent by Torshin and explained (credibly, given Putin’s interests) they were interested in Byrne because of his involvement in blockchain technology. And her offer of a trip to Russia with networking there matched her M.O. in approaching the NRA.

Byrne revealed details about his intimate relationship with the Russian gun right’s activist Butina. Byrne was a keynote speaker on July, 8, 2015 at Freedom Fest, a yearly Libertarian gathering that hosts top speakers in Las Vegas. Shortly after his address, Butina approached him. She told him she was the leader of a gun right’s organization in Russia. He congratulated her, spoke to her shortly, but then “brushed her off.”

The young redheaded Russian graduate student then approached him again over the course of the conference and explained that she worked for the Vice Chairman of the Central Bank of Russia and sent by them to make contact with Byrne.

She also said “Did you know you’re a famous man in Russia in certain circles? We watch your Youtube videos, we know about your relationship with Milton Friedman.”

She said she was appointed to lead Russia’s gun right’s group by Lieutenant-General Mikhail Kalashnikov, who was a Russian general, most notably known for his AK-47 machine gun design. Byrne says he considered the designation by Kalashnikov a significant honor, a signal of a kind he knows some mythical figures make on their way out. Byrne then had an “extensive conversation about Russian history and political situation.  Butina told him that the purpose of her visit was primarily to extend an invitation to Byrne to come to Russia to speak at the Central Bank. After that, there would be a trip to a major resort to meet with various intellectuals and dignitaries from the Russian power structure. Butina told Byrne the event would offer him the opportunity to meet senior Russian officials and oligarchs. She wanted to see Byrne again to start preparing him for such a trip.

Even more significantly, as Byrne tells it, after Butina first suggested she was using a romantic relationship with him as cover to explain their communications, she’s the one who first pushed sex.

He rented a hotel room with two bedrooms because he was under the impression that the romantic texts were simply her way to cover for communicating with him. However, she arrived at the hotel beforehand, occupied the room before Byrne’s arrival, and when he arrived,  she made clear that her flirtatious texts were not simply a disguise.

And Byrne claims he grew quite alarmed by Butina’s interest in networking with political campaigns.

“Eventually, her conversations became less about philosophy and it became clear that she was doing things that made me quite uncomfortable,” stated Byrne. “She was basically schmoozing around with the political class and eventually she said to me at one point I want to meet anyone in the Hillary campaign, the Cruz, the Rubio campaigns.”

Butina had also told Byrne, that Torshin, the Russian politician who she had been assisting while she was in the U.S., had sent her to the United States to meet other libertarians and build relations with political figures.

Byrne also claims he told Butina she needed to disclose her activities to the government, something that directly contradicts what Butina claimed repeatedly during the sentencing process, that, “If I had known to register as a foreign agent, I would have done so without delay.”

Byrne said he warned Butina: “Maria the United States is not like Russia, and knowing powerful people ‘like oligarchs and politicians’ won’t help if the FBI believes a line has been crossed.” Byrne believed Butina was naive but not blameless. He said during the interview, “If you’re reporting to any Russian official  as you’re doing this stuff and not disclosing yourself here, there are these men in black here and they don’t really give a shit who you know here -that’s not going to save you.”

It is true that Butina repeatedly told him she wasn’t a spy and Byrne ultimately became convinced that was true. But even in his description of that, he told Carter that he believed Butina was being used by US and Russian intelligence, not that he believed she had no tie to intelligence.

Although Byrne was concerned about Butina’s possible motives, he eventually became convinced that she was an intellectual being used by both the Russians and American intelligence apparatus. She was stuck between two highly contentious and secretive governments, he claimed. He relayed those concerns to the FBI, he said.

If that’s what he told the FBI, it does nothing to make her any less of an unregistered agent of Russia.

Very significantly, though, Butina’s involvement with Byrne during the period she was supposedly in a meaningful romantic relationship with Paul Erickson refutes the claims her attorneys have made about that relationship.

As I have laid out, from the very start, Driscoll portrayed the government’s claim that she caught Paul Erickson in a honey pot as sexism, with mixed success.

Then there’s the specific government insinuation that Butina was engaged in a honey pot operation. It substantiates this two ways — first, by suggesting she’s not that into Erickson.

Further, in papers seized by the FBI, Butina complained about living with U.S. Person 1 and expressed disdain for continuing to cohabitate with U.S. Person 1.

It also alleges she offered sex for favors.

For example, on at least one occasion, Butina offered an individual other than U.S. Person 1 sex in exchange for a position within a special interest organization.

Driscoll pretty convincingly argues the government misinterpreted this last bit.

The only evidence the government relied on for its explosive claim was an excerpt from an innocuous three-year-old text exchange (attached as Exhibit 3) sent in Russia between Ms. Butina and DK, her longtime friend, assistant, and public relations man for The Right to Bear Arms gun rights group that she founded.

DK, who often drove Ms. Butina’s car and thus was listed on the insurance, took the car for its annual government-required inspection and insurance renewal, and upon completion, texted (according to government translators), “I don’t know what you owe me for this insurance they put me through the wringer.” Ms. Butina jokingly replied, “Sex. Thank you so much. I have nothing else at all. Not a nickel to my name.” DK responded: “Ugh . . . ( ”—that is, with a sad face emoticon.

Aside from the fact that Maria is friends with DK’s wife and child and treats DK like a brother, the reference to sex is clearly a joke.

We still haven’t seen the government response to this, but what Driscoll presents does support his claim this is a “sexist smear.”

But Driscoll’s dismissal of the other claim — that Butina disdained living with Erickson — is far less convincing.

[I]n response to her girlfriend’s own complaints about her boyfriend’s failure to call in three weeks (accompanied by an angry face emoji) that Maria responds that her own boyfriend (Mr. Erickson) has been “bugging the sh*t out of me with his mom” and that she has “a feeling that I am residing in a nursing home.” “Send a link to the dating app[,]”

Driscoll spins this as an attack on Erickson’s now late mother, but doesn’t address the central allegation that she likened living with her much older boyfriend to living in a nursing home. Nor that she started the exchange by saying “let’s go have some fun with guys!!!” because she was “Bored. So there.” Furthermore, Butina seemed concerned that her use of Tinder would become public because she logged in using Facebook.

Though he has been sharing schmaltzy videos of Butina and Erickson with ABC, Driscoll also doesn’t address the fact that as early as May, Butina was proffering to flip on Erickson in fraud charges in South Dakota, which would have the effect of putting her in a position to negotiate permanent visa status independent of him, while limiting her own legal exposure.

Even in her sentencing memo — long after he knew of her relationship with Byrne, according to his public statements — Driscoll claimed she moved to the US in 2016 so she could be in the same hemisphere as Erickson.

On a personal level, Erickson and Maria kept in touch after the 2013 meeting and she began a romantic relationship with him in the following year.

[snip]

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.

Among the events Butina planned to attend as part of that Diplomacy Project was the July 8-11 Freedom Fest convention where she first sought out Byrne. And before she moved to the US, she was already involved sexually with Byrne, according to his claims.

The portrayal of Butina’s relationship with Erickson as true romance has long been suspect — not only did she offer to flip on him in May 2018 (in exchange for which she might have gotten a permanent visa), but she did flip on him months before her plea deal. But if Byrne’s claims are true, it suggests she was using sexual relationships to help network in the US, and it further suggests Driscoll knew that when making claims about the import of her relationship with Erickson. If the FBI did obtain information from Byrne they chose (justifiably or not) not to release to defense attorneys, it might explain why they believed she was operating as a honey pot: because that’s what Byrne told them happened to him.

In his public comments to the NYT, Driscoll explained that Butina didn’t want to settle down (the implication is, with Byrne; he has claimed she wanted to settle down with Erickson).

“I think she admired him, but I don’t think she was looking to settle down,” Mr. Driscoll said.

In his comments to Carter, he suggests that he suspects there were other sources for the FBI.

Driscoll said there was suspicion that the FBI did not disclose all the information it had on Butina and he stated that he believed “Patrick is not the only one” who was giving information to the FBI.

“We’ve thought of several possibilities and some we are more confidant than others. I’m firmly convinced,” said Driscoll, who shared numerous letters and emails with this reporter that he exchanged with the FBI.

A seemingly disturbed homeless man, Hamdy Alex Abouhussein, who has asked to submit an amicus brief in Butina’s appeal (the public defender whom Judge Tanya Chutkan appointed to make sure that Driscoll had no conflicts when she pled guilty, AJ Kramer, is representing her in her appeal) claimed (incorrectly) that he’s the reason Butina got thrown into solitary and that FBI used Butina as a dangle to entrap him. So he also claims to have tried to provide exculpatory information.

Plainly, one cannot tell exactly when, before accepting Butina’s guilty plea, did Judge Chutkan learn of the jail’s blocking of Abouhussein’s letters to Butina, including his pictures, or the FBI dangle operation. Moreover, as the plea hearing transcript shows, Butina responded to the Judge’s sequence of questions about effectiveness of each of her then-three attorneys3, including the just-appointed for the plea negotiations role, A.J. Kramer4, who was yet to meet Abouhussein (they met outside the courtroom after the plea hearing, see pre-plea email from Abouhussein to Kramer, exh 2). Upon information and belief, Butina approved her attorneys’ performance only because they, under DOJ’s duress and a gag order, never informed her of the FBI dangle operation and surrendered to the prosecutors’ intimidation by keeping the dangle operation out of the public eye and trial record5. Admittedly, choice was either a rock or a hard place.

However, Judge Chutkan did sentence Butina to 18 months in prison after the notice of Abouhussein’s Amicus Brief Docket No. 77 was entered, which means Judge Chutkan was t/me/y presented with the “FBI dangle” and “letters blocked by Butina’s jail” Brady issues. Per Rule 51, this Honorable Court now has a lawful duty to investigate the issue of the FBI’s dangle operation that intentionally built up an oligarch-connected naive student as a false spy before casting her sex lure to hook the homeless Abouhussein, who was attending a public event at the Heritage Foundation to eat the free lunch as usual. Had he swallowed the lure6, any Grand Jury would indict this HamdySandwitch of a spy couple with ties to Putin, which explains Prosecutors’ honeypot sex allegations tainting Butina upon her arrest. Only in America!

So, yeah, there are other allegations, but Driscoll is right to suggest Byrne is more credible than, at least, this one.

But if Byrne’s story is credible, then it’s not clear that it helps Butina, at all, because it undermines the story her defense has been telling for a year.

Given her repeated assertions she’s happy with Driscoll’s representation, it’s unclear the basis for Butina’s appeal. I think the government operated in bad faith when they asked for 18 months, but that’s not a basis for an appeal. I think Driscoll made a mistake both by not arguing more forcibly that given the most relevant comparable sentence on 18 USC 951 charges, that of Carter Page recruiter Evgeny Buryakov’s 30 month sentence, a 9 month sentence would have been proportionate for someone like Butina who was neither recruiting nor operating covertly.

I also think that if Driscoll really cared about the declaration from former Assistant Director of FBI’s Counterintelligence Division, Robert Anderson Jr at her sentencing, he should have questioned what documents Anderson relied upon to judge that Butina was a spotter for Russian intelligence instead of deciding that, “I’m happy to leave the record as it is.” But if Driscoll had reason to believe the FBI had really damning information from Byrne that undercut his claims about Butina’s romance with Erickson, it might explain why he didn’t ask those questions.

The other day, Butina’s lawyer for her appeal AJ Kramer asked for an extension on his deadline to submit Butina’s appeal, which could mean he wants to add claims of Brady violations in her appeal (though he says he needs more time to consult the public record, and Driscoll and his associate Alfred Carry, by Driscoll’s own admission, never put their request for information about Byrne in writing).

But given Byrne’s public claims, it’s not actually clear that will help her case, as it mostly provides an explanation for why the FBI was so insistent on some of the allegations it did make.

Bamford’s Silence about How Maria Butina Got Thrown Back into Solitary

A number of people have asked me what I make of this piece from James Bamford, pitching the case against Maria Butina as a grave injustice, just after Paul Erickson (who may be the real intended beneficiary of this piece) was charged in the first of what is likely to be two indictments, and as the government extends her cooperation by two weeks.

There are parts that are worthwhile — such as his argument that because Butina didn’t return a bragging email from JD Gordon, it suggests she wasn’t trying to recruit him.

There are other parts I find weak.

Bamford oversells the degree to which the press sustained the serial honeypot angle — after all, some of us were debunking that claim back in September, when he appears to have been silent — without mentioning the fact that Butina first started proffering cooperation with prosecutors, presumably against Paul Erickson and George O’Neill, on September 26. The word “visa” doesn’t appear in the article’s discussion of Butina’s status as a grad student, leaving unrebutted the government’s claim that Butina chose to come to the US as a student because it provided travel privileges that served her influence operation. Bamford (who hasn’t covered the Mueller investigation) grossly overstates the significance of Mueller’s choice not to integrate Butina’s case into his own investigation. He also falsely treats all counterintelligence investigations into Russia as one ongoing investigation (see this post for my ongoing complaints about virtually everyone doing the same). He suggests that Butina will need to be traded for Paul Nicholas Whelan, when the government has already said she’ll be deported once she serves her sentence (which will likely be time served). He quotes Putin’s interest in Butina’s case, without noting that Russia has only shown the interest they showed in her in one other defendant, Yevgeniy Nikulin. And those are just a few of the details with which I take issue.

But these passages, in particular, strike me as problematic.

Since August 17, Butina has been housed at the Alexandria Detention Center, the same fortresslike building that holds Donald Trump’s former campaign manager, Paul Manafort. On November 10, she spent her 30th birthday in solitary confinement, in cell 2F02, a seven-by-ten-foot room with a steel door, cement bed, and two narrow windows, each three inches wide. She has been allowed outside for a total of 45 minutes. On December 13, Butina pleaded guilty to conspiracy to act as an unregistered agent of the Russian Federation. She faces a possible five-year sentence in federal prison.

[snip]

On November 23, 2018, Butina went to sleep on a blue mat atop the gray cement bed in her cell, her 81st day in solitary confinement. Hours later, in the middle of the night, she was awakened and marched to a new cell, 2E05, this one with a solid steel door and no food slot, preventing even the slightest communication. No reason was given, but her case had reached a critical point.

That’s true not just for the way Bamford obscures the timeline here — suggesting she was always in solitary — but because by obscuring that timeline, Bamford serves to hide that it was Bamford’s own communications with and about Butina that got her thrown back into solitary.

Butina’s lawyers laid out her protective custody status in a filing on November 27.

In addition to general population prisoners, the Alexandria detention center houses federal detainees awaiting trial before this court in “administrative segregation,” more commonly known as solitary confinement. This form of restrictive housing is not a disciplinary measure, but is purportedly used by corrections personnel to isolate inmates for their own protection or the safe operation of the facility.

[snip]

Between her commitment at the Correctional Treatment Facility in Washington, DC and then Alexandria detention center, Ms. Butina has been isolated in solitary confinement for approximately 67 days straight. Despite a subsequent release into general population that came at the undersigned’s repeated requests, correctional staff reinstated her total isolation on November 21, 2018 although no infraction nor occurrence justified the same.

The timeline they lay out makes it clear Butina was in protective custody from July 15 to around September 21, but then placed in the general population. The timeline is absolutely consistent with Butina agreeing to cooperate in order to get placed in general population (the motion to transport her was submitted September 21, so at the same time she was placed in the general population). The fact that the government uses solitary to coerce cooperation from prisoners deserves condemnation, and that definitely seems to have been at play here.

But even at a time she had active orders to be transported for cooperation (the court authorized a second request for transfer from late October through the time she pled guilty), Butina was placed back in solitary. The timeline her defense attorneys lay out, however, suggests that Bamford was incorrect in stating she was in solitary on her birthday on November 10. She wasn’t moved back to solitary until November 21.

On the afternoon of November 21, 2018, counsel received a never-before urgent phone call from a jailhouse counselor regarding Ms. Butina. The basis for that call was her return to solitary confinement. The undersigned called Chief Joseph Pankey and Captain Craig Davie in Alexandria in response. After conferring with them, however, it has become clear that the facility’s use of administrative segregation is a false pretext to mask an indefinite solitary confinement that is unjust and without cause.

Staff purported to base their decision to segregate on Ms. Butina referring a fellow inmate to her lawyers (that is, she gave her lawyers’ phone number to a fellow inmate), but staff did not find a disciplinary violation—major or minor. Chief Pankey and Captain Davie then resorted to the decision being “for her safety,” knowing that administrative segregation disallows an appeal internally.

As of the date of this filing, Ms. Butina has now been in solitary confinement for 22 hours a day for 6 consecutive days with no prospective release date. According to at least one deputy, the move to solitary confinement has also not been entered into the Alexandria detention center computer system, and Ms. Butina’s status is disclosed only by a piece of tape with handwriting attached to the guard stand.

And that’s important because of a detail that Bamford remains utterly silent about.

As laid out in a hearing transcript, around that time, the government recorded calls from Butina to “certain journalists” suggesting the journalist consult someone who had her lawyers’ first name.

DRISCOLL: The conflict raised by the government, I think the government does not think there’s been any violation of order by defense counsel, but due to circumstances regarding recorded calls that the government had of Ms. Butina and to certain journalists, the government raised the concern to us; and we wanted to raise it with the Court so that there would be no question when the plea is entered that the plea is knowing and voluntary, and we wanted to kind of preemptively, if necessary, get Ms. Butina separate counsel briefly to advise her on her rights, to make sure that she got her constitutional right to conflict-free advice.

[snip]

MR. KENERSON: The basic nature of the potential conflict is that this Court, I think, issued in an order back in September regarding Local Rule 57.7. The government has some jail calls from Ms. Butina in which she is talking to a reporter numerous times on those calls. She makes some references on those calls to individuals who could be — we don’t know that they’re defense counsel, but shares first name with defense counsel potentially acting as go-between at a certain point. That’s part one of the potential conflict. Part two is —

THE COURT: Wait. So, wait. Stop. Part one is a potential conflict. Do you see a conflict because you believe she’s acting at the behest of her attorneys or as a conduit for her attorneys to violate the Court’s order?

MR. KENERSON: It’s — someone viewing that in the light least favorable to defense counsel might be able to argue that this is some quantum of evidence that defense counsel possibly were engaged in assisting Ms. Butina in violating the Court’s order.

THE COURT: All right. But that goes to whether counsel, with the aid of his client, violated my — and I’ll use the colloquial term for it, my “gag order.” How does that go to — and maybe you’ll tell me; I cut you off. But how does that go to the voluntariness of her plea?

MR. KENERSON: So if there is an allegation that defense counsel assisting her somehow in violating the, again, to use the colloquial term the “gag order,” that would give defense counsel a reason to want to basically plead the case to avoid that potential violation from becoming public. And curry favor with the government.

Driscoll went on to explain why his client was talking to a journalist with whom she had a friendship that “predates all of this” in spite of her being subject to a gag order.

The circumstances, just so the Court’s aware, Ms. Butina has a friendship with a particular journalist that predates all of this. The journalist was working on a story about Ms. Butina prior to any of this coming up, prior to her Senate testimony, prior to her arrest, and had numerous on-the-record conversations with her prior to any of this happening. At the time the gag order was entered, I took the step of informing the journalist that, although he could continue to talk to Ms. Butina, he could not use any of their post gag-order conversations as the basis for any reporting, and the journalist has not, in any event, made any public statement or done any public reporting on the case to date.

Bamford’s own description of “a number of long lunches starting last March at a private club in downtown Washington, D.C.” make it clear he is the journalist in question.

Judge Chutkan was none too impressed with Driscoll’s advice.

THE COURT: Well, putting aside the questionable advisability of having your client talk to a reporter while she is pending trial and there’s a gag order present — and I understand you told the reporter that they couldn’t make any public statements, but as a former criminal defense attorney myself, I find that curious strategy.

Now, to be clear: Bamford never did publish anything on Butina during the period when the gag was in place (Chutkan lifted the gag on December 21). Even if Bamford had published something during that period, so long as Bamford did respect Driscoll’s advice that their ongoing conversations should be off the record, there was nothing Bamford could publish that would directly reflect her own statements.

And there’s very good reason to question whether the government threw Butina back into solitary because Bamford was reporting on her treatment. That is, it’s not outside the realm of our criminal justice system that Butina was placed back in solitary because a reporter had been tracking her case since before the investigation became public.

Instead of laying out the case for that, however, Bamford instead hides his own role in the process.

To be honest, I think the story is better understood as one about Paul Erickson and not Maria Butina. This story won’t help her at sentencing — that’s going to be based on her cooperation, not what a journalist who has already antagonized the government says about her. But it may help to spin Erickson and George O’Neill’s interest, as well as that of the NRA.

The public record certainly sustains the case that the government used solitary to induce Butina to cooperate — presumably to cooperate against Erickson and O’Neill. That certainly merits attention.

But then the government also used solitary to cut off Butina’s communications with Bamford himself. If it’s this story the government was retaliating against, Bamford should say that, rather than obscuring it.

This is a story about America’s reprehensible use of solitary confinement. But it doesn’t explain a key part of that process here. Given that the story seems to most benefit Erickson, I find that silence remarkable.

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.