What the mainstream is saying about “Russian spy” Maria Butina is fake news.
By Phil Giraldi
I am somewhat perplexed about the furor over alleged “Russian spy” Maria Butina, a 29-year-old Russian woman currently living in Washington, who was arrested three weeks ago and charged with conspiracy in acting as an agent of the Russian government tasked with developing ties with American citizens and infiltrating certain political groups. She is reportedly being held in solitary confinement and not allowed bail as she is considered a “flight risk.”
Miss Butina, a student at American University and a co-founder of the pro-gun rights Russian advocacy organization Right to Bear Arms, is charged with operating under the direction of Alexander Torshin, a high-level official reportedly close to President Vladimir Putin who currently works for the Russian Central Bank. According to the Justice Department, Torshin was recently sanctioned by the U.S. Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control over information provided by the Spanish government indicating that he has been involved in the past in money laundering, a charge which he denies.
It is important to note that Torshin is not an intelligence officer. Nor has he ever been accused of spying. He is a banker and so-called oligarch, admittedly with powerful political friends in Russia. And Miss Butina was not acting as a spy nor as an intelligence officer seeking to obtain classified information or develop potential agents in the United States. She operated completely openly to cultivate relationships in her areas of interest and was not engaged in espionage in any traditional sense. She did not communicate secretly with Moscow, which is why the FBI was able to obtain her emails that it considers to be suspicious.
Miss Butina was not actually charged with trying to recruit American citizens to act covertly on behalf of Russia or to promote Moscow’s international agenda, whatever that might be, though there was considerable innuendo in the court documents suggesting just that. She was caught sending emails, attending classes at college, and arguing to defend her homeland. And, most of all, she was networking, which is completely legal even here in the post-9/11 United States, where basic rights have been vanishing on an almost daily basis. One might even describe her as a bit of a “hustler,” that old fashioned expression for an opportunist working the circuit of the rich and powerful. When the 2016 election results came in, she exuberantly posted a message about the Trump victory on a Russian social media site saying,
“A supporter of the rights to arms and the restoration of relations with Russia. Congratulate [sic] everyone!”
Miss Butina, suspected of serving as a directed agent of the Russian government acting through Torshin, allegedly was attempting to create relationships with right-wing elements in the U.S. She has actually only been charged with conspiracy relating to her claimed relationship with Torshin and failure to register as a foreign agent. Registration for individuals or groups acting on behalf of a foreign government is required under the Foreign Agents Registration Act of 1938 (FARA). The FBI apparently has obtained her emails suggesting that she was taking direction from Torshin to do certain things that would enhance her profile with the National Rifle Association (NRA) and other conservative groups that were allegedly being targeted.
It is highly unusual to arrest anyone for violation of FARA, suggesting that the authorities are seeking to pressure Miss Butina into revealing additional information that will ultimately demonstrate a grand Russian plot to infiltrate American institutions. The normal penalty being required under FARA is for that group or individual to register, sometimes after payment of a fine. Russian government media outlets “RT America” and “Sputnik News” were recently required to register, and did so, to comply with Treasury Department demands. Meanwhile, ex-congressmen who go on to serve as agents of foreign governments as lobbyists have been known to violate FARA and not one of them has ever been arrested and jailed.
In any event, it would be difficult to imagine why anyone would consider the NRA to be a legitimate intelligence target. It only flexes its admittedly powerful legislative muscles over issues relating to gun ownership, not regarding policy on Russia. And as for the Russian equivalent, the Right to Bear Arms, I can personally testify that the group appears to be completely legitimate. I was in Moscow in December 2015 speaking at a conference and noted the organization’s gathering at a hotel for its own annual meeting. I might have even met Miss Butina and Torshin at that time after I wandered in and spoke with a number of members, all of whom appeared to be personally engaged and completely legitimate, well able to explain the virtues of gun ownership in Russia.
Guns, including Kalashnikov assault rifles, were on sale at the event. Russia does, in fact, have nearly 7 million registered gun owners. The process of obtaining a license is onerous, but it can be done and Right to Bear Arms is dedicated to making the registration easier and guns more accessible.
In short, Miss Butina and by extension Torshin have done nothing wrong. Both are energetic advocates for their country and gun rights, which they appear to believe in, and Miss Butina has broken no law except not registering, which in itself assumes that she is a Russian government agent, something that has not been demonstrated. To put the shoe on the other foot, will every American who now travels to Russia and engages in political conversations with local people be suspected of acting as an agent of the U.S. government? Once you open the door, it swings both ways.
As always, the hypocrisy in the U.S. case, which might reasonably be viewed as part of the current hysteria about Russia, is manifest. The nation of Israel has literally hundreds of paid lobbyists swarming all over Capitol Hill pushing hard on issues being promoted by the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Many of the objectives of the lobbying are damaging to the United States, to include advocating a war with Iran, but not a single one of those lobbyists or the Jewish groups they represent has ever been required to register with FARA. But if you are a Russian and you are caught talking to anyone in any way influential, there is apparently hell to pay. You are automatically assumed to be part of a conspiracy.
The irony is, of course, that the Israelis and their American enablers really are part of a conspiracy to subvert America’s government and institutions and they get away with it while the Russian agenda, if there is one, remains to be proven.
Philip Giraldi is a former CIA counter-terrorism specialist and military intelligence officer and a columnist and television commentator. He is also the executive director of the Council for the National Interest. Other articles by Giraldi can be found on the website of the Unz Review.