US arrests, accuses woman of acting as Russian agent

Maria Butina. (Facebook)
Updated 17 July 2018

US arrests, accuses woman of acting as Russian agent

  • Butina, a Russian national who has been living in the US, was charged with conspiracy to act as an unregistered agent of the Russian government
  • The charging documents include several emails and Twitter direct message conversations

WASHINGTON: A 29-year-old gun-rights activist served as a covert Russian agent while living in Washington, gathering intelligence on American officials and political organizations and working to establish back-channel lines of communications for the Kremlin, federal prosecutors charged Monday.
The announcement of the arrest of Maria Butina came just hours after President Donald Trump met with Russian President Vladimir Putin and just days after special counsel Robert Mueller charged 12 Russian intelligence officials with directing a sprawling hacking effort aimed at swaying the 2016 election.
Mueller didn’t file the charge against Butina, but court papers show her activities revolved around American politics during the 2016 campaign and included efforts to use contacts with the National Rifle Association to develop relationships with US politicians and gather intelligence for Russia.
Court papers also reveal that an unnamed American who worked with Butina claimed to have been involved in setting up a “private line of communication” ahead of the 2016 election between the Kremlin and “key” officials in an American political party through the NRA.
The court papers do not name the political party mentioned in the October 2016 message, but they contain details that appear to refer to the Republican Party. The documents don’t say whether the back channel was ever established.
The NRA, which has previously been connected to Butina in public reporting and information released by members of Congress, did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
Butina, a Russian national who has been living in the US, was charged with conspiracy to act as an unregistered agent of the Russian government. A federal judge in Washington ordered her jailed until a hearing set for Wednesday, according to a statement from the Justice Department and Jessie Liu, the US Attorney for the District of Columbia.
In a statement, Butina’s attorney, Robert Driscoll, called the allegations “overblown” and said prosecutors had criminalized mundane networking opportunities. Driscoll said Butina was not an agent of the Russian Federation but was instead in the US on a student visa, graduating from American University with a master’s degree in international relations.
“There is simply no indication of Ms. Butina seeking to influence or undermine any specific policy or law or the United States — only at most to promote a better relationship between the two nations,” Driscoll said in a statement. “The complaint is simply a misuse of the Foreign Agent statute, which is designed to punish covert propaganda, not open and public networking by foreign students.”
He said Butina’s Washington apartment was raided by the FBI in April, and said she had offered to answer questions from the Justice Department and Mueller’s team but the special counsel’s office “has not expressed interest.”
Court papers filed in support of Butina’s arrest accuse her of participating in a conspiracy that began in 2015 in which an unnamed senior Russian official “tasked” her with working to infiltrate American political organizations with the goal of “reporting back to Moscow” what she had learned.
The charging documents include several emails and Twitter direct message conversations in which she refers to the need to keep her work secret or, in one case, “incognito.”
Authorities did not name the Kremlin official accused of directing Butina’s efforts, but details in the court papers match the description of Alexander Torshin, a Russian official who has been publicly connected to her.
Torshin, who became an NRA life member in 2012, was among a group of Russian oligarchs and officials targeted in April with Treasury Department sanctions for their associations with Putin and their roles in “advancing Russia’s malign activities.” Torshin, who was listed as “State Secretary-deputy Governor of the Central Bank of the Russian Federation,” was designated under the sanctions as a Russian official.
The sanctions affect the targeted Russians by freezing all of their assets subject to US jurisdiction and banning Americans and US businesses from conducting transactions with them.
Prosecutors say Butina, at the official’s direction, met with US politicians and candidates, attended events sponsored by special interest groups — including two National Prayer Breakfast events — and organized Russian-American “friendship and dialogue” dinners in Washington as part of her work.
Court papers also show that after the 2016 election, Butina worked to set up a Russian delegation’s visit to the 2017 National Prayer Breakfast, describing it in an email as an effort to “establish a back channel of communication.” After the visit, Butina emailed the organizer of the breakfast thanking him for a gift and “for the very private meeting” that followed the breakfast.
“A new relationship between two countries always begins better when it begins in faith,” Butina wrote, saying she had “important information” that would further the new relationship.
Two days later, she emailed another American who had been involved in some of the email communication surrounding the prayer breakfast and her efforts to arrange several dinners between Russians and people involved in US politics.
“Our delegation cannot stop chatting about your wonderful dinner,” Butina wrote. “My dearest President has received ‘the message’ about your group initiatives and your constructive and kind attention to the Russians.”
Butina has previously surfaced in US media reports related to her gun-rights advocacy.
In 2011, she founded a pro-gun organization in Russia, the Right to Bear Arms, and she has been involved in coordinating between American gun rights activists and their Russian counterparts, according to reports in The New York Times, Time and the Daily Beast.
Butina hosted several leading NRA executives and pro-gun conservatives at her group’s annual meeting in 2015, according to those reports. Among those who attended were former NRA President David Keene, conservative political operative Paul Erickson and former Milwaukee County Sheriff David Clarke, later a strong Trump supporter.
Butina also says she met with Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker at his presidential campaign launch event in 2015, according to a report by Mother Jones magazine earlier this year.


Is Prevent program fit for purpose?

Updated 08 December 2019

Is Prevent program fit for purpose?

  • UK counter-radicalization initiative faces criticism ahead of first review

LONDON: On Nov. 26, three days before the London Bridge terrorist attack, Shadow Home Secretary Diane Abbott told supporters that, if elected, a Labour government would conduct a review of the Prevent program, one of Britain’s most controversial counter-extremism initiatives.

Prevent was created in 2003 to support Britons vulnerable to radicalization, and to stop them from supporting terrorism.

In 2015, the government introduced a statutory duty requiring prisons workers, teachers and doctors to report worries about people considered at risk of turning to radicalism and terror.

Critics say the duty has a chilling effect on free speech and turns public sector workers into informers on their colleagues, creating an atmosphere of distrust.

But some Britons working under the Prevent duty say it has rarely been part of their professional lives.

Dr. Paul Stott, a research fellow at the Henry Jackson Society, a London-based think tank, said in his 11 years of teaching about security and terrorism in five British universities, he never received any communication about Prevent from the university hierarchy. 

“This is a problem,” he told Arab News: “The lack of proper communication about Prevent creates a vacuum of discussion, which has been exploited by activists opposed to the program.”

He said the Labour Party had been successfully lobbied by British Islamic groups to whom Prevent is a “die in a ditch” issue. 

“Organizations such as CAGE and the Muslim Council of Britain contest Prevent as their central activity,” he added.

“It’s painted by these groups as an anti-Muslim program, which is remarkable considering the diversity of the British Muslim population, many of whom are supporters of the UK’s counter-terrorism strategy.”

Abbott criticized the Home Office’s decision in August to appoint Lord Carlile to head the government’s Prevent review “because he has spoken in favor of it.” 

But Stott said anyone the government appointed would receive a barrage of criticism as Labour and anti-Prevent NGOs would aim to hit the review before it had started.

He said: “Lord Carlile has been involved in counter-radicalization for decades, and was central to the prosecution of far-right figure Nick Griffin in the 1990s.”

When asked how the UK could improve its counter-terror strategy in light of the London Bridge attack and heightened concern about returning Daesh fighters, Stott referred to Australia’s “Declared area offense” law, which criminalizes entering or remaining in a declared area of a foreign country. 

Syria’s Raqqa province and the Iraqi city of Mosul have both recently been subject to this regulation.

Yasmine Ahmed, director of Rights Watch (UK), said a review of Prevent needs to be the first step in developing a stronger counter-terrorism strategy.

“This has to be a job for the government using a thorough, methodological and evidence-based approach,” she told Arab News. 

“It’s not up to think tanks and NGOs to promote their own preferred counter-terrorism policies.”

Ahmed said there is no evidence to support the theoretical underpinning of Prevent. 

“The broad indicators that the government uses to identify extremism lack an evidential basis, and coupled with the overly vague and broad definition of extremism, gives rise to a huge number of misguided referrals and results in pervasive human rights and societal harms,” she added.

“Prevent is being used as a soft surveillance tool against persons who’ve committed no crimes, the vast majority of whom don’t even end up being onward referred to the Channel program,” she said. Channel is Prevent’s de-radicalization program, led by the police and Muslims who oppose anti-Western rhetoric. 

“The government is collecting information about people, including children, on a secret Prevent database, and people have no way of knowing that they’re on this database and thereby challenging it,” she added.

“Lord Carlile completely lacks independence from the policy of Prevent, as well as the ongoing debate about the legitimacy and effectiveness of the policy.” 

His appointment is currently the subject of a legal challenge from Rights Watch (UK), which described the proposed review as a “whitewash.” 

Lord  Carlile has dismissed concerns about Prevent as arguments made to “liberate the activities of some who are opposed to the very essence of our democratic way of life.”  This, Rights Watch (UK) says, “fundamentally undermines any trust and faith in the process and outcome.”

Ahmed concluded: “It’s critical that this review is genuinely independent; our lives and liberty are at stake.”

Britain’s security policy is fraught with division. Competing think tanks, NGOs and politicians all have their own policy preferences and ideological positions. But after a decade of heightened terrorist-related concerns, and with many British radicals having been referred to the Prevent program but unsuccessfully prevented from carrying out attacks, many agree that now is the time to review the initiative.