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.


Ex-Theranos president Balwani sentenced to nearly 13 years for fraud

Updated 08 December 2022

Ex-Theranos president Balwani sentenced to nearly 13 years for fraud

  • Once valued at $9 billion, Theranos promised to revolutionize how patients receive diagnoses by replacing traditional labs with small machines

A US judge on Wednesday sentenced former Theranos Inc. President Ramesh “Sunny” Balwani to 12 years and 11 months in prison on charges of defrauding investors and patients of the blood testing startup led by Elizabeth Holmes, a spokesperson for the US attorney’s office confirmed.
US District Judge Edward Davila in San Jose, California, imposed the sentence on Balwani, who was convicted by a jury on two counts of conspiracy and 10 counts of fraud in July.
Prosecutors said Balwani, 57, conspired with Holmes, 38, to deceive Silicon Valley investors into believing the company had achieved miniaturized machines that could accurately run a broad array of medical diagnostic tests from a small amount of blood.
Meanwhile, the company secretly relied on traditional methods to run tests and provided patients with inaccurate results, prosecutors said.
Holmes, who started the company as a college student and became its public face, was indicted alongside Balwani, her former romantic partner, in 2018.
Davila later granted each a separate trial after Holmes said she would take the stand and testify that Balwani was abusive in their relationship. He has denied the allegations.
Holmes was convicted in January on four counts of fraud and conspiracy but acquitted of defrauding patients.
Davila sentenced Holmes to 11-1/4 years in prison at a hearing last month, calling Theranos a venture “dashed by untruths, misrepresentations, plain hubris and lies.”
Prosecutors subsequently argued Balwani should receive 15 years in prison, saying he knew Theranos’ tests were inaccurate from overseeing the company’s laboratory operations, and decided to “prioritize Theranos’ financial health over patients’ real health.”
The probation office had recommended a nine-year sentence.
Balwani’s attorneys asked for a sentence of probation, arguing that he sought to make the world a better place through Theranos and was not motivated by fame or greed.
Once valued at $9 billion, Theranos promised to revolutionize how patients receive diagnoses by replacing traditional labs with small machines envisioned for use in homes, drugstores and even on the battlefield.
The company collapsed after a series of Wall Street Journal articles in 2015 questioned its technology. The case is US v. Balwani, US District Court, Northern District of California, No. 18-cr-00258. 


New Peru president sworn in after predecessor Castillo ousted

Updated 08 December 2022

New Peru president sworn in after predecessor Castillo ousted

LIMA: Peru’s Congress swore in a new president on Wednesday in a day of sweeping political drama that saw the former leader, Pedro Castillo, ousted in an impeachment trial hours after he attempted a last-ditch bid to stay in power by trying to dissolve Congress.
Ignoring Castillo’s attempt to shut down the legislature by decree, lawmakers moved ahead with the previously planned impeachment trial, with 101 votes in favor of removing him, six against and 10 abstentions.
The result was announced with loud cheers, and the legislature called Vice President Dina Boluarte to take office.
Boluarte was sworn in as president through 2026, making her the first woman to lead Peru. She called for a political truce to overcome the crisis and said a new cabinet inclusive of all political stripes would be formed.
She lambasted Castillo’s move to dissolve Congress as an “attempted coup.”
Peru’s national police shared an image on Twitter of Castillo sitting unrestrained at a police station after the vote to remove him and said that it had “intervened” to fulfill its duties. It was unclear if he had been detained.
Castillo earlier had said he would temporarily shut down Congress, launch a “government of exception” and call for new legislative elections.
That sparked resignations by his ministers amid angry accusations from both opposition politicians and his allies that he was attempting a coup. The police and Armed Forces warned him that the route he had taken to try to dissolve Congress was unconstitutional.
Some small, fairly subdued street protests took place. In Lima, dozens of people waving Peruvian flags cheered Castillo’s downfall, while elsewhere in the capital and in the city of Arequipa his supporters marched. One held a sign saying: “Pedro, the people are with you.”
The Government Palace and Congress in Lima were surrounded by metal barricades and dozens of police officers donning shields and plastic helmets.
Peru has gone through years of political turmoil, with multiple leaders accused of corruption, frequent impeachment attempts, and presidential terms cut short.
The latest legal battle began in October, when the prosecutor’s office filed a constitutional complaint against Castillo for allegedly leading “a criminal organization” to profit from state contracts and for obstructing investigations.
Congress summoned Castillo last week to respond to accusations of “moral incapacity” to govern.
Castillo has called the allegations “slander” by groups seeking “to take advantage and seize the power that the people took from them at the polls.”
The leftist teacher-turned-president had survived two previous attempts to impeach him since he began his term in July 2021.
But after Wednesday’s attempt to dissolve Congress his allies abandoned him and regional powers underlined the need for democratic stability.
“The United States categorically rejects any extra-constitutional act by President Castillo to prevent Congress from fulfilling its mandate,” the US ambassador to Peru, Lisa Kenna, wrote on Twitter.
The turmoil rattled markets in the world’s No. 2 copper producer, though analysts said that the removal of Castillo, who has battled a hostile Congress since taking power, could be a positive for investors.
Peru’s sol currency fell over 2 percent against the dollar at its session low before recovering slightly to trade down 1.4 percent.
“Peru’s financial markets will suffer, but won’t collapse, thanks mainly to solid domestic fundamentals,” said Andres Abadia at Pantheon Macroeconomics.


Putin acknowledges Russia's war in Ukraine could be a long one

Updated 08 December 2022

Putin acknowledges Russia's war in Ukraine could be a long one

  • In his remarks Putin said the risk of a nuclear war was growing
  • Russia launched what it calls its “special military operation” in February

LONDON/KYIV: Russian President Vladimir Putin has acknowledged that his army could be fighting in Ukraine for a long time, but for now there will be no second call-up of soldiers.
Putin has rarely spoken about the likely duration of a war that he began more than nine months ago, and in a televised meeting with loyalists on Wednesday, he said, “This can be a long process.”
Russia has been forced into a series of significant retreats in the face of Ukrainian counter-offensives, waged with increasing stocks of Western weaponry, in the east and south since July.
Russia launched what it calls its “special military operation” in February, saying Ukraine’s deepening ties with the West posed a security threat. Kyiv and its allies say the invasion amounts to an imperialist land grab.
In his remarks Putin said the risk of a nuclear war was growing — the latest in a series of such warnings apparently meant to deter Kyiv’s Western backers from more robust involvement — but that Russia would not threaten recklessly to use such weapons.
“We haven’t gone mad, we realize what nuclear weapons are,” Putin said. “We have these means in more advanced and modern form than any other nuclear country ... But we aren’t about to run around the world brandishing this weapon like a razor.”
Around 150,000 of the 300,000 reservists called up in September and October were deployed in Ukraine, 77,000 in combat units, he said. The remaining 150,000 were still at training centers.
“Under these conditions, talk about any additional mobilization measures simply makes no sense,” Putin said.
Russia’s economy has overcome the short-term slump caused by the partial mobilization order, but the disinflationary impact it had in reducing consumer demand has practically disappeared, the central bank said on Wednesday.
Despite recent retreats on the battlefield, including the loss of Kherson, the one Ukrainian provincial capital Russia captured, Putin has said he has no regrets about launching a war that is Europe’s most devastating since World War Two.
He said Russia had already achieved a “significant result” with the acquisition of “new territories” — a reference to the annexation of four partly occupied regions in September that Ukraine and most members of the United Nations condemned as illegal.
Russian forces have fired more than 1,000 rockets and missiles at Ukraine’s power grid, which is still working despite taking major damage, Interfax Ukraine news agency reported on Wednesday, citing Volodymyr Kudrytsky, chief executive of the Ukrenergo grid operator.
Eight recent waves of Russian air strikes on critical infrastructure have seriously damaged the grid and led to emergency and planned outages across the country, including in the capital Kyiv, a city of three million.
Kyiv Mayor Vitali Klitschko warned of an “apocalypse” scenario without power, running water or heat this winter if Russian air strikes on infrastructure continue. He said there was no need for residents to evacuate now, though they should be ready to do so.
Kyiv could be left without central heating at a time when temperatures can fall as low as -15 degrees Celsius (5 degrees Fahrenheit), Klitschko said in an interview with Reuters.
Russia’s ally Belarus said it was moving troops and military hardware to counteract what it called a threat of terrorism, amid signs that Moscow may be pressing Minsk to open a new front in Ukraine as the war has bogged down.
President Alexander Lukashenko, who relied on Russian troops to put down a popular revolt two years ago, has so far kept his own army from joining the war in Ukraine. Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu flew unannounced to the capital Minsk on Saturday, and he and Belarusian counterpart Viktor Khrenin signed amendments to the two countries’ security cooperation agreement, without disclosing the new terms.
On Wednesday, the Belarusian Security Council, quoted by state news agency Belta, said troops and hardware would be moving in the country over the next two days, with imitation weapons used for training. It provided no details about the number of troops or types of hardware that would be moved.
Thousands of Russian troops have deployed in Belarus since October, Ukraine says, and Belarus authorities have increasingly spoken of a threat of “terrorism” from partisans operating from across the border. Lukashenko has ordered his military to compile information about reservists by the end of this year.


Ukraine conflict intrudes on UN biodiversity summit

Updated 07 December 2022

Ukraine conflict intrudes on UN biodiversity summit

  • The broadsides by the European Union and New Zealand came after Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky accused Moscow of "ecocide"
  • Russia fired back that the meeting was an inappropriate forum and accused its critics of attempting to sabotage a new global deal for nature

MONTREAL: The Ukraine conflict cast a shadow over a high-stakes UN summit on biodiversity in Montreal on Wednesday, as Western nations slammed the environmental destruction brought about by Russia’s invasion.
The broadsides by the European Union and New Zealand — which spoke on behalf of other countries, including the United States — came after Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky accused Moscow of “ecocide” and of devastating his country’s dolphin population.
Russia fired back that the meeting was an inappropriate forum and accused its critics of attempting to sabotage a new global deal for nature.
“The war brings about pollution and long-term environmental degradation, destroying protected areas and natural habitats,” Hugo Schally, an EU representative at the meeting, known as COP15, said.
“While the war rages on, it blocks much needed action on nature conservation and restoration,” he added.
New Zealand’s Rosemary Paterson, speaking for the JUSCANZ group that includes Japan, Australia and the United States, added: “The widespread environmental destruction and transboundary harm caused by Russia’s military aggression against Ukraine cannot go unnoticed in this forum.”
Invoking a right-of-reply, Russian delegate Denis Rebrikov said: “We resolutely refute allegations against us as being outside the scope of this COP on biodiversity.”
He added that conflicts of the recent past — such as those in Iraq, Libya, Afghanistan and Syria — were not brought up at environmental summits, despite the harms done to ecosystems.
“It’s hard to avoid the impression that these countries are deliberately trying to sabotage the adoption of a global framework” on biodiversity, added Rebrikov.
Earlier in the day, President Zelensky of Ukraine said tens of thousands of dead dolphins had washed up on the Black Sea and accused Russia of “ecocide.” Ukrainian scientists have blamed military sonar used by Russian warships for the disaster.
Delegates from across the world have gathered from December 7 to 19 in Canada to try to hammer out a new deal for nature: a 10-year framework aimed at saving the planet’s forests, oceans and species before it’s too late.
Draft targets include a cornerstone pledge to protect 30 percent of the world’s land and seas by 2030, eliminating harmful fishing and agriculture subsidies and tackling invasive species and reducing pesticides.


Ukraine’s Zelensky named Time’s 2022 ‘Person of the Year’

Updated 07 December 2022

Ukraine’s Zelensky named Time’s 2022 ‘Person of the Year’

  • Time says Zelensky inspired Ukrainians, won global accolades for courage in resisting Russia
  • Tesla Inc. Chief Executive Officer Elon Musk was named Time’s “Person of the Year” in 2021

Time magazine named Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky 2022’s “Person of the Year” on Wednesday, saying he inspired Ukrainians and won global accolades for his courage in resisting Russia’s devastating invasion.

Refusing to leave Ukraine’s capital of Kyiv at the outbreak of the war as Russian bombs rained down, the former comedian rallied his compatriots in broadcasts from the capital and traveled across his war-torn nation, the publication noted in bestowing its annual title.

On Tuesday, Zelensky visited Ukrainian troops near the front lines in eastern Ukraine.

“Zelensky’s success as a wartime leader has relied on the fact that courage is contagious. It spread through Ukraine’s political leadership in the first days of the invasion, as everyone realized the president had stuck around,” Time wrote in acknowledging the 44-year-old leader.

This image courtesy of TIME/TIME Person of the Year shows the cover of Time magazine announcing Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky as the 2022 Person of the Year. (AFP/NEIL JAMIESON/TIME/TIME PERSON OF THE YEAR)

Tesla Inc. Chief Executive Officer Elon Musk was named Time’s “Person of the Year” in 2021, a year that saw his electric car company become the most valuable carmaker in the world. Time began this tradition in 1927.