DOJ: Arrested Russian Agent Built Back Channel at National Prayer Breakfast, Gun-Rights Events

Attendees listen to remarks at the National Prayer Breakfast Feb. 2, 2017, in Washington. (Win Mcnamee/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images)

WASHINGTON — The Justice Department today announced the arrest of an accused Russian agent who prosecutors say was “developing relationships with U.S. persons and infiltrating organizations having influence in American politics, for the purpose of advancing the interests of the Russian Federation.”

According to the criminal complaint unsealed in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, Maria Butina, 29, was taken into custody on Sunday and was ordered held pending a Wednesday hearing.

The DOJ charges that from 2015 through at least February 2017 Butina worked at the direction of a high-level official in the Russian government — believed to be Alexander Torshin, the state secretary-deputy governor of the Central Bank of the Russian Federation who was sanctioned by the Treasury Department in April — and at times with “an American political operative in Moscow” (identified as U.S. Person 1) to “jointly arrange introductions to U.S. persons having influence in American politics for the purpose of advancing the agenda of the Russian Federation.”

Butina “would work on behalf of the official of the Russian Federation by attempting to establish unofficial lines of communications with U.S. politicians and political organizations” and then transmit reports and receive orders from Russia via “email, Twitter direct message, and other means.”

According to the affidavit, Butina arranged various “friendship and dialogue” dinners in New York and D.C. between influential Russians and American political figures as part of a “diverse and multifaceted” influence operation. A goal was “establishing relationships with American political organizations,” including an unnamed “gun rights organization.”

In March 2015, the affidavit continues, Butina emailed U.S. Person 1 “Project Description ‘Diplomacy,'” which included the subject line “The Second Pozner” (believed by the FBI to refer to the Soviet disinformation work of Vladimir Pozner) and stated that unidentified “Political Party 1” was likely to take control of the U.S. government after the 2016 elections and though “traditionally associated with negative and aggressive foreign policy, particularly with regards to Russia” but was now was “best to build konstruktivnyh [sic] relations” with the gun-rights group, identified in other reports as the NRA, being a closely-tied conduit and “the largest sponsor of elections to the U.S. congress, as well as a sponsor of The CPAC conference and other events.” The email detailed her relationships within the gun-rights community and her attendance at U.S. events. Butina requested $125,000 to participate in “all upcoming major conferences” tied to the political party.

Among the communications recovered from Butina’s laptop is an alleged plan for the Russian official to meet with an unidentified U.S. congressman during a delegation trip to Moscow in August 2015.

Butina also attended two National Prayer Breakfasts to foster contacts; an email revealed that the organizer promised her 10 seats at the 2017 event. Another communication said that the Russian official was handpicking attendees as, Butina wrote, “they are coming to establish a back channel of communication.” After the Feb. 2, 2017, breakfast, Butina emailed an organizer to promise “important information for you to further this new relationship” and requested a meeting.

On Oct. 4, 2016, according to the affidavit, U.S. Person 1 sent an email to an acquaintance stating that a “VERY private line of communication between the Kremlin and key [Political Party 1] leaders” had been established through the gun-rights organization.

The Justice Department said Butina, who said one of the emails that she was working on her master’s degree at American University, did not register as a foreign agent.

She is charged with conspiracy to act as an agent of a foreign government, which carries a penalty of up to five years behind bars.