Alleged Russian spy Maria Butina offered sexual favors, wove elaborate backstories, and schmoozed with political operatives. And as it turns out, she’s only the most recent in a long line.
Just the FAQs, USA TODAY
Russian spy tactics are aggressive but, to those who know them, familiar.
Offering sex for favors, schmoozing with political operatives, cultivating an elaborate backstory, using a fake name to mask Russian roots – these are standard aspects of Russian espionage. They typically assume roles as professors, students, business owners – anything that lets them gain information but not draw attention.
That’s why accused Russian spy Maria Butina, 29, an unapologetically Russian gun-rights activist who gravitated toward publicity and the National Rifle Association, baffles some ex-intelligence officials with decades working counterintelligence for the FBI and CIA.
Butina faces a federal charge of conspiracy over the allegation she worked for Russia without informing the U.S. government, and a conviction could result in a five-year prison sentence. Her July 15 arrest came more than three years after the FBI claims she began her mission.
Butina pleaded not guilty, and her attorney, Bob Driscoll, maintains she committed no crime. Butina is currently in a Virginia jail. Her next court date is Sept. 10.
July 19: Who is Maria Butina?
The four ex-intelligence officials who spoke to USA TODAY worked and oversaw countless Russian espionage investigations at home and abroad with careers dating to the 1960s through the modern day.
They analyzed Butina’s case using public information on the alleged spy operation and their institutional knowledge. They describe her as a variation of a “spotter,” a person who makes connections in the U.S. and passes information to more senior Russian espionage officials. Her “influence” campaign, they said, sought grassroots goodwill toward Russia.
But she was not working in the shadows. Butina gave interviews and speeches, published articles and posed for magazine photos.
“That does not fit any spy that I can think of,” said Jack Devine, who ran all CIA operations worldwide in the mid-1990s, met with high-level KGB officers and served as the agency’s acting and associate deputy director.
It’s unclear if Butina’s public image was a tactic, opportunity or mishap. Some officials suggest Butina recycled an old Russian routine: target the presidential administration through an affiliated political group – no matter who resides in the White House.
“(Trump) and his administration are the target and groups that are related to the administration, or seek to influence the administration, are the means” to get access and information, said retired FBI special agent Ed Shaw, who worked several Russian espionage cases abroad during his career from 1989 to 2014. “They’re following the bread crumbs.”
If this is the case, the NRA made for a rich target of potential sources. Trump is an enthusiastic supporter of the organization. The NRA and other gun-rights organizations spent $55 million during the 2016 election. The NRA used $31 million in advertising money to back Trump.
Butina built a persona ripe for the NRA as the leader of her own Russian gun-rights group “The Right to Bear Arms.” She attended NRA events, developed a relationship with NRA leadership and went to member meetings, including one where she met with a political candidate.
Gov. Scott Walker: I don’t know accused Russian spy Maria Butina
Butina tagged the NRA as the need-to-know group well before the 2016 election, calling a GOP victory early.
In March 2015, the indictment states, she emailed her diplomatic goals to an American, who was not named but matches the description of GOP fixer Paul Erickson, 56. In the message, she describes how Republicans “would likely obtain control over the U.S. government after the 2016 elections” and pegs the NRA as a place of conservative influence.
Butina’s goal to build a backchannel communication line between Russia and the U.S. appeared to show some success. Erickson provided contacts while a Russian official directed her.
She met Republican leaders, organized dinners in Washington, D.C., and attended two National Prayer Breakfasts, an annual D.C. event usually attended by the sitting president.
She’d gained access – and in the spy game, access rules.
“She was doing pretty well making pretty rapid progress and, in some respects, may have been doing too well too soon because her profile on the radar screen raised up too high,” Shaw said. “But that shows in some respects she’s a natural at engaging with people — figuring out who the movers and shakers are.”
Butina’s case reminds ex-officials of a 2010 case in which federal authorities outed, arrested and expelled from the U.S. 10 Russian spies with fake names and years-long backstories.
The program, named “Operation Ghost Stories,” aimed to “search and develop ties in policymaking circles” and send intelligence reports to Moscow, according to a federal indictment. It involved Hollywood-level spy tactics, such as burying payments underground, sending encrypted messages on images and seamless cash hand-offs in train stations.
In that case, a couple working as spies targeted then-President Barack Obama’s young administration and his Cabinet. Just weeks into Obama’s first term, Moscow instructed Vladimir and Lydia Guryev – who were living in the U.S. under the aliases Richard and Cynthia Murphy – to gather information on U.S. international policy positions ahead of an Obama trip to Russia. The Murphys used fake birth certificates to back up their identities.
“The Russians were heavily targeting the Democrats because they were in power,” said Eric O’Neill, a former FBI undercover operative from 1996 to 2001 who tracked numerous Russian spies in Washington, D.C., in hopes to uncover their information sources. “They were trying to understand the policy decisions of the political party that is in power at that time and to hopefully influence them.”
Butina’s efforts with Republicans were less subtle. She used Twitter, Facebook and Instagram in Russian. She spoke with a thick Russian accent and even earned her own article in Russian GQ.
She also took opportunities to overtly connect Russia with the GOP. In 2015, a column she wrote for the foreign policy magazine The National Interest begins, “It may take the election of a Republican to the White House in 2016 to improve relations between the Russian Federation and the United States.”
“They’re trying to manage the perception of Russia in the United States,” said retired FBI special agent David Gomez, who worked a number of Russian espionage cases during his career from 1984 to 2011. “They were trying to make friends of Russia.”
Shun the sex ‘honey trap’
Butina burrowed into NRA and Republican spheres through Erickson, a South Dakotan with a spotty career in GOP politics.
The two met in Moscow in 2013 when Butina was leading “The Right to Bear Arms.” Erickson reviewed her diplomatic goals and lent her contacts, according to the indictment. The couple later dated, lived together and started a company.
The U.S. Attorney’s Office defined Butina’s relationship with Erickson as “duplicitous,” claiming Butina used it for her spy effort. Prosecutors also allege Butina offered sex with another person in exchange for a job with a special interest group.
Driscoll denied Butina offered sex for a job, calling the allegation a “sexist smear” meant to paint Butina “as some kind of James Bond spy character.” Driscoll confirmed Butina and Erickson were indeed “an item,” but any allegation she used him is “unsupported.”
Either way, the allegation hints at an understood fact in the spy world: Sex is a well-worked method of coercion and blackmail. The Russians, in particular, are known for this, and FBI agents are trained to sidestep such “honey traps.”
“The women are the most dangerous,” said O’Neill, who helped take down his boss Robert Hanssen, an FBI agent who was ultimately exposed as a Russian spy. “Part of that is because men are just way more susceptible to an attractive woman. That’s just the way it is.”
Sex can be used a few ways: for coercion, blackmail or as a way to get someone to divulge something they shouldn’t. The gathered intel may provide insight on a target’s exploitable weaknesses – a debt or affair, for example.
Relationships can be used similarly. Clayton Lonetree, a U.S. Marine who fell for a female KGB agent in the 1980s, ended up selling government documents to the Russian government.
“If you can have a dinner with someone who knows important policy decisions, and you’re an attractive woman, and that person feels flattered at the attention you’re laying on them, they might slip and saying something,” said O’Neill, national security strategist for cybersecurity company Carbon Black.
Butina’s ‘new fame’
Among the more memorable spies nabbed in the 2010 spy case is Anna Chapman, who posed as the founder of the website nycrentals.com in New York City. The case revealed that Chapman covertly passed information to other Russians using closed internet connections, often at New York City coffee shops and bookstores. After her arrest, Chapman, who ultimately returned to Russia in a prisoner swap, became a model, media personality and celebrity in her home country.
O’Neill sees similarities between Butina and Chapman. Butina’s own Russian contact made the same comparison.
“How are you faring there in the rays of the new fame?” the Russian official wrote to Butina in 2017. “Are your admirers asking for your autographs yet? You have upstaged Anna Chapman.”
The Russian official, described in the indictment only as a former member of the Russian legislature and a top official at the Russian Central Bank, fits the description of Russian politician Alexander Torshin.
The message came after a number of media articles mentioned Butina, whose prominence in American media bucks the norm for a Russian spy, the ex-officials agreed.
“Unlike Chapman and the rest of them, she comes over here as a Russian,” O’Neill said. “She’s hiding in plain sight. That’s very bold.”
Butina resided in the U.S. just a few months before the American press caught wind of her. In December 2017, her and Erickson’s attempts to make connections with the Trump campaign and the NRA were reported by The New York Times.
Part of what differentiates Butina, Devine said, is how she blended covert political action, like cozying up to the NRA, and espionage, or gathering intelligence to send to Russia.
Driscoll said Butina simply wanted to be a member of the NRA.
“I don’t think there’s much evidence she did anything covert,” he said. “She ran a Russian gun-rights group, so she joined the NRA to help get ideas for that.”
While the ex-officials all agree that a public and prominent spy is unusual, they differ over whether that was by design or whether Butina’s plan went awry.
O’Neill suggested Butina’s cover was the outward persona – an idea so brash it wouldn’t draw suspicion. There’s also the belief she possessed a genuine interest in gun rights and the Russian government used her to its advantage. Shaw credits her inexperience.
“She could have been unwitting in that sense,” he said. “She could have gone rogue or things could have just gotten away from her.”
There are more spies out there
Butina’s specific goal, even to the ex-officials, is unclear.
“The long-term objective may have been something completely unrelated to the NRA or guns,” said Gomez, a retired FBI agent.
But her case – and the Russian election meddling – is evidence the Russians have grown bolder in their spy efforts, said Devine, the ex-CIA official, who over a 32-year career led the effort to drive the Russians out of Afghanistan. He suggests Americans have let their guard down.
“There’s a view in Russia, as demonstrated by the intervention in the election, that you can get away with this stuff today where you couldn’t get away with it in the past,” he said. “The level of threat is much different, it’s not just meddling in the election, it’s out there collecting sources of information.”
Devine hinted the Russian election meddling should have driven home the point the Russians are a real threat – still.
“The emphasis is on collusion and the political piece,” he said. “We don’t have enough focus on the fact this is a big intelligence initiative, and it lays bare how aggressive they are.”
Many of the officials agree other Russian espionage efforts are operating on U.S. soil. Shaw estimates the number of Russian spies in the U.S. could be somewhere between 10 and 20. While cyber warfare proved useful during the 2016 election, on-the-ground spying remains the most effective, and people, he said, ought to “absolutely” be fearful.
“Where (Russians) used to use people to spread disinformation, now they’re using social media and different electronic means to do the same things,” O’Neill said. “But the old ways still work.”
Contributing: USA TODAY archives, Dana Ferguson and Jonathan Ellis of the (Sioux Falls, S.D.) Argus Leader, Fredreka Schouten, Kevin Johnson, USA TODAY.
Read or Share this story: https://usat.ly/2BW4Uub