WASHINGTON (CN) – Federal prosecutors announced Monday that they have arrested a 29-year-old woman on charges of acting as a covert agent inside the U.S. on behalf of a senior Kremlin official.
Word of Maria Butina’s arrest came hours after President Donald Trump met with Russian President Vladimir Putin and three days after special counsel Robert Mueller charged 12 Russian intelligence officials with directing a sprawling hacking effort aimed at swaying the 2016 election.
Butina, a Russian national who has been living the U.S., was charged with conspiracy to act as an unregistered agent of the Russian government and accused of working to infiltrate American political organizations, including the National Rifle Association, although the NRA is not directly named in the complaint. The charge was brought by the U.S. Attorney for the District of Columbia and do not appear to stem from Mueller’s investigation.
According to court papers, Butina met with U.S. 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 with the goal of “reporting back to Moscow” what she had learned.
“At no time did Butina notify the Attorney General … that she would and did act in the United States as an agent of a foreign government,” the affidavit in support of the criminal charges says.
Butina was arrested in Washington, D.C., on Sunday and made her first appearance before a magistrate judge Monday afternoon and is being held without bond.
According to her attorney, Robert Driscoll with McGlinchey Stafford, Butina is not a Russian agent but rather a student in the country on a U.S. visa who just received a Masters degree in international relations.
According to the affidavit supporting the criminal complaint, Butina worked in conjunction with an unnamed Russian, described only as the “Russian official” – reportedly a high-level government official who previously served in the Russian legislature, and who also served among the top brass at the Russian Central Bank.
The official directed the activities of Butina, who allegedly worked with an unnamed U.S. citizen – identified only as “Person 1” – whom she first met in Moscow in 2013 and who helped arranged introductions to politically influential Americans.
Butina allegedly interacted with another unnamed American, Person 2, included in a series of email communications who helped arrange dinners between Russian nationals and influential Americans.
The Russian official, Butina told Person 2, was “very much impressed by you,” the affidavit says. “The Russians will support the efforts from our side.”
The Russian official is among one of 17 senior Russian government officials sanctioned by the Department of the Treasury this year.
Butina and the unnamed official reportedly worked together to develop back channel communications with American politicians to advance the Kremlin’s long-term objectives in the United States.
“These lines could be used by the Russian Federation to penetrate the U.S. national decision-making apparatus to advance the agenda of the Russian Federation,” the affidavit says.
Attorney Driscoll said Butina had voluntarily met with and testified for eight hours to the Senate intelligence committee months ago.
“Ms. Butina has been cooperating with various government entities for months regarding public allegations related to her contacts with various American and Russian individuals,” Driscoll said in a statement.
According to Driscoll, special counsel Mueller has not expressed interest in interviewing Butina, though she has offered to meet with his team.
Driscoll called the charges against his client “overblown.”
“While styled as some sort of conspiracy to violate the Foreign Agent Registration Act, in actuality it describes a conspiracy to have a ‘friendship dinner’ at Bistro Bis with a group of Americans and Russians to discuss foreign relations between two countries,” his statement said.
“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,” Driscoll added.
But according to FBI special agent Kevin Helson, who wrote the affidavit, Butina reported the details of her encounters with influential Americans, special interest groups and politicians to the Russian official.
According to the affidavit, an email Butina sent to Person 1 said that Political Party 1, which she described as “traditionally associated with negative and aggressive foreign policy, particularly with regards to Russia,” would control the U.S. government following the 2016 election.
Person 1 later responded that “There is NO limit as to how many American companies that you can meet – at the highest levels – if you are able to represent that you are a potential line of communication into future Russian Federation governments.”
The affidavit describes Russian influence operations as a threat to American interests.
“They are low-cost, relatively low-risk, and deniable ways to shape foreign perceptions and to influence populations,” the affidavit says. “Moscow seeks to create wedges that reduce trust and confidence in democratic processes, degrade democratization efforts, weaken U.S. partnerships with European allies, undermine Western sanctions, encourage anti-U.S. political views, and counter efforts to bring Ukraine and other former Soviet states into European institutions.”
Butina is scheduled to appear in court again on Wednesday.
The affidavit also says Butina worked with an unnamed U.S. citizen – identified only as “Person 1” – whom she first met in Moscow in 2013 and arranged introductions to politically influential Americans.
Butina allegedly interacted with another unnamed American, Person 2, included in a series of email communications that helped arrange dinners between Russian nationals and influential Americans.