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The Butina Case Lifts The Curtain On Alleged Russian Operations

"Anderson's phraseology is so chilling because it shows an amazing level of Russia's potential ability to tip major U.S. foreign policy making in a favorable direction,"

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Maria Butina has pleaded guilty to being an "unregistered agent" for a foreign power. RFERL

In the lexicon of U.S. counterintelligence, it’s called “spot and assess,” “access agents,” and “back channels.” According to U.S. prosecutors, it’s also what Maria Butina, a now 30-year-old Russian graduate student, was doing during her time in United States.

“Butina was not a spy in the traditional sense of trying to gain access to classified information to send back to her home country. She was not a trained intelligence officer,” prosecutors wrote in a memo. “But the actions she took were nonetheless taken on behalf of the Russian Official for the benefit of the Russian Federation, and those actions had the potential to damage the national security of the United States.”

The assertion, made in filings in U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C., was part of federal authorities’ final arguments in their case against Butina, who is scheduled for sentencing on April 26 after pleading guilty last year to being an unregistered agent of a foreign government.

She could get up to five years in prison, although U.S. officials have requested 18 months and her subsequent deportation.

In addition to laying out the final arguments, the filings provide insight into how U.S. law enforcement and intelligence officials view efforts by Russia to infiltrate political groups, academia, business circles, and other parts of U.S. society.

“Acquiring information valuable to a foreign power does not necessarily involve collecting classified documents or engaging in cloak-and-dagger activities,” another memo included in the filing said.

Though separate from the now-concluded investigation by Special Counsel Robert Mueller, the case against Butina touched on many of the same issues that continue to roil U.S. politics: how and why Russia sought to interfere in U.S. politics in and before the 2016 presidential election.

‘Espionage-Lite’

At the heart of Butina’s case is the allegation that before and during her studies at American University in Washington she sought to build relationships with U.S. conservative political groups, including the influential National Rifle Association (NRA), on behalf of at least one powerful Kremlin-connected lawmaker.

She was charged not under the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA) but under a lesser-known U.S. law informally known as “espionage-lite.” That legislation targets “espionage-like or clandestine behavior or an otherwise provable connection to an intelligence service, or information gathering or procurement-type activity on behalf of a foreign government.”

In court filings, prosecutors homed in on specific projects that Butina allegedly undertook. For example, in March 2015, she is said to have drafted something called the “Diplomacy Project” with help from “U.S. Person 1” and, to carry out the plan, requested $125,000 from a Russian billionaire to attend conferences and set up “separate meetings with interested parties.”

U.S. Person 1 is widely believed to be Paul Erickson, a conservative U.S. activist identified as Butina’s boyfriend. He was charged in February with fraud in a case unrelated to Butina’s.

Former Russian lawmaker Aleksandr Torshin (file photo)
Former Russian lawmaker Aleksandr Torshin. RFA

The filings have asserted that Butina’s main backer in Russia was Aleksandr Torshin, a former top Central Bank official and former lawmaker whom Spanish authorities have alleged has links to Russian organized crime. He was sanctioned by the U.S. Treasury Department in April 2018, three months before Butina was arrested.

Butina was “fully aware that he reported to the rest of the Russian government and her actions were ultimately for the benefit of the foreign government,” prosecutors alleged.

In their April 19 filing, prosecutors included a memo, or “declaration,” by Robert Anderson, a 20-year veteran of the FBI and former assistant director for its counterintelligence division. Aimed at bolstering the government’s arguments, the memo highlights in detail how the FBI identifies the activities of foreigners that would potentially be considered espionage.

“A spot-and-assess operation does not require secret encryption, dead drops, or any other trappings of a Hollywood spy story,” Anderson wrote.

“Butina collected information about numerous American citizens who she believed had access to and influence with senior levels of the United States government. She focused specifically on Americans with political influence and Americans who had access, or were expected to acquire access, to the incoming presidential administration. Her ability to gain meaningful access to these powerful individuals would be incredibly valuable to the Russian government,” he alleged.

“That Butina presented herself as someone with high-level connections in the Russian government but never asked potential targets to provide any confidential information or do anything obviously illegal is entirely consistent with a spot-and-assess operation,” Anderson said.

Andrew Weiss, who was a top Russia director for the National Security Council under former Democratic President Bill Clinton, said the entire filing, including with the Anderson declaration, should be viewed not only in the context of the Butina case but also in parallel to what was outlined in the Mueller report, a partly redacted version of which was released on April 18.

In it, Mueller corroborated U.S. intelligence conclusions of Russian meddling in the 2016 election that was won by President Donald Trump but “did not establish” that Trump campaign officials “conspired or coordinated with the Russian government in its election interference activities.”

“The biggest issue here is that we have a relatively small case compared to the massive set of issues raised within [the] Mueller [investigation]. And here you have the Justice Department prosecutors…outlining why what Butina did was so damaging, and then they amplify it with Anderson’s declaration,” said Weiss, who also served at the U.S. State Department and the Pentagon.

Pliable Interlocutors

He said that mirrored what appeared to be happening in 2016 and 2017, when Russian businessmen and others were said to be trying to reach out to the incoming Trump administration — something that was documented in the Mueller report.

“The question is: Is it bad to have people who are looking for interlocutors who might be more pliable? Is it bad to have Russian figures see if Trump administration officials might be against the prevailing Republican notions of foreign policy, or policy toward Russia?” Weiss said.

When she was arrested, Butina denied the charges. She changed her plea in December and agreed to cooperate with prosecutors.

According to U.S. prosecutors, Maria Butina sought to build relationships with influential conservative political groups, such as the NRA. (file photo)
According to U.S. prosecutors, Maria Butina sought to build relationships with influential conservative political groups, such as the NRA. RFERL

Still, defense lawyers have strenuously fought the assertion that she was a spy, insisting that she was merely an eager advocate for improving a toxic relationship between Moscow and Washington.

In their pre-sentencing filing, Butina’s lawyers accused prosecutors of only belatedly asserting the “spot-and-assess” accusation and asked the judge to ignore it and not to let Anderson testify at her sentencing.

They asserted that the prosecutors’ memo “raises a wholly new theory of espionage activity that was never charged, never cleared by a grand jury, never disclosed, and never even raised directly with Maria during her 50-plus hours of interviews.”

Neither of her lawyers, Robert Driscoll or Alfred Carry, would comment further ahead of the sentencing.

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“Anderson’s phraseology is so chilling because it shows an amazing level of Russia’s potential ability to tip major U.S. foreign policy making in a favorable direction,” Weiss said.

“How does a sophisticated adversary with a huge intelligence apparatus operate in the United States,” he added. “This is one manifestation of how they operate and it’s surely not the only one.” (RFERL)

Next Story

Spy Used AI to Create Fake LinkedIn Photo to Fool Targets, Report Finds

Unlike Facebook's friends-and-family focus, LinkedIn is oriented toward job seekers and headhunters

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Russia expert Keir Giles, who was targeted in a LinkedIn breach, poses for a portrait during an interview at London's St. Pancras Station, June 4, 2019. VOA

Katie Jones sure seemed plugged into Washington’s political scene. The 30-something redhead boasted a job at a top think tank and a who’s-who network of pundits and experts, from the centrist Brookings Institution to the right-wing Heritage Foundation. She was connected to a deputy assistant secretary of state, a senior aide to a senator and the economist Paul Winfree, who is being considered for a seat on the Federal Reserve.

But Katie Jones doesn’t exist, The Associated Press has determined. Instead, the persona was part of a vast army of phantom profiles lurking on the professional networking site LinkedIn.

Experts who reviewed the Jones profile’s LinkedIn activity say it’s typical of espionage efforts on the professional networking site, whose role as a global Rolodex has made it a powerful magnet for spies.

”It smells a lot like some sort of state-run operation,” said Jonas Parello-Plesner, who serves as program director at the Denmark-based think tank Alliance of Democracies Foundation and was the target several years ago of an espionage operation that began over LinkedIn.

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It’s typical of espionage efforts on the professional networking site, whose role as a global Rolodex has made it a powerful magnet for spies. Pixabay

William Evanina, director of the U.S. National Counterintelligence and Security Center, said foreign spies routinely use fake social media profiles to home in on American targets — and accused China in particular of waging “mass scale” spying on LinkedIn.

”Instead of dispatching spies to some parking garage in the U.S to recruit a target, it’s more efficient to sit behind a computer in Shanghai and send out friend requests to 30,000 targets,” he said in a written statement.

Last month, retired CIA officer Kevin Mallory was sentenced to 20 years in prison for passing details of top secret operations to Beijing, a relationship that began when a Chinese agent posing as a recruiter contacted him on LinkedIn.

Unlike Facebook’s friends-and-family focus, LinkedIn is oriented toward job seekers and headhunters, people who routinely fire out resumes, build vast webs of contacts and pitch projects to strangers. That connect-them-all approach helps fill the millions of job openings advertised on the site, but it also provides a rich hunting ground for spies. And that has Western intelligence agencies worried.

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British , French and German officials have all issued warnings over the past few years detailing how thousands of people had been contacted by foreign spies over LinkedIn.

In a statement, LinkedIn said it routinely took action against fake accounts, yanking thousands of them in the first three months of 2019. It also said “we recommend you connect with people you know and trust, not just anyone.”

The Katie Jones profile was modest in scale, with 52 connections. But those connections had enough influence that they imbued the profile with credibility to some who accepted Jones’ invites. The AP spoke to about 40 other people who connected with Jones between early March and early April of this year, many of whom said they routinely accept invitations from people they don’t recognize.

”I’m probably the worst LinkedIn user in the history of LinkedIn,” said Winfree, the former deputy director of President Donald Trump’s domestic policy council, who confirmed connection with Jones on March 28.

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It smells a lot like some sort of state-run operation. Pixabay

Winfree, whose name came up last month in relation to one of the vacancies on the Federal Reserve Board of Governors, said he rarely logs on to LinkedIn and tends to just approve all the piled-up invites when he does.

”I literally accept every friend request that I get,” he said.

Lionel Fatton, who teaches East Asian affairs at Webster University in Geneva, said the fact that he didn’t know Jones did prompt a brief pause when he connected with her back in March.

”I remember hesitating,” he said. “And then I thought, `What’s the harm?”’

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Parello-Plesner noted that the potential harm can be subtle: Connecting to a profile like Jones’ invites whoever is behind it to strike up a one-on-one conversation, and other users on the site can view the connection as a kind of endorsement.

”You lower your guard and you get others to lower their guard,” he said.

The Jones profile was first flagged by Keir Giles, a Russia specialist with London’s Chatham House think tank. Giles was recently caught up in an entirely separate espionage operation targeting critics of the Russian antivirus firm Kaspersky Lab.  So when he received an invitation from Katie Jones on LinkedIn he was suspicious.

She claimed to have been working for years as a “Russia and Eurasia fellow” at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, but Giles said that, if that were true, “I ought to have heard of her.”

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Foreign spies routinely use fake social media profiles to home in on American targets. Pixabay

CSIS spokesman Andrew Schwartz told the AP that “no one named Katie Jones works for us.”

Jones also claimed to have earned degrees in Russian studies from the University of Michigan, but the school said it was “unable to find anyone by this name earning these degrees from the university.”

The Jones account vanished from LinkedIn shortly after the AP contacted the network seeking comment. Messages sent to Jones herself, via LinkedIn and an associated AOL email account, went unreturned.

Several experts contacted by the AP said Jones’ profile picture appeared to have been created by a computer program.

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”I’m convinced that it’s a fake face,” said Mario Klingemann, a German artist who has been experimenting for years with artificially generated portraits and says he has reviewed tens of thousands of such images. “It has all the hallmarks.”

Klingemann and other experts said the photo — a closely cropped portrait of a woman with blue-green eyes, copper-colored hair and an enigmatic smile — appeared to have been created using a family of dueling computer programs called generative adversarial networks, or GANs, that can create realistic-looking faces of entirely imaginary people. GANs, sometimes described as a form of artificial intelligence, have been the cause of increasing concern for policymakers already struggling to get a handle on digital disinformation. On Thursday, U.S. lawmakers are due to hold their first hearing devoted primarily to the threat of artificially generated imagery.

Hao Li, who directs the Vision of Graphics Lab at the University of Southern California’s Institute for Creative Technologies, reeled off a list of digital tells that he believes show the Jones photo was created by a computer program, including inconsistencies around Jones’ eyes, the ethereal glow around her hair and smudge marks on her left cheek. (VOA)