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Smoke Signals from the Swamp: The Russians and more Russians

Thanks to special counsel Mueller’s July 13, 2018, indictment of 12 Russian military intelligence officers, we’ve learned in excruciating detail about the extensive hacking of the Democratic National Committee and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, and cyberattacks on the boards of elections of various states, and companies that supply software and other technology related to the administration of U.S. elections.

It’s been a while since we checked in on the Russians and, boy, have they been busy. In “Smoke Signals from the Swamp: The Russians and their trolls,” we wrote about the indictment of the Internet Research Agency LLC, Concord Management and Consulting LLC, and Concord Catering for their efforts to “sow discord in the U.S. political system, including the 2016 U.S. presidential election.” The indictment noted: “U.S. laws bans foreign nationals from making certain expenditures or financial disbursements for the purpose of influencing federal elections. U.S. law also bars agents of any foreign entity from engaging in political activities within the United States without first registering with the Attorney General.”

Given the swirling confusion of these last weeks, you’re forgiven if those particular Russians are but hazy characters in your rearview mirror. But those 13 Russians and those three Russian companies effectively created phony personas and accounts on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram and purchased political ads and organized grassroots activities, all to influence our election and create discord in the country.

The front page of the Mueller indictment

Thanks to special counsel Mueller’s July 13, 2018, indictment of 12 Russian military intelligence officers, we’ve learned in excruciating detail about the extensive hacking of the Democratic National Committee and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, and cyberattacks on the boards of elections of various states, and companies that supply software and other technology related to the administration of U.S. elections.

So there are even more Russians to talk about. Of course, there’s the top banana, President Vladimir Putin, he of the highly successful Helsinki Summit. And now there’s the gun-toting seductress Maria Butina.

Remarkably, while some still believe interference is the invention of the fake news, real Russians have penetrated the control systems of part of our electric grid. And as Microsoft recently revealed, Russian hackers tried to penetrate the computer systems of Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Missouri, threatening her re-election bid in November 2018.

I’m guessing few of you have taken the time to read the new Mueller indictment. The Washington Post summarized: “A dozen Russian military intelligence officers were indicted Friday on charges they hacked Democrats’ computers, stole their data and published those files to disrupt the 2016 election — the clearest connection to the Kremlin established so far by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s investigation of interference in the presidential campaign.”

Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein. Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images North America

Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein declared: “Count One charges eleven defendants for conspiring to access computers without authorization, and to cause damage to those computers, in connection with efforts to steal documents and release them in order to interfere with the election. Counts Two through Nine charge eleven defendants with aggravated identity theft by employing the usernames and passwords of other persons to commit computer fraud. Count Ten charges the eleven conspirators with money laundering by transferring cryptocurrencies through a web of transactions in order to purchase computer servers, register domains, and make other payments in furtherance of their hacking activities, while trying to conceal their identities and their links to the Russian government. Count Eleven charges two defendants for a separate conspiracy to access computers without authorization, and to cause damage to those computers, in connection with efforts to infiltrate computers used to conduct elections …

Then he added: “I briefed President Trump about these allegations earlier this week. The President is fully aware of today’s actions by the Department.” (Emphasis added.)

Mueller’s team offers extraordinary detail: “in and around 2016, the Russian Federation (“Russia”) operated a military intelligence agency called the Main Intelligence Directorate of the General Staff (“GRU”) The GRU had multiple units, including Units 26165 and 74455, engaged in cyber operations that involved the staged releases of documents stolen through computer intrusions. These units conducted large-scale cyber operations to interfere with the 2016 U.S. presidential election.”

Mueller names names: “Defendants VIKTOR BORISOVICH NETYKSHO, BORIS ALEKSEYEVICH ANTONOV, DMITRIY SERGEYEVICH BADIN, IVAN SERGEYEVICH YERMAKOV, ALEKSEY VIKTOROVICH LUKASHEV, SERGEY ALEKSANDROVICH MORGACHEV, NIKOLAY YURYEVICH KOZACHEK, PAVEL VYACHESLAVOVICH YERSHOV, ARTEM ANDREYEVICH MALYSHEV, ALEKSANDR VLADIMIROVICH OSADCHUK, and ALEKSEY ALEKSANDROVICH POTEMKIN were GRU officers who knowingly and intentionally conspired with each other, and with persons known and unknown to the Grand Jury (collectively the “Conspirators”), to gain unauthorized access (to “hack”) into the computers of U.S. persons and entities involved in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, steal documents from those computers, and stage releases of the stolen documents to interfere with the 2016 U.S. presidential election.”

They hacked email accounts of the Clinton campaign, the computer networks of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, the Democratic National Committee and monitored their computers, implanted malicious computer code, then stole emails and documents from them.

Around April 2016, using the created identities of Guccifer 2.0 and DCLeaks, the conspirators “staged and released tens of thousands of the stolen emails and documents.” Using their created Guccifer 2.0 persona, they used the website of Organization 1, believed by many to be Wikileaks, to release many additional documents they had stolen

While many in the Republican Party and our president have complained about the failures of our intelligence services, they and the agencies of some of our allies have done a remarkable job of identifying exactly who did what, where and when. A few examples: “Defendant VIKTOR BORISOVICH NETYKSHO … was the Russian military officer in command of Unit 26165, located at 20 Komsomolskiy Prospekt, Moscow, Russia. Unit 26165 had primary responsibility for DCCC and DNC, as well as the email accounts of individuals affiliated with the Clinton Campaign.”

And “Defendant BORIS ALEKSEYEVICH ANTONOV … was a Major in the Russian military assigned to Unit 26165. ANTONOV oversaw a department within Unit 26165 dedicated to targeting military, political, governmental, and non-governmental organizations with spearphishing emails and other computer intrusion activity. ANTONOV held the title “Head of Department.” In or around 2016, ANTONOV supervised other co-conspirators who targeted the DCCC, DNC, and individuals affiliated with the Clinton Campaign.”

And the very versatile “Defendant IVAN SERGEYEVICH YERMAKOV… a Russian military officer assigned to ANTONOV’s department within Unit 26165. Since in or around 2010, YERMAKOV used various online personas, including “Kate S. Milton,” “James McMorgans,” and “Karen W. Millen,” to conduct hacking operations on behalf of Unit 26165. In or around March 2016, YERMAKOV participated in hacking at least two email accounts from which campaign-related documents were released through DCLeaks. In or around May 2016, YERMAKOV also participated in hacking the DNC email server and stealing DNC emails that were later released through Organization 1.”

The indictment chronicles their successful spearfishing efforts: “For example, on or about March 19, 2016, LUKASHEV and his co-conspirators created and sent a spearphishing email to the chairman of the Clinton Campaign. LUKASHEV used the account ‘ john356gh” at an online service that abbreviated lengthy website addresses (referred to as a “URL-shortening service”). LUKASHEV used the account to mask a link contained in the spearphishing email, which directed the recipient to a GRU-created website. LUKASHEV altered the appearance of the sender email address in order to make it look like the email was a security notification from Google (a technique known as “spoofing”), instructing the user to change his password by clicking the embedded link. Those instructions were followed. On or about March 21, 2016, LUKASHEV, YERMAKOV, and their co-conspirators stole the contents of the chairman’s email account, which consisted of over 50,000 emails.” (Emphasis added.)

“Between in or around April 2016 and June 2016, the Conspirators installed multiple versions of their X-Agent malware on at least ten DCCC computers, which allowed them to monitor individual employees’ computer activity, steal passwords, and maintain access to the DCCC network …X-Agent malware implanted on the DCCC network transmitted information from the victims’ computers to a GRU-leased server located in Arizona … The keylog function allowed the Conspirators to capture keystrokes entered by DCCC employees. The screenshot function allowed the Conspirators to take pictures of the DCCC employees’ computer screens.”

Having gained all these documents, their job was only half-done. The task now was how and where to distribute them: “On or about June 8, 2016, the Conspirators launched the public website, which they used to release stolen emails. Before it shut down in or around March 2017, the site received over one million page views. The Conspirators falsely claimed on the site that DCLeaks was started by a group of ‘American hacktivists,’ when in fact it was started by the Conspirators.”

Simultaneously, the Russians, using fraudulent American identities, created Facebook, Twitter and Instagram accounts to publicize DCLeaks.

When the DNC announced that it had been hacked by the Russians, the Conspirators created the online persona Guccifer 2.0 who claimed to be a lone Romanian hacker. Not only did the Russians, working through the Guccifer 2.0 persona, post stolen information online but they distributed it to certain unnamed Americans:

This effort was successful in several ways: “(a) On or about August 15, 2016, the Conspirators, posing as Guccifer 2.0, received a request for stolen documents from a candidate for the U.S. Congress. The Conspirators responded using the Guccifer 2.0 persona and sent the candidate stolen documents related to the candidate’s opponent … On or about August 22, 2016, the Conspirators, posing as Guccifer 2.0, transferred approximately 2.5 gigabytes of data stolen from the DCCC to a then-registered state lobbyist and online source of political news. The stolen data included donor records and personal identifying information for more than 2,000 Democratic donors.

“On or about August 22, 2016, the Conspirators, posing as Guccifer 2.0, sent a reporter stolen documents pertaining to the Black Lives Matter movement. The reporter responded by discussing when to release the documents and offering to write an article about their release.”

The Russians were also in touch with someone close to the Trump campaign: “On or about August 15, 2016, the Conspirators, posing as Guccifer 2.0, wrote to a person who was in regular contact with senior members of the presidential campaign of Donald J. Trump, ‘thank u for writing back … do u find anyt[h]ing interesting in the docs i posted?’ (Emphasis added.)

While there have been many, including Paul Manafort’s former partner, Roger Stone, who have claimed that there is no clear link between Guccifer 2.0 and the Russians, the indictment clarifies: “The Conspirators conducted operations as Guccifer 2.0 and DCLeaks using overlapping computer infrastructure and financing … On or about June 27, 2016, the Conspirators, posing as Guccifer 2.0, contacted a U.S. reporter with an offer to provide stolen emails from ‘Hillary Clinton’s staff.’ The Conspirators then sent the reporter the password to access a nonpublic, password-protected portion of containing emails stolen from Victim 1 by LUKASHEV, YERMAKOV, and their co-conspirators in or around March 2016 …

“On or about January 12, 2017, the Conspirators published a statement on the Guccifer 2.0 WordPress blog, falsely claiming that the intrusions and release of stolen documents had ‘totally no relation to the Russian government.’”

Perhaps the biggest coup was the collaboration of the Russian hackers and Wikileaks: “In order to expand their interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, the Conspirators transferred many of the documents they stole from the DNC and the chairman of the Clinton Campaign to Organization 1. The Conspirators, posing as Guccifer 2.0, discussed the release of the stolen documents and the timing of those releases with Organization 1 to heighten their impact on the 2016 U.S. presidential election.

“On or about July 22, 2016, Organization 1 released over 20,000 emails and other documents stolen from the DNC network by the Conspirators. This release occurred approximately three days before the start of the Democratic National Convention. Organization 1 did not disclose Guccifer 2.0’s role in providing them.”

“On or about October 7, 2016, Organization 1 released the first set of emails fromthechairman of the Clinton Campaign that had been stolen by LUKASHEV and his co-conspirators. Between on or about October 7, 2016 and November 7, 2016, Organization 1 released approximately thirty-three tranches of documents that had been stolen from the chairman of the Clinton Campaign. In total, over 50,000 stolen documents were released.”

Count eleven of the indictment details the actions of GRU officers ALEKSANDR VLADIMIROVICH OSADCHUK and ANATOLIY SERGEYEVICH KOVALEV to conspire with each other and persons known and unknown “to hack into the computers of U.S. persons and entities responsible for the administration of 2016 U.S. elections, such as state boards of elections, secretaries of state, and U.S. companies that supplied software and other technology related to the administration of U.S. elections …to access those computers and steal voter data and other information stored on those computers.”

“In or around July 2016, KOVALEV and his co-conspirators hacked the website of a state board of elections (“SBOE 1”) and stole information related to approximately 500,000 voters …In or around August 2016, KOVALEV and his co-conspirators hacked into the computers of a U.S. vendor (“Vendor 1”) that supplied software used to verify voter registration information for the 2016 U.S. elections.” (Emphasis added.)

“In or around October 2016, KOVALEV and his co-conspirators further targeted state and county offices responsible for administering the 2016 U.S. elections. For example, on or about October 28, 2016, KOVALEV and his co-conspirators visited the websites of certain counties in Georgia, Iowa, and Florida to identify vulnerabilities.”

Given the detailed blueprint the Mueller indictment offers, it’s important to remember that Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein briefed the president before his recent trip, which makes what happened all the more remarkable.

Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin speak at a press conference following their meeting at the Presidential Palace in Helsinki. Photo: Pablo MArtinez Monsivais/AP

President Trump’s first stop was marked by his attacks on NATO allies and the repeated inaccurate claim that the United States was responsible for 90 percent of NATO’s budget. Then he travelled to the United Kingdom and alienated Prime Minister Theresa May.

The president’s affection was reserved for President Vladimir Putin. To this day, the American people and many in the administration working on intelligence and foreign affairs have no idea what happened during that more than two-hour secret meeting between Putin and President Trump, shared only by a State Department translator.

In his post-meeting press conference Putin announced: “President Trump mentioned the issue of the so-called interference of Russia with the American elections, and I had to reiterate things I said several times, including during our personal contacts, that the Russian state has never interfered and is not going to interfere into internal American affairs, including election process.” (Emphasis added.)

Jeff Mason from Reuters asked President Trump: “you tweeted this morning that it’s U.S. foolishness, stupidity and the Mueller probe that is responsible for the decline in U.S. relations with Russia. Do you hold Russia at all accountable for anything in particular? And if so, what would you — what would you consider them — that they are responsible for?

TRUMP: Yes I do. I hold both countries responsible. I think that the United States has been foolish. I think we’ve all been foolish. We should’ve had this dialogue a long time ago; a long time, frankly, before I got to office.

And I think we’re all to blame. I think that the United States now has stepped forward along with Russia, and we’re getting together and we have a chance to do some great things, whether it’s nuclear proliferation in terms of stopping — you have to do it, ultimately that’s probably the most important thing that we could be working on.

But I do feel that we have both made some mistakes. I think that the — the probe is a disaster for our country. I think it’s kept us apart, it’s kept us separated. (Emphasis added.)

There was no collusion at all. Everybody knows it. And people are being brought out to the fore. So far that I know, virtually none of it related to the campaign. And they’re going to have to try really hard to find somebody that did relate to the campaign.

That was a clean campaign. I beat Hillary Clinton easily … And it’s a shame that there could even be a little bit of a cloud over it. People know that, people understand it. But the main thing — and we discussed this also — zero collusion.”

QUESTION: For President Putin, if I could follow up as well, why should Americans and why should President Trump believe your statement that Russia did not intervene in the 2016 election, given the evidence that U.S. intelligence agencies have provided? And will you consider extraditing the 12 Russian officials that were indicted last week by a U.S. grand jury?

TRUMP: … And, frankly — I’m going to let the president speak to the second part of your question — but just to say it one time again — and I say it all the time — there was no collusion. I didn’t know the president. There was nobody to collude with. There was no collusion with the campaign.

And every time you hear all of these, you know, 12 and 14 — it’s stuff that has nothing to do — and, frankly, they admit these are not people involved in the campaign.

But to the average reader out there, they’re saying, “Well, maybe that does.” It doesn’t.

And even the people involved, some, perhaps, told mis-stories. Or, in one case, the FBI said there was no lying. There was no lying. Somebody else said there was.

We ran a brilliant campaign, and that’s why I’m president.

PUTIN:“Could you name a single fact that would definitely prove the collusion? This is utter nonsense, just like the president recently mentioned.Yes, the public at large in the United States had a certain perceived opinion of the candidates during the campaign. But there’s nothing particularly extraordinary about it. That’s the usual thing.

“President Trump, when he was a candidate, he mentioned the need to restore the Russia-U.S. relationship. And it’s clear that certain parts of American society felt sympathetic about it, and different people could express their sympathies in different ways.

Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump

“But isn’t that natural? Isn’t it natural to be sympathetic towards a person who is willing to restore the relationship with our country, who wants to work with us? …(Emphasis added.)

JEFF MASON: “President Putin, did you want President Trump to win the election and did you direct any of your officials to help him do that?”  

PUTIN: (THROUGH TRANSLATOR) Yes, I did. Yes, I did. Because he talked about bringing the U.S.-Russia relationship back to normal.”

STAFF: Final question from the United States will go to Jonathan Lemire from the AP.

QUESTION: Thank you. A question for each president: President Trump, you first. Just now, President Putin denied having anything to do with the election interference in 2016. Every U.S. intelligence agency has concluded that Russia did. What – who – my first question for you, sir, is who do you believe?

“My second question is would you now, with the whole world watching, tell President Putin, would you denounce what happened in 2016 and would you warn him to never do it again?

TRUMP: … all I can do is ask the question. My people came to me, Dan Coats came to me and some others, they said they think it’s Russia. I have President Putin; he just said it’s not Russia.

I will say this: I don’t see any reason why it would be. But I really do want to see the server.

But I have — I have confidence in both parties. I — I really believe that this will probably go on for a while, but I don’t think it can go on without finding out what happened to the server. What happened to the servers of the Pakistani gentleman that worked on the DNC? Where are those servers? They’re missing; where are they? What happened to Hillary Clinton’s e-mails? 33,000 e-mails gone — just gone. I think in Russia they wouldn’t be gone so easily. I think it’s a disgrace that we can’t get Hillary Clinton’s 33,000 e-mails.

So I have great confidence in my intelligence people, but I will tell you that President Putin was extremely strong and powerful in his denial today.

And what he did is an incredible offer. He offered to have the people working on the case come and work with their investigators with respect to the 12 people. I think that’s an incredible offer. OK? (Emphasis added.)

Thank you.”

The stunning admission from Vladimir Putin that he wanted Donald Trump to win, and the less clear admission that he directed his associates to help make it happen “because he talked about bringing the U.S.-Russia relationship back to normal” hasn’t gained all that much traction in the country.

But it’s clear to many independent observers that Trump’s actions with NATO and the U.K., and previously with allies like Canada and Mexico, can’t help but please the Russians. They have made it clear that they regard NATO’s pledge to oppose Russian intervention in Eastern Europe as an act of aggression. And anything that destabilizes NATO or threatens the success of the European Union furthers the Russian agenda.

An April 2015 photo of Maria Butina, right, with Alexander Torshin and Scott Walker. Image courtesy Maria Butina’s Facebook page

Now, onto the Russian oligarch-funded femme fatale and their efforts to forge an alliance among Russia, the NRA and the Republican Party. Maria Butina moved to Moscow in 2010. Several businesses later, she formed the Russian gun rights group “Right to Bear Arms” and began working as an assistant to Alexander Torshin.

In 2011, Mother Jones tells us: “Torshin, then a Russian senator, is introduced to NRA President David Keene through G. Kline Preston IV, a lawyer from Nashville, Tennessee, who had been doing business in Russia for years. Preston later tells the Washington Post, ‘The value system of Southern Christians and the value system of Russians are very much in line.’”

According to Spanish investigators, Bloomberg writes: Torshin “directed dirty-money flows for mobsters in Moscow before he was named a deputy head of the central bank last year, Alexander Torshin instructed members of the Moscow-based Taganskaya crime syndicate how to launder ill-gotten gains through banks and properties in Spain … A senior Spanish official said on condition of anonymity that prosecuting Torshin isn’t worth the effort because Russia doesn’t cooperate in cases involving high-ranking officials.”

Vox writes: “Torshin and Butina were introduced to top NRA officials, began regularly attending the NRA’s conventions in the United States, and became ‘life members’ of the group. They also began to reciprocate with their own invitations to NRA bigwigs to visit Moscow for Right to Bear Arms events — the first of which, it seems, took place in November 2013 and featured a “concealed carry fashion show.”

Republican operative Paul Erickson and Maria Butina. Photo courtesy Dakota Free Press

It was during this 2013 event in Moscow where Maria Butina met Paul Erickson, a conservative Republican operative who had worked for Richard Vigerie, Pat Buchanan’s 1992 presidential campaign, and for Mobuto Sese Seko, the dictator of Zaire. Erickson had raised money for the NRA. They eventually became involved and lived together in the United States.

Mother Jones chronicles some of her success at the Nashville NRA convention: “April 2015: Butina posts about 200 pictures from Nashville, including one with Republican Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin, who she says greeted her in Russian. She notes he’s ‘one of the possible future nominees for the post of US President,”’ and ponders the ‘beginning of a new dialogue between Russia and the US.’ Donald Trump also attends, telling the crowd, ‘I promise you one thing, if I run for president and if I win, the Second Amendment will be totally protected, that I can tell you.’ Torshin, also present, later tells Bloombergthat he had a ‘jovial exchange’ with the future president …[Then] Butina and Torshin meet in Washington with Treasury and Fed officials to discuss U.S.-Russian economic relations; the meetings are arranged by the Center for the National Interest, a foreign policy think tank whose board members include the NRA’s Keene.”

In “The Bear and The Elephant,” a June 2015 article for National Interest, Maria Butina spells out her agenda: “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. As improbable as it may sound, the Russian bear shares more interests with the Republican elephant than the Democratic donkey. No doubt leading Republicans will denounce Russian aggression during the campaign season, as former Florida Governor Jeb Bush did recently during his visit to Berlin where he called Russian president Vladimir Putin a ‘bully.’ But talking tough on the campaign trail is one thing. Governing is another. Perhaps a Republican president would look for ways to move past the increasing confrontation that has characterized the U.S.-Russia relationship in the past few years.” (Emphasis added.)

Somehow, soon after, Butina had the opportunity to probe Donald Trump’s feelings about sanctions during his appearance at Freedom Fest in Las Vegas. Butina announced she was from Russia, then asked, “If you would be elected as the president, what would be your foreign politics, especially in the relationships with my country? And do you want to continue the policy of sanctions that are damaging to both economies, or do you have other ideas?”

Trump responded by saying that under the administration of President Obama “the whole world hates us” and then said, “I know Putin, and I’ll tell you what, we get along with Putin.” He continued: “I don’t think you’d need the sanctions. I think that we would get along very, very well. I really believe that.” (Emphasis added.)

Deputy governor of the Russian central bank Alexander Torshin in September 2016 in Moscow. Photo: Alexander Shalgin/TASS via Getty Images

Mother Jones notes that, on Feb. 13, 2016, Torshin wrote on Twitter: “Maria Butina is currently in the USA. She writes to me that D. Trump (an NRA member) really is for cooperation with Russia.”

The New York Times wrote about Torshin’s attempt to broker a meeting between Trump and Putin: “A senior Russian official who claimed to be acting at the behest of President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia tried in May 2016 to arrange a meeting between Mr. Putin and Donald J. Trump, according to several people familiar with the matter. The news of this reached the Trump campaign in a very circuitous way. An advocate for Christian causes emailed campaign aides saying that Alexander Torshin, the deputy governor of the Russian central bank who has been linked both to Russia’s security services and organized crime, had proposed a meeting between Mr. Putin and Mr. Trump. The subject line of the email, turned over to Senate investigators, read, “Russian backdoor overture and dinner invite,” according to one person who has seen the message.

“The proposal made its way to the senior levels of the Trump campaign before Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law and a top campaign aide, sent a message to top campaign officials rejecting it, according to two people who have seen Mr. Kushner’s message.”

In its Memorandum in Support of Pretrial Detention in United States of America v. Maria Butina, the United States government stated: “The defendant, a Russian citizen, stands charged with violations of 18 U.S.C. §§ 371 and 951(a), for her role in a covert Russian influence operation in the United States. The charges in this case implicate not only Butina, but also the activities of a senior Russian Federation official, the individual identified as the Russian Official in the Indictment, who is now a specially designated national. Given these circumstances, Butina presents an extreme risk of flight …

“The defendant engaged in a years-long conspiracy to work covertly in the United States as an undeclared agent of the Russian Federation in order to advance the interests of her home country. The plan was calculated, patient, and directed by the Russian Official. The defendant’s covert influence campaign involved substantial planning, international coordination, and preparation.”

The government declared: “Butina was in contact with officials believed to be Russian intelligence operatives. First, the defendant maintained contact information for individuals identified as employees of the Russian FSB, the Federal’naya sluzhba bezopasnosti Rossiyskoy Federatsii, the main successor agency to the USSR’s Committee of State Security, the KGB. For example, in the defendant’s electronic contact list, there was an email account listed at an FSB-associated domain. Another document uncovered during the execution of a search warrant contained a hand-written note, entitled ‘Maria’s ‘Russian Patriots In-Waiting’ Organization,’ and asking ‘How to respond to FSB offer of employment?’ Based on this and other evidence, the FBI believes that the defendant was likely in contact with the FSB throughout her stay in the United States. Additionally, FBI surveillance observed Butina in the company of a Russian diplomat in the weeks leading up to that official’s departure from the United States in March 2018. That Russian diplomat, with whom Butina was sharing a private meal, was suspected by the United States Government of being a Russian intelligence officer. The concern that Butina poses a risk of flight is only heightened due to her connection to suspected Russian intelligence operatives.”

Alexander Torshin and Maria Butina. Photo courtesy Facebook

While not naming Torshin, the government claims: “In addition to her ties to the Russian government, there is evidence that Butina is well-connected to wealthy businessmen in the Russian oligarchy. Her Twitter messages, chat logs, and emails refer to a known Russian businessman with deep ties to the Russian Presidential Administration. This person often travels to the United States and has also been referred to as her ‘funder’ throughout her correspondence; he was listed in Forbes as having a real-time net worth of $1.2 billion as of 2018. Immediately prior to her first trip to the United States in late 2014, Butina engaged in a series of text messages with a different wealthy Russian businessman regarding budgets for her trip to the United States and meetings with the aforementioned ‘funder.’ Individuals such as these wealthy businessmen could, through their wealth and influence, be in a position to offer a safe harbor for Butina.”

And while not naming Paul Erickson, the government notes: “During the course of this investigation, the FBI has determined that Butina gained access through U.S. Person 1 to an extensive network of U.S. persons in positions to influence political activities in the United States. Butina, age 29, and U.S. Person 1, age 56, are believed to have cohabitated and been involved in a personal relationship during the course of Butina’s activities in the United States. But this relationship does not represent a strong tie to the United States because Butina appears to treat it as simply a necessary aspect of her activities. For example, on at least one occasion, Butina offered an individual other than U.S. Person 1 sex in exchange for a position within a special interest organization. Further, in papers seized by the FBI, Butina complained about living with U.S. Person 1 and expressed disdain for continuing to cohabitate with U.S. Person 1.”

In special agent of the FBI Kevin Helson’s “Affidavit in Support of an Application for a Criminal Complaint,” the government alleged: “The FBI’s investigation has further revealed that BUTINA and the RUSSIAN OFFICIAL took steps to develop relationships with American politicians in order to establish private, or as she called them, ‘back channel’ lines of communication. 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.

Maria Butina. Photo courtesy Facebook

“The FBI’s investigation has also revealed that BUTINA and the RUSSIAN OFFICIAL planned to advance Moscow’s long-term strategic objectives in the United States, in part, by establishing relationships with American political organizations, including the GUN RIGHTS ORGANIZATION. Based on my training, experience and familiarity with this investigation, I believe that BUTINA and the RUSSIAN OFFICIAL took these steps in order to infiltrate those groups and advance the interests of the Russian Federation.

“The Russian influence operation included, among other things, (i) taskings from the RUSSIAN OFFICIAL to BUTINA; (ii) meetings between BUTINA and U.S. politicians and political candidates; (iii) BUTINA’s attendance at events sponsored by special interest groups, also attended by U.S. politicians and political candidates; and (iv) BUTINA’s reporting back to Moscow through the RUSSIAN OFFICIAL the results of the various encounters with the U.S. politicians and political candidates.”

It seems that on March 24, 2015, BUTINA emailed Paul Erickson with a proposal to utilize the NRA to influence the Republican Party to modify its previous stance of opposition to Russia. According to Affidavit: “The first line of the proposal reads, ‘Project Description “Diplomacy.’’ lt goes on to state that a major U.S. political party [hereinafter ‘POLITICAL PARTY l’], would likely obtain control over the U.S. government after the 2016 elections; that POLITICAL PARTY 1 is ‘traditionally associated with negative and aggressive foreign policy, particularly with regards to Russia. However, now with the right to negotiate seems best to build konstruktivnyh [sic] relations;’ and that ‘[c]entral place and influence in the [POLITICAL PAR’I:V 1] plays the [GUN RIGHTS ORGANIZATION]. The [GUN RIGHTS ORGANIZATION] [is] the largest sponsor of the elections to the US congress, as well as a sponsor of The CPAC conference and other events.’”

“The March 24,2015 email further highlighted BUTINA’s relationship with the GUN RIGHTS ORGANIZATION’s leadership, including her attendance at events in the United States and BUTINA’s and the RUSSIAN OFFICIAL’s connections to officials of the GUN RIGHTS ORGANIZATION. BUTINA described recent visits to the United States, including references to instances when she was introduced to POLITICAL PARTY 1 leaders as a ‘representative of informal diplomacy’ of the Russian Federation. BUTINA’s project proposal concluded by noting,‘[t]he resulting status needs to be strengthened is in the current time interval, before the presidential election in 2016,’ and requesting a budget of $125,000 for BUTINA to participate in ‘all upcoming major conferences’ of POLITICAL PARTY 1”

“In late March 2015, U.S. Person 1 replied to BUTINA via email with the subject:

‘Potential American Contacts’:

Dear Maria,

‘Your challenge in your “special project” will be to balance two opposing imperatives: Your desire to communicate that you speak for Russian interests that will be ascendant (still around) in a post-Putin world while simultaneously doing nothing to criticize the President or speed the arrival of his successor.

‘This restriction is easily understood in private meetings with political and business leaders. It will SEVERELY limit your interactions with media. Most of the potential “guest appearances” listed under media will only be possible if you’re willing to be more candid (honest) than is politically prudent for you. But ALL of the media personalities listed would be interested in meeting you “off the record” – though your patrons/sponsors may not fully understand the power of such meetings if you do not appear on television, radio, or print as you do in Russia.”

Maria Butina. Photo courtesy Facebook

The Motion for Pretrial Detention notes: “The Twitter direct messages between Butina and the Russian Official also contain multiple references to Butina acting covertly, such as the following exchange, from October 5, 2016, after the Russian Official asked about the status of the ‘Russia-USA friendship society’:

BUTINA: It’s not alive. We are currently “underground” both here and there. Now, private clubs and quite [sic] influence on people making decisions is the trend. No publicity.

BUTINA: Advisor – is the profession of the current day. Even a secret advisor. Right now the Administration here is flexible – and there is the idea, so that the right thoughts would dominate.

The following exchange occurred just a week later, on October 12, 2016:

BUTINA: Don’t do that! Take it easy on yourself. Important things are ahead of us!

RUSSIAN OFFICIAL: In this sense, you probably shouldn’t be going as an observer from Russia. The risk of provocation is too high and the “media hype” which comes after it.

BUTINA: I agree! I did not even plan on it without you! Only incognito! Right now everything has to be quiet and careful.”

(Translated from Russian.)

Alex Finley, the nom de journalism of a former CIA agent, notes for Politico that Maria Butina’s seemingly odd need to insert herself in the public consciousness fit with the changing game of espionage: “The very brazenness of this makes some people doubt that it could really be part of an intelligence operation, especially one executed by Russia … But the spy game is changing. It’s increasingly taking place in the daylight rather than in the shadows … a large part of the effort was carried out openly. Butina met people at conferences, breakfasts and gun shows, smiling for photos and comfortable to be seen in the open with the very people she was trying to influence. Partly, that’s by design: Butina used her public profile to reach her targets …

“In some ways, it’s even easier for Russia to recruit American assets today than it was during the Cold War — in fact, the Russians barely even need to bother recruiting anymore. All they need, as Butina’s case shows, is a young, red headed beauty capable of manipulating the right targets — even without direct control or leverage over them. Butina was able to find several political players who were “responsive to tasking” without any formal recruitment effort.”

Maria Butina. Photo courtesy Facebook

“First, she came wielding a sympathetic agenda. President Vladimir Putin presents himself as an advocate (and Russia as a bastion) of the conservative, Christian right. He speaks out against same-sex marriage and supported a law to protect the “feelings” of religious believers. Butina and her handlers recognized that the Republican Party, the NRA and other conservative groups were receptive to this thinking, and could easily be influenced. Whereas communism was flatly rejected by a majority of American society during the Cold War … a large number of Americans today are openly sympathetic to Russia’s modern conservative ideology.

“Second, Butina had the new tool of social media on her side … The trolls and bots back in Russia could handle the messaging, distribution and amplification of messages that might help Butina’s objectives, as well as Russia’s larger strategic objective. Butina could also post her own messages and photos on social media, and then make sure the right influencers saw it and bought into it. She posted pictures of herself with influential Republican and NRA officials, which would have added to her cachet and boosted her chances of meeting the next official. And she posted YouTube videos, explaining the purported purpose of her group, Right to Bear Arms. They were easy distribution channels for reaching a desired audience …

“And here was the bonus for Russia: So what if Butina did get caught? The ultimate aim of the entire operation was to sow chaos and divide Americans in order to weaken the West, thus allowing Russia to pursue its agenda on the world stage. Now, half the country yells that the Republican Party was infiltrated by Russia, while the other half yells that it’s fake news and hyperbole. The payoff for Russia is still great, and they can now use Butina’s incarceration to continue to push their agenda of dividing the nation. There was no downside for Russia.”

A final note about why the links among the Russians, the National Rifle Association and the Trump campaign proved so significant. McClatchy reports: The NRA, Trump’s biggest financial backer, spent more than $30 million to boost his upstart candidacy; that’s more than double what it laid out for 2012 GOP nominee Mitt Romney, and the NRA money started flowing much earlier in the cycle for Trump.” (Emphasis added.)

And I’ll leave you with this Aug. 1, 2018, report from the Washington Post: “Two years after Russia interfered in the American presidential campaign, the nation has done little to protect itself against a renewed effort to influence voters in the coming congressional midterm elections, according to lawmakers and independent analysts … Russian efforts to manipulate U.S. voters through misleading social media postings are likely to have grown more sophisticated and harder to detect, and there is not a sufficiently strong government strategy to combat information warfare against the United States, outside experts said …

“John W. Kelly, chief executive of Graphika, a marketing analytics firm based in New York, said ongoing Russian attacks exploit the highly partisan nature of political debate online, in which automated accounts called bots amplify messages on Twitter and other platforms. Bots on the far left and right of the political spectrum produce 25 to 30 times more messages per day than authentic mainstream accounts, Kelly said Graphika has found in its research.”

If you really look, you’ll see Russians and more Russians.




“Mueller probe indicts 12 Russians with hacking of Democrats in 2016”
Devlin Barrett, Matt Zapotosky, July 13, 2018, Washington Post

Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein Delivers Remarks Announcing the Indictment of Twelve Russian Intelligence Officers for Conspiring to Interfere in the 2016 Presidential Election Through Computer Hacking and Related Offenses
July 13, 2018, Department of Justice

“Russian Hackers Appear to Shift Focus to U.S. Power Grid”
David E. Sanger, July 27, 2018, New York Times

“President Trump’s news conference with Russia’s Putin, annotated”
Transcript courtesy of Bloomberg Government, July 16, 2018, Washington Post
Transcript Helsinki Summit, July 16, 2018, New York Times

“The White House Transcript Is Missing the Most Explosive Part of the Trump–Putin Press Conference”
Uri Friedman, July 17, 2018, The Atlantic

Grand Jury Indicts Thirteen Russian Individuals and Three Russian Companies for Scheme to Interfere in the United States Political System
Feb. 16, 2018

“The Very Strange Case of Two Russian Gun Lovers, the NRA, and Donald Trump”
Denise Collins, Mark Follman, May/June 2018, Updated July 26, 2018, Mother Jones

“Maria Butina, explained: the accused Russian spy who tried to sway US politics through the NRA”
Andrew Prokopandrew, July 19, 2018, VOX

“Who is Alexander Torshin? Russian Banker Linked with Putin Talked with Donald Trump Jr. at 2016 Dinner”
Julia Glum, Nov. 18, 2017, Newsweek

“Russian mobster or central banker? Spanish investigators allege Alexander Torshin is both”
Aug. 9, 2016, Bloomberg News

United States of America v. Maria Butina, Criminal Case: 18-218 (TSC)
Government’s Memorandum in Support of Pretrial Detention

“The Bear and the Elephant”
Maria Butina, June 1, 2015, The National Interest

“Top Russian Official Tried to Broker ‘Backdoor’ Meeting Between Trump and Putin”
Matt Apuzzo, Matthew Rosenberg, Adam Goldman, Nov. 17, 2017, New York Times

“How America Played Right Into Maria Butina’s Hands”
Alex Finney, Aug. 1, 2018, Politico

“Web of elite Russians met with NRA execs during 2016 campaign”
Peter Stone, Greg Gordon, June 11, 2018, McClatchy

“As midterm elections approach, a growing concern that the nation is not protected from Russian interference”
Ellen Nakashima, Craig Timberg, Aug. 1, 2018, Washington Post


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