U.S. prosecutors want suspected covert Russian agent kept in jail

WASHINGTON — A 29-year-old gun-rights activist accused of being a covert Russian agent was likely in contact with Kremlin operatives while she lived in the United States, prosecutors said Wednesday in court papers.

Mariia Butina, leader of a pro-gun organization, speaks on October 8, 2013 during a press conference in Moscow. The 29-year-old Russian woman has been arrested for conspiring to influence US politics by cultivating ties with political groups including the National Rifle Association, the powerful gun rights lobby. Butina was arrested in Washington on July 15, 2018 and appeared in court on July 16, the Justice Department said. (STR/AFP/Getty Images)

Mariia Butina had contact information for people who, prosecutors say, were employees of the Russia’s Federal Security Services, or FSB, according to the government. The FBI also observed her dining privately with a Russian diplomat suspected of being an intelligence operative, in the weeks before the envoy’s departure from the U.S. last March.

Prosecutors made the allegations in documents that also accuse her of using sex and deception to establish influential connections she could tap to infiltrate U.S. political organizations and gather intelligence for a senior Russian official.

The filings were made public before an afternoon hearing in which a judge will decide whether to keep Butina in jail while she awaits trial on charges of conspiracy and acting as an unregistered foreign agent for Russia.

Citing her intelligence ties, the government is arguing that Butina poses an “extreme” risk of fleeing the U.S., where she has been living on a student visa. In seeking her detention, prosecutors said Butina’s “legal status in the United States is predicated on deception.”

They said surveillance video from the past week shows that Butina planned to leave the country. Her lease on an apartment ends later this month and her belongings were packed at the time of her arrest last weekend, prosecutors said. Her personal ties, “save for those U.S. persons she attempted to exploit and influence,” are to Russia, according to the government court filing.

“The concern that Butina poses a risk of flight is only heightened due to her connection to suspected Russian intelligence operatives,” prosecutors wrote.

Prosecutors also said Butina was regarded as a covert agent by a Russian official with whom she was in touch, with text messages discovered by the FBI showing how the official likened her to Anna Chapman, a Russian woman who was arrested in 2010 and then deported as part of a prisoner swap.

In March 2017, following news coverage of Butina, the Russian official wrote, “Are your admirers asking for your autographs yet? You have upstaged Anna Chapman. She poses with toy pistols, while you are being published with real ones,” according to the court filing.

Mariia Butina. (CNN Photo)

Butina and the official messaged each other directly on Twitter, prosecutors said. One such exchange occurred a month before the U.S. presidential election when Butina said she understood that “everything has to be quiet and careful.”

They also spoke on January 20, 2017 when Butina sent the official a photo of her near the U.S. Capitol on the day Donald Trump was inaugurated as president. According to court papers, the Russian official responded, “You’re a daredevil girl! What can I say!()” Butina responded, “Good teachers!”

Authorities have not named the Russian official, but details in the court papers match the description of Alexander Torshin, a former legislator who is now a senior official in the Central Bank of the Russian Federation.

Torshin, who became a National Rifle Association life member in 2012, was among a group of Russian oligarchs and officials targeted in April by Treasury Department sanctions for their associations with Russian President Vladimir Putin and their roles in “advancing Russia’s malign activities.”

Prosecutors say the official directed Butina to use her contacts with the NRA and other conservative causes to gather intelligence on American officials and political organizations. She is also accused of trying to establish back-channel lines of communications for the Kremlin.

The NRA, which has previously been connected to Butina, has not commented on the charges. Butina’s attorney, Robert Driscoll, has called the allegations “overblown” and denied his client was a Russian agent.

Driscoll said she was just a student, attending American University in the nation’s capital, who “at most” was seeking to promote a better relationship between the U.S. and Russia.

But in court papers, prosecutors said Butina’s university enrollment was a cover for her covert duties and that she suggested, falsely, on her visa application that she was no longer employed by the Russian official at the time she applied for a student visa.

Prosecutors also alleged that she used a personal relationship with an unnamed American political operative, with whom she was living, “as simply a necessary aspect” of her covert activities on behalf of Russia.

Authorities say the relationship with the operative, identified as “U.S. Person 1” in court papers, shouldn’t be seen as a “strong tie” to the U.S., noting she “offered an individual other than U.S. Person 1 sex in exchange for a position within a special interest organization.”

Court papers do not name the individual or the special interest group.