Russian ‘agent’ held on charges of seeking to infiltrate US govt

Maria Butina. (REUTERS)
Updated 19 July 2018
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Russian ‘agent’ held on charges of seeking to infiltrate US govt

  • Maria helped arrange visits by Torshin and other Russian officials to major political events
  • The arrest was announced Monday hours after Trump finished a summit and a press conference with Putin in Helsinki

WASHINGTON: A Russian gun rights enthusiast who built a network of powerful Republican contacts under the direction of a Kremlin power-broker was ordered held without bond Wednesday after FBI counterintelligence agents accused her of conspiring to infiltrate the US government.
US prosecutors said Maria Butina, 29, exploited her close links with the powerful NRA gun lobby while posing as a visiting graduate student to endear herself with senior Republicans, guided by one of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s major political supporters, Alexander Torshin.
Butina was charged in the Washington federal court with acting illegally as an unregistered agent for the Russian government while she lived in Washington over the past three years with her boyfriend, a veteran Republican operative.
They called Butina a “covert Russian agent” who maintained contacts with Russian spies and pursued a mission “to penetrate the US national decision-making apparatus to advance the agenda of the Russian Federation.”
That included offering sex to get a job in a US lobbying group, according to documents filed in court by the Department of Justice.
Butina pleaded not guilty to two criminal charges of conspiring to act as a foreign agent without registering, and acting as a foreign agent. The first charge brings a maximum five years in prison, while the second carries a maximum 10 years.
“This is not a spy case,” her lawyer Robert Driscoll said after Butina appeared in court in an orange jumpsuit.
“The government is speculating that someone is a Russian spy, but thousands of Russians met intelligence operatives” in the United States, he said.

Butina’s arrest Sunday added to the political turmoil in Washington over Russia’s meddling in the 2016 presidential election and allegations that President Donald Trump’s campaign collaborated with the Russians.
The arrest was announced Monday hours after Trump finished a summit and a press conference with Putin in Helsinki, Finland, where the US leader rejected the US intelligence community’s verdict that the Russians meddled to support him over Hillary Clinton in the 2016 race.
Trump reversed that stance a day later under heavy attack from US politicians of both parties.
FBI agents described a long-term operation stretching back as far as 2011 when Torshin met then-National Rifle Association president David Keene and Butina launched a mirror Russian gun rights group named The Right to Bear Arms.
She befriended the Republican operative, unnamed in the indictment but widely identified as Paul Erickson, 56, who opened doors to NRA and Republican circles.
Butina began visiting the United States and was regularly hosted by the NRA and other groups, and became a “life member” of the American gun rights lobby.
Pictures of her meeting prominent Republican governors and congressman, and the powerful leaders of the NRA, are splashed across her social media accounts.
In July 2015, Butina was selected to ask Trump a question about his plans for ties with Russia at a rally in Las Vegas.
“I believe I would get along very nicely with Putin.... I don’t think you’d need the sanctions,” he said, in possibly his first campaign trail pronouncement on the issue.
Her activities ramped up after she moved to the US capital on a student visa in 2016, attending American University graduate school while she lived with Erickson.
Hardly masking her networking efforts, she told colleagues at the school that she had a nearly direct line to Putin.
She helped arrange visits by Torshin and other Russian officials to major political events like the National Prayer Breakfast, as they sought to construct a “back channel” with sympathetic, influential Americans.
Meanwhile Erickson, citing his Russian connections, tried to arrange a meeting between Putin and Trump in early 2016.
And that year Butina reportedly met Trump’s son Donald Trump Jr. at a private dinner in Louisville, Kentucky during the NRA annual convention.

The FBI’s investigation of Butina began before the probe led by Special Counsel Robert Mueller into possible collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia, and the indictment did not involve Mueller’s team.
But the two investigations clearly overlapped, and Butina has already been interviewed by the Senate committee studying Russian meddling.
On Wednesday Moscow said the arrest was a political move seeking undermine the gains of the Helsinki summit.
“This happened with the obvious task of minimizing the positive effect,” of the Trump-Putin meeting, said foreign ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova.
“There is an impression the FBI is simply carrying out a clearly political order,” she said.


China ups pressure as tech exec's hearing goes into Tuesday

Liu Xiaozong, husband of Meng Wanzhou, Huawei's chief financial officer arrives at a Vancouver, British Columbia courthouse following a break in the bail hearing for his wife on Monday, December 10, 2018. (AP)
Updated 3 min 46 sec ago
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China ups pressure as tech exec's hearing goes into Tuesday

  • The Canadian province of British Columbia has already canceled a trade mission to China amid fears China could detain Canadians in retaliation for Meng's detention
  • The prosecutor said her husband has no meaningful connections to Vancouver and spends only two or three weeks a year in the city

VANCOUVER, British Columbia: A jailed Chinese technology executive will have to wait at least one more day to see if she will be released on bail in a case that has raised U.S.-China tensions and complicated efforts to resolve a trade dispute that has roiled financial markets and threatened global economic growth.
Meng Wanzhou, the chief financial officer of Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei and daughter of its founder, was detained at the request of the U.S. during a layover at the Vancouver airport Dec. 1 — the same day that Presidents Donald Trump and Xi Jinping of China agreed to a 90-day cease-fire in the trade dispute that threatens to disrupt global commerce.
The U.S. has accused Huawei of using a Hong Kong shell company to sell equipment to Iran in violation of U.S. sanctions. It also says Meng and Huawei misled banks about the company's business dealings in Iran.
After a second daylong session, Justice William Ehrcke said the bail hearing would continue Tuesday.
In urging the court to reject Meng's bail request, prosecutor John Gibb-Carsley noted the Huawei executive has vast resources and a strong incentive to flee as she is facing fraud charges in the United States that could put her in prison for 30 years.
Gibb-Carsley later told the judge that if he does decide to grant bail it should include house arrest.
David Martin, Meng's lawyer, said Meng was willing to pay for a surveillance company to monitor her and wear an ankle monitor but she wanted to be able to travel around Vancouver and its suburbs. Scott Filer of Lions Gate Risk Management group said his company would make a citizen's arrest if she breached bail conditions.
Martin said Meng's husband would put up both of their Vancouver homes plus $1 million Canadian ($750,000) for a total value of $15 million Canadian ($11.2 million) as collateral.
The judge cast doubt on that proposal, saying Meng's husband isn't a resident of British Columbia — a requirement for him to act as a guarantor that his wife won't flee — and his visitor visa expires in February.
The prosecutor said her husband has no meaningful connections to Vancouver and spends only two or three weeks a year in the city. Gibb-Carsley also expressed concern about the idea of using a security company paid by Meng.
He said later that $15 million Canadian ($11.2 million) would be an appropriate amount if the judge granted bail, but he said half should be in cash.
Meng's arrest has fueled U.S.-China trade tensions at a time when the two countries are seeking to resolve a dispute over Beijing's technology and industrial strategy. Both sides have sought to keep the issues separate, at least so far, but the arrest has roiled markets, with stock markets worldwide down again Monday.
The hearing has sparked widespread interest, and the courtroom was packed again Monday with media and spectators, including some who came to support Meng. One man in the gallery brought binoculars to have a closer look at Meng, while outside court a man and woman held a sign that read "Free Ms. Meng."
Over the weekend, Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Le Yucheng summoned Canadian Ambassador John McCallum and U.S. Ambassador Terry Branstad.
Le warned both countries that Beijing would take steps based on their response. Asked Monday what those steps might be, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang said only, "It totally depends on the Canadian side itself."
The Canadian province of British Columbia has already canceled a trade mission to China amid fears China could detain Canadians in retaliation for Meng's detention.
Stocks around the world fell Monday over investor concerns about the continuing U.S.-China trade dispute, as well as the cloud hanging over Brexit negotiations after Britain's prime minister postponed a vote on her deal for Britain to quit the European Union. In the U.S., stocks were volatile, tumbling in the morning and then recovering in the afternoon.
The Huawei case complicates efforts to resolve the U.S.-China trade dispute. The United States has slapped tariffs on $250 billion in Chinese imports, charging that China steals American technology and forces U.S. companies to turn over trade secrets.
Tariffs on $200 billion of those imports were scheduled to rise from 10 percent to 25 percent on Jan. 1. But over dinner Dec. 1 with Xi in Buenos Aires, Argentina, Trump agreed to delay the increase for 90 days, buying time for more negotiations.
Bill Perry, a trade lawyer with Harris Bricken in Seattle, said China's decelerating economy is putting pressure on Xi to make concessions before U.S. tariffs go up.
"They need a trade deal. They don't want the tariffs to go up to 25" percent, said Perry, who produces the "US China Trade War" blog. "This is Damocles' sword hanging over the Chinese government."
Huawei, the biggest global supplier of network gear for phone and internet companies, has become the target of U.S. security concerns because of its ties to the Chinese government. The U.S. has pressured other countries to limit use of its technology, warning they could be opening themselves up to surveillance and theft of information.
Lu, the Foreign Ministry spokesman, accused countries he didn't cite by name of hyping the "so-called" threat.
"I must tell you that not a single piece of evidence have they ever presented to back their allegation," he said. "To create obstacles for companies' normal operations based on speculation is quite absurd."
Canadian officials have declined to comment on Chinese threats of retaliation, instead emphasizing the independence of Canada's judiciary and the importance of Ottawa's relationship with Beijing.