Last month in the New Republic magazine, veteran intelligence author James Bamford came to the defense of Maria Butina, the American University graduate student who has been often depicted as a Russian spy. I have done so on this blog.
Bamford argued that Butina is not a spy but scapegoat for prosecutors with a weak case and the victim of credulous reporters. I think he’s right. I was one of those reporters.
What This Means
Bamford’s story does not mean the Trump-Russia investigation is a hoax or that the Trump campaign did not conspire with Russians during the 2016 campaign.
And it does not mean that Butina wasn’t used in President Vladimir Putin’s wide-ranging campaign to kill U.S. sanctions on him and his circle of oligarchs. In my corrected view, Butina was a pawn, not a spy.
Bamford’s story prompted me to re-read everything I had written about Butina, and then all the stories I had relied on. As I did that, my mistake became, well, unmistakeable. When I called Butina a “spy” and a “convicted Russian agent,” in these pages, I was wrong. My apologies to her. (The inaccurate stories will be taken down or corrected.)
Getting Butina’s personal story right–as Bamford’s TNR story does–is important to understanding what the Trump-Russia investigation has–and has not–revealed. It is a cautionary tale about the perils of journalism, which requires making constant, quick, and reinforcing judgments about sources and information, judgments that are inevitably fallible and can lead to a chain of errors.
My perception and depiction of Butina was flawed by–what else?–lack of first-hand reporting. Unlike other reporters, Bamford spent a lot of time with Butina. Unlike most reporters, he is also deeply knowlegeable about the U.S. intelligence community. Bamford is author of two of the best books ever written about the National Security Agency.
Bamford’s portrait of Butina is convincing.
Butina is simply an idealistic young Russian, born in the last days of the Soviet Union, raised in the new world of capitalism, and hoping to contribute to a better understanding between two countries while pursuing a career in international relations. Fluent in English and interested in expanding gun rights in Russia, she met with Americans in Moscow and on frequent trips to the United States, forging ties with members of the National Rifle Association, important figures within the conservative movement,
I was too credulous about the reporting based on leaks from the prosecutors. I overplayed the possibility that she was a witting spy for Russian intelligence organizations such as the Main Intelligence Directorate, otherwise known as the GRU.
I did not credit the reports that Butina, a gun rights activist, allegedly conspired with her friends at the National Rifle Association to funnel money to the Trump campaign. The claim enjoyed a ride in Twitter feeds and cable news chyrons but no prosecution followed. So I ignored it.
My belief that Butina was acting duplicitously–and therefore qualified as a spy–was based on something else, a factual detail which Bamford does not mention.
The detail is important.
The culmination of Butina’s sincere and straightforward pursuit of U.S. political contacts, Bamford notes, was the 2017 annual National Prayer Breakfast, a magnet for conservatives and gun rights activists. It was the first prayer breakfast under President Trump, a gun champion and the rare American politician who spoke well of Russia.
Thanks to Butina’s organizing skills and contacts, her mentor Alexander Torshin would have a chance to meet the president of the United States, one on one.
Bamford describes Torshin “as a senator in the Duma and the first deputy chairman of the Federation Council, the upper chamber of Russia’s Parliament,” and a deputy governor of the Central Bank of Russia.
That’s accurate so far as it goes.
Torshin is also one of the Russians that the U.S. Treasury Department sanctioned for “malign activities” under the Magnitsky Act. The U.S. law targets the billionaire class around Russian president Vladimir Putin. It is a hindrance to the Russian elite. It makes their lives more difficult and their fortunes more insecure.
When Trump was elected, Torshin’s support for Butina had paid off.
Rest of the Story
The Committee to Investigate Russia, an organization led by former U.S. intelligence officials, explains what happened next.
(Whatever you think of the source, the facts of this narrative are not disputed by Bamford, Butina, the Trump White House, or Trump-Russia skeptics.)
After the inauguration, President Trump was scheduled to connect with Torshin in a waiting room at the Washington Hilton before the National Prayer Breakfast on Feb. 2. Prayer Breakfast leaders had offered a small group of guests a private audience with president. The White House canceled the event at the last minute.
Mike Isikoff of Yahoo News explained what happened.
While reviewing the list of guests, a White House national security aide responsible for European affairs noticed Torshin’s name and flagged him as a figure who had “baggage,” a reference to his suspected ties to organized crime, an administration official told Yahoo News.
Bamford recounts the cancellation of the prayer breakfast from the Russian perspective without getting too much into the why. The context would have helped the story.
Asked to comment, Torshin told Bamford “I consider it advisable to do this after the publication of the results of all the investigations in the United States.”
Torshin was–and is–under investigation by Spanish authorities for money laundering. His background is not a hoax or a Hillary Clinton ruse. It is a relevant fact because the Trump organization is under investigation by New York authorities for money laundering.
Last May Yahoo News reported Spanish authorities have shared wiretap conversations between Torshin and Donald Trump Jr. that led to a meeting of the two at an NRA convention in May 2016:
José Grinda, who has spearheaded investigations into Spanish organized crime, said that bureau officials in recent months requested and were provided transcripts of wiretapped conversations between Torshin and Alexander Romanov, a convicted Russian money launderer. On the wiretaps, Romanov refers to Torshin as “El Padrino,” the godfather.
This information has nothing to do with Butina. It doesn’t contradict Bamford’s story.
Bamford shows that Torshin was Butina’s friend and mentor, a grandfatherly figure who shared her passion for gun rights and all things American. I see no reason to doubt his reporting.
It is unsurprising that Torshin had legal (and perhaps illegal) interests about which his protege knew little. He supported, but did not control, her cultivation of influential Americans. Even if she wasn’t was quite able to pull off the meeting with Trump, she accomplished a lot in bringing together Russian and American gun rights activists.
Torshin’s ulterior agenda–a personal meeting with Trump to argue for lifting Magnitsky Act sanctions–would have to wait for another day.
Marina Butina was not a co-conspirator in a fiendish Putin plot.
In the intelligence community, one might say Butina participated in a Russian “influence operation.” In Washington, we would say she was lobbying on behalf of a foreign client.
Again, my apologies to Butina. She was a pawn, not a spy.
What is Russia’s GRU?