The FBI gets egg all over its face in Maria Butina 'red sparrow' claim

The Federal Bureau of Investigation and its affiliated prosecutors admitted a rather dumb error in its prosecutorial case against accused Russian agent of influence Maria Butina:

According to CBS News:

Federal prosecutors said Friday in a court filing that alleged Russian agent Maria Butina should not be released from jail on bond -- and also that the government was "mistaken" in its understanding of text messages that led to its claim that she offered sex for "a position with a special interest organization."

A bond hearing is scheduled for Monday. 

The Justice Department alleges that Butina acted as an unregistered Russian agent for several years, working with a "senior Russian government official" to infiltrate a "U.S. gun rights organization" and other conservative groups. A grand jury indicted Butina in July, and she has been detained since then. 

In their charges, federal prosecutors based their accusation that Butina offered sex for access on a review of her text messages.

The Washington Post reported in August that Butina's attorney, Robert Driscoll, called the allegations a "sexist smear," arguing that prosecutors misconstrued joking text messages between Butina and a Russian man who was a longtime friend.

In the motion on Friday, prosecutors appear to drop the claim, but maintain that Butina should remain in detention.

So she wasn't quite the 'red sparrow' of the dramatic spy novel, apparently. And in fact, her case is very complex.

First, to synopsize it: Butina came over to the states at least three years ago as a student at American University, proceeded to make friends with first a bunch of Democrats in power, and then, shortly before President Trump was elected, and unusual for a Russian, convinced Trump would win (the Kremlin forecasted otherwise), so she started sidling up to National Rifle Association people, and saying she was a pro-Second Amendment activist as a means of getting closer. She had an affair with what is widely reported to be NRA member Paul Erickson, and Erickson set up some company in South Dakota to supposedly finance Butina's continued studies. Then it got very weird and complicated: Butina, it turns out, cooperated with the FBI or maybe turned Erickson in, over an unrelated fraud case. When Butina prepared to move to South Dakota, the FBI busted her for acting as an unregistered foreign agent, because keeping an eye on her would have been too tough out in South Dakota, so the media reports said. There are even more suggestions of political shenanigans in this Gary Gindler argument here.


Now we learn that the case against her wasn't as strong as it could have been, because it turns out she wasn't offering sex for access - a la 'Red Sparrow.'

So what this looks like is a breakdown in good spy tradecraft, with a very dumb error now embarrassing the bureau and prosecutors. If they can't prove she was trading sex for access, pretty much all they have then is her chain of contacts, which her defense team can argue was just garden-variety social climbing. It may well turn out to be a very lightweight case in the matter of espionage, just as the Anna Chapman case a few years earlier seemed to be.

Why could such an error have occurred? What it sounds like is that maybe the agents were under intense pressure to show some kind of vigilance against the Russians as well as bust anyone they could. That led to sloppiness in charges. More specifically, maybe they were under pressure to bust Butina as a means of showing Russian collusion with Trump to steal the election from Hillary Clinton, the old line put out by the Podesta crowd. Now they look like rats - given that both Carter Page and Maria Butina were people who cooperated with them earlier on unrelated cases. That isn't going to be good for informant-recruiting. On the counteracting side, there has been talk of Russia funneling cash to the NRA to get Trump elected, but that hasn't been proven, and at this point, it sounds like fevered Democrat-imagination talk to justify Hillary's not going to Wisconsin. Now it's contradicted by the reality that Butina was sidling up to anyone in power, not just Republicans, and wasn't on the same page as the Kremlin in assuming Trump would be elected. To top it off, she's been found to be not employing 'red sparrow' tactics, and the FBI has egg all over its face on that one.

The case, if anything, shows a breakdown in standards at the nation's premiere law enforcement agency. In the past, the FBI would go very cautious in only bringing the most airtight of charges and leaving the muddled stuff alone. Now it looks like they are grasping at straws, possibly for political reasons, and it's coming at the expense of good casework. What's more, this stuff never happened in the airtight cases against the likes of Aldrich Ames, Robert Hanssen, or the Walker family spies. It's just happening now. That suggest politics taking over.

Another part of the problem may be that the nature of espionage has changed - and Russia is focusing less on stealing hard secrets, except with hackers back in unreachable Siberia, and more on human intelligence sources as agents of soft influence, all of which is very hard to prove, and has few prosecutorial tools to check it. The Foreign Agents Registration Act is pretty much the only weapon the FBI has against this and it only carries a jail term of five years. Maybe the bureau needs to focus more on warning Americans against agents of influence, and reserving these mushy spy cases for diplomatic-type expulsions and spy exchanges, rather than prosecuteable criminal cases, except in the case of traitors

That said, politics and the politicization of spywork is proving to be a mess for the FBI. This latest jump-the-gun error shows it.

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