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Russian: Secret Agent for Kremlin      12/14 06:31

   WASHINGTON (AP) -- A Russian gun-rights activist admitted Thursday that she 
was a secret agent for the Kremlin who tried to infiltrate conservative U.S. 
political groups as Donald Trump rose to power.

   Maria Butina, 30, agreed to plead guilty to a conspiracy charge as part of a 
deal with federal prosecutors.

   "Guilty," Butina said in a slight accent when asked how she wanted to plead. 
Dressed in a green jail uniform with her red hair pulled into a long ponytail, 
Butina spoke softly and mostly kept her eyes on the judge.

   The Butina case has provided a vivid glimpse into Russia's influence 
operations in the United States at a time when the U.S. intelligence community 
has determined that Russia was trying to help elect Trump by releasing emails 
stolen from Democrats and conducting a social media campaign in an attempt to 
sow political discord.

   The case also lays bare how Russia tried to exploit one of the most 
sensitive social issues in the U.S. --- gun control --- to gain access to the 
political sphere.

   Prosecutors say Butina and her Russian patron, Alexander Torshin, used their 
contacts in the National Rifle Association to pursue back channels to American 
conservatives during the 2016 campaign, when Trump, a Republican, defeated 
Democrat Hillary Clinton.

   Court documents detail how Butina saw the Republican Party as prime for 
Russian influence and courted conservatives through networking and contacts 
with the NRA. She posed for photos with prominent Republicans, including former 
presidential candidates, and snagged a picture with Donald Trump Jr. at a 2016 
NRA dinner.

   As part of her deal, Butina pleaded guilty to a single charge of conspiracy 
to act as an unregistered foreign agent and she agreed to cooperate with 
investigators.

   The case is separate from special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation 
into Russian meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.

   Prosecutors say it is "very likely" Butina will be deported after her 
sentence is completed. The charge carries a maximum sentence of five years in 
prison, though the defense noted Thursday that federal sentencing guidelines 
recommend no time to six months. She has been jailed since her arrest in July.

   According to her plea agreement, Butina's work was directed by Torshin, a 
former longtime member of the Russian parliament who until recently was an 
official in Russia's central bank. He is now under sanction by the Treasury 
Department for his ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin.

   Butina acknowledged she "sought to establish unofficial lines of 
communication with Americans having power and influence over U.S. politics," 
according to the plea agreement. She admitted that her boyfriend, conservative 
political operative Paul Erickson, helped her as she tried to use his ties with 
the NRA to set up the back channels. Erickson, who is referred to as "U.S. 
Person 1" in court papers, has not been charged. His attorney said he is a good 
American who "has done nothing to harm our country and never would."

   In a 2015 proposal she crafted with Erickson's help, Butina argued it was 
unlikely Russia would be able to exert influence using official channels and, 
as an alternative, suggested using back channel communications to build 
relationships with Republicans, according to court papers.

   Pushing her travel to the U.S. and her work with the NRA as selling points, 
Butina argued that she had already "laid the groundwork for an unofficial 
channel of communication with the next U.S. administration." She asked for 
$125,000 from an unnamed Russian billionaire to attend conferences in the U.S. 
and meet with people who she thought may have influence with the Republican 
Party and sent the proposal to Torshin. He responded by telling her the 
proposal would "be supported, at least in part," according to court documents.

   Torshin also asked Butina to help justify him attending a national NRA 
meeting in 2016 and Butina encouraged his attendance "partly because of the 
opportunity to meet political candidates," according to her plea agreement. In 
addition to attending numerous NRA events, Butina organized "friendship 
dinners" in Washington with influential political figures.

   In their filings, prosecutors have said federal agents found Butina had 
contact information for people suspected of working for Russia's Federal 
Security Services, or FSB, the successor intelligence agency to the KGB. Inside 
her home, they found notes referring to a potential job offer from the FSB, 
according to the documents.

   A senior Russian lawmaker said he was convinced that Butina was pressured to 
confess.

   "They broke her down," Leonid Slutsky, chairman of the State Duma's foreign 
affairs committee, told Russian news agencies. "Anyone would break down in 
circumstances like that."

   Butina's time in prison has included solitary confinement.

   Butina's lawyer, Robert Driscoll, had previously decried the charges against 
her as "overblown" and said Butina was a student interested in American 
politics.

   On Thursday, prosecutors also appeared to have backed off their assertion 
that Butina's attendance at American University was little more than a cover to 
enter the U.S. In their filing, prosecutors said "all available evidence" 
indicated she had a genuine interest in a graduate school education.


(KA)

 
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