Ex-Homeland Security official explains how the case against an accused Russian spy could be masking an even larger counterintelligence probe

Ex-Homeland Security official explains how the case against an accused Russian spy could be masking an even larger counterintelligence probe
Maria Butina/Shutterstock
Maria Butina/Shutterstock

On Monday, The New Republic published a highly sympathetic profile of arrested Russian gun rights activist Maria Butina, built from several conversions between Butina and journalist James Bamford.


"Truth is my best defender here," said Butina, who has been accused of secretly trying to infiltrate the National Rifle Association for the benefit of the Russian government. "If I would be the Russian spy, you would never see me in public. I mean, I would be the most unseen person on Earth." Bamford portrays Butina as a "scapegoat" of "anti-Russian fervor" and asserts that the case against her is "extremely flimsy" and "appears to have been driven largely by a desire for publicity."

Put aside, for a moment, the fact that Butina has already pleaded guilty to conspiracy to act as an unregistered agent of the Russian government. And put aside the damning messages from her boyfriend, Republican strategist Paul Erickson, who stated he was involved "in securing a VERY private line of communication between the Kremlin" and top officials in the NRA.

The problem with that analysis, according to ABC analyst and former Homeland Security official John Cohen speaking to Good Morning America, is that Bamford's claim that the government does not have additional evidence of wrongdoing by Butina is purely speculative:

The primary objective in counterintelligence investigations, Cohen said, is often not to obtain a conviction, but rather to obtain information that can be leveraged elsewhere. In situations where information has been obtained using highly sensitive collection sources and methods, investigators have to make a choice whether using it in a prosecution would risk their discovery.
"There could be information that investigators were aware of but aren't using as part of a prosecution because they don't want to disclose how they got the information and compromise future collection activities," Cohen said. "So to the public it might appear that the only illegal activity was contained in the indictment, but in counterintelligence cases, that's very often not the case."

The case against Butina is still developing, and there have clearly been a few prosecutorial missteps, including the erroneous claim that Butina tried to trade sexual favors for access to a political organization. Nonetheless, without access to the broader range of evidence that prosecutors in the District of Columbia are pursuing, there is no grounds to call the case baseless — and efforts to cast Butina as a victim are premature to say the least.

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