WASHINGTON — Maria Butina’s arrest last year produced breathtaking headlines about a young, attractive woman spying on Americans on behalf of the Russian government.
Butina is neither a covert agent nor a trained intelligence officer. And the only crime she was accused of committing – acting as an unregistered foreign agent – has nothing to do with stealing secrets, let alone engaging in "cloak-and-dagger activities," the Justice Department acknowledged.
But as Butina, 30, waits to be sentenced, the Justice Department revived the question that hung over her case from the moment she was arrested: Was she a spy?
Nearly a year after they first filed charges against her, prosecutors said last week that she isn't – at least in the traditional sense of the word. But they alleged for the first time that her courting of influential Republicans in the months before the 2016 election appeared "entirely consistent" with an intelligence operation to spot Americans who will be potentially valuable to the Russian government.
This claim, which Butina’s attorneys say were baseless, reinvigorated the intrigue over the gun-toting, red-haired Russian graduate student and activist whose arrest last summer sparked a speculative frenzy about who or what she really is.
Prosecutors accused Butina of engaging in a years-long campaign to find politically connected Americans and infiltrate political organizations on behalf of the Kremlin. She pleaded guilty to acting as an unregistered foreign agent, and is scheduled to be sentenced in federal court on Friday.
Her sentencing and the government's new allegations, made in a court filing by a former FBI agent last week, come against a backdrop of a political fallout over special counsel Robert Mueller's findings that Russia interfered in the presidential election in "sweeping and systematic fashion" to help elect President Donald Trump and undermine his Democratic rival, Hillary Clinton.
Last week, prosecutors filed a declaration by Robert Anderson, Jr., the former assistant director of the FBI's Counterintelligence Division, alleging that she was part of an espionage scheme by the Russian government. Anderson, who retired from the FBI in 2015 and is now chief executive officer of a cybersecurity and research company in Texas, wrote that Butina was what U.S. spy-catchers call a "spotter," an untrained person used to gather information about Americans who could be susceptible to Russian influence.
Such "spot-and-assess operations" don't "require secret encryption, dead drops, or any other trappings of a Hollywood spy story," Anderson wrote. Yet, it's a common method that provides a country's intelligence service plausible deniability if spotters were ever exposed, he added.
Prosecutors have asked Judge Tanya S. Chutkan to sentence Butina to 18 months in prison and order her deportation. They said Anderson's assessment puts "the nature and seriousness" of Butina's crimes into context. By beefing up their assessment of Butina, prosecutors are hoping to deter others who engaged in similar campaigns.
Butina's defense attorneys said Anderson's assessments were speculative, saying there's no evidence that Butina's work in the United States resulted in "spotted" Americans, or that she had passed along sensitive information to Russians, according to a motion asking the judge to exclude Anderson's findings. Defense attorneys also criticized prosecutors for what they described as a new theory rolled out for the first time "in the metaphorical bottom of the ninth inning."
In a sentencing memo filed last week, Butina's lawyers described her as a civil activist who is passionate for gun rights and politics, but whose "amateur diplomacy efforts" became her undoing. Butina had admitted to being an agent, but not "a secret agent, not an intelligence agent," her attorneys wrote.
Prosecutors charged Butina with conspiracy and failing to register as a Russian agent, not espionage, her attorneys pointed out.
But Butina's case shows the difficulty of prosecuting someone whom the government believes engaged in clandestine acts on behalf of a foreign country, said Joseph Augustyn, a veteran of the Central Intelligence Agency's clandestine service and former deputy associate director of the Department of Homeland Security. He said prosecutors would have struggled to build an espionage case against Butina even if they thought she was aiding Russian intelligence.
"The charges against Butina are like getting Al Capone for tax evasion. You're not really getting to the espionage aspect," Augustyn said. "To pin her down in an espionage case is a really tough sell ... Even in an espionage case, before you can prosecute somebody for espionage, you have to see them conduct the act before they're arrested. They have to be caught in the act of passing information."
Augustyn said he doubted Butina engaged in espionage. "There are different levels of spy," he said.
Chutkan on Thursday denied the defense attorneys' motion to exclude Anderson, allowing Butina's sentencing hearing to move forward. Anderson will likely testify.
Butina pleaded guilty in December to acting as a foreign agent for Russia without registering in the United States. She's been in jail for nine months.
Prosecutors said she worked at the direction of a high-level Russian official who was a member of the legislature of the Russian Federation and became a top official of the Russian Central Bank. This description matches that of Alexander Toshin, a close ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Prosecutors said the pair identified political organizations and politically connected individuals they can "exploit" to advance Russia's interest. Butina, who came to the United States in June 2016 on a student visa to attend graduate school at American University, sought to create back-channel lines of communication with American politicians and infiltrated organizations, including the National Rifle Association, to gain influence for Russia, prosecutors said.
Butina was not prosecuted by Mueller, and the Justice Department has never acknowledged a connection between her case and the special counsel investigation, though her arrest coincided with that probe and happened in the midst of a heightened interest over Russian meddling in U.S. politics.
Contributing: Bart Jansen and Christal Hayes
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Maria Butina is not a Russian spy, but a 'spotter': DOJ revives intrigue over gun rights activist