February 1, 2023

Russia’s backchannel to the NRA just got sentenced to hard time

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The Russian agent who used a fake gun rights group to infiltrate the NRA has just been sentenced to eighteen months in federal prison.


Maria Butina’s mission according to FBI counterintelligence experts was to spot and assess targets for spies and create a communications backchannel during the 2016 election campaign.  Of course, she wasn’t supposed to get caught so soon, ending her mission early, which is why she flipped on Putin, then pled guilty to spying charges when faced with an even longer jail sentence.

U.S. District Judge Tanya Chutkan, who handed down Butina’s sentence, explained that the Russian grad student was no mere dupe and that she committed a serious offense against American national security. Buzzfeed’s Zoe Tillman reports:

Butina will be deported back to Russia only after her prison sentence ends, which is the normal course of business for convicted spies in the recent past, who have served their time in jail.

The DOJ described Maria Butina’s duties to the Russian government and even revealed a 7-page written memo describing why the NRA was targeted for political cooperation:

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Butina’s responsibilities, according to the Justice Department, included identifying “people who have the ability to influence policy” in Russia’s favor.

That is, spotting people who could be of use to Russia, wittingly or not. Here’s where the NRA and the GOP came in. In one memo, she noted that the NRA “plays a central role” in the GOP, stating it was “the biggest sponsor of the US Congressional elections.” She had concluded that the way to the heart of the Republican Party was through the NRA.

At the sentencing hearing, Butina’s lawyers filed paperwork lying about her entry into the gun rights arena, which began when she became Alexander Torshin’s assistant in 2012.

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Her work for Torshin – then a high-ranking member of the Russian Federation Council (Senate) – started after the politician visited Washington, D.C. and attended the 2010 National Prayer Breakfast, then connecting with an array of GOP officials through the World Russia Forum.

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Prosecutors charged Maria Butina for being a Russian spy after she very publicly attended the 2017 National Prayer Breakfast to very secretly lead a delegation from their government.

Of course, one of her guests didn’t keep it a secret and posted photos of them at the prayer breakfast with the NRA’s former president David Keene on to Facebook.

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Meanwhile, the NRA’s publicly unfolding financial disaster is threatening to remove the group from America’s political scene as the front group for gun companies’ insiders who’ve enriched themselves all of these years are exposed.

It should come as no surprise that the group is also collapsing under the weight of its own greed. Butina helped the NRA’s top insiders hold a meeting with a Russian sniper rifle manufacturer looking to do a business deal, even though the US military is gravely concerned that its weapons give Russia’s army a battlefield advantage.

Butina’s boyfriend, Paul Erickson has been charged in a massive multi-state fraud, though he hasn’t been charged yet in conjunction with his work for Russia. The longtime GOP operative and member of the American Conservative Union got caught making a physical note to himself debating if he should accept a job offer from Putin’s FSB intelligence agency.

We do know that Erickson moved around a significant amount of cash through intermediaries to fund his exploits with Butina, including with the family of the infamous GOP super-lobbyist turned felon Jack Abramoff. The two men worked together on a cold war action film, Red Scorpion, which they shot in the then-pariah apartheid state, South Africa.

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Maria Butina’s sentencing closes one chapter in the NRA’s Russian spying scandal, but more shoes will drop.

The IRS digging deeply into the organization’s finances and is considering revocation of its tax-exempt status.

Dimitri Simes who heads a U.S. think tank called the Center for the National Interest is still under FBI investigation over his ties to Butina, and he has moved full-time to Russia to host a program on state-run television which some say is to avoid capture and arrest. Simes was mentioned 134 times in the Mueller Report.

In conclusion, the organization behind some of America’s most hurtful propaganda campaigns against the survivors of the mass shootings they enabled did not hesitate for a second to allow a hostile foreign power, Russia, to co-opt its organization during the midst of its attack on the 2016 elections.

Let us hope that the lesson of Maria Butina’s capture and conviction sends a message to the next person spying in America for foreign countries, that you can be caught and put in jail for quite a while, even if you cooperate fully with the feds.

Grant Stern

Editor at Large

is the Executive Editor of Occupy Democrats and published author. His new Meet the Candidates 2020 book series is distributed by Simon and Schuster. He's also a mortgage broker, community activist and radio personality in Miami, Florida., as well as the producer of the Dworkin Report podcast. Grant is also an occasional contributor to Raw Story, Alternet, and the DC Report, an unpaid senior advisor to the Democratic Coalition, and a Director of Sunshine Agenda Inc. a government transparency nonprofit organization.

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