It’s been a strange few weeks in the case of Maria Butina
Lawyers representing Maria Butina, the Russian national accused of acting as an unregistered foreign agent while infiltrating the National Rifle Association (NRA), apparently believe the government is withholding evidence that could exonerate her.
Chief among the supposed evidence cited by her attorneys are records showing Butina was the target of a “dangle” operation.
U.S. Attorney Jessie Liu revealed in a letter this week that Butina’s attorneys, Robert Driscoll and Alfred Carry, claimed Butina may have been targeted as part of an operation by confidential government informants.
The alleged operation would have made Butina a target, rather than a perpetrator, of infiltration efforts, with the government trying to ensnare her in some sort of unclear plot.
As Liu wrote, Driscoll and Carry had “advanced certain hypothetical scenarios involving [Butina], including a supposed ‘dangle’ operation or the acquisition of exculpatory information from ‘Cis,’ which we take to mean confidential government informants.”
Liu pointed out that Driscoll and Carry had apparently picked up this idea of some kind of plot from “speculation based on claims made in some unidentified media articles.”
As the U.S. Attorney continued:
Inexplicably, however, in your October 18, 2018 email, you — for the first time — firmly assert that “[w]e know this information exists [and] have called it out by name…” [emphasis added]. The government was surprised by this newly adamant assertion, and we invite you to provide us any additional information you may have concerning the provenance or existence of the information you request.
As the letter concluded, prosecutors have no information about a supposed “dangle” operation to snare Butina. “We are not aware of any information that would trigger any disclosure obligations regarding either a ‘dangle,’ successful or otherwise, or information obtained from any confidential informant,” Liu wrote.
It’s unclear how Driscoll and Carry developed the theory that Butina was targeted by a confidential informant. The attorneys are currently under a gag order after a judge concluded that Driscoll had ignored prior warnings about conducting media interviews. (This came after Driscoll made numerous appearances on Fox News to discuss Russian interference efforts without disclosing that he was Butina’s lawyers.)
The new claims by Butina’s lawyers fit a broader pattern of those accused of abetting Russian interference efforts — namely, by claiming that they were actually victims of some kind of nefarious operation. As Marcy Wheeler, editor of the national security blog Emptywheel, noted, former Trump adviser George Papadopoulos tried — and continues to try — to make a similar claim, even after he received a jail sentence for lying to the FBI.
“It seems like Butina’s defenders both in and outside the country have decided on a disinformation strategy rather than a direct defense of her case,” Wheeler wrote on Thursday.
Liu’s missive follows a pair of letters issued by Driscoll and Carry demanding more evidence that the prosecutors have compiled, and which they claim may prove exculpatory for Butina.
The first letter, dated October 14, is relatively straightforward, with Driscoll and Carry requesting information like written and recorded statements, identities of government expert witnesses, and the like.
The second letter, though, is far more forceful. Also written on Monday, the letter chastises Liu and his team for apparently dumping an over-abundance of related materials and documents on the defense — much of it in Russian, a language in which neither Driscoll nor Carry are proficient.
“The total for all this material is well-over millions of files and pages,” Butina’s attorneys write. “Additionally, many of the documents produced are in Russian. The government has translated some of these materials into English, but not all.”
Much of the material in the filing is redacted, but Butina’s lawyers requested additional information on visa applications, travel histories, and warrants for searches and seizures. The material, according to her lawyers, would apparently help “demonstrate that Maria Butina was, in fact, nothing more than a student with lofty aspirations who was acting on her own and not as a foreign agent.”
At least one person has supported the claims made by Butina’s lawyers: Russian Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Maria Zakharova.
#Zakharova: It is baffling that the court considering Maria Butina’s case has not yet handed over the case material to her, although the hearing is scheduled for November 13. Unfortunately, this gives us yet another reason to doubt the impartiality of American justice system
— MFA Russia (@mfa_russia) October 25, 2018
Butina, according to prosecutors, led Russia’s infiltration efforts of the NRA, acting as an unregistered foreign agent on behalf of the Kremlin. Her main Russian contact, Alexander Torshin, has been sanctioned by the U.S., and has been accused by Spanish authorities of being a key player in the Russian Mafia in Spain, aiding in massive money laundering operations.
Butina has been jailed since July, and has pleaded not guilty to the charges. The next hearing is scheduled for November 13.