Wednesday, July 18, 2018

A few cautionary words on behalf of accused Russian agent Mariia Butina

I rise to speak on behalf of - but necessarily in defense of - Mariia Butina, the Russian political science graduate student now in federal custody, standing accused of having failed to register as an agent of the Russian Federation as well as related conspiracy charges.

I am motivated less by my belief that Mariia is innocent of the charges levelled against her, than by a desire to push back against the rising tide of 21st-century red-baiting that has enveloped this country. In particular, I am troubled by the fact that the people egging this phenomenon on are blind to the kind of repercussions that may lie in store.

For those who haven't been keeping up with the details of Mariia's plight, she was arrested Monday for her failure to register as a Russian operative. The activities that she engaged in while failing to register include cozying up to the National Rifle Association in an effort to create a back channel of communications between influential Republicans, notably members of the Trump administration, and Russian counterparts.

First, it should be noted that creating a back channel of communications, in and of itself, in no way constitutes a crime. In other contexts, it goes by the name "diplomacy." But, if you're working under the direction of a foreign government, as appears to be the case with Mariia, you have to let the U.S. State Department know that that is your plan.

Of course, this kind of nuance will be lost on the American public, as the words agent and operative used to describe Mariia become interchangeable with spy. Perhaps other charges will be revealed that suggest what she did came closer to what we would label espionage, but, until they do, it's hard for me to see that Butina is guilty of endangering the national security interests of this country in any substantive way.

I should say, in my own defense here, I am well aware of the political context in which Mariia's indictment and arrest occurred. To me they were a demonstration that the National Security Division of the Justice Department, along with Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, had, maybe at Robert Mueller's urging, decided to fight back against Donald Trump's public disdain for U.S. intelligence agencies that he put so cravenly on display during his summit meeting with Russian leader Vladimir Putin earlier this week. In addition, there may be a possibility that Mariia will "turn" and provide the kind of evidence for collusion that Special Investigator Mueller is looking for.

So, you might ask, what's the harm? Butina is no ingenue and should have been aware that the job she signed up for with the Russian Federation carried with it some risks. If that's the case, her brazenness with how she conducted communications with her Russian handlers, suggests that she either did not care or had not been properly trained.

The harm lies not so much with Mariia, although having a young person sentenced to a lengthy term in a federal prison for getting in bed with the NRA hardly strikes me as fair. I would argue that having to attend two National Prayer Breakfasts in the course of her assigned duties here should constitute punishment enough. Frankly, I would prefer the slammer.

The real harm, just about to be played out in Russia, with the arrest of U.S. graduates students or American representatives of nonprofit organizations working there under the pretext that they are operating as unregistered agents of our government or some similar trumped up charge. Russia hardly needs any encouragement to imprison foreigners working there on behalf of human rights or press freedom and we have just handed them a bushelful.

If we're lucky, this exchange of pawns in our current geopolitical struggle with Russia will end with a prisoner swap involving Mariia and an American counterpart who is just now about to be arrested in Moscow or St. Petersburg. If we're not lucky, a lot of innocent people will be caught in the crossfire, and the already difficult humanitarian work in Russia will be brought to a screeching halt.

After all is said and done, although I appreciate the blow against Donald Trump that was intended by the arrest of Mariia Butina, in particular by its timing, I believe, in the greater scheme of things, it will prove to have been misguided, resulting in few tangible political benefits and, perhaps, a number of ruined lives.

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