The Mariia Butina fiasco
Thanks to the timely imposition of a gag order on both the prosecution and the defense by Judge Tanya Chutkan of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, we are unlikely to learn much more about the case of accused Russian agent Mariia Butina beyond what emerges in court. As we await a verdict, however, it is worth reflecting on why this case briefly captured the imagination of journalists and readers before it disappears into the abyss of Page A13.
It was, after all, a perfect story. The premise — that a red-haired spy-mistress had been trained by shadowy Russian malefactors to seduce one or more targets as part of a massive intelligence operation — appeared to have been lifted almost in its entirety from the plot of a recent film starring Jennifer Lawrence. It appealed, with its lurid details, to widespread credulousness about all things Russian, to an uncritical mania for hazily outlined collusion narratives, to a widespread desire to see all the enemies of liberalism, from the organizers of the Conservative Political Action Conference to the National Rifle Association to Muscovite banksters to President Trump, operating in conjunction with one another in service of the same sinister ideals. It was, in other words, too good to be true.
Some of this was clear even before Chutkan's intervention on Monday. Despite what was reported by everyone from NPR to Radio Free Europe to The Blaze, to say nothing of the moronic public pronouncements of her own counsel, Butina was not charged with failing to comply with the terms of the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA). The actual violation of which she has been accused is acting on behalf of a foreign power or entity in a non-diplomatic capacity without notifying the attorney general of the United States, as proscribed in Section 951 of the U.S. Criminal Code. If that all sounds very complicated and prone to misrepresentation by journalists who lack legal training, it's because it is. Caution and clarity should be the order of the day.
A far more serious error, and one that should make prosecutors ashamed of themselves, perhaps even to the point of inducing them to drop all actually relevant charges, is the accusation, repeated in a thousand newspaper articles and television reports, that Butina attempted to exchange sexual favors for employment opportunities and what could loosely be described as "access" to right-wing bigwigs. This allegation appears to have been based upon a series of text messages sent to a friend. Judge Chutkan said on Monday that she was able to discern its unseriousness in the span of "five minutes."
This recklessness concerning a woman's reputation is inexcusable. In the aftermath of #MeToo, one would hope that accusations of prostitution would not be bandied about loosely, least of all by the federal government. Having repeated the claims — which, to their credit, they had no reason to doubt — it would be a good thing if more journalists went out of their way to acknowledge this crude prosecutorial slander. Slut-shaming should not be okay just because the R word is involved.
It has also become clear that if Butina's projects are evidence of "collusion" between the Russian government and American conservatives, there is virtually no sphere of activity, in heaven or on Earth, that would not answer to that description. The highest Russian official with whom Butina appears to have been in contact was Alexander Torshin, a recently appointed deputy of the Central Bank of Russia and former Russian senator. The extent of her contact with the Putin regime extends not much further than having once contacted the Kremlin press office via a generic public email address in the hope of persuading the Russian president to appear in one or more programs on the Outdoor Channel, which agreed to pay her some $20,000 in exchange for this vital lobbying. The cable entity eventually suspended its payments to Butina when it became clear that, pace her claim that "[n]o Western media company (or even news organization) has EVER had this much access to President Putin," she had no useful channels of communication with the Kremlin. It is clear that Butina was a transnational dissembler, but on whose ultimate behalf beyond her own she worked and lied remains unclear. She is certainly no Alger Hiss.
Which is why I think there is a much broader lesson here about the vague question of influence peddling. As I write this there are hundreds of thousands of individuals working in some capacity or other on behalf of foreign nationals to influence the politics of this country. If every single one of them registered formally as a foreign agent under the terms of FARA or with the U.S. attorney general per Section 951, the offices responsible for handling such cases would be overwhelmed. In an era of globalized, more or less free communications, inexpensive travel, and virtually limitless cash in the hands of billionaire would-be influencers, it is nearly impossible to quantify or even rigorously define concepts such as "election meddling." Who and what constitute an attempt by foreigners to shape public affairs and business in the United States? It has never been easier for anyone anywhere to attempt to do so. The relentlessly pro-NAFTA New York Times remains partially owned by a Mexican billionaire. Most of "our" major corporations are either foreign-owned subsidiaries of companies you've never heard of or tax dodgers that maintain their unimaginable profitability by relying upon shady offshore accounting schemes; all of them spend millions of dollars jockeying for influence, formally and informally.
These conditions need to be acknowledged and understood. More scrutiny should be applied to our conversations about "meddling," even when there appears to be a legal basis for the accusations. Anything can sound sinister when reduced, sans context, to the supposedly affectless prose of hard news.