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Opinion: The real Maria Butina scandal: FBI could have prevented it

By John Solomon
Opinion Contributor

This is a tale of two alleged Russian agents — one who got rolled up once her ring activated against a Democratic political figure, and the other who was allowed to roam freely across the American political landscape for years while building contacts with conservatives.

The second example, Maria Butina, was a photogenic 20-something Russian who, by 2015, was frequenting American political events, posing questions to presidential contenders, dining with the politically connected and snapping photos with conservative VIPs.

Her shtick — she billed herself as a Russian student visiting the United States who decided to champion the expansion of mostly nonexistent gun rights in her homeland — was simply too good to be true.

Russia has no Second Amendment and isn’t considered a country friendly to civilian gun ownership. Handguns are mostly outlawed and hunting shotguns and rifles are strictly controlled, leaving less than 10 percent of the populace as legal gun owners. And Russian President Vladimir Putin even suggested he might start a crusade with his country’s national guard to confiscate guns from unauthorized Russian owners, a threat that reminded some of the old Soviet dissident roundups.

Any young student who dared challenge a Russian cultural norm or Putin’s wishes, as Butina did on gun rights, seemed more likely to be destined for a gulag than the American red carpet.

Unless, of course, there was a benefit to the Kremlin.

U.S. intelligence unquestionably had Butina on its radar by spring 2015, in part because she left an overt trail of open-source intelligence documenting her contacts with major conservative figures at the Conservative Political Action Conference, the National Rifle Association and the libertarian Freedom Fest, starting in 2013. (Some of those she met at events had U.S. security clearances.)

For at least 18 months, the FBI even surveilled her regularly as she roamed the United States, according to sources.

Yet the FBI chose not to arrest her until 2018, charging her just two weeks ago with acting illegally as a Russian agent of influence without properly registering, a charge she and her lawyer deny.

Before that, the U.S. government had cleared and even helped to facilitate a meeting for two congressmen — one a Republican, the other a Democrat — in summer 2015 in St. Petersburg, Russia, with Butina and her Russian handler; it then approved her receiving a student visa to stay more regularly in the United States, starting in 2016.

Such behavior seems odd for an FBI that now says in court records it has evidence dating to 2015 of Butina’s efforts to influence American politics — especially when compared to the bureau’s conduct in the earlier case of another Russian, Anna Chapman.

Chapman was, before Butina, the most famous Russian arrested on U.S. soil. She led a ring of about 10 Russian spies embedded in America; one of them posed as an accountant as she tried to gain influence in political circles.

Both Butina and Chapman were stunning in appearance, two redheads who were flawlessly Western in comportment and cunning in how they penetrated political circles.

But that is where the comparisons end — at least when it comes to the FBI’s conduct.

As soon as one of Chapman’s associates, who went by the name of Cynthia Murphy, made inroads with Alan Patricof, a major Democratic donor close to Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonO'Rourke's rise raises hopes for Texas Dems down ballot Gabbard considering 2020 run: report Claiming 'spousal privilege' to stonewall Congress MORE, the FBI acted swiftly to arrest the entire cell before it compromised any political leaders or institutions.

“In regards to the woman known as Cynthia Murphy, she was getting close to Alan, and the lobbying job. And we thought this was too close to Hillary Clinton,” former FBI Assistant Director for Counterintelligence Frank Figliuzzi explained to me last year. “So when you have the totality of the circumstance, and we were confident we had the whole cell identified, we decided it was time to shut down their operations.”

For some reason, the FBI’s “too close” alarm bell didn’t sound off the same way for Butina, even as she posted to a Russian Facebook-like site photos of her attending events where she had contact with former or current U.S. officials such as John Bolton (2013), former Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal (2014), Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (2015), former U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) and future President Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpDemocrats slide in battle for Senate Trump believes Kushner relationship with Saudi crown prince a liability: report Christine Blasey Ford to be honored by Palo Alto City Council MORE (2015).

There also was no urgency from the FBI when she helped to arrange a major dinner at the 2015 NRA convention in Nashville and brought her reputed handler, Russian banking and political figure Alexander Torshin, along to meet the big-money figures of the GOP. Likewise, no pre-emptive FBI action when she helped to arrange a delegation led by a former NRA president to meet with Putin’s foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, in December 2015.

Instead, Butina got her student visa from the U.S. government, despite influence-peddling that was brashly recorded on websites and social media.

If ever there were a case that suggested the FBI took disparate actions under separate circumstances, Butina and Chapman would be the subjects in evidence.

Chapman’s ballyhooed arrest was a hallmark moment of then-FBI Director Robert MuellerRobert Swan MuellerSasse: US should applaud choice of Mueller to lead Russia probe MORE’s campaign to reform the bureau from one focused solely on prosecutions to one that could prevent the most serious intelligence and terrorism threats before they happened.

The watch-wait-and-see approach the FBI used with Butina was much more in line with the instincts of former prosecutor and Mueller successor James ComeyJames Brien ComeyFormer FBI lawyer speaks with House lawmakers on Rosenstein, 2016 Emmet Flood steps in as White House counsel following McGahn departure McGahn departs as White House counsel MORE. The prize, in that mindset, is much more the announcement of criminal charges and convictions than the knowledge of knowing you disrupted harm before it happened.

That may explain why Mueller, now the special counsel in the Russia election-meddling case, didn’t take the lead on Butina’s prosecution even though it clearly has ties to the 2016 election.

It’s a classic case where the FBI focused less on prevention and more on prosecution after the fact. And, in so doing, the FBI may have created a scandal of its own doing: It could have spared us the salacious political yarn of Maria Butina, had it just acted preemptively as it did with Anna Chapman.

John Solomon is an award-winning investigative journalist whose work over the years has exposed U.S. and FBI intelligence failures before the Sept. 11 attacks, federal scientists’ misuse of foster children and veterans in drug experiments, and numerous cases of political corruption. He is The Hill’s executive vice president for video.

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