Jul 17, 2018

DOJ document: Russians infiltrate Christian prayer group, GOP lawmakers and the NRA


Russian operatives attended the National Prayer Breakfast to promote Russian interests and sought to also infiltrate the National Rifle Association and create friendly ties with GOP lawmakers

Latest update adds Maria Butina grand jury indictment Indictment

Column

Diana Washington Valdez/The Digie Zone

Maria Butina at National Prayer Breakfast.
The federal complaint filed in court against alleged Russian operative Maria Butina reveals that the National Prayer Breakfast became a target for infiltration by the Russian Federation in view of the 2016 U.S. presidential election.

Butina worked at arranging and succeeded in getting entry into the annual prayer event sponsored by the politically connected Fellowship Foundation, according to the complaint by FBI Special Agent Kevin Helson filed in the U.S. District Court of Washington, D.C. FBI affidavit

U.S. Justice Department officials announced that Butina, 29, a Russian citizen, who was living in Washington, D.C, was arrested July 16. She has a court hearing set for July 18. Through her lawyer, Robert Driscoll, Butina has denied the allegations of conspiracy and of failing to register as a foreign government agent.

The complaint states that Butina, who was in the United States on a student visa (attending American University), failed to register as a foreign government agent as required by U.S. law. In the course of her work, she developed access to two iconic American institutions: the National Rifle Association and a powerful Christian evangelical organization.

Before her arrest, media outlets had identified Butina as the founder of a gun rights advocacy organization in Russia called The Right to Bear Arms, which later was disbanded, and as someone who had testified before legislators looking into Russia's alleged interference in the 2016 election.

She appears in published photographs brandishing an assault rifle, and attending a National Prayer Breakfast. The prayer event is held each year at the Washington Hilton Hotel in the nation’s capital, and its past guest speakers included U.S. Senator Mark Hatfield, Mother Teresa and Bono.

In his book, “The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power,” author Jeff Sharlet offers unique insights into the training and tactics of the National Prayer Breakfast’s sponsoring organization, to include the creation of informal back-channel communications between officials of different world governments. Sharlet, a former intern of the organization, had unparalleled access to the Foundation’s records and tactics. 

Others have described the Foundation, which among other things, supports lawmakers with prayer, Bible studies and counseling, as immensely influential and powerful.

The skeptic in me has to question how such an influential organization has failed to get passed any substantive U.S. legislation of genuine importance to Christian conservatives. Could it be because its true priorities are elsewhere? Sharlet’s book certainly suggests this.

Attendance at the annual prayer event is by invitation only, and it usually attracts more than 3,000 VIP’s from politics, religion and business.

Collectively, the U.S. indictments against 26 alleged Russian operatives provide glimpses into a bizarre conspiracy that includes American gun-rights advocates, several Christian evangelical leaders and groups and Republican Party politicians – all who blindly defend President Donald Trump’s at times nonsensical political agenda.

At some point, we may see a list of (or guess the) ingenuous media operatives who aided and abetted this strange web of Trump support.

President Trump’s comments at his July 16 news conference with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Helsinki served to present us and the rest of the world with the apex of his foreign policy, up to now. 

His private meeting with Putin in Finland, the news conference, plus the ongoing investigation #Russiagate investigation led by U.S. Special Counsel Robert Muller investigation, begin to explain the “motives” for his domestic policies as well.

Butina’s efforts to be included in the National Prayer Breakfast were meant to serve as part of the Russian Federations’ goal of normalizing U.S.-Russia relations, according to the FBI affidavit. 

The document also stated what has been consistence stance of our U.S. intelligence and defense communities regarding Russia: “The Russian Federation, or Russia, is one of the leading intelligence threats to U.S. interests, based on its abilities, intent and broad operational scope … [Its] influence operations are a threat to U.S. interests as they are low-cost, relatively low-risk, and deniable ways to shape foreign perceptions and to influence populations.”

"Low-key" no doubt refers to the Russians' extensive use of social media tools to influence American opinion and the 2016 U.S. presidential election. This has included Facebook, Twitter, Google and Whatsapp.

Under the guise of attaining peaceful relations between the two countries, especially within the context of faith events like the prayer breakfast, the Russians certainly managed to appeal to political conservatives and evangelicals. It's evident from their die-hard support of Trump come what may.

“Butina’s efforts in the United States to promote the political interests of the Russian Federation were diverse and multifaceted," the FBI affidavit stated, " including Butina’s efforts to organize a series of “friendship and dialogue dinners” some of which are believed to have taken place in the District of Columbia, as well as Butina’s attendance at two National Prayer Breakfasts in the District of Columbia.”

The affidavit goes on to quote and describe the communications Butina had related to the prayer events. The document also mentions her activities with an unnamed “Gun Rights Organization,” which several U.S. media identified as the National Rifle Association (NRA).

According to the document, a Russian official had suggested that Putin attend the 2017 National Prayer Breakfast, but that Putin said “no.” Butina suggested then that the Russian ambassador attend, and that “it needs to be somebody influential from Russia, it would be better if it were someone from the Kremlin or RPC [Russian Orthodox Church] of course," the document stated.

In January 2018, the U.S. Senate Committee on Foreign Relations released a minority staff report titled "Putin’s Asymmetric Assault of Democracy in Russia and Europe: Implications for U.S. National Security.” The report included information on how the Russian Federation used the Russian Orthodox Church to help accomplish the government’s goals. (link)
U.S. Senators Tom Udall, R-New Mexico, and Marco Rubio (R-Florida), served on the committee that issued the report. Link to report

Russian intelligence agents knew they had to strike at the heart of the nation to make inroads with Americans: Gun ownership and Christian conservative values.

This was buttressed by a massive social media campaign that law enforcement officers and U.S. lawmakers have alleged was used to divide U.S. citizens along racial and political lines.

In a news release, U.S. officials stated that Butina “from as early as 2015 and continuing through at least February 2017, Butina worked at the direction of a high-level official in the Russian government who was previously a member of the legislature of the Russian Federation and later became a top official at the Russian Central Bank.” DOJ announcement

The same Russian official, the U.S. officials stated, was sanctioned in April 2018 by the U.S. Department of the Treasury, Office of Foreign Assets Control, under U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin.

Butina's arrests follows the recent indictment of 12 Russian military intelligence officers on charges of conducting "large-scale cyber operations to interfere with the 2016 U.S. presidential election." The alleged illegal actions included hacking into email accounts of Democratic Party organizations and individuals. 12 Russians charged

Previous post regarding the U.S. Special Counsel's investigation Russian interference 

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Diana Washington Valdez is an international award-winning author-journalist and president of The Digie Zone Network.

*A seminal book that demonstrates the links between political power and religion in the United States is “Thy Will Be Done: The Conquest of the Amazon: Nelson Rockefeller and Evangelism in the Age of Oil” by Charlotte Dennett and Gerard Colby. It is revealing.