LONDON — Before the Internet, being a spy was more challenging.
Now, spies have Facebook and LinkedIn and other social-media networking sites to expand their contacts, say former and current U.S. and British intelligence officials. And younger spies may be more skilled using social media to do their jobs.
Western governments accuse Russian intelligence services of exploiting social media platforms as propaganda, where they can plant “fake news,” deepen political discord and try to influence Western public opinion. But Russian spies — as opposed to trolls — also use networking sites in highly sophisticated ways to work their way into Western political circles.
The case of Maria Butina -- who came to the United States in 2014 on a student visa and whom U.S. prosecutors allege is a Russian female spy -- shows how social media can assist covert influence operations, says a U.S. counter-intelligence official who asked not to be identified for this article.
“Butina was using old tradecraft, turning up at political events, making contacts," the official said, "and then befriending them on Facebook or LinkedIn and vice versa. Social media platforms are useful in mapping out friendship networks and opening doors.
Butina, 29 and a recent graduate at American University in Washington where she attended the School of International Service, was charged last week with acting as an agent for the Kremlin in the United States. The Justice Department alleges she was in regular contact with Russian intelligence services. She has been indicted for conspiracy to operate on behalf of the Russian government and failing to register as a foreign agent.
She has not been formally charged with espionage, which would indicate stealing state and military secrets. Experts see her focused on getting into U.S. political circles in ways that would be useful for Russia’s foreign policy, including further seeding division between political parties in Western countries, and opening avenues of influence.
Federal prosecutors accuse Butina of conspiring with two American citizens, one with whom she cohabited, and the other a top Russian official. They are accused of trying influence U.S. policy more favorably toward Russia by infiltrating the National Rifle Association gun rights group and other conservative special interest groups that could be influential with the Trump administration.
U.S. prosecutors allege in a memorandum filed in support of a request for Butina to be held in detention while she awaits trial. The memorandum says that the Russian gun-rights activist “maintained contact information for individuals identified as employees of the Russian FSB,” or Russian Federal Security Service.
Additionally, prosecutors claim FBI surveillance observed Butina having a private meal with a Russian diplomat whom the U.S. government expelled in March 2018 for suspicion of being a Russian intelligence officer.
From court papers filed by U.S. prosecutors last week it remains unclear whether her operation was initiated by Russia’s FSB, or whether it was conceived by her patron, Alexander Torshin, a Russian central banker, as a way to boost himself within the Kremlin administration.
Many Russian intelligence officers occupy high-ranking positions in the government of Russian leader Vladimir Putin, himself a former KGB officer.
Among the more traditional techniques Butina allegedly used was offering sex to cozy up to U.S. politicians and lobbyists; in one case, according to U.S. prosecutors, to try to secure a job with an American special interest organization she had targeted. She lived with a Republican political operative twice her age. He has been identified in U.S. media as lobbyist Paul Erickson. She chafed, though, at the cohabitation, and, according to prosecutors she treated the relationship “as simply a necessary aspect of her activities.”
Butina has pled not guilty. Her lawyer, Robert Driscoll, says she was only trying to help improve relations between the United States and Vladimir Putin’s Russia. He denies she’s a spy, telling CNN Friday that much of the case against her was “taken completely out of context.”
Butina founded a pro-gun group in Russia called Right to Bear Arms and used gun activism in what U.S. prosecutors allege was a “calculated, patient” plan directed by Torshin to infiltrate the NRA and conservative special interest groups.
Social media platforms were highly useful as she cut a swathe through U.S. conservative politics, boasting on her Facebook page of meetings with, among others, former Republican presidential candidates Rick Santorum and Scott Walker, the current Wisconsin governor.
In one e-mail to Butina, disclosed in court papers, Torshin praised her efforts, comparing them to Kremlin agent Anna Chapman, another flame-haired Russian who gained international notoriety after her 2010 arrest in the United States. Chapman and a handful of other Russians were deported to Russia in July 2010, as part of a prisoner exchange.
“You have upstaged Anna Chapman,” Torshin declared.
Journalist Michael Isikoff at Yahoo! News had a front seat view to Butina’s methods. With co-author David Corn, he published “Russian Roulette: The Inside Story Of Putin's War On America And The Election Of Donald Trump” and had been tracking Butina’s activities.
He said she and Torshin had been working to influence American conservative political organizations. He told the American public broadcaster NPR in an interview:
“As we reported in the book — David Corn and I — there's a Republican lobbyist who remembers being approached by her at a CPAC conference — Conservative Political Action Conference — and just being struck by how solicitous she was, how she wanted to stay in touch with him and become his Facebook friend.
"And this is a somewhat elderly gentleman, balding, wasn't used to this kind of attention from a young, attractive Russian woman.”
Hiding in plain sight on the Internet holds risks, too. Being active on Facebook increases the chance of exposure, prompting the attention of counter-intelligence watchers, as well as journalists. In an e-mail exchange with VOA, Isikoff noted, he “friended’ her [on Facebook] in order to get in touch so I could interview her.”
And a U.S. counter-intelligence official says Butina drew attention to herself on social media as much as her personal activities. She was called to testify earlier this year by the Senate Intelligence Committee, during which, according to CNN, she disclosed that her gun activism received funding from Russian billionaire Konstantin Nikolaev, another Kremlin-tied oligarch.