Sat, Nov 03, 2018 - Page 9 News List

Russian detained as agent studied US groups’ cyberdefenses

By Desmond Butler  /  AP, WASHINGTON

The access that Butina won through her coursework illustrates how academia and the extensive network of entities that often carry out sensitive, but not classified, work for the US government remain national security vulnerabilities.

In this case, all the institutions expected someone else to vet Butina. Internews thought American University stood behind her; the university said it does not do background checks and expects the State Department to vet foreign applicants fully before issuing visas.

Prosecutors allege in court documents that attending the university was Butina’s “cover,” as she cultivated political contacts and ties with the National Rifle Association.

They contend she was part of a clandestine political-influence campaign directed by a former Russian lawmaker who has been sanctioned by the US Department of the Treasury for his alleged ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin.

John Sipher, who once ran the CIA’s Russian operations, said Butina fits the profile of the kind of lightly trained asset frequently used to help identify espionage targets without attracting attention from counterintelligence, which is often focused on high-level contacts with government officials.

“The project is perfect, because a student can do that research legitimately,” Sipher said. “You can just imagine why that would be of interest. It’s a sort of gold mine.”

Butina’s student project was led by Eric Novotny, a cybersecurity expert who has a high security clearance as an adviser to the State Department. One of Novotny’s courses was called “Cyber Warfare, Terrorism, Espionage and Crime.” The project was aimed at helping Internews identify ways that it could help US-based nonprofits improve their cybersecurity.

Novotny told reporters that even after press reports about Butina raised questions about her connections to the Russian government, he was obligated to treat her like any other student.

“I have always observed university policies and rules during my entire academic career,” Novotny said.

The university declined comment, citing federal privacy rules.

After the spring semester, Butina and three other students signed on to the work-study project, according to people familiar with the work, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss it publicly.

One of the organizations that Butina contacted, prominent digital-rights organization Electronic Frontier Foundation, had frequent contact with Internews on cybersecurity issues before and had previously been a Russian target.

However, Butina did not mention Internews in an encrypted e-mail from June 14 last year.

In the e-mail, addressed to cybersecurity director Eva Galperin, she wrote: “My name is Maria Butina and I’m the captain of an American University student group doing research on US [civil society organizations] and their cybersecurity challenges. We have several questions about cybersecurity concerns facing human rights organizations and your expertise would be very beneficial.”

Novotny, who was later interviewed by the FBI about Butina, learned his instructions about not reaching out to partners had been ignored when the cybersecurity adviser of one nonprofit called him after becoming suspicious that a Russian student was asking about cybervulnerabilities.

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