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article imageOp-Ed: Russian agent NRA links change intelligence ball game

By Paul Wallis     Dec 13, 2018 in Politics
Washington - The conviction of Russian agent Maria Butina on the basis of conspiracy is a benchmark for a very much evolved and potentially very nasty new stage in global intelligence. The infiltration of the NRA is no joke, in too many ways.
Butina’s conviction relates directly to the long, complex and rather eclectic mix of people and places supposedly associated with Russian intelligence agencies and directly or indirectly, the Trump 2016 campaign. While the campaign issues are not yet resolved, the picture of the placement of agents which is emerging is grounds for considerable concern.
Information about Butina’s exact role is less than specific. She’s been said to have used her NRA contacts to “create channels to American conservatives”, which is about as vague as you can get without drawing crayon pictures blindfolded. Exactly who, what where and how these channels were created and how they were used are still commendably blurry, for obvious security reasons.
Game Changes
That pleasant blurriness, however, doesn’t disguise the fact that this is a much bigger game, and it’s being played in the US, using US citizens and groups. In the Cold War, the Russians had a few successes, and a few failures, against US intelligence services. The game, however, was a lot simpler. This was “espionage” in the traditional sense, gathering intelligence, bribing a few Americans, doing a bit of proactive sabotage, interfering with operations, etc. It was James Bond level at best.
The new intelligence environment, however, is far more complex, and targeting of specific US groups for specific intelligence goals is relatively new. The NRA, ultra conservative foundation stone and hostile to all opponents as it is, is a pretty good example of how far evolved this new environment has become.
Note: There’s no suggestion that the NRA was aware of Russian intelligence operations or cooperated with the Russians, but it’s not a good look, in intelligence terms. Butina’s character as a “gun activist” is pretty shallow in so many ways. Doesn’t the NRA get a bit more interested when somebody pushes all their right buttons, and just happens to come from a nation which is historically essentially hostile to the US? Or is all that actual thinking too much trouble? Comes to that, didn’t anyone get a bit suspicious that foreigners were so apparently well placed to play a role in a US election? The GOP obviously didn’t, either.
Organizations typically have a vast network of contacts, and the NRA, with its massive nationwide political and corporate network of direct links, would be a very good place to set up shop for any intelligence operation. The NRA is directly plugged in to the Republican party, arms sales, media, and a virtual shopping list of influential people in Washington.
The creative approach
This is way beyond the scope of the old Soviet cliché type espionage. To be fair, Soviet intelligence did score many coups in some very unlikely places, but this systemic approach is a lot wider ranging, and likely to be a lot tougher to deal with.
The organizational approach is, dare I say, more creative, with a lot more potential. Add to this the cumulative intelligence spectrum of cyber intelligence, criminal links, etc. and it’s a very Afghanistan-like degree of complexity. If anyone can just walk in to the retail version of an American political party, and instantly put together a network of links to major people in government and Congress, it’s a very big deal.
For intelligence agencies, that’s like Christmas. You can just sit there and all your secret information will come to you. You don’t even have to do anything, or even ask any questions.
We’ll leave out the political ramifications of the Butina case for a moment, and the Mueller investigations, which will get plenty of coverage anyway. The fact is that penetration to political and government levels was so easy, and apparently effective. The issues raised by this case go a lot further, and deeper.
If you assume the rest of the case alleging Russian involvement in the election is proven, you’ll be less than thrilled to know that it’s also a How To manual for throwing spanners in to America’s fractious, neurotic political machinery. Other countries will have taken note.
The bandwidth for infiltrating America has now broadened exponentially. The NRA isn’t the only major organization involved in US politics, and certainly not the most dangerous. Love them or loathe them (I tend to the latter) they’re a Few Tricks Pony with a relatively limited public profile. They’ve been utterly predictable, in their public role, and if dubious on less visible roles, still pretty much in the cookie cutter mode.
Other organizations, “informal” groupings of people, and the sorts of people involved in US politics at the sleazier ends could do a lot more damage. The bottom line is that somebody has learned how to plug in to the system at will, anywhere, anytime. US intelligence will have a very demanding time just seeing where, and if, the blips on the radar show up.
Don’t be too surprised to hear some interesting tales of intelligence agencies following bizarre trails to Washington in future. This phase is only the beginning, and the prognosis is worrying enough already. If US organizations, corporations, and other major players are so blasé about foreign “inclusions”, it’s going to be a rough ride for the US, NSA, and America in general.
This opinion article was written by an independent writer. The opinions and views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily intended to reflect those of
More about Maria Butina, NRA, Russian collusion 2016 US elections, Mueller probe, Republican party
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