Dead Drop: February 15

WELL, IF SHE SAYS SO: Long-time intelligence watcher James Bamford has a truly bizarre story in The New Republic which declares Russian “student” Maria Butina, innocent. Bamford, who initially gained fame by writing books critical of the National Security Agency’s operations, declares that Butina (who pled guilty to failure to register as a foreign agent and is awaiting sentencing) “is simply an idealistic young Russian, born in the last days of the Soviet Union, raised in the new world of capitalism, and hoping to contribute a better understanding between two countries while pursuing a career in international relations.”   How does he know this?  She told him – over several long lunches at a private DC club – before her arrest. Hmm. So, a young Russian graduate student manages to hook up with a prominent U.S. journalist who is a critic of the intelligence community, just because she is interested in world peace.  Bamford doesn’t cite evidence that Butina is being railroaded – other than some emails that were mischaracterized shortly after her arrest as suggesting she was offering sex for access.  But beyond that – he apparently believes her because she was convincing at their lunches.  This is not Bamford’s first foray into polishing the image of a Putin pal.  Back in 2014, he wrote a lengthy piece in singing the praises of Edward Snowden.  In that case, Bamford had to go to Moscow for the lunches, since Snowden was not available to join him at his private DC club.  In that piece he described Snowden as a “solemn, sincere idealist.”

ON THE OTHER HAND: Cipher Brief expert (and 28-year CIA veteran) Joe Augustyn has a piece in The Atlantic which says that not only was Butina an “access agent” for the Russians – but that there may be thousands of other foreign students in the U.S. just like her.  Augustyn notes that there are 1.1 million foreign students in the U.S. (about a third of them Chinese.)  The Chinese intelligence service, in particular, he says is noted for briefing its students before coming to the U.S. and debriefing them on return about intellectual property and intelligence needs.

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