Why Russian Agents Like Maria Butina Tried to Exploit the National Prayer Breakfast and Other Faith-based Organizations

Mariia Butina, leader of a pro-gun organization in Russia, speaks to a crowd during a rally in support of legalizing the possession of handguns in Moscow, on April 21, 2013. Butina, a 29-year-old gun-rights activist, served as a covert Russian agent while living in Washington, gathering intelligence on American officials and political organizations and working to establish back-channel lines of communications for the Kremlin, federal prosecutors charged July 16, 2018. (AP Photo)
Maria Butina, leader of a pro-gun organization in Russia, speaks to a crowd during a rally in support of legalizing the possession of handguns in Moscow, on April 21, 2013. Butina, a 29-year-old gun-rights activist, served as a covert Russian agent while living in Washington, gathering intelligence on American officials and political organizations and working to establish back-channel lines of communications for the Kremlin, federal prosecutors charged July 16, 2018. (AP Photo)

The unsealing of an affidavit this week charging 29-year-old Maria Butina with “conspiracy to act as an agent of the Russian Federation” was yet another bombshell in the investigation into what U.S. intelligence agencies describe as Russian attempts to influence American elections and politics throughout 2016.

But buried within the Justice Department’s affidavit was a peculiar detail: Butina, a Russian citizen living in the U.S., allegedly sought to influence U.S. officials not only through organizations such as the National Rifle Association, but also by exploiting the National Prayer Breakfast, an annual event in Washington, D.C., that typically includes a speech by the president of the United States.

According to the affidavit, Butina intended to use the 2017 prayer breakfast as a way to gather a group of influential Russians in the U.S. to “establish a back channel of communication” with Americans. She allegedly described the list of Russian attendees to the prayer breakfast as “populated by important political advisors to Russian President (Vladimir) Putin, university presidents, mayors, and substantial private businessmen.”

She also reportedly discussed with a colleague the possibility of bringing Putin to meet President Trump at the event, although that meeting did not ultimately occur.

Using a religious event to broker unsanctioned political communication may seem like an unorthodox ploy. But evidence suggests sustained links between Russian officials and the National Prayer Breakfast that potentially opened the gathering up to exploitation.

Glenn Simpson, co-founder of the investigative firm Fusion GPS, noted the possibility of Russian efforts to infiltrate American religious groups during his appearance before the House Intelligence Committee on Nov. 14, 2017. (Fusion GPS has become a controversial organization in its own right because of a dossier it produced that included salacious claims about Trump and his alleged connections to Russia.)

These interactions alone do not inherently imply nefarious intent, but they do provide context as to why Russia would target faith groups to influence American politics.

The National Prayer Breakfast is notable, even in Washington, for its political spectacle and for the suspicion surrounding the group that organizes it — namely, the entity often referred to as the International Foundation, sometimes called “the Family” or “the Fellowship.”

Broadly devoted to Jesus but not tied to any Christian denomination, the foundation — which is often described as a network instead of an organization — holds almost mythical status among D.C.’s power brokers. Its organizers often refuse to divulge guest lists, preferring to offer sanctuary to meetings between American politicians and global leaders, without government or media scrutiny.

What’s more, participants appear to see ultimate value in meetings and relationships seemingly irrespective of the motives of those present.

“We don’t really care why they come because God’s a big guy, he can take care of himself,” one organizer, Tony Hall, told academic Michael Lindsay when Lindsay studied the prayer breakfast in 2006.

But if the charges against Butina are true, it shows how the fusion of the foundation’s influence and dedication to anonymity may have allowed it to become a target for political exploitation and potential international espionage.

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SOURCE: Jack Jenkins
Religion News Service