Category: Russia

Jeffrey Epstein, Leon Black, and Russia

Leon Black, wearing sunglasses, watches the 2016 U.S. Open tennis tournament with Jared Kushner

Leon Black, co-founder of the private equity giant Apollo Global Management, has agreed to step down from his duties as CEO after an independent review found he had paid $148 million to the convicted pedophile Jeffrey Epstein over a period of four years.

The New York Times notes that Black’s millions bankrolled Epstein after he pleaded guilty in 2008 to a prostitution charge involving a teenage girl. Black’s payments to Epstein were made between 2013 and 2017.

Why would a sophisticated man like Leon Black, a billionaire with a reputation to protect, associate with and pay millions to Epstein?

The independent report commissioned by Apollo from the law firm, Dechert, provides an answer:

Black viewed Epstein as a confirmed bachelor with eclectic tastes, who often employed attractive women. However, Black did not believe that any of the women in Epstein’s employ were underage. Black has no recollection of ever seeing Epstein with an underage woman at any time.

“A confirmed bachelor with ecletic tastes.” OK, sure. And Hannibal Lecter is a erudite psychiatrist with unusual appetites.

The Dechert report notes that Black trusted Epstein and confided in him on “personal matters.” Epstein had intimate knowledge of Black’s personal finances. Black regularly visited Epstein to discuss business or meet “well known businessmen, political figures, diplomats, scientists and celebrities” who gathered at Epstein’s enormous New York townhouse.

For the conspiracy-minded, the connections between the two men are interesting in light of reports that Epstein collected dirt on powerful men and had cameras in his house monitoring private moments.

And let’s not forget Epstein’s ties to intelligence services. Alex Acosta, Trump’s former labor secretary who led the prosecution of Epstein in Florida said he had been told “Epstein ‘belonged to intelligence’ and to leave it alone,” according to Vicky Ward’s report in The Daily Beast.

No one has yet noted something I pointed out more than a year ago, namely, Black’s numerous ties to Russia, Donald Trump, and Russian money.

Both Black and Trump were friends of Epstein’s at different times. Black also socialized with Trump and Jared Kushner, as the photo at the top shows. Apollo loaned $187 million to Jared Kushner’s family real estate firm.

Volume 5 of the Senate Intelligence Committee’s Russia report establishes that Leon Black accompanied Trump during his 1996 visit to Moscow to pursue real estate deals.

Trump’s trip to Moscow was organized by investor Bennett LeBow, who was trying to get Trump to develop a site he owned in Moscow. Not only did he serve up a site for Trump, LeBow lined up financing from Apollo Group, a then six-year-old private equity firm.

Black, drink in hand, and Trump in Moscow in 1996.

Black told the Senate Intelligence Committee that he did not recall any compromising behavior during the trip. He also did not recall the event in the photograph above.

Black did recall going to a concert with Trump, followed by a “discotheque.” Black later added that he and Trump “might have been in a strip club together.”

Moscow strip clubs were well-known as a potential source of kompromat or blackmail.

For years in Russia there were a number of Russian government officials or others who were exposed in these strip clubs doing not very nice things that their wives, if they have wives, probably didn’t know about. I think most of us appreciated that there was that risk in these types of clubs.

Peter O’Brien, CFO of the Russian-government controlled oil firm Rosneft, as quoted in Vol. 5 of the Senate intelligence committee’ Russia report.

It’s worth noting that the Moscow trip was not part of Dechert’s investigation into Black’s dealings with Epstein. The report says it reviewed documents dating back to 1998.

In 2011, Black was back in Russia, this time for a one-on-one meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Black committed to help Russia set up a $10 billion sovereign wealth fund, the Russian Direct Investment Fund (RDIF).

It was a privilege to help the fund, Black told Reuters, and described Russia’s “strong political leadership” as an advantage for investors at a time of global economic and financial difficulty. Black was named to the advisory board of the RDIF in 2011.

Four years later, after Russia invaded Crimea, the U.S. Treasury imposed sanctions on the RDIF. `

Kirill Dmitriev, CEO of the RDIF, makes numerous appearances in the Mueller Report. After Trump’s election, it was Dmitriev who wrote, “Putin has won.” It was also Dmitirev who met in the Seychelles island with Erik Prince after Trump’s election.

Black also knows many Russian oligarchs. He met with the notorious aluminum tycoon Oleg Deripaska in Russia and the United States prior to Deripaska being sanctioned by the United States in 2018. Black knows Allen Vine, whom Black described as “consigliere” to the Russian oligarch Suleiman Kerimov, who was sanctioned by the United States in 2018.

And he does business with Vladimir Potanin, one of the world’s richest men. Unlike Deripaska and Kerimov, Potanin has not been sanctioned the U.S. government.

Potanin is a large investor in U.S. companies, including Apollo Global. In a 2014 court filing in her divorce, Potanin’s wife, Natalia, listed Apollo Global Management LLC as one of the companies in which her husband has had a financial interest.

Why did Black have such close connections to Russia? Did Epstein, who had an intimate knowledge of Black’s personal affairs, know the answer?

Zero Hedge, Russia, and the Business of Conspiracies

Note: On December 23, 2019, I was notified that a criminal complaint (see English summary here) had been filed against me with the Bulgarian prosecutor general’s office by the subject of this piece, Krassimir Ivandjiiski. I was given a deadline of December 31 to take down this piece. I refuse to do so.

For my lastest story in The New Republic magazine, I tried to figure out where conspiracy theories come from. The answer took me on a strange reporting journey that led to the Smoky Mountains of Tennessee. It’s a long read, but a good one, and you can read it here.

The story mentions Zero Hedge, a popular financial blog. There wasn’t room in the TNR piece to get into it, but Zero Hedge and What Does It Mean have a lot in common. They have both found that Russia and conspiracies are good for business.

Zero Hedge, with its mix of gloom-and-doom financial analysis, current events, conspiracies, and pro-Russia commentary, is one of the most popular sites on the Internet. It ranks in the top 2,000 of all Internet sites worldwide, meaning that it pulls in more than a million views every day.

Zero Hedge says its mission is “to widen the scope of financial, economic and political information available to the professional investing public” and it does that by refusing to follow what it calls the “pro-US script.”

Instead it follows the pro-Russia script.

It runs stories that hew the Kremlin line, such as how the poisoning of a double agent in England was staged by British intelligence operation or how the Steele Dossier was created by Internet trolls. Throw in commentary from a self-described “Kremlin troll” and writings from Russia Insider (which the Trump State Department describes as “an English-language publication linked to pro-[Russian] government oligarchs”) and you see how many think Zero Hedge is some kind of Russian disinformation operation.

Despite its pro-Russia leanings, or perhaps because of them, Zero Hedge a critical part of the right-wing conspiracy ecosystem. This became clear when Facebook temporarily blocked Zero Hedge in March, prompting howls of outrage from people in President Trump’s circle like his son, Don Jr., Nigel Farage, and Katie Hopkins. (The ban was lifted, and Facebook told Breibart that it was the result of a “mistake with our automation to detect spam.”)

A few days later, Australian Internet providers blocked customer access to Zero Hedge after a gunman killed 51 people in a New Zealand mosque.

The Australian ISP ban had less to do with the site and more to do more with the people who read it.

Zero Hedge readers were sharing links to the shooter’s live-streamed video of the massacre, which many of them thought was a hoax.

Yes, these are people who are so narcissistic that they think the mass slaying of 51 unarmed people in a mosque is all about them.

Who is behind Zero Hedge?

All posts on Zero Hedge are written under the pseudonym of Tyler Durden, the character played by Brad Pitt in the film Fight Club. “Anonymity is a shield from the tyranny of the majority,” reads the Zero Hedge “manifesto.”

Of course, anonymity is also a shield for someone who has something to hide.

In a 2016, a former Zero Hedge employee named Colin Lokey, who wrote much of the site’s political content, told Bloomberg that he felt pressure to frame issues on the site in a way that felt disingenuous.

“I tried to inject as much truth as I could into my posts, but there’s no room for it,” Lokey explained. “Russia=good. Obama=idiot. Bashar al-Assad=benevolent leader. John Kerry= dunce. Vladimir Putin=greatest leader in the history of statecraft.”

Lokey identified the other Durdens at Zero Hedge as Dan Ivandjiiski, a Bulgarian-born financial analyst banned from the industry in 2008 for insider trading, and Tim Blackshall, a credit derivatives strategist in San Francisco. In a telephone interview, Ivandjiiski told Bloomberg that he and Blackshall had been “on the payroll.”

Neither Ivandjiiski nor Blackshall own Zero Hedge directly. The site is owned by ABC Media Ltd. In one lawsuit, ABC Media was identified as a Bulgarian company.

Cornerstone Macro v Ivandjiiski

Indeed, ABC Media Ltd. is listed on Bulgaria’s corporate registry.

Founded in 2011, ABC Media (АБЦ Медия) is a single member LLC. The sole proprietor is Daniel’s father Krassimir Ivandjiiski (Красимир Иванджийски).

If you can read Bulgarian, here’s the company’s corporate filing.

In addition, Zero Hedge’s domain name is registered under Krassimir’s name at an address in Sofia, Bulgaria.

Who is Krassimir Ivandjiiski?

Krassimir Ivandjiiski

Krassimir Ivandjiiski has an interesting background.

Born in Bulgaria in 1947, he was educated at the First English Language School in Sofia and the Warsaw School of Economics.

As a young man, Ivandjiiski worked in the Bulgarian the Ministry of Foreign Trade, before leaving to join the military and begin a career as a journalist. He became a “special envoy before 1990 to the most important political and military conflicts.” He spent more than 12 years abroad as a foreign in Prague, Warsaw and Vienna, then in Africa — Harare and Addis Ababa.

Craig Pirrong, who blogs at Street Wise Professor, wrote that this is the perfect resume for a spy:

That is an intel operative’s CV with probability 1. Probability 1. Every one of those jobs was a classic cover. There is no doubt in my mind whatsoever—none—that Mr. Ivandjiiski senior was a member of the Bulgarian Committee for State Security (Държавна сигурност or DS for short)—the Bulgarian equivalent of the KGB. And remember that Bulgarian DS was the USSR KGB’s most reliable allied service during the Cold War. It carried out wet work in western countries, notably the “umbrella murder” of Georgi Markov in London. It was linked to the plot to assassinate the Pope; although in the topsy-turvy world of intelligence, it is also alleged that the CIA fabricated the case against the DS. Regardless of the truth about the links to the attempt on John Paul II, it was a very, very, very nasty operation. (The African stops in Ivandjiiski’s resume makes it highly likely that his path intersected that of another charmer, Igor Sechin, who was a “translator” in Africa.)

On his website, Krassimir Ivandjiiski assures us that he had nothing to do with the KGB and he will sue anyone who says otherwise. Zero Hedge has attacked Pirrong as “the world’s favorite finance ‘expert’ for Wall Street hire.”

In 1994, after the Soviet Union collapsed, he began publishing a Bulgarian tabloid, Strogo Sekretno (Top Secret), which describes itself as the country’s only independent newspaper. Strogo Sekretno is published by a separate company, Primex-7 Ltd., also owned by Ivandjiiski, senior.

I found out about Strogo Sekretno because it often runs the fake conspiracy stories created by What Does It Mean. Krassimir Ivandjiiski also published Bulgaria Confidential which has run stories that have nothing to do with Bulgaria such as drug trafficking in Montana.

The site is also filled with pro-Putin, anti-Semitic garbage:

  • “The US dollar is built on the so-called ‘Jewish Mafia’. This is not some racial prejudice, but a proven truth.” Source
  • Millions of people in Russia and around the world were stunned to see Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu in the Victory Parade in Moscow on 9 May. This hideous spectacle let the genie out of the bottle: “What is it? What’s going on with the Zionist Netanyahu and at whose expense?” Source
  • “Chabad is a “racist, criminal Jewish supremacist doomsday cult.” Source
  • “It doesn’t take a genius to recognize that Talmudic behavior is the real cause of Anti-Semitism.” Source

Zero Hedge, for the most part, steers clear of such outright anti-Semitism, but is nevertheless very popular with the sort of people who like the hatred Krassimir Ivandjiiski likes to spew.

Just look at the Zero Hedge comments section: a lot of racists and crackpots are reading. Don’t believe me? Do a search for the n-word or “joo” in the Zero Hedge comments section.

What Is This All About?

In a word, money.

“They care what generates page views. Clicks. Money,” Colin Lokey, the former Zero Hedge employee, told Bloomberg.

Zero Hedge says they have nothing to do with the Russian government or any government. “We have also never accepted a dollar of outside funding from either public or private organization – we have prided ourselves in our financial independence because we have been profitable since inception,” the site wrote.

As my story on What Does It Mean shows, this may very well be true. It would be nice if Vladimir Putin were secretly running things, but the sad truth is sites like Zero Hedge don’t need to take marching orders from Russia; they gravitate to it on their own because it keeps the audience happy.

And keeping the audience happy is what really matters. An audience comprised of racists, anti-Semites, extreme right-wingers, and conspiracy wingnuts is a valuable one. They are all credulous fools, and, as all dime-store preachers know, the credulous are easily monetized.

Krassimir Ivandjiiski, who did not respond to emails sent to ABC Media and Strogo Sekretrno, wrote on his site that the only reason his name is connected to Zero Hedge is because “they even did not have $30 for the initial registration.”

That may have been true at one time, but the web domain registration fee is spare change for Zero Hedge today. Dan Ivandjiiksi, who didn’t respond to questions, lives in a multi-million dollar mansion.

It’s possible that Zero Hedge is registered in Bulgaria because it’s somehow connected to a Kremlin disinformation operation. It’s also possible that Zero Hedge is registered in Bulgaria for financial (tax?) reasons.

The bottom here is the bottom line. Conspiracies are big business.

Impeachment Showcases Putin’s Skill at “Working with People”

Few people realize that Vladimir Putin was once asked how his past experience as an officer in the KGB helped him as a politician. His answer related to his experience “working with people.” (работы с людьми)

For Fiona Hill, the former National Security Council and Russia expert who delivered powerful testimony last month before the House impeachment inquiry, “working with people” is not as innocent as it sounds.

It is a bit of what she calls “KGB jargon” that reveals a great deal about Putin’s nearly two-decades long hold on power. And it also sheds light on what has befallen our current political order here in the United States.

During Putin’s days as a spy in the 1970s and 1980s, the KGB was all about “working with people,” a euphemism for what might better be described as working on people. Rather than repressing, detaining, or killing critics and opponents of the Soviet regime, Yuri Andropov’s KGB decided it would try to win them over using guile, patience and, most importantly, leverage. “It means studying the minds of the targets, finding their vulnerabilities, and figuring out how to use them,” Hill writes in her insightful 2012 book, Mr. Putin, Operative in the Kremlin.

Hill lays out how Putin has used this skill to great effect in winning over the Russian political elite as well as its citizens, nearly half of whom still approve of his performance as he approaches the 20th anniversary of his election as president. It’s also quite clear that one of the people with whom Putin has been diligently “working” is President Donald Trump.

The Russian leader has had ample opportunity to work with Trump over the course of more than a dozen phone calls and in-person meetings, including the two-hour private meeting in Helsinki that offered the relaxed, informal setting that Putin prefers. “To be able to work with people effectively,” Putin has said, “you have to be able to establish a dialogue, contact.”

While we know when the two leaders have spoken, including a phone call between Trump and Putin shortly after the Ukraine election is of particular interest to House investigators, we know little about what they have discussed. Even Trump’s former director of national intelligence, Dan Coats, said he did not “fully understand” what the two leaders had discussed privately in Helsinki. But Trump has given us some clues about a frequent topic of conversation.

Putin has repeatedly told Trump that Russia did not interfere in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.  “He just — every time he sees me, he says, ‘I didn’t do that.’ And I believe — I really believe that when he tells me that, he means it,” Trump told reporters in 2017. The president went even further the following year in Helsinki when he said he didn’t “see any reason why” Russia would have interfered, citing the Russian president’s “strong and powerful” denial.

Putin has called working with people “the most complicated work on the face of the Earth,” but for an experienced KGB case officer Trump isn’t a tough study. The president’s deep insecurity about being perceived as an illegitimate leader is painfully obvious.

This insecurity is at the root of his false claims about the “millions and millions” of illegal ballots that cost him the popular vote in 2016 or his “massive landslide victory.” Trump cannot stomach the fact that he was elected by a minority of the people.

Nor is the president able to accept the U.S. intelligence community’s assessment that Russia interfered in the 2016 election. A former aide, Hope Hicks, told Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigators that whether or not Russia had an impact on the election or not didn’t matter to the president because “people would think Russia helped him win.” Hicks astutely described the intelligence assessment as Trump’s “Achilles heel.”  

Another leader might let the matter drop, but a former KGB case officer recognizes the issue of election interference – the very same one the U.S. intelligence community found Putin ordered — is a vulnerability he can skillfully exploit. It provides an opportunity for the Russian president to create the shared understanding necessary to “achieve results,” in working with people. “You need to make that person an ally,” Putin has said, “you have to make that person feel that you and he have something that unites you, that you have common goals.”

It’s not hard to see how destructive this shared understanding that Russia didn’t interfere in the election has been to Trump’s presidency. The July 25 phone call with Ukrainian President Volodmyr Zelensky that is at the heart of the House impeachment inquiry was in part an attempt by Trump to cast doubt on Russian interference.  Similarly, Trump’s potentially criminal efforts to obstruct his own Justice Department’s investigation into Russian interference are the fruits of the poisoned seeds planted and carefully nurtured by Putin.

After the uproar over Trump’s comments in Helsinki, which he swiftly walked back, the president no longer publicly voices his doubts about Russian interference. He leaves it to surrogates like Republican Senator John Kennedy of Louisiana, who show loyalty to the president by voicing his feelings. Asked recently whether it was Russia or Ukraine that hacked the computer servers of the Democratic National Committee, Kennedy replied, “I don’t know, nor do you, nor do any others.”

Likewise, Hill called out Republican members of the intelligence committee for suggesting that Russia did not attack the election but somehow Ukraine did. “This is a fictional narrative that has been perpetrated and propagated by the Russian Security Services themselves,” she said. 

Hill stopped short of accusing the Trump of serving the Kremlin’s interests for fear of creating more fodder that the Russians could use against American democracy in 2020.

At the same time, she made it perfectly clear that anyone who pushes the debunked theory that Ukraine interfered in the 2016 presidential election – as Trump did on Fox & Friends the day after Hill testified — is serving Russia’s interests.

Surely, not even Putin could have imagined the uproar that would flow from his shared understanding with the American president, but the upcoming impeachment vote in Congress is in no small measure a testament to the remarkable power of Putin’s skills at “working with people.”

The Problem with “Letting the Voters Decide” about Donald Trump

Photo via Flickr: https://flic.kr/p/8M6PhK

Nikki Haley, the former South Carolina governor and President Trump’s former UN ambassador, is out with a new book this week. Casting her lot with Trump and his base, Haley says she doesn’t think her former boss has done anything to merit impeachment.

“There’s just nothing impeachable there, and more than that, I think the biggest thing that bothers me is the American people should decide this. Why do we have a bunch of people in Congress making this decision?” Haley told CBS’ Norah O’Donnell.

Ralph Reed, the former executive director of the Christian Coalition who was so fond of telling us during the Clinton impeachment hearings that “character matters,” agrees with Haley.

“Let the voters decide who should be president! This impeachment inquiry is a sham and is an attack on our democracy,” Reed tweeted.

“Let the voters decide” is fast becoming the impeachment battle cry of Trump and his band of loyal Republicans who say the president’s only real “crime” was winning the 2016 election.

But Trump’s defenders have it backwards. Impeachment is the only remedy left for a president who has welcomed, solicited, and extorted foreign interference in our elections. Letting the voters decide is a fine idea when elections are free and fair, but there is simply no guarantee that an election will be free and fair as long as Trump’s name is on the ballot.

The framers of the Constitution worried about foreign interference in elections, which they saw as chief among “the most deadly adversaries of republican government.” But the framers surely never anticipated a president like Trump who would make foreign interference in domestic politics an element of his statecraft.

As the impeachment inquiry in Congress has made painfully clear, the scheme that Trump and his personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, cooked up in Ukraine took advantage of a beleaguered country’s need for help battling Russian invaders and sought to use it for Trump’s political advantage back home. Congressionally-appropriated money for Javelin anti-tank weapons was held hostage as the White House tried to coerce Ukraine’s new president into announcing an investigation of a company connected to Joe Biden’s son.

To be sure, politics is a dirty business and candidates have been slinging mud in elections for as long as we’ve had them. But using the power of the presidency to coerce a shaky democracy into investigating the family of a political opponent is so breathtakingly corrupt that it manages to undermine American democracy, damage the rule of law, weaken a U.S. ally, and undermine our national security all at the same time.

The cry of “let the voters decide” signals a retreat to safer ground from the earlier, now abandoned position that no such quid pro quo occurred. An anonymous whistleblower followed by a parade of current and former members of the administration who defied the White House told Congress a sordid story about the administration’s shady goings-on in Ukraine. That led Gordon Sondland, a hotelier who serves as Trump’s ambassador to the European Union, to “refresh” his recollection and concede, contrary to his earlier denials, that not only was there an ultimatum given to Ukraine, but he was the one who had delivered it.

Letting the voters decide might be a plausible if Ukraine were the only instance of foreign interference in a Trump election, but it isn’t. Russia interfered in the 2016 election in what Special Counsel Robert Mueller called a “sweeping and systematic fashion” to help elect Trump, and the campaign welcomed some offers of Russian assistance, such as the June 2016 Trump Tower meeting with a Russian attorney whose offer of dirt on Hillary Clinton was described as “part of Russia and its government’s support for Mr. Trump.”

Not much has changed. Offers of help from abroad were still welcome in the Trump campaign, even after Special Counsel Robert Mueller sent Trump’s campaign chairman, his lawyer and a campaign aide to prison for lying about Russia. The president told ABC News’s George Stephanopoulos in June that there was nothing wrong with accepting dirt from foreign governments. “It’s not an interference, they have information — I think I’d take it,” Trump said — a statement that was noted by the anonymous whistleblower in his complaint laying out the details of the president’s efforts to shake down Ukraine.

The trial of Roger Stone, Trump’s longtime political advisor, is a reminder of the lengths the Trump campaign was willing to go in order to benefit from Russian interference in the 2016 election. As early as April 2016, Stone was informing the Trump campaign of upcoming Wikileaks email dumps of emails stolen from the Democratic Party by Russian intelligence. Prosecutors said that Stone repeatedly lied to Congress about his contacts with Wikileaks because “the truth looked bad for the Trump campaign and the truth looked bad for Donald Trump.”

The toxic combination of foreign interference and Trump’s desire to win at all costs also may go a long way to explaining Trump’s strange attraction to tyrants and strongmen like Vladimir Putin. Trump was clearly willing to punish Ukraine because it wasn’t willing to “do us a favor,” as he put it, and help the president politically. Just imagine what Trump would do for a country that did help him win.

As new details emerge, one can’t help but wonder how many other times the Trump White House solicited foreign interference in episodes that we don’t yet know about. How many testimonies collected by Special Counsel Robert Mueller might have been “refreshed” had courageous insiders stood up to Trump’s bullying and blown the whistle? How many witnesses were less than forthcoming because of the intimidation Trump openly directed at those who stood in his way?

In the end, impeachment isn’t about who wins, regardless of what Trump says. It’s about whether Congress believes foreign governments belong in our elections and whether a leader who welcomes help from abroad or tries to extort it is worthy of letting the people cast their votes for him.

On Red Sparrows

“There is a colossal institute of co-opted Soviet girls,” an ex-KGB man told a room full of U.S. senators. “There were many, many co-opted Soviet girls with different appearance, different talents.”

Appearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee that day in 1970 was a KGB defector named Yuri Krotkov, testifying under the alias of George Karlin.

Krotkov, a Soviet screenwriter, playwright and radio correspondent who defected in 1963, called these women “swallows” because like the birds, they are “gentle” and “soft.”

Testimony of George Karlin

Krotkov said he “recommended” — procured, one might say — “swallows” for the KGB. “The swallows are clever girls,” Krotkov continued, “they want all sorts of jobs with foreigners, they dream about them, even if it is risky, because they hope, they would marry them, maybe they would go abroad.”

One of his swallows became a mistress to Sukarno, the president of Indonesia. Another was used to seduce Maurice Dejean the French ambassador to the Soviet Union from 1955 to 1964.

The goal, Krotkov said, was to use these “swallows” to get these foreigners to do something for the KGB.

Today, these sorts of women are better known as “sparrows,” after the best-selling 2013 book Red Sparrow by former CIA officer Jason Matthews (highly recommended, and the way) and film starring Jennifer Lawrence.

The closest thing we have to a real-life “swallow” or a “sparrow” these days is Maria Butina, the redheaded Russian graduate student who went to prison for acting as a clandestine Russian foreign agent. According to the Justice Department, Butina worked at the direction of a high-level official in the Russian government, Alexander Torshin.

Prosecutors initially accused Butina of offering sex in exchange for a job. That allegation was soon withdrawn, with prosecutors saying they had misread a text.

During her time in the United States, Butina did have affairs well-connected older men, such as Paul Erickson, who was well connected in Republican circles. With help from Erickson, Butina infiltrated the National Rifle Association, met with Donald Trump Jr. at an NRA annual meeting, and came very close to a meeting with President Trump. You can read more about that here.

Another man who had a romantic affair with Butina was Patrick Byrne, then the chief executive of Overtstock.com. You can read what Byrne told me about his relationship with Butina and the FBI here.

Maria Butina and former Overstock.com CEO Patrick Byrne.

A few months ago, I met with Byrne at a hotel in downtown San Diego and he told me a story that, I think, reveals a lot about Maria Butina.

Byrne wrote part of the story last month on his blog, Deep Capture, but his account leaves out what I view as the most revealing part.

In the spring 2018, Byrne was visiting Washington, D.C. when he got a message from Butina. She somehow knew that he was in town and asked to come by his hotel room. Butina had received a master’s degree in international relations from American University and she wanted to show him her diploma. She arrived and after a while pulled out her cellphone and showed him a picture of her transcript.

“…. Then she swiped the screen. I was staring at a subpoena she had received from the Senate Intelligence Committee a few weeks earlier. She told me about being questioned by Senate Intel, about how the forces of the [U.S. government] were closing in on her.”

Missing from that account is something Butina told Byrne in that hotel room. According to Byrne, Butina told him that the Senate Intelligence Committee had spent “about a third of their time” asking about him, Patrick Byrne. “They have a stack of every message, every text, every email we every wrote,” Byrne said Butina told him.

It was the last time Byrne saw Butina. A few weeks later she was arrested on charges of being an unregistered foreign agent. Butina pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 18 months in prison. She was released last month and returned home to Russia where she was welcomed as a hero.

There’s a good reason why Byrne left out the part about the Senate Intelligence Committee asking about him: It wasn’t true.

I checked with Butina’s attorney, Robert Driscoll. Butina’s Senate testimony isn’t public but he had a copy and he reviewed it at my request. “No reference to Patrick after a pretty close skim,” he emailed me.

I relayed this to Byrne:

According to Byrne, he told her to go home to Russia. She told him she couldn’t. If she did, she would serve 15 years in prison. As Butina’s heroic welcoming in Moscow shows, this, too, was a lie. He told her to the FBI. She said that, as a Russian, she couldn’t.

Some will no doubt say that perhaps Byrne was lying. I don’t think so. When he told me this story, he seemed to believe it. Even so, he encouraged me to go check this account with Driscoll. That’s not something a liar would do.

I think Butina told Byrne a well-crafted lie. Since her testimony was sealed, she knew whatever she told Byrne about would be impossible to verify. Also, it’s no secret that Byrne saw himself at the center of various intrigues. Thus, it was a lie that he would be likely to accept without much fuss.

The question is why. Why would Butina lie to Byrne? Why was she using him and what for? Had someone told her to make this approach Byrne? Did she hope to provoke a reaction? Did she know that Byrne was talking to the FBI?

I wrote Butina several letters in prison to see if she was willing to talk about this. She never responded. As often happens with intelligence-related matters, we are left with more questions than answers.

But it’s a revealing glimpse into the world of woman who was much more than a foreign grad student. A “sparrow” or a “swallow” was a beautiful seductress. Maria Butina was using her brains as well as her body.