ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:Her photograph has been everywhere - long, red hair. Often she cradles a gun, and she's often accompanied by headlines posing this question. Is she a Russian spy?(SOUNDBITE OF MEDIA MONTAGE)UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Is Maria Butina a Russian national?UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Maria Butina is currently in jail in Washington, D.C.UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: ...Accused Maria Butina of being a Russian spy.UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: ...A Kremlin agent.UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: The red-haired Russian is accused...UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #6: ...Gun-loving graduate student...UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #7: Maria Butina...SHAPIRO: Maria Butina is so far the only Russian to go to prison in connection with her country's efforts to interfere in American politics.AILSA CHANG, HOST:Her case has been so widely covered it's sometimes seemed the only person not weighing in was Butina herself. Her voice has been almost entirely absent since her arrest this past July until now. She's given her first U.S. interview since she was sentenced to 18 months in prison after pleading guilty to conspiracy to act as an agent of Russia. She gave that interview to our colleague Mary Louise Kelly.MARY LOUISE KELLY, BYLINE: We gave Maria Butina a time - 2 p.m. - and our number. And then we sat by the phone in the studio and waited.(SOUNDBITE OF PHONE RINGING)COMPUTER-GENERATED VOICE #1: Hello. This is a prepaid collect call from...COMPUTER-GENERATED VOICE #2: ...An inmate at...COMPUTER-GENERATED VOICE #3: ...Alexandria Detention Center.KELLY: Now, I had driven out to Alexandria Detention Center in the D.C. suburbs weeks ago to try to convince her to give us an interview. In person, Butina looked thinner than in photographs - no makeup, no jewelry, wearing glasses and green prison scrubs, that famous red hair hanging to her waist. I wanted to hear her story - why she came to America, how she built a network of influential Americans inside the National Rifle Association and other conservative circles and then reported her activities back to Moscow, why she didn't register as a foreign agent as required by law. Weeks passed. Finally she agreed to talk on the record. Under prison rules, we couldn't tape in person, hence the call.Does a warden have to help you place the call? How does it work?MARIA BUTINA: No, I just - happily, you guys in the United States have your First Amendment right, meaning I can use the phone as well as everybody else. Though I prefer mostly to keep silence for right now because I'm still in the middle of a storm.KELLY: I want to ask just a few very direct yes or no questions. Are you a Russian spy?BUTINA: No.KELLY: Were you reporting to anyone in the Russian government during your time here?BUTINA: I was reporting to a Russian official, and his name is Alexander Torshin.KELLY: Alexander Torshin - at the time, he was deputy governor of Russia's central bank, well-connected in Kremlin circles and, according to U.S. prosecutors, Butina's handler here in the U.S. So was he telling her where to go, who to meet? Was Torshin or anyone else in the Russian government paying her?BUTINA: Absolutely not. Everything that I've done - I've never officially worked for anyone, and I viewed - I have always viewed our relationships as a granddaughter and a grandfather. My title as a special assistant has appeared because I've been travelling with Mr. Torshin, helping him to translate because he speaks no English at all. And so at one occasion, one of the hosts said, well, you, Ms. Butina, would like to have one room with a king-sized bed with Mr. Torshin or two separate rooms? This question did offend me a lot because I deserve to be treated as a strong and smart, intelligent woman, not as a prostitute. So I called Mr. Torshin and said, look; could you please make business cards for me so they won't view me as your escort agent? And he said...KELLY: So that it would appear to be a professional relationship...BUTINA: Yeah.KELLY: ...And you had business cards that you could show.BUTINA: Yes. It is an issue.KELLY: Were you aware at the time that Alexander Torshin was passing on the information you were giving him to the Russian government, to the Foreign Ministry?BUTINA: Only on one occasion. In fact, if we look at the situation, he just said, if I don't mind if he shares one of my notes with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. And there I said that I would be honored because, well, I am a young woman, and there - if people in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs would consider my analysis as valuable, it was very pleasant for me. So of course - I said of course yes. I don't know, as a matter of fact, what reaction was on my note. And I don't even remember if he passed that note.KELLY: What is your relationship with Mr. Torshin now?BUTINA: We haven't been in touch, and I don't know what was the reason of him remaining silent and keeping his distance from me. And I'm sure it's not a malicious intent, and I think he's a very noble man.KELLY: He has been sanctioned by the U.S. Treasury. NPR has gotten hold of some of the evidence laying out why he was sanctioned, and it notes his links to a leader of organized crime. It suggests that he was providing advice on how to launder money. What do you know of of Mr. Torshin's alleged links to organized crime, to money laundering, to any of that?BUTINA: Well, I don't believe it's true, but I have no knowledge about this, absolutely none. One time I asked him about it, and he denied it. I never lied, and if I don't know, I tell you I don't know.KELLY: The one count that you pleaded guilty to was conspiracy to act as an agent of Russia. Were you part of a wider Kremlin effort to influence U.S. politics?BUTINA: Absolutely not. I don't know anything that was going on with the elections rather than the media reports.KELLY: But you were here in the U.S. living here in 2016, in 2017, in 2018 as every front page is filled with news about the Russia probe and Russia investigations and Russian efforts to try to influence U.S. politics. What was going through your mind as you read this?BUTINA: It has been very painful for me because I've never hide my love to my motherland, neither to this country where I got graciously approved to get the visa and got great education. I love both countries, and I was building peace. So any additional discord for me is painful. This is - the worst pain of my situation now - and I've mentioned this in the court - was that I am embarrassed that instead of creating peace by not registering, I created discord. That is what I'm going to carry for the whole my life. This is what makes me most upset, not the 18 months that I got.KELLY: Help me help other Americans listening to understand because as part of your guilty plea, you admitted to carrying out a secret political and influence campaign. You admitted to being part of an organized effort which was backed by Russian officials to open unofficial lines of communication with Americans, with current officials here in Washington. And yet you're saying you were not in any way part of a broader Russian effort to influence U.S. politics.BUTINA: We are talking about officials who would attend the National Prayer Breakfast. We would be talking about similar-minded people of the National Rifle Association that happen to be sometimes politicians as well. Is that significant? Oh, yeah, absolutely. In order to meet with them - I didn't know, but I should have registered. And I failed to do so, and I completely accept my responsibilities for doing that. But nowhere it has been said that I did any covert or illegal activities. That wouldn't be appropriate to say that this is all one grand, giant plan and I'm a part of some grand, giant plan. There is no proof of that.KELLY: As you know, the U.S. government, the FBI, U.S. prosecutors have seen your activities through a very different lens, and I want you to have the opportunity to respond to some of the claims that have been made against you starting with U.S. prosecutors who say your actions threatened American national security, that you were part of a spot-and-assess operation, that you were helping identify Americans who might be susceptible to recruitment by Russian intelligence. These are claims that U.S. prosecutors made in court. Are they true?BUTINA: No. Plus I think we're missing one word - potentially harming. So for right now, from the evidence that we have, it could be seen that, yes, I did meet certain people. Not all of them but some of them are known to Mr. Torshin. We know he did some reporting or some notes to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. We don't know if it ever went to any intelligence services, and we don't know if it's significant for this intelligence services. It feels for me that this is, like, all a potentially, possibly speculation which has no evidence. So I do question the U.S. justice system, and I think you guys should, too.KELLY: You must know, though, as you were networking and getting access to people here and feeding that information back to Russia that it would be used to advance Russia's interests.BUTINA: There are a lot of things that could have been used for advance Russian interests, including peace building. And I think it's actually also helping to America as well.KELLY: Although it's been documented that the information you provided made its way to Russia's Foreign Ministry, the Russian equivalent of the State Department. And I noticed, you know, if you look at Twitter today, the Foreign Ministry of Russia has you as its profile picture with the hashtag #FreeMariaButina.BUTINA: It was the biggest surprise for me, you know? I was the person who fought for gun rights, and gun rights are not the most popular topic - let me put it this way - in their presidential - Russian presidential administration. And so my biggest surprise was when two days after my arrest I saw Russian embassy - two consuls. And I look at them and said, like, what are you guys doing here? I didn't expect my country to defend me at all because I am not a pro-governmental person at all. And their support for me has been a big surprise.COMPUTER-GENERATED VOICE #4: Thank you for using Securus. Goodbye.KELLY: That's right. The prison phone cuts you off after a certain number of minutes. But I had more questions, so we waited and hoped she would call back.SHAPIRO: A moment ago, you heard Maria Butina, the only Russian serving time behind bars in connection with Russia's efforts to intervene in American politics. She infiltrated conservative circles in the U.S., connecting powerful Americans to powerful Russians. She called it peace building. U.S. prosecutors called it illegal. Butina should have registered as a foreign agent. She didn't. She ended up pleading guilty to a felony charge of conspiracy. As she answered our questions about this from a room crowded with other inmates at the Virginia prison where she's being held, the phone line cut out. And so Butina called back to keep talking with our co-host Mary Louise Kelly.(SOUNDBITE OF PHONE RINGING)MARY LOUISE KELLY, BYLINE: Hi, Maria. Can you hear me again?MARIA BUTINA: Yes.KELLY: Great. I want to go back. When I asked you directly, are you a Russian spy, you said no. Were there ever attempts to recruit you? Did the FSB or the SVR, two Russian intelligence agencies, try to get you to work for them?BUTINA: No, they didn't.KELLY: One of the things that came out in court is that the FBI found papers in which Paul Erickson, a Republican political operative who became your boyfriend - papers in which he scribbled what to do about this FSB job, FSB being the Russian security service. Explain that note. What was it?BUTINA: We were really afraid that if my opportunities here - excuse me. Can you wait for one second? There is a conflict in the...KELLY: Sure.BUTINA: All good?UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: And before you know it, the (unintelligible)...BUTINA: OK.KELLY: Can you tell us what's happening?BUTINA: Yeah, there's a little issue, but that's OK.KELLY: Yeah, just - are you OK? Are you in a position...BUTINA: Yeah.KELLY: ...To continue talking?BUTINA: No, no, no. It's fine. I mean, they - look; it's fine.KELLY: OK. I was pressing you on, why was your then-boyfriend scribbling something about an offer of employment from the FSB if the FSB did not make an offer of employment?BUTINA: Yeah, so the issue is very simple. I thought that if my activity is successful, what if someday I go back to Russia and there are people in the suits that show up next to my door and say, well, we're from FSB, and would you like to cooperate with us? This is kind of a question that we don't ignore. So they're...KELLY: But just - I'm sorry, but just persuade me. Your boyfriend is scribbling a note about something that was purely hypothetical that could maybe someday happen in the future back in Russia.BUTINA: But that's very serious, yeah. It's purely hypothetical, but it's very serious. If that had happened, I don't know what I would say because to saying, like, oh, no, I'm not going to do that would probably mean for me that, do I need to take my family to the United States or at least somewhere abroad? That was a serious question of me of life and death.KELLY: When you eventually go back to Russia - because the plan is that when you have served your term, you will - you'll be deported back to Russia - are you worried about your safety, about your security when you go back?BUTINA: No, absolutely not because I think the people who know that I am not a spy is, in fact, the Russian government because they never asked me to do something. So I don't think I have any concerns about my safety.KELLY: Although I'm imagining Russian security services will be very interested in interviewing you. There's very few Russians who have lived in Washington, met with the FBI, met with senators on the Intelligence Committee.BUTINA: And I'd love to talk to anybody. And I will say what I have always said. I do not lie.KELLY: So regrets - what would you do differently other than, it sounds like, you should have registered?BUTINA: Register. I would do absolutely the same. And I will tell you more. I will absolutely continue my peace building efforts because if we don't do that, this is the worst thing that I could imagine. I do love this country. I've met a lot of great people here.KELLY: Still? I mean, can I just jump in and ask, still? You still love this country after everything that's happened.BUTINA: Absolutely, yeah. I do love this country. I have two attorneys working for me pro bono coming to see me every single day that stand for me. How can I hate this country after I have wonderful friends here, friends who will talk to me through my solitary confinement experience at nights, always picking up the phone? No, I do love this country, and I wish you guys the best.KELLY: That's Maria Butina speaking to us from the Alexandria Detention Center in the suburbs of Washington, her first U.S. media interview since she was sentenced to 18 months in prison. Maria Butina, thank you.BUTINA: Thank you very much.KELLY: Thank you. Bye-bye.BUTINA: Bye-bye.COMPUTER-GENERATED VOICE: The caller has hung up.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.