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WASHINGTON — A year before federal prosecutors accused Maria Butina of operating as a secret agent for the Russian government, she was a graduate student at American University working on a sensitive project involving cybersecurity.

Butina’s college assignment called for her to gather information on the cyberdefenses of U.S. nonprofit organizations that champion media freedom and human rights, The Associated Press has learned. It was information that could help the groups plug important vulnerabilities, but also would be of interest to the Russian government.

In fact, the Russians previously had in their sights at least two of the groups that she and other students interacted with.

Butina participated in the project under the tutelage of a respected professor who advised the State Department on cybersecurity matters. It was carried out for the nonprofit group Internews, which works extensively with the U.S. government to bolster the free flow of information in dangerous parts of the world and has drawn Russian ire with some of its programs in Russia and neighboring countries.

Internews confirmed Butina’s involvement and a broad description of what the project involved. A lawyer for Butina did not respond to a request for comment.

Butina’s project raised few eyebrows before her July arrest, despite the fact that news reports already had posed questions about her rapid rise from selling furniture in Siberia and her ties with Kremlin officials.

As part of the project, a small group of students led by Butina was given a list of Internews partners working on human rights and press freedom issues for research purposes only, with the understanding that they not be contacted without consultation. But the students contacted some of the groups anyway, according to people involved in the project who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to describe the work.

An individual who has worked on U.S. programs in Ukraine said that after Butina’s arrest he was briefed by U.S. officials who expressed concern that two Internews programs in Ukraine — dealing with media freedom and cybersecurity, and funded by the State Department — may have been exposed to Russian intelligence and may be at risk due to Butina’s student work.

State Department spokesman Robert Palladino said the department was not involved with the Internews project Butina worked on.

Kostiantyn Kvurt, who heads a local nonprofit that Internews helped establish, Internews Ukraine, said he was unaware of Butina’s project before being informed of it by the Associated Press, but already was wary of potential Russian intelligence interference.

“If they understand how to break our firewalls, they could find our partners,” Kvurt said. “People could get detained, tortured, killed.”

Print Headline: Russian held as agent studied U.S. groups’ cyberdefenses

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