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The Bizarre Prosecution of Maria Butina

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Of all the countless criminal prosecutions brought by the U.S. Justice Department since the founding of the United States as a nation, the case of 29-year-old Russian citizen Maria Butina has to rank among the top five most bizarre criminal prosecutions. There are several points of weirdness in Butina’s prosecution.

Butina is not charged with spying for Russia, as some Russians were accused of doing during the Cold War. With Butina, it’s the exact opposite. She obviously isn’t interested in spying on the United States. She’s only interested in helping to establish friendly relations between Russia and the United States. All of her actions have been oriented toward advancing and achieving that goal. In the eyes of the U.S. national-security establishment, however, that is precisely what makes her a suspicious, nefarious person.

That’s weird.

Butina believes in gun rights and actually founded a pro-gun rights group in Russia called Right to Bear Arms, which lobbies for more liberal gun rights in Russia. In other words, she leans libertarian on the issue of gun rights and opposes the policies of her government, the Russian government. She is even actively trying to get the Russian government to liberalize its anti-gun-rights position. Given her pro-gun rights position, she began attending meetings of the NRA while living here in the United States, where she was enrolled as a graduate student at American University. She also attended the annual summer libertarian-conservative conference in Las Vegas called Freedom Fest.

The Justice Department claims that that her contacts with such groups as the NRA and Freedom Fest are suspicious and nefarious, not because she is spying but because she is supposedly trying to use such groups to advance her aim — and Russia’s aim — of establishing better, friendly relations with the United States.

That’s weird.

The Justice Department alleged that Butina offered to have sex with some guy in return for a job with some organization. I’m not really sure what the theory behind that allegation was but I suppose the theory was that her new job was supposedly going to enable her to advance her aim of establishing better, friendlier relations between Russia and the United States.

That’s weird, which even the Justice Department effectively admitted by announcing yesterday that it had made a mistake in making its sex allegation against Butina. It has decided to drop that bizarre allegation from its criminal prosecution of her.

So, if Butina isn’t being charged with trying to advance friendly relations between Russia and the United States, what is she being charged with? She’s being charged with violating what is called the “Foreign Agents Registration Act,” a law that was enacted in 1938, along with all the other statist nonsense that was being adopted as part of President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal revolution. The law requires anyone who lobbies Congress or anyone else on behalf of a foreign government to register with the U.S. government.

But get this: The law doesn’t prohibit someone from lobbying Congress on behalf of a foreign government. It simply requires the person to register his name and contact information with the executive branch of the government and to disclose what he or she is doing to advance the foreign government’s interests.

Ridiculous? You bet it is. But not in the paranoid and fearful mindsets of any government founded on the principles of a national-security state. Fear and paranoia have long been hallmarks of any society whose government is structured as a national-security state.

Keep in mind that before 1938, America somehow survived without a Foreign Agents Registration Act for around 150 years. I wonder how the nation made it that long without such a law. Whew! We sure are lucky that someone finally got around to enacting it. Why, the federal government might have been taken over by the Reds if the law hadn’t been passed. Or, in Butina’s case, the federal government might have become friendly with those horrible Russkies. What worse fate than that for the United States, well at least in the eyes of the U.S. national-security establishment?

Now, I realize that it’s considered old-fashioned and quaint to refer to the U.S. Constitution in the era of national-security statism but I think it’s still worth pointing out that it would be difficult to find a better example of a violation of the First Amendment than the Foreign Agents Registration Act.

Let’s keep in mind that the Constitution called the federal government into existence in the first place and set forth the conditions for its operations. Even though the federal government was converted into a national-security state in the 1940s, it is still controlled by the Constitution.

The First Amendment states in part: “Congress shall make no law abridging the freedom of speech.” Notice that it doesn’t say: “Congress shall make no law abridging the freedom of speech except with respect to people who are lobbying Congress or other people on behalf of a foreign government.”

Lobbying is nothing more than speech. It is speech directed to members of Congress or others designed to advance the interests of some foreign regime.

What’s wrong with some foreign government advancing the interests of its citizenry to members of Congress or anyone else? Obviously nothing because the Foreign Agents Registration Act or any other federal law doesn’t prohibit it. All that the law does is require such lobbyists to register their names with the U.S. government and file report on their activities, a requirement that is rarely enforced until the feds find someone they wish to target.

But why should foreign agents be required to register? How can a registration requirement be reconciled with a constitutional restriction that prohibits any infringement on freedom of speech? After all, if Congress enacted a law requiring people who deliver political speeches to first register with Congress before giving any speeches, wouldn’t everyone immediately recognize that such a law infringed on freedom of speech? How is it any different to require foreign lobbyists to register their names as a condition of exercising their right of free speech?

The Justice Department should do the right thing and dismiss its ridiculous and bizarre charge against Maria Butina. It’s just another perverse consequence of the weird anti-Russia obsession that has taken control over much of the federal government. For its part, Congress ought to do the right thing and repeal the ridiculous, unconstitutional, New Deal-era Foreign Agents Registration Act.

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Jacob G. Hornberger is founder and president of The Future of Freedom Foundation. He was born and raised in Laredo, Texas, and received his B.A. in economics from Virginia Military Institute and his law degree from the University of Texas. He was a trial attorney for twelve years in Texas. He also was an adjunct professor at the University of Dallas, where he taught law and economics. In 1987, Mr. Hornberger left the practice of law to become director of programs at the Foundation for Economic Education. He has advanced freedom and free markets on talk-radio stations all across the country as well as on Fox News’ Neil Cavuto and Greta van Susteren shows and he appeared as a regular commentator on Judge Andrew Napolitano’s show Freedom Watch. View these interviews at LewRockwell.com and from Full Context. Send him email.