Russian intelligence operatives had several reasons to be interested in the National Prayer Breakfast and other institutions as “part of Russia’s larger influence operations,” a retired CIA operative told TYT.
Steve Hall, former head of the CIA’s Russia operations worldwide, spoke with TYT following last week’s report that a Seattle charity tied to the breakfast reported expenses for having Russians attend in 2017. One leader at the charity — and the breakfast — reportedly provided ten slots at the 2017 breakfast to Maria Butina, who has since pleaded guilty to acting as a Russian agent, and her alleged handler, Alexander Torshin.
Hall said that the National Rifle Association and the National Prayer Breakfast — both of which had ties to Torshin prior to 2016 — would have been natural targets for Russian intelligence.
“If I’m a Russian intelligence officer and I’m looking to plug in,” Hall said, “there’s a couple of good things that are going to attract my attention about the NRA, the National Prayer Breakfast, y’know, the religious right.”
He said religious conservatives make appealing targets because of ideological similarities with Russian culture and America’s historic reluctance to scrutinize religious institutions.
“Russia is a very, very conservative social place. The idea of gay rights is not something that is a big deal in Russia,” Hall said. “In Chechnya recently, they’ve been rounding up homosexual men and basically throwing them in jail and beating them up. That happens all throughout Russia… So, you know, that’s a natural point where a Russian can come in and say, ‘Oh, yeah, we feel your pain, America. We feel your pain, religious person in America, right-wing person in America, because, y'know, society is just all screwed up and we have all these gay people running around.’”
TYT reported last year that the Fellowship Foundation, which runs the breakfast, has sponsored congressional trips involving meetings with anti-gay leaders, including some in former Soviet nations. The Fellowship’s connections to anti-gay movements, including attempts to legislate capital punishment in Uganda, led to criticism of Pres. Obama for participating in the breakfast.
Last week, Marc Cevasco, chief of staff for Rep. Ted Lieu (D-CA), told TYT, “If there’s Russian influence on the Prayer Breakfast, we want to know about it.” Like many other Democrats, Lieu has lent his name to the annual event before. This year, Cevasco said after TYT’s report came out, “I think he would likely pass." This year’s breakfast is set for Feb. 7.
Other Democrats who previously joined Lieu in supporting the breakfast have yet to respond to TYT’s requests for comment.
Mikey Weinstein, president of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, has butted heads legally with the Fellowship. Responding to TYT’s report about expenditures to have Russians at the breakfast, Weinstein said, “For any Democrat that supports this, either that Democrat is completely and utterly clueless or they're actively involved in this and they're wolves in sheeps’ clothing.”
Weinstein said, “They have so many legislators, it's so inextricably intertwined, how do you follow the money? It would take a huge forensic effort.”
Hall said that the secrecy afforded to religious institutions is another draw for Russian intelligence. “The other thing that a Russian intelligence officer would know from having dealt with Americans previously is that any time you have anything to do with an American religious organization, whether it’s a church or whether it’s the Prayer Breakfast, or whether it’s any of these religious things, is they know that the American security services — the FBI, the CIA, and even local law enforcement — are very, very reticent to investigate and to look into those organizations, unless there’s, you know, obvious tax fraud or obvious abuse of their non-profit status.”
(In 2010, former Rep. Mark Siljander (R-MI) pleaded guilty to receiving funds via the Fellowship that had been donated by an alleged Islamic terrorism group. The group allegedly used the Fellowship to pay Siljander for lobbying. Richard Carver, president of the Fellowship at the time, denied wrongdoing and said the group would tighten its vetting.)
While the Fellowship has not responded to prior TYT requests for comment, following Friday’s report a Fellowship spokesperson said the group would respond to a series of questions about Russia and the breakfast expenditures this week.
In addition to secrecy and social views, Hall said the Russians have another reason to target religious groups. “In my opinion, the purpose for them to do this is they realize that there’s some money and some real power in the American right-wing conservatism and so they’re trying to get in there so as to be able to — not only exert influence — but also connect information as to what is that part of the American political spectrum up to… In essence, it’s part of Russia’s larger influence operations that’s really been going on since the 2016 elections here in the United States.”
Contacts between the Fellowship and Russian officials have not been limited to the Prayer Breakfast. One breakfast organizer confirmed to Religion News that he keynoted a 2017 event in Russia, at which Torshin spoke. The Fellowship has also helped stand up prayer breakfasts around the world, including former Soviet nations.
Hall said that Russian intelligence is known to have infiltrated the Russian Orthodox Church in the past. He said, “[They] essentially have penetrated and used the Russian Orthodox Church for all sorts of things… I don’t think that they would have changed that modus operandi of using the Russian Orthodox Church, or pretty much whatever they want, just like they’ve always done.”
Still, Hall said, attempts to infiltrate American religious groups have received little scrutiny in either country.
“Until the time I left in 2015, we were looking at things much more in the geopolitical sphere, in terms of, ‘Okay, what’s going on in Ukraine, the annexation of Crimea? What is Russia up to geopolitically?’” Hall said.
“There is evidence,” he said, “this whole — trying to reach out to the NRA and to conservative causes — does predate the election. So that’s true.”
Hall added, “The problem is — and, again, this is just how we work in the U.S. government and in our society — is that there isn’t typically a whole lot of energy, a whole lot of interest, a whole lot of money put into: Okay, let’s find out what those guys at the Prayer Breakfast are up to.”
Jonathan Larsen is TYT's managing editor. You can find him on Twitter @JTLarsen.
Dylan Digel is a researcher and fact-checker for TYT Investigates.
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