STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Next we have the voice of a Russian woman inside an American jail.
MARIA BUTINA: My name is Maria Butina, and I'm a Russian citizen. And now I guess I'm an inmate.
INSKEEP: Up to now, Maria Butina is the only Russian arrested for her country's engagement in U.S. politics. Do an image search for Maria Butina online, and you will note her red hair and also that in picture, after picture, after picture, she is holding lots and lots of weapons. She got to know American political conservatives and gun rights activists. Now she is serving 18 months after pleading guilty to conspiracy to act as an agent of Russia. She's given her first U.S. media interview since she was sentenced to Mary Louise Kelly of NPR's All Things Considered.
MARY LOUISE KELLY, BYLINE: Good morning.
INSKEEP: Where'd you find her?
KELLY: She is, for now, sitting a few miles from where you and I sit now. She is in the suburbs of Washington in the Alexandria Detention Center. I had been out to meet her there weeks ago and had sat and had a conversation with her through thick glass.
INSKEEP: You have to hold the telephone and the other person holds a telephone.
KELLY: Yeah, you hold a telephone. They cut you off every few minutes and remind you that you are being monitored and recorded.
When she was sentenced two weeks ago today, I wondered if she might be in a position to give a fuller on-the-record interview, and so we asked. That was a no-go because you can't bring recorders into the prison. But as she told me yesterday, you guys in the U.S. have a First Amendment right. And I can use the phone same as anybody else. So we asked her to call, and she did. And yesterday, we accepted charges - collect call - from the Alexandria jail. And she and I talked for about 45 minutes. She told me her story.
INSKEEP: So you're talking to this person who really did plead guilty to a crime but also denies some of the accusations against her. What is - why does she say she was in the United States?
KELLY: She says she came because she was interested in building peace between Moscow and Washington. She denies that she was part of any coordinated Kremlin campaign to try to throw the 2016 presidential election here or mess with U.S. democracy. But when you push her on that - I said, come on. You were living here in Washington in 2016, and 2017 and 2018 as the Russia investigation is dominating the headlines.
INSKEEP: Getting to know all these conservative figures.
KELLY: Yeah. I said, what were you thinking in terms of the risk you were putting yourself at and how you fit into that picture? And here's a little bit of what she told me.
BUTINA: It has been very painful for me because my idea - I came here as a peace builder. I've never hide my love to my motherland neither to this country. I love both countries. This is - the worst pain of my situation now 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 of my life.
KELLY: Steve, that reference to not registering - there's a requirement that she should have registered as a foreign agent of Russia. If that's what she was here doing, she didn't register.
INSKEEP: So John Sipher was around NPR yesterday. He is a former CIA officer...
INSKEEP: He's focused on Russia...
KELLY: I've crossed ties with him from covering the CIA beat.
INSKEEP: Of course. And he is convinced that Russia would only work on the U.S. system in the way they did, in part, through human intelligence - people on the ground - not just Internet messages but people on the ground gathering information about individuals firsthand. Does Maria Butina admit that that is what she was doing?
KELLY: She emphatically denies that she was a Russian spy, that she was working in any way for the FSB, the Russian security service. She denies that they ever even approached her about this.
She admits her relationship with the man who U.S. prosecutors say was her handler. This is a man named Aleksandr Torshin - a former deputy governor of Russia's central bank at the time that she was here conducting all this work. Torshin is under U.S. sanctions, by the way. And she says, yeah. I reported to him. I fed him information - which then prompted the question, did you know the information you fed to him was being fed? He fed it to Russia's foreign ministry.
And here's part of her answer to that.
BUTINA: 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 it feels for me that this is like all of potentially, possibly speculation - which have no evidence. So I do question the U.S. justice system, and I think you guys should too.
INSKEEP: OK. I'm sure she's not the only person in that Alexandria jail who's questioning the U.S. justice system right now.
KELLY: (Laughter) She's got company there.
INSKEEP: But she pleaded guilty. So what exactly is she questioning about the justice system?
KELLY: Well, she's questioning her sentence - 18 months. That was longer than was expected. She is joined by the Russian government in that. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs - if you check their Twitter page this morning, their profile picture is Maria Butina and with the hashtag #FreeMariaButina.
But she says despite all of this, despite everything, she loves the U.S. She got a great education here, she says. She got her master's here. And she said she loves Americans. You guys are great, she says.
INSKEEP: Mary Louise Kelly of NPR's All Things Considered had the first U.S. interview with Maria Butina after her sentencing. And we will hear much more of that interview on All Things Considered today.
Thanks for coming by.
KELLY: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.