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British Prime Minister Theresa May Survives No Confidence Vote; International Manhunt for Christmas Market Gunman Cherif Chekatt; Passenger Train Crashes in Turkey, Killing 7; Trump's Ex-Lawyer Given Three-Year Prison Term; Second Canadian Questioned in China and Now Missing; State News: Passenger Train Crashes In Turkey; CPJ: Spike In Jailed Journalists Is The "New Normal"; Alleged Russian Spy Maria Butina Set To Plead Guilty. Aired 12-1a ET

Aired December 13, 2018 - 00:00   ET




ROSEMARY CHURCH, CNN ANCHOR (voice-over): Hello, everyone, I'm Rosemary Church. You're watching CNN NEWSROOM.

Ahead this hour, Britain's Theresa May lives to fight another day but surviving a no confidence vote gets her no closer to winning enough support for her Brexit plan.

Plus the man who said he covered up Donald Trump's dirty deeds is headed to prison and Michael Cohen may still have a lot more to say to prosecutors.

Later the murder of Jamal Khashoggi captured the headlines. But a new report finds he is far from the only journalist that authoritarian governments are trying to silence.


CHURCH: There's not much relief in sight for Britain's prime minister after a long, difficult day. Theresa May survived a no confidence vote Wednesday by her Conservative Party. But the outcome underscores the hurdle she has to pass her Brexit deal.

She said she will listen to the members of Parliament who voted against her and she'll keep pushing for assurances on the trade arrangements at the Irish border. Nic Robertson reports.


NIC ROBERTSON, CNN INTERNATIONAL DIPLOMATIC EDITOR: Well, that was a tough day for the prime minister. She survived that vote of no confidence, 200 to 117.

But what does it do?

It highlights the division in her party, almost one-third of her MPs in government they stand against her. That's the resounding message, not the massive victory she may have hoped for, not a narrow squeak and not something that will change the situation she's in.

She came out and gave a very upbeat speech. That's something we're used to. She spoke about the mission and the challenge ahead.


THERESA MAY, BRITISH PRIME MINISTER: This has been a long and challenging day. But at the end of it, I'm pleased to have received the backing of my colleagues in tonight's ballot.

Whilst I'm grateful for that support, a significant number of colleagues did cast a vote against me and I've listened to what they said. Following this ballot, we now need to get on with the job of delivering Brexit for the British people and building a better future for this country.


ROBERTSON: The reality is, it was a day wasted. The challenges ahead of her are big. They have to be surmounted yet. She said she goes back to the European Union, wanting to get political and legal reassurances on the backstop part of the Brexit agreement, the message from the European leaders they're not opening up the Brexit deal.

There's a hint in the air that they may give her a little wording here and a little language there. But that is very unlikely to overcome the challenge she faces in the Parliament, the opposition opposed to the Brexit plan that she has so far.

She's very unlikely to get a change to it substantially. One-third of her own party in opposition against her. It would seem at this stage so the likelihood of her passing the meaningful vote on the Brexit agreement so far, the deadline for that is the 21st of January, does seems very slender and very slim.

The possibility remains, of course, that the opposition may call a vote of no confidence in her government. That challenge, like the one she faced on Wednesday, would be huge. She is unlikely to squeak through that one -- Nic Robertson, CNN, London.


CHURCH: Joining us now from Los Angeles, CNN European affairs commentator, Dominic Thomas.

Dominic, good to have you with us.


CHURCH: So Theresa May survived the no confidence vote and secured her future for at least another year. But her biggest challenge remains getting her Brexit deal approved.

Where does she go from here and what is Brexit's future looking like right now? THOMAS: It is extraordinary. She survives this and wakes up to find under a pillow still the big word Brexit. And she got to move along. In many ways, securing two-thirds of the party support is quite meaningful. It points to the extraordinary division she has on her side without worrying about the whole question of the opposition.

She's going to go back to the European Union and continue negotiations with them. She's hinted that she's talking more across party lines for the folks in the Houses of Parliament.

The problem is that the backstop with Northern Ireland is not the only issue. When you look at the spectrum of positions on Brexit, the Labour Party is talking about a customs union and a single market. This won't fly within her --


THOMAS: -- party that wants less obligations and less alliance for the European Union. She survives miraculously and she's still in power. But there's still so much unexpected terrain ahead she has to navigate.

Sooner or later, she has to come to Parliament and put a meaningful vote before the Parliament which is something they thought they would have earlier this week.

CHURCH: While that all plays out, I have to ask you this.

What were members of her party thinking, pulling a no confidence vote at this time, given any change of leadership would have set the whole Brexit process back and could plunged the country into economic chaos?

And why do it when they didn't even have the numbers?

THOMAS: This is really, I think, what this whole issue is about. It is easier to get a no confidence vote within your party. You only need 15 percent of the elected MPs to be able to do that.

So the hard-core Brexiteers, the far right-wing of the party that are causing all of this trouble and disruption since the Brexit vote of 2016 and were able to move ahead of this.

I think they thought they could outstrategize everybody; the Labour Party is paralyzed and the opposition not really knowing where to go. And they thought they could perhaps capitalize on sentiment when Theresa May announced she was not going to hold the meaningful vote early on this week, too.

What we saw in the outcome of this, this is extraordinary, even though she got 67 percent of the vote, the hardcore Brexiteers have been going on for two years now about the fact that they have 52 percent and that's a majority.

I think what this vote highlighted is that this far right contingent in her political party that have caused so much disruption do not have substantial support. Hopefully, public opinion will come out once and for all and speak out against these folks and ask them to keep quiet as they go about the process of trying to figure out whether or not some kind of Brexit deal can be achieved.

That may be the paradox of all of this, that they're ultimately silenced. They are calling for her to resign and so on and so forth. But I think they have very little room to stand on. This has backfired because now they can't oust her for a one-year period. Only the Labour Party now can shelve a motion, could table a motion of no confidence. So this has really worked against them.

CHURCH: Speaking of which, ahead of the no confidence vote, Theresa May answered questions on the deferred vote on her Brexit deal. And this is how opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn responded.


JEREMY CORBYN, LEADER, U.K. LABOUR PARTY: The prime minister and government have already been found to be in contempt of Parliament. Her behavior today is just contemptuous of this Parliament and of this process.

MAY: He couldn't care less about Brexit. What he wants to do is bring down the government, create uncertainty, sow division and crash our economy. The biggest -- the biggest threat, the biggest threat to people and to this country is not leaving the E.U., it is a Corbyn government.


CHURCH: So Dominic, what is Jeremy Corbyn's alternative plan in the midst of all this chaos with increasing cause for him to demand a general election, to call a vote of no confidence in her government?

That has unnerved some investors, though.

What is his likely next move?

THOMAS: Well, the vote of no confidence and the need to call it is a huge difference between asking Conservative MPs to vote in their own chambers to try and oust their own leader and replace that leader then asking them to go to Parliament and work with the Labour government and try to remove a Conservative leader with all of the unexpected terrain and danger that would come ahead of that.

I don't think Jeremy Corbyn's party is divided but their official position is to respect the referendum. And therefore allow for Brexit to go ahead. Really has an alternative or a position here beyond simply arguing for Brexit again.

Were his position to be opposed to Brexit, that may be a very different thing. What Theresa May has already done, by proposing that she would not stand for the 2022 election, which, in so many ways, is influenced by Angela Merkel's decision in Germany to step away from the leadership of the CDU while remaining as chancellor, is she essentially comforted much the Conservative Party by saying I will take the responsibility to shepherd this Brexit deal through, which none of you want to be at the helm and doing this.

But I will not run for the next election, which gives you time to think about future leadership. I think that took away a lot of wind from Jeremy Corbyn's sail and the support he thought he might get from the party in trying to oust Theresa May.

When the deal comes before the Parliament in a few weeks' time for the meaningful vote, once again, we're looking at a complicated situation here.

CHURCH: Still no answer on Brexit, right?

Dominic Thomas, always a pleasure to have your analysis. Thank you so much.

THOMAS: Thanks, Rosemary.


CHURCH: Anti-terror police are now part of an international manhunt to find the gunman who attacked a Christmas market in Strasbourg, France. The authorities released the photo of the suspect and details of his extensive criminal background. We get the latest now from CNN's Ben Wedeman.


BEN WEDEMAN, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: The French police have put out a notice identifying the prime suspect in the attack on that Christmas market in Strasbourg. They identify the alleged shooter as Cherif Chekatt, 29 years old, born in Strasbourg. This is an individual who certainly has had a troubled past.

The police apparently were aware of him when he was a mere 10 years old. His first conviction happened when he was only 13. He has a total of 27 convictions; noteworthy that all of them are for petty crimes of theft and violence.

But, nonetheless, this did land him on what's known as France's Fiche- S or S-list of individuals believed to pose a potential threat to public safety. There are about 20,000 individuals on that list, somewhere between 10,000 and 12,000 of them are at least in theory supposed to be under police surveillance.

Now Mr. Chekatt's home was indeed raided on the morning of the attack in Strasbourg on an unrelated issue. We know that his father, his mother and his two brothers were in police custody today for questioning. No idea of whether they provided any useful information as to where Mr. Chekatt may be at this time.

But police do believe that, during his time in prison, which was spent in France, Germany and Switzerland, he may have been radicalized. They point to the fact that when he did carry out this attack at the Christmas market, he shouted "Allahu Akbar" or "God is great."

Now today we heard that the French prime minister, Edouard Philippe, said that, in addition to the 700 security forces already involved in this manhunt, they would supplement it with 500 soldiers and in the coming days an additional 1,300 personnel at the border between France, Switzerland and Germany.

Which is -- Germany, of course, which is very near Strasbourg, has been tightened but no idea at this point where the suspect may have gone -- I'm Ben Wedeman, CNN, reporting from Paris.


CHURCH: We're getting word of a high-speed train crash in Turkey. State news is reporting that two train carriages toppled over at a station in Ankara and some parts of a bridge collapsed onto the train. Multiple people we understand are injured.

As soon as we get more details on this breaking story, we will bring them to you.

We move on for now. Donald Trump's former long-time attorney and so- called fixer will begin a three-year prison sentence in March. Michael Cohen pled guilty to several criminal counts, including secret payoffs during the 2016 presidential campaign to two women who claimed affairs with Mr. Trump before he became president.

Mr. Trump has denied both allegations. Here's CNN's Athena Jones.


ATHENA JONES, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Three years: that's how long President Trump's former personal attorney and longtime fixer, Michael Cohen will have to spend in prison after pleading guilty in August to tax evasion, bank fraud and campaign finance violations and just last month, to lying to Congress. It's the first time a member of Trump's inner circle has received significant prison time in connection with special counsel Robert Mueller's Russia probe.

It was a day of reckoning for Cohen joined at the federal courthouse by his family and it bought more bad headlines for Trump. After detailing a pattern of deception by Cohen, federal prosecutors asked for a substantial prison sentence.

U.S. District Judge William Pauley agreed, saying, "Cohen thrived on his access to wealthy and powerful people and he became one himself."

In brief remarks in court, Cohen, who once prided himself on being Trump's lawyer and even said he'd take a bullet for the president, painted himself as a victim, saying of Trump, "Time and time again, I felt it was my duty to cover up his dirty deeds."

Cohen adding, "I had been living in a personal and mental incarceration ever since the day that I accepted the offer to work for a real estate mogul whose business acumen that I deeply admired."

Cohen has pledged to continue to cooperate with Mueller's investigation into possible collusion with Russia and obstruction of justice. [00:15:00]

JONES (voice-over): Speaking of the president, he said he is "committed to ensuring that history will not remember me as the villain of his story."

In admitting to illegally orchestrating hush payments to former "Playboy" model Karen McDougal and adult film star Stormy Daniels to keep them quiet about alleged affairs with Trump before the 2016 election, Cohen implicated the president, saying Trump directed him to make the payments, something federal prosecutors noted in court papers.

Trump has denied the affairs and any knowledge of the payments, despite being recorded discussing the McDougal payment with Cohen.

MICHAEL COHEN, FORMER DONALD TRUMP'S ATTORNEY: When it comes time to the financing which will be--


COHEN: Well, I have to pay--

TRUMP: In cash?

COHEN: No, no, no. I got it.

JONES: Cohen also admitted to lying to Congress and to special counsel investigators about talks to build a Trump Tower in Moscow. Negotiations with Russians lasted until June 2016, even after Trump had become the presumptive Republican nominee, despite Cohen originally telling investigators talks ended in January.

And Cohen admitted he discussed the project with then candidate Trump. Throughout the campaign, Trump frequently proclaimed he had no ties and no business in Russia.

TRUMP: I have nothing to do with Russia, folks, OK. I give you a written statement nothing to do.

JONES: Prosecutors view Cohen's lies about Russia contacts as part of an effort to alter the investigation under Russian election meddling and ongoing probe that threatens more political and legal peril for the president -- Athena Jones, CNN, New York.


CHURCH: Joining me to talk more about this is Larry Sabato, the director of the University of Virginia Center for Politics.

Always great to have you with us.

LARRY SABATO, UNIVERSITY OF VIRGINIA: Thank you so much, Rosemary.

CHURCH: So Michael Cohen was hit with a three-year sentence for tax evasion, bank fraud, campaign fraud and lying to Congress. If the president's former lawyer is going to prison, what might that signal for President Trump's future, the man who directed Cohen to make those hush money payments?

SABATO: It doesn't say much good. Of course there are others waiting, including the accountant for the Trump Organization. He probably knows more than anybody.

But if you're Donald Trump and you knew the interactions you would have with your lawyer, you realize now that not only are the offenses serious but your lawyer probably kept a number of tapes of you, you would have to be concerned. No doubt the prosecutor has a great deal of it.

CHURCH: Cohen is now painting himself as the victim and doesn't want to be remembered as the villain in this sorry tale.

What did you take him to mean when he said this about President Trump?

"Time and time again, I felt it was my duty to cover up his dirty deeds."

Now Larry, which dirty deeds might he be referring to there and what do you think he is trying to do?

SABATO: He's specifically referring to the payoffs that occurred to two women with whom Trump had affairs right before the November 2016 presidential election. But he may also be referring to other things.

He and the prosecutor and possibly a few lawyers are the only ones that really know everything that Michael Cohen has been spilling. All of that is true. And Trump was the original source of this.

But Cohen also has an independent conscience and some of these offenses for which he was sentenced today were independent of Donald Trump. So I would say Cohen himself has a lot to apologize for but certainly he is correct that Trump was the proximate cause of the mortal sins.

CHURCH: And in that quote, he said, time and time again he felt. So it seems to go beyond just the hush money payments, doesn't it?

But Cohen has also pledged to continue to cooperate with the Mueller investigation. So -- so what more do you think we might learn if he goes forward and spills more beans?

SABATO: If he's been smart and I think he's a pretty clever guy, he's probably saved some things, not for just Mueller but also the local New York prosecutors that might enable him to get a reduced sentence.

He got a reduced sentence compared to what he might have served. But he would love to see it reduced lower than the three years or the 2.5 years that he would actually in fact serve. That's a long time for someone in his mid-50s and in the middle of the best part of his career, at least theoretically. So he may be able to trade more information about subjects not covered

by the -- by the special counsel in the next few months.

CHURCH: From what we know so far and certainly what we recently learned from -- from this sentencing of Michael Cohen --


CHURCH: -- how damning might this all prove to be for the President of the United States?

SABATO: It can't possibly help Donald Trump. It is not going to look good. And it may be worse than not looking good. That is, it is going to give the special counsel an opportunity to -- to tell everybody everything, I hope, in the final report.

Now Democrats being pushed for impeachment. We know the odds are heavily against that in the Senate. You know, Trump can be indicted once he leaves office. He may be protected during the presidency, may be protected during the presidency, but the indictment could come once he leaves office, whenever that is.

So this can't be a pleasant prospect for Donald Trump when he's trying to focus on other things.

CHURCH: It must be very interesting at the White House now to be fly on the wall. Larry Sabato, thank you for joining us.

SABATO: Thank you, Rosemary.

CHURCH: And coming up next, the retaliation game, a second Canadian is missing after being questioned in China, just as Beijing admits it is holding a former Canadian diplomat.

Is it all about Ottawa's arrest of a top Chinese executive?

We're live in Hong Kong to find out more.

Plus an accused Russian spy hours away from pleading guilty to conspiracy in a U.S. court.

What do we not know about Maria Butina?




CHURCH: Welcome back, everyone.

Diplomatic tensions between China and Canada are on the rise. Ottawa says a second Canadian in China is missing after being questioned by the Chinese. It comes as Canada confirms former diplomat Michael Kovrig has been detained in Beijing. But the timing is key here. At the request of the United States,

Canada arrested the chief financial officer of Huawei, one of the largest telecom companies in the world. Meng Wanzhou is now out on bail and waiting for an extradition hearing.

Trump has jumped in to comment on her case, said he might intervene if it could help reach a deal with China. Plenty to cover here. Let's get to Andrew Stevens in Hong Kong.

Good to see you, Andrew. We will start with the two missing Canadians in China.

What are you learning about that situation?

ANDREW STEVENS, CNN ASIA PACIFIC EDITOR: There have been a few developments in the last few hours. It was just about six hours or so ago --


STEVENS: -- that the Canadian foreign minister, Chrystia Freeland, Rosemary, said there were concerns about a second Canadian, who seems to have disappeared in China. He had been in touch with Canadian consulate officials, as he tried to leave China he was questioned by Chinese authorities and disturbed by the questions so much that he decided he needed to get in touch with his own country consular officials, which he did.

He then disappeared. Now what we're hearing is from local media is that -- that he's being investigated for -- for activities which could endanger Chinese national security. Those are the official words, which, coincidentally or not, is exactly the same words, the same terms being used to describe the issues surrounding -- surrounding Michael Kovrig.

You got two Canadians now being questioned by Chinese authorities, both about endangering Chinese national security; as you point out, this coming in the wake of the arrest of the chief executive, chief financial officer of Huawei and threats by China that there would be grave consequences against Canada for -- for its role in the arrest of Meng.

Remember, Canada arrested Meng at the request of the U.S. as part of the U.S.-Canada extradition treaty. So Canada didn't really have a choice in this. They did what they had to do under the treaty.

But it does appear -- and we can only say appear at this stage -- that China is taking out its anger -- and there is a lot of anger in China about the arrest at the moment -- is focusing that anger very much on Canada.

CHURCH: Right. And, Andrew, the detention of the two Canadians in China comes after President Trump raised the possibility of using tech executive Meng Wanzhou as a bargaining chip in trade negotiations with China.

So what is the likely next step here?

STEVENS: Two days ago, senior trade officials from the U.S. and China had a phone conversation to take things forward following that meeting on December the 1st between President Xi and President Trump to try to get to some sort of arrangement on a China deal.

Interestingly, the day Xi and Trump sat down was the day Meng was arrested. The timing on that, at this stage, looks coincidental because a lot of the U.S. government apparatus says this is not linked. The Meng case is about criminal justice, not to do with trade, although Trump is clearly making it about trade.

So we a meeting a couple of days ago, a telephone call actually, between the key players in moving the trade talks forward. We don't know what came out of that. We do know shortly after that telephone conversation, that China did move to announce tariffs were cut on U.S. autos going in.

So it's still two tracks, in that there does seem to be willingness on both sides on trade to reach a deal. But, as you point out, Donald Trump has completely muddied the waters by turning this into a political issue and saying, threatening that he would use Meng as a bargaining chip.

Where it goes from here, we don't know at this stage. But both leaders have a lot to lose if the trade talks do fall over. Donald Trump complained that -- that we can stick it to China but the U.S. economy is still going to hurt and no doubt the Chinese economy is also hurting because of this trade step or trade war as it stands.

CHURCH: Certainly a lot to consider here. Andrew Stevens, joining us live from Hong Kong, where it is nearly 1:30 in the afternoon. Thank you.

We'll take a short break here. Next on CNN NEWSROOM, an alarming new report on the state of press freedom around the globe and which countries are the worst offenders in the war on truth.

We're back in a moment (ph).


[00:30:00] ROSEMARY CHURCH, CNN INTERNATIONAL ANCHOR: Welcome back, everyone. You are watching CNN NEWSROOM. I'm Rosemary Church. Let's check the headlines for you, this hour. We are following breaking news, a high-speed train has crashed in Turkey. State news reports the train derailed and crashed into the base of an overpass, which caused the overpass to collapse on to part of the train.

Some of the carriages also toppled over. There are multiple injuries. We will, of course, bring you more details on this breaking story, as they come to us.

British Prime Minister Theresa May survived a no confidence vote from her own Conservative Party Wednesday, but the challenge of getting her Brexit deal passed in parliament, remains. She is seeking reassurances from the European Union on trade arrangements at the Irish border, but that's not expected to sway her opponents.

Anti-terror police have joined an international manhunt for the gunman, accused of killing two people at a Christmas market in Strasbourg, France. Authorities say, 29-year-old Cherif Chekatt has an extensive criminal background with more than two dozen convictions in France, Germany and Switzerland, mostly for acts of robbery and violence.

Well, the spike in jailed journalists around the world is not a temporary trend, it is the new normal. That's the message from the committee to protect journalists in a report, just released this hour. The group says for the third year in a row, at least 251 journalists are jailed worldwide.

Among the worst offenders, China, with 47 journalists in jail, partly due to the crackdown on the Uighur ethnic group in the country's northwest. In Egypt, at least 25 journalists are prisoned up from 20, last year. Saudi Arabia has at least 16 journalists behind bars, compared to just 7, last year, and Turkey has jailed more journalists than any other country in the world, 68, according to this report.

Well, Turkey is also where Washington Post columnist, Jamal Khashoggi was killed. The government there has pointed the finger squarely at Saudi Arabia, demanding the kingdom extradite the suspects.

So why is Turkey, the country that tops the list for jailing journalists, now appearing to stand up for the free press? Our Jomana Karadsheh reports from Istanbul.


JOMANA KARADSHEH, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: For Turkey's leadership, the murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi, at the Saudi consulate, in Istanbul, was an attack on the country's sovereignty. And as the government, Recep Tayyip Erdogan is leading the quest for justice in this case. Some found the irony in that, striking.

EROL ONDEROGLU, JOURNALIST, REPORTERS WITHOUT BORDERS: It's quite ironic that a country, like Turkey, 157 out of 180 in Reporter Without Border, press freedom index, finds itself as a defender of media freedom or defender of journalistic rights at the global scale.

KARADSHEH: Erol Onderoglu, on Reporters Without Borders, spends much of his time attending trials of Turkish reporters, all too frequent in a country, named the largest jailer of journalists in the world, by the committee, to protect journalists.

Almost every moment, new charges are brought against opposition reporters. Just this week, five journalists from the secular opposition newspaper, Sozcu, were charged with aiding the outlawed movement of U.S.-based cleric, Fethullah Gulen. Turkey says his group was behind the 2016 failed coup attempt.

Dozens more are behind bars, accused of aiding or being part of this movement or the Kurdish militant group, the PKK, a designated terror group, Turkey has been battling since the 1980s.

[00:35:11] Critics say the government has used the failed coup attempt as a pretext to silence those who oppose it. But Turkish officials have repeatedly denied that this is a clamp down on press freedom. They say they're fighting terrorism and that this is a matter of national security.

In June, a young journalism student worried about the future of the profession in Turkey voiced her concerns to the president during a gathering at the presidential palace. Erdogan responded, you are free, as you are asking this to a president in his own place.

The woman responded, I want to be free when I do my job. Freedom of journalists ends when the freedom of others begins, the president answered.

According to CPJ, while there are currently more journalists in prisons, in Turkey, than anywhere else in the world, the number of jailed reporters has gone down. The Watchdog group, however, says the number of journalists detained in China, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia, has gone up this year.

For the third year in row, 251 or more journalists are jailed around the world, suggesting authoritarian approach to critical news coverage is more than a temporary spike.

CPJ warns hundreds of journalists jailed globally, has become the new normal.

ONDEROGLU: International actors usually dealing with fundamental rights are not -- are not there to bring good examples. And I'm afraid that the impact of U.S. President Donald Trump in targeting the U.S. media is not a good reference for the Turkey, countries like Turkey.

KARADSHEH: With journalists under attack like never before, there is little hope 2019 will be any better, for what some are now calling the war on truth.

Jomana Karadsheh, CNN, Istanbul.


CHURCH: And we'll take a short break here. Next on CNN NEWSROOM, the young woman accused of being a Russian spy, set to plead guilty in a U.S. courtroom. What she's telling investigators about Russia's efforts to infiltrate U.S. politics, back in a moment.


CHURCH: Welcome back, everyone. An accused Russian spy goes to court Thursday, in Washington. Prosecutors say, Maria Butina was part of an effort to infiltrate Conservative U.S. political circles, with help from her American boyfriend and a top Russian official. But some experts doubt she was a trained spy. Our Brian Todd has our report.


BRIAN TODD, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: As the alluring young Russian and accused spy, Maria Butina, is set to enter a guilty plea, according to sources, and cooperate with U.S. prosecutors. New questions are being raised about how connected she may really have been to Russia's intelligence agencies.

Vladimir Putin claims Butina was little more than a low-level bureaucrat, in Russia's equivalent of the U.S. Senate.

VLADIMIR PUTIN, PRESIDENT OF RUSSIA (through translator): No one knows anything about her at all. The only thing anyone knows about her, is that she worked at the federation council for one of the deputies. That's it.

[00:40:15] TODD: But former spy tells CNN, while Putin may not have known Butina, chances are, someone in his government or spy services did.

GEN. JAMES CLAPPER (RET.), FORMER DIRECTOR OF NATIONAL INTELLIGENCE: I don't think she's actually an operative of one of the Russian intelligence services. But the Russians have many ways of extending their tentacles and attempting to exert influence.

TODD: Former FBI counterintelligence agent, Eric O'Neill, who brought down Russian spy, Robert Hanson, says Maria Butina may well not have been formally trained as a spy in Russia.

ERIC O'NEILL, NATIONAL SECURITY STRATEGIST, CARBON BLACK: The difference between the U.S. and Russia, is everyone who comes over here from Russia, might be being used by Russian intelligence, whether they work for Russian intelligence or not.

TODD: That's because O'Neill says Russian espionage operates on different levels to gather intelligence inside the U.S. O'Neill says Butina, who was a student at American University in Washington, could have been in a category of everyday Russians, including business people and students who come to the U.S., legitimately.

But then, a recruited by Russian intelligence to perform a specific task, prosecutors have suggested in court filings, Butina was specifically tasked with infiltrating Conservative political groups, such as the NRA, and are charging her with not registering as a foreign agent.

O'Neill says Butina was not a traditional spy, the kind sent to work at foreign embassies as diplomats, but who then spy under diplomatic cover. But what's not clear from court filings, experts say, is if Butina was a so-called illegal, a person trained as a spy in Russia, who comes to spy in the U.S., off the books, sometimes using a fake name, fake passport, a phony job.

Cover so deep, that only the highest levels of the Russian intelligence services would know she existed.

O'NEILL: So, the best illegal comes over here, under some pretense, becomes an American citizen, works in our businesses, maybe works in a government agency and is able to become a mole from within, acting as an American.

TODD: That's what Russian sleeper spies were doing when they were busted by the FBI in 2010, as part of operation Ghost Stories. Ten Russians were caught doing long-term missions in the U.S., posing as normal working American citizens.

Here on surveillance, one operative is seen exchanging a bag with another man in a stairwell. Those spies were the basis for the popular F.X. drama, The Americans.


KERI RUSSELL, ACTRESS: We don't kill people, Jesus.


RUSSELL: He doesn't even do this kind of work anymore. He quit.

TODD: One of the real-life Russian spies caught in the FBI's 2000 sting, was Anna Chapman, seen here, talking to an undercover FBI agent in a coffee shop. Like Butina, Chapman was an attractive young woman. But O'Neill says, he sees a difference between Chapman and Maria Butina.

O'NEILL: Butina was more creating relationships for what we might call, back-channel communications. Chapman, on the other hand, was actually accessing people who are higher up in the food chain, in the political food chain, and quite possibly creating some of those connections that would lead to more serious espionage.

TODD: Intelligence experts say there are other big differences between those spies caught in that 2010 operation and Maria Butina. They point out those spies were swapped for spies who have been working for the west. There's no indication that Butina's going to be swapped for anyone. And those spies were held as heroes when they got back to Russia.

Eric O'Neill says Maria Butina may not be held as a hero when she's sent back because she will likely have been interrogated by U.S. intelligence. And by the time she gets back to Russia, Vladimir Putin may treat her as a traitor.

Brian Todd, CNN, Washington.


CHURCH: And thanks so much for watching CNN NEWSROOM. I'm Rosemary Church. "WORLD SPORT" starts after this short break.


[00:45:00] (WORLD SPORT)