When Russia invaded Ukraine last year, Dr. Anna Gabrielian, then an anesthesiologist at Johns Hopkins, was frozen with horror.
Born in Russia, Gabrielian came to America at age 10, landing in the D.C. suburbs with her parents, both scientists. She learned English in Montgomery County Public Schools before college and medical school. As a young doctor at Hopkins, her mentor was a Ukrainian anesthesiologist. Together, they wrote grant proposals to bring advanced local anesthesia techniques for women during childbirth to Ukraine.
Her mentor’s efforts to collect excess medical supplies from Hopkins to bring to Ukraine as Russia advanced inspired her to help. She repeatedly texted him when she found IVs and other things that could help his forthcoming medical mission. But she also empathized for people in her native Russia, even the soldiers on the frontlines of its violent attack of Ukraine. She wanted to offer her medical expertise.
“To me, the Russian soldiers are not just enemies to be killed off,” Gabrielian said in federal court in Baltimore on Thursday. “I recognize they shouldn’t be in Ukraine... [But] their crime is being born Russian 18 years ago and being fed misinformation by their government.”
In her testimony, which continued into Friday, Gabrielian went on to explain why she and her spouse eventually disclosed private patient medical records to a person they believed to be a Russian official in a Maryland hotel room. For those actions, she and her spouse, Dr. Jamie Lee Henry, a former U.S. army major, are on trial on charges of conspiracy to provide individually identifiable health information to Russia.
The government finished presenting its evidence Thursday against Gabrielian and Henry, with prosecutors going over five hours of footage captured by the covert camera of an undercover FBI agent who met with Gabrielian and Henry under the guise of being a Russian official. Federal prosecutors say they abused their positions as doctors to assist a foreign adversary.
Defense attorneys contend the doctors only meant to help save lives, as Russia was cut off from the rest of the world by international economic sanctions. They argue the government lacks proof that either Gabrielian or Henry provided the medical records for personal gain or with malicious intent, which are underlying elements of each count of wrongful disclosure they face.
The felony charge of wrongful disclosure carries a maximum penalty of 10 years in prison. In addition to conspiracy, Gabrielian faces two counts of providing individually identifiable health information; Henry faces six.
Gabrielian’s attorney, Christopher Mead, called her to the stand to explain her complicated feelings about the war and her native Russia. Mead went line-by-line through hundreds of pages of the transcript of Gabrielian’s meetings with the undercover agent, where they mostly spoke Russian, asking her to elaborate on her comments and what she was thinking.
At the outset of her testimony, Gabrielian confronted the allegations. She said she knew it was illegal to disclose two of her patients’ private medical records.
Asked what she would say to those patients, Gabrielian said she would apologize: “There’s nothing I can really say to express my regret.”
She added that she never wanted to aid Russia’s war effort, that she disagrees with the Russian leadership and that she only wanted to help save lives. She testified that her mother identifies as Ukrainian.
The war in Ukraine is well into its second year, with the fighting having claimed the lives of an estimated 300,000 soldiers and 8,000 civilians as of February.
At one point, Mead asked why Gabrielian, early on in her dialogue with the undercover agent, offered to “help in any other way” after discussing medical techniques.
“I have some suspicions that this woman is not some friendly embassy person,” but rather an Russian intelligence officer, Gabrielian said.
Gabrielian testified that she was afraid of retribution against her family — relatives who live in America, Russia and Ukraine — if she didn’t comply with the demands of the authoritarian regime.
Mead and Henry’s attorney, David Walsh-Little, are arguing that the FBI agent coerced the couple into providing any protected information in order to be able to charge them with crimes. They want U.S. District Judge Stephanie Gallagher to instruct the jury that if they believe Gabrielian and Henry were subjected to entrapment, that can be used as reasoning to acquit them.
The defense lawyers questioned the FBI undercover agent, who testified in a courtroom closed to the public, wearing a light disguise and using an alias, and the special agent leading the investigation about their tactics.
“I was authorized to use deception in this undercover investigation,” the undercover agent testified.
In one of the covert meetings with Gabrielian and Henry, the undercover agent told them she was instructed to ask them to provide medical records as a “test” of their loyalty to Russia.
The special agent leading the investigation, Matthew Walker, testified that he told the undercover agent to ask for medical records after consulting with the Maryland U.S. Attorney’s Office. Prosecutors there told him in an email they could charge the couple with several felonies punishable by 10 years’ incarceration if they were able to procure medical records.
“We just instructed her to ask for four or five medical records,” Walker said in court in response to a question from Mead. “We told her to use her judgement, not to be as persuasive as possible.”
Walker, who works out of the FBI’s Baltimore field office, testified that he launched the investigation out of concern that Russian intelligence would take advantage of a relatively ambiguous email from Gabrielian to the Russian embassy. His concern grew, he said, as he learned Gabrielian was married to Henry, who at the time was an army doctor assigned to Fort Bragg in North Carolina. The FBI, he said, worried Henry could be coaxed into disclosing medical records of high-ranking military and U.S. government officials.
“It became clear after the second meeting that it was more than humanitarian assistance,” Walker said of Gabrielian’s second encounter with the undercover agent.
The FBI subpoenaed Gabrielian’s Johns Hopkins email account, which she used to contact the Russian embassy and a medical school in Moscow, offering help five days after Russia launched the war. They also confiscated her phone with a search warrant, along with medical records she and Henry kept at their house.
But Mead got Walker to acknowledge he overlooked emails Gabrielian sent to Hopkins personnel proposing ways to help Ukraine, and publicly available documents that showed her research related to advancing anesthesiology in that country. He also challenged Walker about messages Gabrielian sent to friends in the days after war broke out, including many expressing empathy, and desire to help Ukraine.
The day Gabrielian emailed the Russian embassy to offer assistance, she texted her Ukrainian mentor about surplus supplies she found at Hopkins’ Wilmer Eye Institute, asking if they’d be helpful for his medical mission to Ukraine.
“I hope he comes back safe,” Gabrielian texted another friend about her Ukrainian colleague. “I can’t even comprehend him getting hurt or killed over this.”
Aaron Zelinsky, deputy chief of the federal prosecutor’s office’s National Security and Cybercrime Section, highlighted comments Gabrielian made in conversation with the undercover agent with his questions during cross examination, making her address inconsistencies with her testimony in court.
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Gabrielian conceded that she violated the Hippocratic Oath for doctors, expressing regret. Zelinsky made her read a line from the oath: “I will respect the privacy of my patients, for their problems are not disclosed to me that the world may know.”
The prosecutor went on to challenge Gabrielian on her loyalty to America with questions about the Oath of Allegiance she recited when she became a citizen around 2014. He asked if she maintained “fidelity” to Russia.
“The Russian people are not the Russian state,” Gabrielian responded.
After Mead’s question of Gabrielian ended, Walsh-Little called a former colleague of Henry’s as a character witness.
Moira G. McGuire, who retired as a captain from the U.S. Public Health Service, testified that she worked with Henry for six years at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda. She described Henry as a “selfless” doctor and a “patriotic” member of the Army.
McGuire said she was “shocked” to hear that Henry once said he would be OK if Iranians killed a certain U.S. general.
Attorneys are expected to give closing arguments in the trial Tuesday.