On December 28th of last year, Canadian-American Paul Whelan was detained in Moscow by police on suspicion of espionage after he was found in possession of classified information belonging to the Russian government. The FSB (Russian federal security service) claims Mr. Whelan, a former U.S. Marine, was involved in an American intelligence operation, but his friends and members of the American intelligence service say he was set up.
According to Russian news agency Rosbalt, citing sources in the intelligence community, Mr. Whelan was detained after receiving a flash drive from a Russian source that had a classified list of employees of one of Russia’s secret agencies. At the time of his arrest, Mr. Whelen protested he was innocent and his twin brother, David, told the press that Paul was in Moscow for a wedding of a fellow Marine, which took place at an upscale hotel in central Moscow on Dec. 28, the day he was detained.
“His innocence is undoubted and we trust that his rights will be respected,” David Whelan told The Washington Post, after his brother’s arrest. “It is inconceivable to me that he would have done anything to break the law in Russia.”
Whelen’s Background Not Spy Material
Despite the charges leveled by the Russian FSB, Mr. Whelen’s past doesn’t suggest he was the sort of asset American intelligence agencies would recruit. While Mr. Whelan was in the Marine Reserves, joining in 1994, his service was tarnished. He was deployed in the war in Iraq for several months in 2004 and 2006, but according to the press, in 2008 he was convicted at a special courts-martial on several charges related to larceny and was given a bad-conduct discharge in December 2008 and was reduced to the rank of private. At the time of his arrest by Russia, Mr. Whelan worked as the corporate security director for BorgWarner, an automotive parts supplier, and he frequently visited Russia in the past ten years. According to The Times, he also had British citizenship.
Based on Mr. Whelan’s past, veterans of both American and Soviet intelligence agencies are certain that the American detained in Moscow was not an intelligence operative, and his arrest can be viewed as a kind of “hostage-taking;” that is, a provocation for the future exchange for Russian foreign agent Maria Butina, who was arrested in the United States in July and charged with being a spy for Moscow.
“It is inconceivable to me that Mr. Whelan was involved in intelligence activity in Moscow,” said a former senior CIA
official with nearly 30 years of experience in intelligence, John Sipher in his interview with our site. “The Russian security service is amongst the best in the world and devotes ridiculous resources to monitoring and uncovering US activities. As such, the US intelligence community only engages in the highest impact, most sensitive operations. We do not allow people without diplomatic immunity to operate in Moscow for exactly this reason. We do not engage in low level collection or simply have visitors collect information. The Russians can run double agents or other games and arrest Americans. Without diplomatic immunity these people can be arrested and become “trade bait” for people like Aldrich Ames, Robert Hanssen or Maria Butina. US intelligence would not let itself be put in that situation.”
The veteran of American intelligence notes that Vladimir Putin was a career KGB officer and the Director of the FSB – the internal counterintelligence service, and he has been President for almost 20 years after that.
“He knows the long history of the US-Russian intelligence battle. He has seen the arrests, defections and the efforts his side takes to uncover US intelligence activities. He knows very well how the US operates and that the US does not use people like Mr. Whelan. Further, the CIA would never hire someone who was discharged from the military for criminal behavior. I cannot imagine that Mr. Whelan was involved in any coordinated effort to collect intelligence,” said Mr. Sipher.
Russia Can Arrest Anyone They Want
According to a former CIA officer, the situation is complicated by the fact that the Russian espionage law essentially allows the Russians to arrest anyone they want.
“In 2012 they changed the law to be so vague as to allow the Kremlin to be able to charge most anyone they want with espionage. It has been damaging to NGOs. Groups like USAID, Amnesty International and others have had to consider leaving Russia altogether because the people they work with can be charged with espionage for being a “foreign agent” engaged in “political activities” detrimental to the Russian state. It is so vague and lax that the state can clamp down at any time it wishes,” he explained.
Mr. Sipher notes that similar cases have already occurred in the history of Russian-American relations.
“Take a look at the case of Edmond Pope. The more relevant case, however, is the case of Nicholas Daniloff. He was a US News reporter that was arrested in USSR on spying charges three days after the FBI arrested a KGB officer at the UN,” he recalls.
At the same time, the veteran of American intelligence considers the arrest of an American in Moscow to be a direct retribution for the arrest of Maria Butina by the FBI.
“If so, it suggests that the Kremlin takes the Butina arrest seriously and fears that she has damaging information to tell the FBI. The Kremlin is likely looking to put pressure on the Trump Administration to do a “spy swap” or begin negotiations,” assumes John Sipher.
The same opinion is shared by another CIA veteran, Michael Sellers.
“The fact that Whelan was dishonorably discharged from the military means that NO WAY is he a CIA operative. Sorry, that would have disqualified him. Secondly, the Ambassador to Moscow visited him — that’s unheard of. Ambassadors don’t do prison visits. This means it’s a big deal. At the end of the day, it is clear that this is nothing more or less than hostage-taking by Putin. He will eventually come out with trumped up charges – something along the lines that Whelan attempted to receive classified materials from a Russian citizen, which is something they could plant on any American,” he suggested.
The former KGB Lieutenant Colonel Akif Gasanov, who served in the Soviet intelligence for about 15 years, concurs with the CIA veterans’ assessments.
“Most likely, this man came to the attention of Russian special services because of his active contacts in Russia. However, it is unlikely to be of any interest. Russia needed someone at the level of Butina, and as a result they noticed this poor man. I do not know the details of his development, but, in my opinion, in his level he is of no interest either to Americans, as an agent, or to Russians, as a spy. I think it’s just a figure for exchange with the Americans,” he concludes.
This assumption seems especially likely against the background of recent events. As it turned out, Vladimir Zherebenkov became Mr. Whelan’s lawyer. According to The Daily Beast, he’s a former Soviet government investigator who has never before tried an espionage case involving a foreign citizen. Russian independent prison monitors and human rights defenders believe that the lawyer was likely the choice of the same FSB that arrested Mr. Whelan in the first place. At the same time, Mr. Zherebenkov doesn’t hide his stated goal: to arrange a trade of Mr. Whelan for someone being held in the United States.
At the same time, Internet users in the United States noticed another red flag, namely, the nature of Paul Whelan’s links with Russia. As it turns out, the arrested American had an account in the Russian social network Vkontakte, which is allegedly under the control of the FSB. In his posts (if they really belonged to him), Mr. Whelan praised Donald Trump, as well as… the Russian army! He published congratulations on Victory Day and Defender of the Fatherland Day in Russian, putting the image of the Russian flag in his posts, and one of the Russian-language videos on his page is devoted to Defender of the Fatherland Day and is called “Army is a mirror of the state”. The video talks about Vladimir Putin reviving the Russian army. By the way, John Sipher suggests that open sympathy for Pres. Trump was one of the reasons the FSB chose to arrest Mr. Whelen, that he would be seen by the White House as a sympathetic figure.
Because of this, some users of social networks suggest that Paul Whelan could be a “Russian agent” who deliberately surrendered to the FSB in order to help Maria Butina return home by part of a trade of prisoners conducted by the two countries. Other bloggers are more restrained, and only hint that lovers of Russia should not rely on special treatment, and it wouldn’t be the first time for the Kremlin to betray even the most loyal people.
Kseniya Kirillova is a Russian journalist focussing on analysing Russian society, political processes in modern Russia, and the current Russian-Ukrainian conflict. She writes for Radio Liberty and other outlets and is an expert of the Ukrainian Centre for Army, Сonversion, and Disarmament studies.
(This article was originally published at EUToday.net.)