The tense relationship between the US and Russia became more strained after Russia formally charged a US citizen and former Marine with espionage on Thursday.
Paul Whelan, a 48-year-old corporate security director, was detained on December 31 and Russia’s Federal Security Service, known as the FSB, said Whelan was apprehended while on a “spy mission” but has not provided other details.
National-security experts pointed out several red flags in the circumstances surrounding Whelan’s detention. They also said details from Whelan’s past indicate that Russia arrested him because Moscow is angling for a prisoner swap with the US for the accused Russian spy Maria Butina.
The Russian state-news agency Rosbalt said Whelan, who flew to Moscow earlier in December to attend a friend’s wedding, was arrested at his room in the Metropol Hotel five minutes after he allegedly accepted a flash drive with a list of all the employees working at a classified security agency.
Whelan reportedly used VKontakte, a Russian social-media platform similar to Facebook, for the last 13 years, and Russian officials alluded to his use of the website to bolster their claims that he is an undercover spy.
One Russian law-enforcement source told Rosbalt that Whelan spent years cultivating his social-media presence to recruit Russians handpicked by American intelligence who had access to classified data.
But a former CIA covert officer, who requested anonymity to candidly discuss the matter, told INSIDER that Russian law-enforcement officials are notorious for planting evidence on detainees before arresting them.
Meanwhile, Whelan’s Russian lawyer said in an unusual comment to The New York Times that he would be okay with a prisoner swap in which Russia would turn Whelan back over to the US in exchange for Butina, who pleaded guilty last month to engaging in a conspiracy against the US.
“I myself hope that we can rescue and bring home one Russian soul,” Whelan’s lawyer, Vladimir Zherebenkov, told The Times.
The Daily Beast reported later Thursday that Zherebenkov is a former Soviet government investigator who has never tried a case involving a foreigner charged with espionage. He reportedly refused to discuss whether the FSB was involved in appointing him to represent Whelan.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has denied any connection between Butina and the Russian government or intelligence services. But Russia has a history of arresting foreigners and swapping them in exchange for its citizens held elsewhere.
Michael McFaul, the former US ambassador to Russia and a vocal Putin critic, said Whelan’s arrest seemed “strange.”
“A retired marine attending a wedding in Moscow allegedly conducted ‘an act of espionage’?” McFaul tweeted. “Russian officials owe the Whelan family and the U.S. government an explanation. [President Donald Trump] should call Putin today.”
Bill Browder, a longtime Putin foe who spearheaded the passage of the 2012 Magnitsky Act, tweeted that Whelan’s arrest “looks increasingly like a hostage situation.”
Whelan doesn’t fit the profile of an undercover spy, intel veterans say
Intelligence veterans said several details in Whelan’s past make it highly unlikely he was working as an undercover spy in Russia.
By detaining Whelan and charging him with espionage, the Russians “are implicitly making the claim that he is a US intelligence officer under what’s known as ‘Non-Official Cover,'” Edward Price, the former senior director of the National Security Council under President Barack Obama, told INSIDER. “In other words,” the Russian government believes “he’s an operative who doesn’t purport to work for the US government.”
Price said there are two traits in Whelan’s past that led him to doubt Russia’s claims.
The first is Whelan’s status as a retired Marine.
“That’s important because the concept of ‘non-official cover’ is predicated on the idea that NOCs have no known ties to the US government,” Price said. “That’s what allows them to do their job effectively and, if all goes according to the plan, without detection.”
“But Paul Whelan served his country in uniform for some 15 years and in a fairly prominent way,” Price added. “That is about as far from the traditional NOC profile as one could get.”
The second trait revolves around the circumstances of Whelan’s departure from the Marine Corps. He was discharged in 2008 for bad conduct after being court-martialed on charges of larceny.
“Even if we were to set aside our skepticism on the first count, this fact makes any US government affiliation all the more dubious,” Price said.
John Sipher, a former CIA clandestine services officer, echoed that view, telling NPR that he can “say for certain” that “this is not how the US commits espionage overseas.”
“We would never put a US citizen, without diplomatic immunity, in harm’s way this way, especially looking after low-level things like this,” Sipher said.
The beginnings of a prisoner swap?
Whelan’s detention came about two weeks after Butina’s guilty plea.
Putin previously said he hadn’t heard of Butina until her arrest and that she had no ties to the Kremlin or Russian spy agencies. However, on December 20, Putin said the charges against Butina had been fabricated and that she was forced to plead guilty to avoid a long prison sentence.
He added, “I don’t understand what she could have pleaded guilty to because she was not there to fulfill any government tasks.”
But Kimberly Marten, a Russia expert and political science professor at Barnard College, Columbia University, told Vox Putin’s apparent displeasure over Butina’s arrest could indicate that Whelan’s subsequent arrest could be a form of retaliation.
“Russia has a history of tit-for-tat diplomatic expulsions, and so forth, when there’s any kind of a spy case,” Marten said. But she said “we don’t really know enough yet to say for sure.”
Robert Deitz, a former top lawyer at the CIA and the National Security Agency, largely agreed.
“My instinct is that it is tit-for-tat,” he told INSIDER. “Much like what China is doing to Canada. Neither of these countries has much dedication to the rule of law.”
Price said Whelan’s profile also fits that of someone the Russians would detain if they wanted to secure a bargaining chip in the Butina case.
“They surely know that Trump would like nothing more than to boast about securing the release of a veteran,” Price said. And “I have no doubt they came across his pro-Trump statements on his social-media page, something they have to know would reach Trump’s desk, too.”
“But this individual’s profile is befitting of someone whom the Russian would deem worthy of Trump making a deal,” Price said. “And the deal in this case may be a swap for Butina.”