Here is what we know about Paul Whelan and his arrest in Russia.
- A graduate of the University of Michigan, Mr. Whelan was deployed twice to Iraq before he was court-martialed by the Marine Corps in 2008 on charges of attempting to steal more than $10,000 worth of currency and bouncing checks up to $6000, resulting in a discharge for bad conduct.
- Whelan is head of physical and personnel security for BorgWarner, an auto parts manufacturer. Previously worked for Kelly Services.
- Whelan holds passports from four countries: the United States, Britain, Canada, and Ireland.
- He has visited Russia “every six months or so” since 2006.
- He has an account on Vkontakte, the Russian version of Facebook. Most contacts are in the Russian military.
- The American ambassador to Russia has visited him in Lefortovo Prison; Britain and Ireland are seeking consular access.
- Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has called for an explanation for Mr Whelan’s detention and said his release would be demanded if his detention is found to be inappropriate.
- He is accused of receiving a usb stick containing the names of people at a “classified security agency.” But Russia is known to plant false information.
- Lawyer: Vladimir A. Zherebenkov. He suggested that Whelan might be exchanged for Maria Butina.
- His brother says he is not a spy.
Adam posted a reasonable analysis a couple of days ago. I’ve condensed it, but you can find the full comment at the link.
Whelan was born in Canada and is a naturalized US citizen. Because his family – parents or grandparents – had recent citizenship in Ireland and the UK, he also claimed British and Irish citizenship…It is not too uncommon for people to do this even as it is still not a lot of people in total…
It has now been reported that Whelan has integrity issues…And somehow he developed a Russophilia. This, last bit, by itself, isn’t a major issue. Lots of people become Russophiles…through reading literature, listening to symphonies and operas, viewing art, liking the cuisine, etc. However, most people I know on 12 to 18 month deployments either went home for their mid deployment leaves or went to interesting third countries and paid to bring their spouses and/or families to vacation with them. Going to Russia for two weeks is a bit odd. I will caveat that, however, with the reality that if he had long time social media friends in Russia who had invited him and given that he was a Russophile, this would be a relatively inexpensive way to do a visit as his airfare would be paid and he’s paid while on leave.
What I think happened, however, is that Russian intelligence quickly flagged this guy trying to make contacts on Russian social media/social media used by Russians as he was trying to learn the language and explore the parts of Russian history and culture that interested him. They did a full profile on him – criminal background, work history, social media history, military service, operational psych assessment – and they then quickly took control of some of his social media interactions, encouraged his interests, etc. When he got to Russia a human intelligence specialist made contact. One of two things then happened. They either just presented as a friend and kept cultivating him and keeping a tab on him and encouraging his Russophilia in case they needed him or they specifically presented as from one of the countries that he has citizenship in. And most likely not the US, probably someone from Russian intel claiming to work for British intelligence. And they recruited him that way. Either way, they had their hooks into him and could use him if they needed him when it was convenient for them. Right now Putin has a hostage that four different countries have a stake in. That’s a lot of leverage.
Here’s another theory, not too different from Adam’s.
2. Whelan’s larceny conviction suggests he may have been amenable to earning a quick buck. At a minimum, he was clearly open to approaches by unknown Russians, suggesting a high degree of naïveté about his new Russian “friends.”
— Michael Carpenter (@mikercarpenter) January 6, 2019
4. If the FSB wanted to entrap Whelan (either for reasons pre-dating Butina’s arrest or as trade bait), he would have been an ideal target — almost Carter Page-like. And it would have been so easy. All they had to do is ask him deliver a thumb drive to a friend. Boom, trap set.
— Michael Carpenter (@mikercarpenter) January 6, 2019
These are reasonable guesses. Unfortunately, everyone I’ve talked to about it, including Adam, says that there is something strange here. I concur. But what is it?
Several knowledgeable people have noted that the United States would not run a spy in Russia withough diplomatic protection, which means being stationed in the US embassy and having a diplomatic passport, neither of which is true of Whelan. The plan for Butina is to deport her in six months, so there is no need for an exchange.
I would ask if Whelan belongs to an evangelical Christian church or is a member of the NRA. Both have been targeted for influence by Russia. Maria Butina is the obvious face of the infiltration of the NRA, but evangelical churches in the US have found common cause with the Russian Orthodox Church. The Orthodox Church works closely with the Russian state.
What if Whelan’s Russophilia had its roots in that Russian effort? Perhaps he was trying to act as an emissary of good will toward Russia, or was being cultivated to spread good will toward Russia in America, or perhaps more than that. Such cultivation would have had a net result similar to the scenarios above: Whelan could easily have been duped into becoming a pawn. Or perhaps he volunteered to be her counterpart so that he can be exchanged for her. All this is speculation.
But Whelan’s earnest Russophilia is reminiscent of Carter Page’s. Both Mike Carpenter in the tweet above and Julia Ioffe saw that similarity, along with me.
This account makes Paul Whelan sound more like Carter Page than a LeCarre spy. The weirdness continues. https://t.co/kWbKkxZfuz
— Julia Ioffe (@juliaioffe) January 4, 2019
We still don’t know the full story of how Carter Page became one of Donald Trump’s foreign policy advisors, but the trail goes through Iowa. Amazing how many midwestern Republicans have been swept up in Russophilia.
On the other hand, there have been two more detainments of Russian citizens by the United States, one before Whelan’s arrest and one after. A Russian national, Terada Mira (Oksana Vovk before 2017), was detained at Helsinki’s Vantaa Airport on December 15 at the request of the United States. She is accused of drug trafficking and money laundering while living in the United States in 2013-2016. Whelan was arrested on December 28. Now the Russian Foreign Ministry says the United States detained Russian citizen Dmitry Makarenko on the Northern Mariana Islands on Dec. 29 and had moved him to Florida.
It’s possible that something larger is going on that we don’t yet see the full extent of.
Thanks to Dan Yurman for supplying some useful links and helpful discussion.