Intelligence experts skeptical American arrested in Russia is a spy

Paul Whelan, a U.S. citizen detained in Russia for suspected spying, in a photo provided by the Whelan family on Jan. 1, 2019. (Photo: Courtesy of Whelan family via Reuters)

WASHINGTON — Sometime between Christmas and New Year’s Eve, Russian domestic security officials arrested Paul Whelan, a former U.S. Marine who works in corporate security, accusing the American of embarking on a “spy mission.” It’s a charge that several former intelligence officers who spoke with Yahoo News found highly unlikely.

“I think it’s quite clear this is not an American intelligence operation” but rather further evidence of a Russian influence campaign directed against the West, said Steven Hall, a former senior CIA official who managed intelligence operations in Eurasia and is an expert in Russia.

Whelan’s family, including his twin brother, have vehemently denied the Russian accusations in the media, explaining that Whelan was in town for a friend’s wedding. A State Department spokesperson said U.S. Ambassador John Huntsman visited Whelan on Wednesday in detention and “expressed his support for Mr. Whelan and offered the Embassy’s assistance.” 

“Due to privacy considerations for Mr. Whelan and his family, we have nothing further at this time,” the spokesperson added.

Little is known about the case or why Russian authorities were interested in Whelan, who is employed as the corporate security director for automotive company BorgWarner in Michigan. He is also the owner of a Michigan-based firearms distributor, Kingsmead Arsenal, according to public records.

Whelan posted a photo of himself at a conference hosted by the State Department’s Overseas Security Advisory Council in August 2018 on his Russian social media page, as well as other photos of his travels around the world, his political opinions and frequent celebrations of holidays in the United States; Canada, where he was born; and Russia. His Twitter and Instagram pages, both of which feature the Canadian flag, are set to private.

However, Whelan, who was a frequent presence on Russian social media site Vkontakte for the last decade, is almost certainly not affiliated with U.S. intelligence services, current and former intelligence officials told Yahoo News.

Among other parts of his history that make him an unlikely spy, Whelan received a bad conduct discharge from the Marines after being convicted by a military court of larceny, dereliction of duty, making a false official statement, and using someone else’s social security number, according to documents from the special court-martial proceeding in 2008.

If Whelan was an intelligence officer, he likely would have been operating undercover, rather than in an official capacity, suggested former and current intelligence officials who spoke with Yahoo News.

“Intelligence officers abroad operate under one type of cover or another. The two most common types of cover are ‘official cover’ and ‘nonofficial cover,’” or NOC, explained one current private security expert with experience in Russian affairs.

Intelligence officials who do not work out of the embassy or have diplomatic immunity and titles are often called “NOCs” (pronounced knocks). NOCs “cannot rely on the same protections that official cover officers are entitled to, such as diplomatic immunity,” the expert continued. One famous example of a former U.S. NOC was Valerie Plame, whose identity was leaked by members of the George W. Bush administration.

One current Western intelligence official focused on Russia said that although the source had no information on Whelan or his background prior to the arrest, it was unlikely that the United States would send someone, particularly with Whelan’s background, to operate in Russia “without diplomatic immunity.” His very public affection for Russian culture and his travels to Russia would likely make him a subject of interest to Russian intelligence services for many years, making him a poor candidate for an under-the-radar covert operation.

According to John Sipher, a former CIA Clandestine Services officer and Russia expert, the CIA very rarely uses people with no official cover identities in Russia because it is difficult to protect and manage them there. “We know how good [the Russians] are and how easy it is to run double agents,” he told Yahoo News.

“We only run a few premier cases with the best tradecraft we can muster … this is not something we would do,” he continued.

Instead, experts say, the arrest is likely a Kremlin ploy to force the United States to the negotiating table, particularly as Russian national Maria Butina, who recently pleaded guilty to being a foreign agent, awaits sentencing.

U.S. officials at the highest level have discussed a “spy swap” for Butina in the past, according to one former intelligence official familiar with the matter. However, those discussions didn’t extend to a formal process, and they were aimed at securing Russian sources recruited by the United States who may have been arrested in Moscow

But in this case, neither Butina nor Whelan appears to fit the bill for the typical “spy” exchanges that have happened in the past. (In 2010, the United States traded Russian “sleeper” agents arrested in the U.S. in exchange for multiple alleged double agents for the West, including Sergei Skripal, the former Russian official who was poisoned by a nerve agent in England over the summer.)

One source familiar with Butina’s case told Yahoo that “everyone seems to think” that Russian President Vladimir Putin wants to trade Whelan for Butina, “but I haven’t heard that anyone that matters thinks that.”

If it happens, “it’s not a spy swap, because [Whelan] didn’t do anything,” said Dan Hoffman, a former CIA officer with expertise in Russia. “Putin would like to call it that, but it’s twisted KBG reciprocity.”

Regardless, even if a swap doesn’t happen, the arrest has propaganda value for Putin.

“The Russian media have been openly suggesting arresting Americans in a tit for tat for Butina for some time — so even if they don’t achieve a swap — they probably figure they win propaganda points,” said Bill Harlow, a former CIA spokesman.

Putin appears to be “sending a clear message on this front to the U.S. that he can also detain U.S. citizens for ‘meddling,’” said Rob Dannenberg, the onetime head of global security for Goldman Sachs and a former senior CIA officer.

Hall, the former CIA senior officer, says Russia’s targeting of Whelan, who works in security and has a military background, may be more about internal propaganda aimed at Russians. In Russia, he says average Russians “read ‘security’” in someone’s professional background as “‘intelligence’ … and for Russia, anytime any military career pops up, they think of him as a spy,” he said.

But even Whelan’s friends and acquaintances in Russia, many of whom he has spoken to online over the years and has met in person occasionally, don’t think he’s a spy.

“Paul has a strong sense of friendship toward everything linked to Russia. He is a Russophile… I don’t know what to think, but I don’t believe he is a spy,” one contact told Yahoo News, requesting anonymity to discuss the ongoing, sensitive case from Russia.

Another contact, who hadn’t seen Whelan in person for many years, said Paul was “friendly, polite, educated and easygoing” and only found out Whelan was in Moscow when the two exchanged Christmas greetings.

“I believe he was fascinated with Russia and its culture,” the contact told Yahoo News. “I find it hard to believe he is a spy.”

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