WASHINGTON – The Russian government says detained American Paul Whelan was caught “red-handed” in the act of espionage.
But the Michigan man now imprisoned in a czarist-era Russian prison on spy charges does not fit the profile of a covert American intelligence operative, experts say. It’s more likely, they say, that the Russians nabbed him as leverage with the Trump administration in a game of geopolitical chess.
“My analysis suggests that this individual Paul Whelan is being framed” by Russia’s Federal Security Service, said Chris Costa, a former career intelligence officer and now executive director of the International Spy Museum, based in Washington, D.C. “They’re very adept at dirty tricks.”
Whelan’s resume as a former Marine and law enforcement officer might seem attractive to those in the business of recruiting spies, said Valerie Plame, a former CIA agent who was famously outed as a spy during the second Bush administration. But others said his bad-conduct discharge from the service would almost certainly disqualify him from spy work.
Whelan’s military records show he was a reservist in the Marines from May 1994 until Dec. 2, 2008. He was discharged in 2008 after being convicted “on several charges related to larceny,” including using another person’s Social Security number and writing bad checks, according to a military court document. Whelan also tried to steal $10,000 from the U.S. government while he was on an air base in Iraq, according to military documents released on Friday.
Now 48 and an executive with a Michigan-based auto parts manufacturer, Whelan was arrested by Russian authorities on Dec. 28 on suspicion of spying. The Russians indicted Whelan on Thursday.
According to an account published earlier this week in a Russian state media outlet, Whelan met in his hotel room with a Russian citizen who gave him an electronic device with classified Russian intelligence information. “Five minutes after the transfer, FSB officers broke into the room” and detained Whelan, the Russian account states.
“That sounds like a classic set up,” said Ned Price, a former CIA analyst and National Security Council staffer.
Price and other ex-CIA officials said Whelan does not fit the profile of a so-called “NOC,” which stands for non-official cover and is the moniker for someone with no formal ties to the U.S. government and working covertly as a spy.
“The whole point of being a NOC is to have no discernible ties to the U.S. government. This person served in uniform for 15 years,” Price said.
Even more problematic, Price said, is Whelan’s discharge from the Marines.
“NOCs are trusted with the most sensitive intelligence the United States government possesses, and they are incorporated into the most sensitive and delicate operations we undertake,” Price said. “Someone who has been discharged in this way from the U.S. military … would be unlikely to pass vet.”
He conceded there were some “odd” things in Whelan’s background, such as his citizenship in multiple countries. The Associated Press reported on Friday that Whelan has American, British and Irish citizenship.
But if he was carrying multiple passports at the same time, that’s “really poor trade craft,” said Carol Rollie Flynn, a 30-year CIA veteran. She said based on what she has read of Whelan’s case, it’s very unlikely that he was a professional spy.
“He doesn’t fit the profile at all,” Flynn said.
She said the arrest of Whelan was probably part of a Russian plan to arrange a prisoner swap for Maria Butina, a Russian national who has pleaded guilty to acting as an agent for the Kremlin without registering in the United States.
“They would want to get her back and they need a prisoner swap, so they need a prisoner,” she said. She said Whelan may have already been on the Russians’ radar because he had made multiple trips to the country and seemed to have at least a basic command of the language.
Plame described an unpredictable international landscape where anything is possible and everything must be considered.
“There do seem to be real question marks around this story, at least in the public domain,” Plame said. “That he was discharged from the military, from the Marines, dishonorably. That he’s got this big interest in Russia; he travels there a lot. Huh? He’s an auto parts guy? Really? I don’t know. He could be completely innocent. The Kremlin could be trying to be provocative. Or there could be something there.”
“… It is not inconceivable” that he’s a spy, Plame said. But she said it’s also quite possible Russia is using Whelan as a pawn.
“By and large, I am quite alarmed at the intensity and depth that Russia has gone to disrupt all of our systems,” she said. “They have sown chaos and they have done it really well. They have sown doubt in our electoral system. I think that is very serious. It goes to the very heart of our belief in our democracy and our way of life.”
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Contact Phoebe Wall Howard: firstname.lastname@example.org or 313-222-6512. Follow her on Twitter @phoebesaid. Free Press staff writer Kristen Jordan Shamus contributed to this report.