Amateur hour?

14 March: a Russian court has authorised the continued detention of Paul Whelan, 48, a former US Marine, who was arrested in Moscow on espionage charges on 28 December 2018. His detention will be reviewed again in May unless he is brought to trial before that date.

After serving in the Marines, Whelan worked in the world of private security and was at one point a senior manager for global security and investigations for Kelly Services. Whelan is much travelled and has visited Russia on several previous occasions. He holds (rather astonishingly), US, UK, Irish and Canadian citizenship.

He was travelling on his US passport this time and was supposedly in Russia to help a friend who was getting married – although this story is odd as his disappearance does not seem to have been noticed by his friends for several days. Whelan was arrested in his hotel room. According to the FSB, he was caught in possession of a hard drive containing classified information. Whelan’s lawyer says he had no idea that such information was on the hard drive.

Whelan’s detention is strange. One theory is that he is innocent and was arrested in retaliation for recent expulsions of Russian intelligence officers. It has even been suggested that he might be held as a swap for suspected Russian spy, Maria Butina (see previous stories). But intelligence experts see flaws in each of these possible explanations: in the first case, expulsions of cadre officers are usually met like for like – Whelan is far too small a fish and besides there have already been some expulsions. In the case of Butina, there is plenty of time to grab someone for a swap as her case is yet to progress. In the meantime, grabbing an American is almost like admitting her guilt if the cases become linked in some way. Basically, the timing in each case is just wrong.

Meanwhile, the US government has been strangely muted in this case. If the FSB is telling the truth (well, all things are possible) then it may be that Whelan is part of the modern trend in the intelligence world of using “citizen couriers” on routine intelligence runs across borders. This is because modern travel security procedures make it dangerous to send cadre officers on repeated trips. Far better to use a “clean skin” who has a legitimate reason for being in the country. Recently, there have been several arrests of supposedly innocent citizens on espionage charges that fit this pattern. Whelan may simply be another example.

If this is true then Whelan, with his military background and multiple nationalities, appears to have been a poor choice.

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