Russia just charged an American tourist with spying

Moscow’s Metropol hotel, where Paul Whelan was arrested a few days after Christmas, is just a short walk from Red Square.
Moscow’s Metropol hotel, where Paul Whelan was arrested a few days after Christmas, is just a short walk from Red Square.
Image: REUTERS/Tatyana Makeyeva
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Paul Whelan, the Michigan man detained in Moscow and accused of being a spy, has now been charged criminally, according to Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova.

“I don’t speak Russian but reports of Ms. Zakharova’s press briefing today suggest she made the first official confirmation that Paul was charged with espionage since the December 28 press release [announcing his arrest],” said an email sent to reporters by Whelan’s brother David. Indeed, charges were laid under Article 276 of Russia’s criminal code, Zakharova told reporters at a televised news conference Friday (Jan. 11), which was confirmed by ABC News.

It has been more than two weeks since Whelan, who holds American, Canadian, British, and Irish citizenship, was arrested by Russia’s domestic intelligence agency, the FSB, in a Moscow hotel room after allegedly receiving a flash drive containing state secrets. His family has thus far been frustrated by the lack of clarity from authorities. They say he was in the country to attend the wedding of a friend who was marrying a Russian woman.

Speaking to Quartz yesterday (Jan. 10), David Whelan said he has been in touch with Vladimir Zherebenkov, the attorney assigned by the Russian government to defend his brother, through an English-speaking employee in in Zherebenkov’s office. However, “from a client-attorney standpoint, there’s not a whole lot he can share with us [because it’s] confidential or privileged,” Whelan said.

Zherebenkov is on vacation in the Dominican Republic at the moment, as reported by the Daily Beast, and said there isn’t much he can do for his client just yet. “The prison is closed for the holidays, anyway; the investigators will begin introducing us to the case on January 14,” Zherebenkov told the Daily Beast.

The accusations against Whelan, who works in corporate security for US-based auto-parts supplier BorgWarner, come just weeks after accused Russian intelligence agent Maria Butina pleaded guilty to conspiracy charges in the US for improperly trying to influence the National Rifle Association and Republican lawmakers. Although Moscow denies Whelan is being used as a political pawn, various national security and intelligence experts, including former CIA operatives with extensive Russia experience, have wondered if the Russians are in fact looking to swap Whelan for Butina.

However, Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zakharova said, “I’d like to underline that the exchange of Paul Whelan for anyone incarcerated abroad is currently not on the table,” according to Russian news agency Interfax. “The defendant will stand trial.”

Under Russian law, espionage can carry a sentence of up to 20 years.

Whelan’s family insists he is an avid traveler and definitely not a spy, echoing statements by multiple members of the intelligence community who say Whelan, who in 2008 was court-martialed and given a bad-conduct discharge from the US Marine Corps Reserve for attempted larceny, dereliction of duty, making a false official statement, using someone else’s Social Security number, and writing bad checks, doesn’t fit the profile of a CIA operative.

Paul Whelan in India
Paul Whelan in India. (Undated)
Image: Courtesy David Whelan

As John Sipher, a CIA veteran who spent 28 years in the agency’s clandestine service and once ran its Russia operations, told Quartz, “Putin knows very well that this is not US intelligence. He’s seen the real thing over the years. This is a political game, pure and simple. An ugly game.”

David Whelan said he appreciates all the statements of concern the family has received since his brother’s arrest. But, he asked, “when is the government going to step forward and take action, to show that it is concerned and go beyond just saying it, so that we know that some effort is being made?”

US secretary of state Mike Pompeo said in an interview Friday that he “can’t say much more than has already been said. But the American people should know the Trump administration is very focused on making sure that every American who’s detained anywhere in the world has been treated properly, handled accordingly, and where they are not, using every lever of US power to make sure that they are returned home safely to their family.”