A noisy incident took place late in December, when Russian officials announced the arrest of an American spy. He was captured, they said, in a Moscow hotel room with secret information. The spy’s name was Paul Whelan.
Two obvious interpretations have come up concerning the incident:
- Version one: This arrest is a response to the successful prosecution of Russian spy Maria Butina and the Russians would like an exchange of hostages.
- Version two: Paul Whelan is indeed a US spy.
What can I say on this account? There isn’t too much to go on. There is some fragmentary information from the US and Russian press. Let’s sort through it and try to read between the lines. We’ll begin with the facts.
Who is Paul Whelan?
A citizen of the US, UK, Canada and Ireland. Born in Canada, 1970. Former Staff Sergeant of the US Marine Corps (1994-2008). Dishonorably discharged after court-martial for larceny and check fraud. At present, Director of Global Security and Investigations at BorgWarner.
BorgWarner, based in Novi, Michigan, produces automotive parts. The company does not have and has never had any business in Russia.
Date of arrival? Paul Whelan left the US for Russia on December 22. The exact date and time of his arrival and activities in the week before the incident are unknown.
Purpose of visit? The wedding of another former Marine, which took place on December 28. Whelan did not attend that wedding because he was arrested several hours before it started.
Scene of the arrest? December 28, Whelan’s room at the prestigious hotel Metropol, a short walk across Revolution Square from the Kremlin.
Purpose of the arrest? A Russian acquaintance, whose identity is unknown, visited Whelan in his hotel room. Five minutes after the acquaintance left, FSB agents conducted a search and seized a flash drive containing a list of employees from a classified agency of the Russian government.
Charges filed: Espionage. The FSB placed Whelan in custody as an accused American spy.
Conditions of confinement: Since his arrest, Whelan has been kept in an individual cell. There are plans to transfer him to a common jail cell. An FSB investigator has promised Whelan to request that jail administrators issue him soap, toothpaste and a toothbrush, as well as toilet paper.
Questioning: Whelan has been assigned an attorney, Vladimir Zherebenkov, as well as an interpreter so that he will participate in interrogations.
Statement of the accused: Paul Whelan denies acting as a US spy.
Evidence presented: According to a statement by the FSB, Whelan was caught red-handed at the Metropol during his acquisition of a flash drive with classified government information. FSB agents then entered the hotel room several minutes after the still-unnamed Russian citizen had left and seized the flash drive. No agents were present at the time of the exchange. Nothing has been said about the identity or possible arrest of Whelan’s Russian contact.
Three questions without convincing answers
1. Did Paul Whelan’s hands ever touch the flash drive, or was it merely discovered among his things in the hotel room?
Commentary: The FSB may have hidden clues or evidence in Whelan’s hotel room at the Metropol without the suspect’s knowledge. Planted money, drugs and weapons have been discovered in the same way in a number of infamous recent prosecutions, and thousands of innocent people have been imprisoned on such evidence. This is a well-developed and frequently applied approach to law-enforcement in Russia.
2. Did Paul Whelan know what was on the flash drive?
Commentary: The fact that the arrest occurred immediately after the alleged transfer of the flash drive proves that Whelan’s Russian contact was acting under the direct control of the FSB. It was an obvious special operation. Whelan may not have even known the drive was in the room.
3. Who exactly gave Whelan the flash drive and why?
Commentary: The fact that Whelan’s contact has not been named or arrested as an accomplice puts all of the FSB’s evidence in the case under question. It’s likely that the contact was an FSB agent or informant and set him up ahead of time.
Based on the information we have, we can safely conclude that the unkwnon contact was participating in an FSB special operation. The person gave Whelan the flash drive or simply left it in his hotel room. Come to think of it, he may not have even brought it there to begin with. The flash drive might have been hidden in the room before the two met.
Whelan may not have known the flash drive existed. He could have taken it without knowing the information it contained. For all he knew, the flash drive had wedding pictures on it, or anything else you can imagine. He had no time to check, in any case.
It’s especially astounding that the “transfer of espionage documents” took place in the Metropol. Practically every employee of the hotel is an FSB agent or informer. By concentration of secret agents, the place can only be compared with Lubyanka itself. Everything that goes on in that hotel is under total control and supervision. Every room is bugged and taped. Trying to conduct espionage inside the Hotel Metropol is an act of suicide. Only a complete idiot would have tried.
Paul Whelan became involved in an FSB project meant to end with the arrest of an American spy. The agency could use the same means to arrest thousands of people at once, just like the NKVD used to do. First, screen for who would best fits profile, then arrest them.
Based on Whelan’s military background, his work in company security and his history of leisure travel to Russia, he was very suitably cast for the role of a bungling American spy.
So to answer the question I posed earlier of whether Paul Whelan was a real spy or a fall guy to be used in a prisoner exchange, I answer as follows. Whelan’s arrest in Moscow is an FSB set-up and a response to the Butina affair in the US. The FSB wants a hostage exchange. Paul Whelan is no American spy. He’s simply an oblivious and cavalier guy who went to Russia and got taken for a ride. Some better decision making on his part would have saved him a world of trouble.