US military veteran Paul Whelan has received a 16-year jail term for espionage in Russia.
In December 2018, he was detained in the Russian capital's five-star Metropol Hotel after accepting a USB device from an undercover FSB officer. Prosecutors allege it contained information related to active-duty members of Russia's secret service, while the defence argued he was the victim of a sting.
Much of the trial was held behind closed doors, and the case generated comparatively little interest in the mainstream Western media. However, what is known about Whelan certainly raises questions about his professional and personal history, and precisely what he was up to on his regular visits to Russia, dating back to 2006.
Whelan enlisted in the Marine Reserves in 1994, taking leave from his then-employer to serve with the Marine Corps Reserve in Iraq 2003, holding the rank of staff sergeant with Marine Air Control Group 38 while working as an administrative clerk and administrative chief, and was part of Operation Iraqi Freedom.
In January 2008, he was court martialled on multiple counts "related to larceny", sentenced to 60 days restriction, reduction to pay grade E-4, and a bad conduct discharge. Specific charges included attempting to steal over US$10,000 in 2006 in Iraq and using a false Social Security number to create a false account on a government computer system to grade his own examinations.
Quite an acrimonious departure indeed – but curiously, the discharge not only didn’t prevent him from securing high-level employment at BorgWagner one of the world’s biggest automotive firms, overseeing security at its 62 facilities in 17 countries, but his family were apparently unaware.
In a December 2019 interview with Detroit Free Press, Paul’s twin brother David was asked whether his family had been “surprised” by any details published in the press about his sibling.
“I don’t know about my siblings, but I don’t believe any of us did. I certainly did not know. I was very surprised,” he responded.
David was likewise in the dark as to how Paul managed to hold on to his civilian job after leaving the military, and move on to an even more senior and sensitive position elsewhere, despite his criminal background, and was even apparently unaware what his brother studied at university, and where.
In the same interview, David likewise struggled to explain the enduring mystery of Whelan holding multiple passports – for curiously, he’s simultaneously a citizen of Canada, the US, UK and Ireland. This decidedly odd situation arises from Whelan having British parents with Irish ancestry, who emigrated first to Canada then the US.
As immortalised in so many films, books and TV shows, multiple passports are an espionage staple, allowing intelligence agency operatives to slip over borders undetected. While typically spies use forged passports using pseudonyms, Whelan’s are all in his own name – although this would still theoretically permit him to travel from one country to another using entirely separate documentation, which would go some way to impeding detection and/or tracking.
Paul Whelan’s family was hoping today’s verdict would bring him home to them in the United States after nearly 18 months in a Russian prison. Instead, they are devastated and heartbroken and worried. Paul and his family have suffered enough. #PaulWhelan https://t.co/JZa2kSlqbl— U.S. Special Presidential Envoy Roger D. Carstens (@StateSPEHA) June 15, 2020
The Detroit Free Press was keen to probe this anomaly, asking why Whelan would “go through all that trouble” to secure four separate passports given it would necessitate a good deal of work” and “it probably was costly”.
Again David blustered, stating while it was faster to travel to the EU from the US with an Irish or UK passport, he wasn’t sure if his brother “necessarily took advantage of those benefits”.
“It was as much probably a genealogical interest as much as anything. It’s one of those things where it’s like, well, you start with two, so getting two additional ones doesn’t actually seem that peculiar,” he suggested.
VK is a Russian online social media and social networking service based in Saint Petersburg, available in multiple languages but predominantly used by Russian-speakers, it boasts 500 million users worldwide – although the overwhelming majority are based in the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. The total number of US-based VKers is unknown, but is projected to amount to less than 0.5 percent of its base.
Despite this, Whelan was an account holder, with around 70 ‘friends’ – of which most were young men with some sort of connection to the armed forces posted on their page. Only three were women. He intermittently posted statuses in Russian, using Google Translate.
In November 2016, one such message stated “Президент Трамп Вперед!!” - meaning “President Trump Onward!!”. Attempts by US intelligence agencies to manufacture evidence connecting Donald Trump, his Presidential campaign and his resultant administration with the Kremlin are by this point extremely well-documented.
Finger of Plame
Valerie Plame is an American writer, spy novelist, and former Central Intelligence Agency officer. In 2003, she was publicly exposed by a Washington Post journalist as a high-ranking spy, based on information leaked by disgruntled US State Department official Richard Armitage, acting at the behest of I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, Chief of Staff to then-Vice President Dick Cheney.
Plame subsequently wrote a memoir detailing her career and the events leading up to her resignation from the Agency, and has since written and published several spy novels. In 2010 a biographical feature film, Fair Game, was produced based on her memoirs.
While neither Plame nor the CIA have yet conclusively confirmed how long she served as an undercover operative, it’s known she was a veteran operative, beginning her training with the Agency in 1985.
In December 2019, when asked whether Whelan could be a spy, Plame said “it’s not inconceivable”.
“There are many Americans that seek to serve their country in various ways. That's probably all I should say. There do seem to be real question marks around this story, at least in the public domain. 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,” she said.