Paul Whelan Is Caught Between Trump and the Kremlin
According to Elizabeth, when Paul didn’t show at the wedding, his friend knew immediately to worry, and alerted the American embassy of Paul’s disappearance. For three days, Elizabeth said, her family was in the dark. “We didn’t know if he was dead or if he’d been captured by gangsters, or what was going on.” They searched for answers online, Googling phrases like “dead American in Russia.”
On New Year’s Eve, they found a news article that included a statement from the FSB, Russia’s federal security service and the successor to the KGB, confirming that authorities had arrested Whelan on suspicion of espionage. A Russian news agency, quoting an anonymous intelligence source, claimed that Whelan had been apprehended in a room at the Metropol Hotel—the site of his friend’s wedding—five minutes after a Russian citizen handed him a USB drive containing classified information. He was hauled into solitary confinement at Lefortovo, Moscow’s infamous Soviet-era prison used by the KGB for political prisoners.
Dan Hoffman, a former CIA official who ran the agency’s operations in Moscow, told me there is “zero” chance that Whelan is a spy. “There’s no evidence to indicate that he was doing anything wrong at all,” he said. “He’s not the only one who’s been arrested on false accusations—of course Russians do that to their own citizens all the time.”
Upon learning of Paul’s arrest, his family was just “relieved to know he wasn’t dead,” Elizabeth said. “But then we were faced with the uncertain task of ‘What do we do?’ Because nobody steps forward to help you.”
And this baffled Elizabeth, for the obvious reason: An American citizen was being held by a foreign government—one hostile to the United States—on charges for which that government refused to produce evidence. Where was her country’s outrage?
The obstacles to her brother’s release, as Elizabeth would soon discover, were twofold. No. 1: Paul Whelan was not a perfect victim. “His case is one of those that doesn’t come across as super clear-cut,” a senior congressional official and Russia policy expert, who requested anonymity in order to be candid, told me. “He’s not this Boy Scout on a goodwill mission to Russia who gets kidnapped.”
Paul enlisted in the Marine Corps in 1994 and was a staff sergeant in the Iraq War from 2003 to 2008. But in January 2008, he received a court-martial conviction on charges “related to larceny,” according to his service records. He was accused of attempting to steal $10,000 from the government while serving in Iraq, and using false credentials on a government computer system to grade his own rank-advancement courses. He ultimately received a bad-conduct discharge.
No. 2: the lingering question of whether this guy actually was a spy. At the time of his arrest, Paul was the global head of security for an international automotive-parts manufacturer. He is a citizen of four different countries—the U.S., the U.K., Ireland, and Canada—and keeps up-to-date passports for each. It didn’t matter that immediately following Paul’s arrest, current and former CIA officers batted down suggestions he was working for them, telling reporters that Paul’s court-martial likely would’ve barred him from ever joining the agency, and that the U.S. was unlikely to send an agent abroad without diplomatic cover. Nor did it matter that the Whelans adamantly denied the accusation, or that just days after Paul’s arrest, his FSB-appointed lawyer seemed to suggest to a reporter that Russians had long been monitoring Paul’s activity and saw him as a potential exchange for Russians currently jailed in the U.S.