A former top CIA officer in Russia says the ex-U.S. Marine indicted on espionage charges by Moscow doesn’t fit the profile of U.S. intelligence and may have been arrested as part of a Kremlin plot to muscle Washington into freeing a high-profile Russian spy held by the United States.
John Sipher, a 28-year veteran of the CIA’s National Clandestine Service, says Russia’s allegations against Paul Whelan could be driven by a mounting Kremlin desire to pressure the U.S. into freeing alleged Russian spy Maria Butina.
Ms. Butina was arrested in Washington in July and pleaded guilty in U.S. federal court last month to attempting to infiltrate conservative American political groups leading up to and after the 2016 U.S. presidential election. Mr. Sipher, who once ran the CIA’s Russia operation, drew a connection between the Whelan and Butina cases Thursday night in an interview with PBS Newshour.
One reason Russian officials may have “set up Mr. Whelan is so that they could have some leverage to try to do some sort of negotiating or deal to get Ms. Butina out of jail,” he said. “[This] suggests maybe that she’s more important than we thought she was or she has information the Russians are scared about.”
Ms. Butina’s full activities in the U.S. are a source of mystery. The Associated Press has claimed her case provided a glimpse into Russia’s influence operations at a time when U.S. intelligence had assessed Moscow sought to sow discord on the American political landscape to give President Trump an edge over Hillary Clinton in the 2016 election.
Prosecutors say Ms. Butina and her Russian patron, Alexander Torshin, used their contacts in the National Rifle Association to pursue back channels to American conservatives during the 2016 campaign, when then-candidate Trump was in a heated battle against Ms. Clinton.
While current U.S. intelligence officials have declined to comment publicly on Mr. Whelan’s recent arrest in Russia, Mr. Sipher’s assessment comes against a historical backdrop of spy swaps between the U.S. and Russia — both during the Cold War and in more contemporary times.
One of the more infamous cases unfolded in 2010, when U.S. officials traded 10 alleged agents of Moscow’s spying operations for four Russians who’d been detained for years in Russia on an accusation of working with Western intelligence agencies.
Mr. Whelan was detained on a visit to Moscow in late December and has since been formally indicted on espionage charges, according to Russia’s Interfax news service. Citing an “informed source,” an Interfax report Thursday said Russian investigative agencies had moved ahead with an indictment of Mr. Whelan, referring to him as a top security officer for a Michigan-based auto parts company.
Details about the 48-year-old’s background have been emerging recent days, including his status as a dual citizen of the U.S. and the United Kingdom.
British news outlets reported Thursday night that the UK Foreign Office has requested consular access to Mr. Whelan, with Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt warning that Russia must not use British citizens as “pawns in diplomatic chess,” according to the BBC.
The outlet also cited reports that Mr. Whelan holds an Irish passport, and that he was born in Canada to British parents before moving to the U.S. as a child.
He is a former U.S. Marine who reportedly served two tours in Iraq, but was later was court-martialed on charges relating to larceny. PBS maintained Thursday that during one of his Iraq tours, Mr. Whelan vacationed in Moscow, the first of what his family has called regular trips made to Russia.
However, the family has denied Mr. Wheland is a U.S. spy, saying he was in Moscow last month to attend the wedding of a fellow Marine. Mr. Whelan has not been heard from since his arrest, but U.S. officials say that Ambassador Jon Huntsman was allowed to visit him this week at the notorious Lefortovo prison.
“Moscow is probably the most hostile counterintelligence operating environment in the world for U.S. intelligence, and we treat the work we do there very, very carefully, and we handle things very, very carefully,” he said. “So the notion that we would use an American without diplomatic immunity who might get arrested and thrown in jail is incredibly unlikely. And then, given Mr. Whelan’s background as well, it just doesn’t fit with the kind of person who would be involved with U.S. intelligence.”
“In a place like Moscow, where they’re tracking us 24 hours a day, and they’re very focused on the United States as their main enemy, it would be — it would be foolhardy for us to try to do sort of sloppy intelligence operations like this,” said Mr. Whelan, who retired from the CIA in 2014 and currently works with a consulting firm known as CrossLead.
• David Sands contributed to this story.
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