Mysterious tale of man accused of spying in Russia is steeped in contradictions
By KRISTEN JORDAN SHAMUS | Detroit Free Press | Published: January 3, 2019
DETROIT (Tribune News Service) — He traveled the world for business and for pleasure; that much is known about Paul N. Whelan, the man the Russian government alleges was spying in Moscow when it arrested him Friday.
The Russian Federal Security Service, known as the FSB, said Whelan, 48, was detained "while on a spy mission" and notified the State Department on Monday that it was holding him. He is being held in the Lefortovo Detention Facility in Moscow.
The FSB offered no other details. If he's convicted of espionage, Whelan could face up to 20 years in prison.
So how does a Marine Corps veteran, who is allegedly visiting Russia to help a friend, get picked up as a spy? It's a case that has birthed countless theories and speculation not only about Paul Whelan, but also about America's complex relationship with Russia.
Government response to Whelan's case has been less-than-swift, and measured.
U.S. Ambassador to Russia Jon Huntsman Jr., the former governor of Utah, visited Whelan on Wednesday at the Russian prison. He expressed support for Whelan and offered the help of the U.S. Embassy, a State Department spokesperson said.
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Wednesday that "if the detention is not appropriate, we will demand his immediate return."
Whelan's travels brought him to Russia multiple times, said his brother, David Whelan, explaining that Paul Whelan is an ex-Marine who previously worked in global security for Troy-based Kelly Services and now works for BorgWarner, an Auburn Hills-based auto supplier.
His brother said he'd traveled to Russia on Dec. 22 to help a friend from the Marines who was getting married in Moscow. The friend had asked Whelan to help his American family and friends get around in Russia.
"The friend asked if Paul could come and help because his family was going to Russia and hadn’t had a lot of experience there," David Whelan told the Free Press. "Paul was there to help people tour the buildings and get around what can be a difficult country to navigate."
Paul Whelan had planned to help the wedding party in Moscow through Tuesday Jan. 1. He was then scheduled to travel to St. Petersburg before returning home to Michigan on Jan. 6.
But he disappeared on Dec. 28. His family said they didn't know what happened to him until Monday, when news reports trickled out saying he'd been arrested for espionage.
Whelan never married and never had children, his brother said, but was very close to his parents, Rosemary and Edward Whelan.
The elder Whelans live on a country road surrounded by farmland in Manchester, Michigan. The gated drive outside the home is marked, "Dog playing in garden. Please stop and honk for entry."
When a Free Press reporter honked, however, no one came to open the gate. Rather, lights were turned off inside the two-story gray-sided house, and blinds were pulled closed.
A dog could be heard barking inside. An American flag hung limp from a pole in the yard beside an old red barn as freezing rain coated the ground.
David Whelan, who lives in Newmarket, Ontario, north of Toronto, told the Free Press that the brothers, twins, grew up in Ann Arbor and graduated in 1988 from Huron High School. They have two other siblings, a brother and a sister.
Other details about Whelan's past and his ties to Russia remain an enigma, and somewhat of a contradiction.
Though David Whelan told the Free Press that his brother was "absolutely" innocent and said his service in the Marines and past work in law enforcement and global security make it hard for him to believe that Paul could have broken the law "and certainly not breaking a law of espionage," there's evidence that Paul Whelan has previously run afoul of the law.
The Marine Corps released Whelan's service record Wednesday, showing that he was convicted in a 2008 court-martial on charges related to larceny.
According to his service record, he joined the Marine Reserves on May 10, 1994, and rose to the rank of staff sergeant in December 2004. Whelan was an administrative clerk and administrative chief and was deployed for the war against Iraq in 2004 and 2006.
He was convicted at a special court-martial in January 2008 on several charges related to larceny involving writing bad checks and using someone else's Social Security number. He was given a bad-conduct discharge in December 2008 at the rank of private.
Whelan's last place of duty was Marine Corps Air Station Miramar in California.
While stationed in Iraq, Whelan was part of something called the Lamplighter’s Club, a group of service members who got together to enjoy good cigars.
“It’s one of the unique pleasures that anyone can take advantage of, as everyone should take advantage of a fine cigar once in a while,” Whelan said in a 2007 interview posted on the 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing page of the Marine Corps website.
Whelan also was part of “The Rest and Recuperation Leave Program,” which authorized 15 days of leave to service members on yearlong deployments to Iraq, according to another 2007 story on the website . The military paid for the travel and most service members chose to return home, but others could travel abroad.
Whelan spent his two weeks in Russia, saying in the interview that the leave program “gives those of us who are single an opportunity to travel throughout the world wherever we want to go and experience the diversity of culture.”
During his military career, Whelan received awards that included the Navy Meritorious Unit Commendation and Global War on Terrorism Expeditionary Medal.
Novi District Court records show that Whelan was also involved in landlord-tenant disputes in 2007 over nonpayment of rent while he was on active service in the military. Court records also show a case was filed against Whelan in 2011 by a Norfolk, Virginia-based debt collector for $1,210.35.
Whelan said he was a Chelsea police officer from 1988-2000, and also worked for the Washtenaw County Sheriff's Department, according to his testimony in a 2013 court deposition.
Whelan was hired in 2001 by Kelly Services, a Troy-based company that offers consulting, temporary workers and workforce solutions to businesses around the world. He took a military leave of absence from Kelly Services, he testified, from 2003-2008, to serve in Iraq.
At Kelly Services, his title was senior manager of global security and investigations. His job included campus security as well as electronic and IT-related security.
He started working in early 2017 for BorgWarner, said company spokeswoman Kathy Graham.
There, his job involves overseeing the security of facilities, assets owned by the company and its people, Graham confirmed.
She noted that Whelan does not work in information technology, nor is he responsible for cyber security or industrial espionage duties as part of his job description for BorgWarner.
While BorgWarner has customers all over the world and employs 29,000 people in the U.S., Europe and Asia, none of the company's international sites is in Russia, she said.
Whelan also owns an online firearms company called Kingsmead Arsenal, according to business licensing records. Its address is the same as Whelan's apartment on Wellington Drive in Novi.
He testified in the 2013 deposition that he has a federal firearms license.
Paul Whelan and ties to Russia
According to what to appears to be Paul Whelan’s profile on the popular Russian social media platform VKontakte, he posted “God save President Trump” — flanked by flag emojis — on Inauguration Day in 2016. A 2010 post referred to then-President Barack Obama as a “moron.”
Another photo showed Whelan wearing a T-shirt of the Moscow soccer club Spartak. In March 2014, around the time of Russia’s annexation of Crimea, Whelan suggested that “Putin can have Alaska, as long as he takes Sarah Palin, too!” And a photo posted in August shows Whelan attending a security conference organized by the U.S. State Department.
David Whelan disputes Russia’s allegation that his brother is a spy.
Former CIA agent John Sipher agrees, saying Paul Whelan’s spotty military career would keep U.S. intelligence from hiring him for sensitive operations.
“He absolutely does not fit the profile of someone we would use in a place like Moscow,” said Sipher, who once ran the agency’s Russia operations in Moscow. “Due to the oppressive level of counterintelligence scrutiny in Moscow, we do not put people without diplomatic immunity in harm’s way. Nor do we handle low-level intelligence collection operations in a place like Moscow.”
Paul Whelan's arrest comes just a few weeks after Russian national Maria Butina agreed to cooperate with federal prosecutors; she pleaded guilty to conspiring to act as an agent for the Kremlin after working for years to infiltrate American political groups, including the National Rifle Association.
Although some have speculated his arrest might be an attempt by the Russians to orchestrate a trade — Butina for Paul Whelan — his brother isn't willing to presume that's what is at play.
"People have looked for conspiracies and things or connections to Ms. Butina," he told the Free Press on Tuesday. "But at the end of the day, it’s just hard to know.
"I think sometimes the geopolitical spectrum is a lot more complicated than that sort of trade-off. That could be what it was, but we’re trying not to focus on what the explanation might be, and are just trying to get him home."
The Russian announcement of Paul Whelan's arrest came one day after President Vladimir Putin released a holiday greeting to President Donald Trump that stressed the importance of Russia-U.S. relations in "ensuring strategic stability and international security." The one-sentence message also "reaffirmed that Russia is open to dialogue with the United States on the most extensive agenda."
U.S.-Russian relations have been battered by controversy despite Trump's frequent praise of Putin. Scores of Russian diplomats were expelled this year in response to the poisoning of a former Russian spy and his daughter in Britain that was linked to the Kremlin.
And special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. election has brought scrutiny on communications between Trump's inner circle and Russian operatives.
Aaron Retish, a Wayne State University professor who has taught modern Russian and Soviet history for 16 years, has been watching developments in the Whelan case. He said the timing of Whelan's arrest strikes him as odd, given Putin's recent request to meet with Trump again.
"You could see that there could be a potential upswing in U.S.-Russian relations, especially with the U.S. pulling out of Syria, which is also something that Putin praised," he said.
“It’s an odd time to arrest someone, but you never know what is happening behind the scenes. This is also how Putin works. When you least expect it, something like this happens.”
U.S. Rep.-elect Haley Stevens, D-Rochester Hills, who is set to take office on Thursday and whose district includes Whelan’s home and his company’s headquarters, said she has contacted the Whelan family.
"I am alarmed by Russia's detainment of one of my constituents, Paul Whelan,” she said. “I have been in touch with the Whelan family and I am committed to working with them to bring Mr. Whelan home.
“Paul served our country as a Marine and law enforcement officer and we must ensure that Russia continues to meet its obligations under the Vienna Convention to provide U.S. officials access to Mr. Whelan. I am working with the State Department and will remain vigilant until Paul returns safely to his family in Michigan,” she added.
The offices of U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., and U.S. Sen. Gary Peters, D-Mich., had no comment on Whelan's arrest or his possible release.
Free Press staff writers Todd Spangler, JC Reindl, Gina Kaufman, Phoebe Howard, the Associated Press and USA Today's Deirdre Shesgreen, Tom Vanden Brook and John Bacon contributed to this report.
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