Former intelligence officials are expressing doubts that Paul Whelan, a Canadian citizen who has been detained in Moscow on espionage charges, is a spy, but they’re also puzzled about what he was doing in Russia.
“Nobody has figured out what his MO is and what he’s about,” said Joseph Augustyn, a retired CIA official who spent 28 years as a member of the agency’s clandestine service and director of its defector resettlement centre.
But is he a spy working with the CIA or another branch of the U.S. government to gather intelligence?
“No, absolutely not,” Augustyn said.
Although Canadian-born, Whelan lived and worked most of his life in the U.S. and also holds U.S., British and Irish citizenship.
Kevin Hulbert, a former senior intelligence officer in the CIA’s directorate of operations, agreed.
“There’s nothing in this guy’s background that would make me think he was working officially for any part of the intelligence community,” Hulbert said.
He said it’s “far fetched” that the intelligence community would select someone to do espionage who has not been given diplomatic immunity, and whose background includes a dishonourable discharge from the military.
Whelan, a 48-year-old global security director for a U.S. auto parts company, was arrested a week ago in Moscow. An ex-U.S. marine, Whelan had taken a group of wedding guests on a tour of the Kremlin museums in the morning before he was arrested, the BBC reported.
He is alleged to have worked as a spy for ten years and to have been caught with a memory card containing a classified list of secret Russian operatives,ABC News reported, citing Rosbalt, the Russian news agency.
Whelan maintained an account in VKontakte, a Russian social media network, which showed he had a circle of Russian acquaintances. Those included software engineers and people who worked in the IT sector, including some who had ties to the defence and security sectors.
While serving as an administrative clerk in Iraq in 2006, Whelan was accused of attempting to steal more than $10,000 US. He was also accused of using a false Social Security number on a U.S. government computer system and using a false account on the system to grade his own examinations.
In 2008, he was given a bad-conduct discharge from the U.S. military.
“Just based on his background, as someone who is court martialed … from the marines, without a university background as far as I can tell,” he is not the kind of person who would be hired as a U.S. spy, John Sipher, a former CIA station chief, told CBC’s As It Happens.
“If he was doing undercover work, it wasn’t on behalf of U.S. or Western intelligence. It could be for his own purposes, or he wanted to get something that he thought could make him attractive to come to Western intelligence services and maybe take him seriously.”
However, Hulbert said the CIA would also balk at any well-intentioned U.S. citizen who came forward to say they could go into Russia and procure information.
“If you ever tried to say: ‘If you ever come across something, we’d sure be interested in it’ — it would wind up being a disaster.
“We would never in a million years say ‘Yeah what the heck, why not? Go for it. Or task any civilian, nonprofessional in a role like that. Especially in a place like Moscow or China, because you know the stakes are really, really high.”
“Even if he volunteered, we’d run the other way and would say ‘Thanks very much, but no thanks.”
Andrew Ellis, a former assistant director of CSIS, said he also doubts that Whelan would have any affiliation with the CIA because “his tradecraft is appalling.”
“He just doesn’t fit the profile. He’s not professional enough to be CIA,” said Ellis.
“I think he was a voyeuristic adventure-seeker who liked to have fun. And was showing off to people, taking them to museums. An intel officer is not going to do that.
“He was available and in the wrong place at the wrong time.”
There’s been some speculation that Whelan was picked up to facilitate an exchange with Russian national Maria Butina. Butina admitted last month to U.S. prosecutors that she had tried to infiltrate U.S. conservative groups as an agent for Moscow. Butina pleaded guilty on Dec. 13 to a conspiracy charge as part of a deal with federal prosecutors.
“[The Russians] can’t let this Butina thing go unanswered. And so in many ways, it’s tit for tat. I mean this guy is low-hanging fruit for the Russians,” said Augustyn.
“He’s messing around in Russia. He’s meeting people he shouldn’t be meeting. He has this Facebook thing. If they’re going to finger anybody, why not this guy?”
But under Butina’s co-operation agreement, she is likely to be released in the coming months and deported to Russia — meaning a swap with Whelan would be unnecessary, The New York Times reported.
“The U.S. wouldn’t entertain the idea of swapping him for [Butina] who we know is guilty,” Hulbert said. “That would be making some tacit acknowledgement that the cases are similar.”
Instead, Whelan may have just been picked up because he ran afoul of Russian authorities who thought they could make an example of him, he said.