Paul Whelan Update: Sketchy Details Start to Emerge
Paul Whelan Update: Sketchy Details Start to Emerge
When I first wrote about Paul Whelan – the US citizen arrested in Russia last week and charged with espionage – I figured there was something sketchy about the case. The charges were nebulous at best, Whelan – an ex-Marine who received a bad conduct discharge for larceny and busted down to private before being shown the door – was about as likely to be part of the intelligence community as I was to be a transgender bison, and the timing of the arrest was auspicious as best, given that Russian spy Maria Butina had recently decided to cooperate with the US government.
But more suspicious details have now creeped out, and I’m more suspicious than ever about not just Russia’s claims, but also of Whelan himself and his attorney.
The lawyer, Vladimir Zherebenkov, is apparently a former Soviet government investigator, and has no experience with foreigners accused of espionage. Zherebenkov – without any kind of prompting referenced a possible exchange.
Speaking to ABC News on Thursday, Zherebenkov said Whelan intended to fight the charges and plead not guilty. But he then quickly brought up the possibility of an exchange, unprompted, and appeared to suggest he thought it was the most likely outcome. He also said he believed Whelan had been under surveillance by Russia’s security services for “quite a long time.”
I wonder why this particular attorney seems to have been the choice for the FSB. The Daily Beast reports that “Zherebenkov’s stated goal is to arrange a trade and bring home ‘at least one Russian soul.’” OK, mystery solved.
Dan Hoffman, a former CIA station chief in Moscow, told The Daily Beast in Washington that Whelan “is not going to get a lawyer unless it’s FSB-approved. So when the lawyer says, ‘We want to make an exchange,’ that’s the FSB saying it through the lawyer.
As for Whelan himself, I previously said that his Russophilia was a bit creepy. He’s been on Russian social media befriending random Russians, traveling there just to hang out, meeting up with people he got to know online over the span of 10 years, commemorating random Russian holidays.
He held four citizenships – another reason why he would almost certainly not be able to get a clearance, let alone work as an agent for any of our intelligence agencies – Canadian, British, Irish, and US.
More recently, human rights activists have reported torture and physical abuse in Russian prisons. However, foreigners like Whelan have faced conditions designed to wear them down psychologically, Anne Applebaum, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Gulag: A History, tells TIME.
Elena Masyuk, a reporter for independent Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta who says she toured the prison in 2013, wrote that inmates at the prison faced uncomfortable conditions, such as showers only once a week and only cold water in the prison cells.
Well, gosh! Who WOULDN’T be in good spirits after being arrested by the FSB and put in a Russian prison!
Even his lawyer mentioned that he had spent much of Wednesday with Mr. Whelan and found his client in an upbeat mood despite the long legal road that he faces. “I was surprised to see him being so confident,” he said.
It’s entirely possible that Zherebenkov was highlighting Whelan’s jovial mood for propaganda purposes to show the world just how easy spending time in Russia’s prison is, and as mentioned above, the high-profile attorney would not say a word without FSB approval.
But at the same time, things just don’t jive. Why would Whelan be so confident? Is he convinced that Butina is such a low-level operative, that the US would have no problem exchanging her for him? Is he confident that Russia – the country he loves – will be just in his treatment and find him innocent of all charges? And why in blue hell would he spy against the country he liked so much?
I’m also beginning to suspect that the exchange may not be about Butina. When asked about his mention of an exchange by ABC news, Zherebenkov also pointed to a convicted arms dealer Viktor Bout, who was arrested by the Royal Thai Police on terrorism charges in 2008 and was subsequently extradited to the US, accused of planning to smuggle arms to the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) to use against US forces in Colombia. A Manhattan jury convicted Bout in 2011 of conspiracy to kill US citizens and officials, delivery of anti-aircraft missiles, and providing aid to a terrorist organization, and was sentenced to 25 years in prison where he has been hanging out ever since. Bout was also sanctioned under EO 13348 by the Treasury Department for arms trafficking in Liberia, and his assets in the US were frozen.
Given Bout’s extensive network and use of his military and intelligence connections to become the “FedEx of arms dealers,” in the words of a U.S. arms sales analyst, I would think he would make a much more important exchange target for the Russians than the ginger who has promised to cooperate with US authorities.
Why would Zherebenkov all of a sudden mention Bout, especially when it’s more likely than not that every word he utters is cleared and authorized by the FSB? Why bring up Bout out of the blue?
Maybe I’m paranoid, but there’s more to this than meets the eye, and Butina is too small a potato.
At least some in the media are already getting ready to lay the blame at the feet of Trump if Whelan isn’t brought home in time.
The guy had some sketchy Russian links.
The Russians are known for playing games and accusing the US of espionage, as they paint themselves as victims in a world that hates them, so more likely than not, this is a ploy to exchange some actual Russian spies for this ex-Marine.
But no. MSNBC puts a political spin on it. The shutdown is hurting this honorable Marine!
Notice the photo of Whelan in uniform years ago, when he was an actual Marine and before he was booted out of the Corps to evoke feelings of respect.
Note also the anchor’s use of Whelan’s first name to make him more familiar and fuzzy to the audience and former Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Ambassador Wendy Sherman’s swipe at Secretary of State Pompeo’s approach to demanding the release of Whelan and the administration’s approach to Russia writ large.
Political spin aside, this is a dangerous game, and those who have forgotten the Cold War would be smart to remember.