Paul Whelan is an unlikely spy, but he is sitting in solitary confinement at Moscow’s notorious Lefortovo Prison, charged with espionage on behalf of the United States and facing a jail sentence of up to 20 years.
Mr. Whelan, 48, is a former U.S. Marine who served in Iraq but was dismissed from military service after a court martial found him guilty of larceny. That fact alone would have made him an unlikely recruit for the C.I.A., according to former agency officers asked about the case.
C.I.A. operatives, moreover, almost always work under diplomatic cover, that is to say, as officially registered diplomats, whose special passports ensure they cannot be long detained and who, at worst, face expulsion. Mr. Whelan, while he has spent much time in Russia — he has an interest in Russian culture, is a collector of Russian bric a brac and has many Russian friends — is a private American citizen, an employee of an international auto parts manufacturer.
Mr. Whelan may be the latest prisoner-swap pawn between Russia and the United States as rising tensions between the nations seem to be reprising the Cold War years, when spying charges and prisoner swaps were common. Mr. Whelan’s arrest came after a Russian woman, Maria Butina, pleaded guilty to conspiring to act as a foreign agent, admitting to involvement in an organized effort backed by Russian officials to lobby influential Americans in the National Rifle Association and the Republican Party.
Mr. Whelan, former C.I.A. officials noted, was in contact with many Russian acquaintances, including some associated with the Russian military, but his military contacts appeared to be low-level service members.
According to his family, Mr. Whelan was in Russia on his most recent trip, in December, to attend the wedding of a friend from the Marine Corps who was marrying a Russian woman at a Moscow hotel, which is where Russian authorities apprehended him.
They claimed that he was trying to recruit a Russian to obtain classified government information. A Russian news agency close to the security services quoted an intelligence source who said that Mr. Whelan, minutes before his arrest, had received a U.S.B. stick containing a list of all of the employees at a classified security agency.
The appearance of such evidence has played a role in earlier cases where Americans were seized and charged by Russian authorities, most famously in the Soviet Union era case of Nicholas Daniloff, an American journalist who, in 1986, was arrested by KGB agents; they said the American was in possession of classified documents. The Reagan administration protested that Mr. Daniloff had been arrested without cause, and the journalist, later released as part of a spy swap, maintains to this day that the documents used as evidence of espionage had been planted on his person shortly before his arrest.
In that case, it was widely assumed that the arrest of an American was retaliation for the arrest in New York three days earlier of Gennadi Zakharov, an employee of the Soviet U.N. Mission. And, after intense discussion between the governments, Mr. Daniloff was allowed to leave the Soviet Union without charges, and Mr. Zakharov was allowed to leave the U.S.
Expulsions of diplomats and suspected spies subsequently escalated to the point that by the end of October 1986, 100 Soviets, including a further 80 suspected Soviet intelligence agents, were expelled by the U.S. The Soviets expelled 10 U.S. diplomats and withdrew all 260 of the Russian support staff working for the U.S. embassy in Moscow.
Dan Hoffman, a former C.I.A. officer who served as the agency’s station chief in Moscow, noted that Russians have a long track record of planting false evidence, particularly in espionage cases.
“They are really good at fabricating what they would like to appear to be evidence, even when it is not,” Mr. Hoffman said. “They will fabricate whatever they need to make the story look like they want.”
That fact has led to widespread speculation that Mr. Whelan was framed, and that his arrest was orchestrated by the Russian government in order to condition his release on that of Ms. Butina.
Some officials, though, see that as an unlikely motivation, as Ms. Butina’s cooperation agreement makes it likely that she will, in any event, be released in a matter of months and deported to Russia.
And so, like the traditional Russian matryoshka nesting dolls, what appears on the surface of political machinations may not be all there is. For the moment, though, whatever the truth or untruth of the Russian accusations against Mr. Whelan, our government owes it to him to do its best to secure his safety and release.