Paul Whelan is a convenient target for Russian intelligence services: former officials

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A few days after the arrest of the American Paul Whelan in Moscow under the head of espionage, suggestive details began to appear about his past.

A contaminated military background. A career in business security. Curious communications on a Russian social media platform.

secretary of state Mike Pompeo said Friday that "unfortunately" he could not comment on the charges against Whelan. But ex-United States. According to officials and intelligence experts, Whelan's profile has so far become less of a professional spy than someone who could easily be portrayed as such.

Steven Hall, a former senior CIA official who is skeptical of Russian claims, told ABC News: "He definitely has things about him that make the charges fabricated against him more acceptable, certainly to Russians and probably some Americans. well."

Whelan, a former American sailor who passport holders from four western nations, was arrested in Moscow on Dec. 28 by Russian security services and charged under a law on espionage, according to an announcement by the Federal Security Service (FSB). A Russian media outlet called Rosbalt, known to be close to intelligence services, quoted an unnamed security agency source as saying that Whelan had been arrested in a posh hotel in Moscow with a memory card containing a secret list of members of the security service. Russian government.

This information was not verified and, within two weeks of her detention, no further official information on the Whelan charges was made public except for Friday's statements. formal confirmation of the accusation against him. Whelan's family refused that he is a spy and that he was in Moscow to attend a friend's wedding.

A Russian defense lawyer Whelan said that he denies the charge of espionage and will plead not guilty.

Pompeo told Fox News that he could not discuss Whelan's case, but added, "The American people should know that the Trump administration is very concerned to ensure that every American detained around the world is treated properly, treated as it should be and where it is not. , using all the levers of American power to make sure they are sent home safely to their families. "

PHOTO: State Secretary Mike Pompeo addressing students from the American University of Cairo, in the eastern suburbs of New Cairo, Egypt, on January 10, 2019.Andrew Caballero-Reynolds / AP

On January 10, 2019, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo will address students from the American University of Cairo, in the eastern suburbs of New Cairo, Egypt.

Although the world of international espionage is inherently murky and the Russian evidence against Whelan remains unclear, almost immediately after the announcement of his arrest, former US officials have stated that they doubted allegations and suspected an organization. According to the available information, Whelan did not appear to be a professional spy and, although US intelligence agencies are known to have particulars used for some spying, this seemed unlikely in this case.

"S / he was involved in intelligence-related activities, it was a huge coordination mistake," former CIA senior executive John Sipher told ABC News. .

Steve Ganyard, a former State Department official and current ABC News consultant, said the Whelan news "does not speak in any way about professionalism, professional training …" [But] That's one that the Russians would want to keep in their pocket to stop it at their convenience. "

PHOTO: Maria Zakharova, spokesperson of the Russian Foreign Ministry, addresses the media during her weekly briefing in Moscow.Anton Denisov / Sputnik via AP

Maria Zakharova, spokesperson of the Russian Foreign Ministry, addresses the media during her weekly briefing in Moscow.

Whelan, a naturalized US citizen born in Canada, served in the United States Marines from 1994 to 2008, mainly in administrative positions. According to military records, he was fired for attempted robbery and other charges. Whelan was expelled from the Marines for serious misconduct, officials said, making it even more unlikely the fact that he could have worked for an American intelligence agency.

After the military, Whelan worked in security at Kelly Services, a staffing firm, and then became global security manager for Michigan-based international auto parts company BorgWarner, according to the two companies. . BorgWarner said that Whelan was in Russia for a personal trip and that he does not have facilities in the country.

"I think this background makes it a more attractive candidate," said David Salvo, former head of the State Department and current deputy director of the Alliance for Securing Democracy of the German Marshall Fund. "According to them, they can defend their own interests: here is this guy, a former military official, traveling here by chance …"

According to Hall, Whelan's profession would not have helped his case with the Russian intelligence services, which "see" security "as a code for intelligence work."

"It makes it easier for them with this propaganda scheme," he said.

Whelan also had a long-standing enthusiasm for Russia. According to his twin brother, he had been there several times and spoke online about his efforts to learn Russian.

"Having grown up during the Cold War, my dream was to visit Russia and meet some of the sneaky Russians who had long kept the Western world at bay," wrote Whelan on a personal website, now gone, in 2006.

For a decade, Whelan also maintained an account on the Russian social network site VKontakte, using it for: to reach ordinary Russians he often ignored it. Those he contacted expressed surprise, saying they could not understand why he had written to them.

"He did not want to know anything about it," Alexander Buzov told ABC News, one of Whelan's contacts on the social network, claiming that Whelan had never explained why he had added it about VKontakte about nine years ago. "He just started the dialogue with" Hello! How are you? "

According to Rosbalt's unverified report, Whelan reportedly searched for Russian men who could access classified documents or friends who had access to them. Most of Whelan's 55 or so friends in VKontakte appear to have graduated from military academies or belong to a Russian military service in uniform. But all those who were contacted by Whelan and who spoke to ABC News said that he had never talked about their military service and nothing more than generalities.

Pavel Laponov, a former Bryansk soldier Whelan also contacted on VKontakte, said that Whelan only wrote to offer opinions about the countries he had visited.

Whelan's brother said that Whelan was always trying to make friends in the countries he visited as a tourist and he hoped to meet friends in Russia this time.

Whelan's Russian lawyer, Vladimir Zherebenkov, told ABC News last week that he was aware of the Russian report on the Whelan charges but was not allowed to comment on the details of the investigation. . Zherebenkov said that the investigation and the trial would confirm the accuracy of the information provided.

Some former leaders feared that Russia would detain Whelan an act of "reciprocity" for the US arrest of Russian influence agent Maria Butina, or for the purpose of setting up an exchange against Butina or another Russian in the custody of the United States.

Exhibiting what he thought was a likely scenario, Zherebenkov told ABC News last week that he thought Whelan could well be tried, convicted, then pardoned and exchanged for Russians held as criminals in the United States. United.

In the Russian government's first comments on Wednesday's Whelan case, however, a spokesman for President Vladimir Putin said: "Russia never uses people as pawns in diplomatic games". Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova told reporters on Friday that an exchange was on the table and she expects Whelan to be judged.

Zherebenkov told ABC News that he was certain that Russian security services had been tracking Whelan for "long enough" before his arrest and that he was under surveillance. While he works on the basis of Whelan's innocence, he has repeatedly reiterated that investigators needed to have substantial evidence to proceed with the arrest.

Zherebenkov did not specify how he was appointed, which concerns Whelan's brother.

"I have no prejudices against Zherebenkov," said David Whelan on Russian radio Kommersant FM. "The only thing that bothers me is that we do not know why he was assigned to my brother, we want to make sure my brother has a choice."

Fourteen days after his arrest, Whelan's ordeal is still largely opaque and it is unclear whether he has legitimate links to intelligence services. In general, the CIA neither confirms nor denies the identity of alleged employees, leaving skeptical observers with more questions than answers.

"A lot of things are not in his favor," said Salvo, "but that does not make him a spy."