Whelan Doesn't Fit The Profile Of A Spy, Former CIA Officer Says
NOEL KING, HOST:
Paul Whelan, a U.S. citizen, remains in detention in Moscow. Russia's domestic security service, the FSB, has said he was detained because he was, quote, "conducting spying activity." Whelan is a retired Marine. His family says he was in Russia to attend a wedding. They've released a statement saying that he's innocent. Here's his brother, David Whelan, talking to CBC TV yesterday.
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DAVID WHELAN: There's no chance that the Russians are making an accurate accusation. Paul has a law enforcement background. He is a Marine. He has worked in corporate security, and he's very aware of both the rule of law and the risks of traveling in countries that may have risks to travelers.
KING: Earlier this morning, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told journalists that the U.S. is demanding answers from Russia and seeking consular access to Whelan. And Russia's foreign ministry has now said they did allow the U.S. access to him. Earlier, I talked to John Sipher. He's a former member of the CIA's Clandestine Service.
You served in Moscow. You ran the CIA's Russia operations. What do you think is happening here? Does Paul Whelan fit the profile of a U.S. spy?
JOHN SIPHER: Absolutely not. I think the best way to look at this is if you look at Vladimir Putin as a Cold War KGB spy, it's best to look back at the Cold War for some examples here. And probably the best example that comes to mind for me is the case of Nicholas Daniloff. Nicholas Daniloff was a U.S. news and world reporter in Moscow who was arrested three days after a Russian KGB officer was arrested in New York gathering - or, excuse me - classified materials from a U.S. source.
And the Russians did that, obviously, for political reasons - to have someone to swap, to put pressure on the United States to give up the person that they had arrested that we were keeping in jail. And I think, in many ways, we can look at this in the same way. As you recall, a Russian woman, Maria Butina, was arrested recently, spying for the Russians and is being held in U.S. federal prison. I think this is a means of probably putting pressure on the United States to either release her or at least begin negotiations in that regard.
KING: Maria Butina's plea deal probably would have resulted in her getting a short prison term and being deported back to Russia, which does not sound like a particularly severe punishment. Why would Vladimir Putin or why would Moscow take the trouble of trying to get back at the U.S. for something that doesn't seem to be all that severe?
SIPHER: That's a great question. I think what this suggests is it's more severe than we think it is. You know, a lot of the press around Ms. Butina suggests that she just was a young student who was just doing networking and didn't seem to be doing much. And I understand that if you're looking at this from the outside and you don't understand how espionage works. But in our world, Ms. Butina would be something we would call an access agent, sort of the overt face of covert work, if you will.
If you're an operative - a Russian operative coming to the United States - and trying to figure out who you should go after as a target to become a spy, you need people that are out there in the community, in networks that can provide you assessment information on people who are out there, what their psychological profiles are, that type of thing.
So somebody like Ms. Butina would be a force multiplier for the Russian services. She'd be out there. She can advise them on the kind of people that she's meeting with so that the Russian intelligence services can make very strategic choices on who to go after.
KING: Well, will you - do you think that this will make U.S. officials think perhaps they didn't take Maria Butina seriously enough?
SIPHER: I think U.S. officials know what's going on here. I don't think it has become publicly. The fact that they've arrested her and they're considering jail time suggests to me that they have more on her than I think we know publicly, at least that's how I sense.
I think she was, in some way, probably helping the Russians to recruit someone to spy for them. And therefore, that's why they've taken it seriously. But the fact that the Russians and Mr. Putin have arrested this American suggests to me that they think getting Ms. Butina out's pretty important.
KING: All right. Let's listen to another clip from Paul Whelan's twin brother - this is on CBC TV yesterday. He was asked why he thinks Paul has been detained.
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WHELAN: I think it's too complicated to come up with a simple answer to what that is. I think that there are many reasons that Paul could have, and it could be completely arbitrary. Our goal, really, is just to get him home.
KING: All right. Without clear evidence that Whelan was, in fact, spying, can the Russians really prosecute him for espionage? And if they did, what could the potential punishment be?
SIPHER: They absolutely could punish him for espionage. There's a new - in 2012, the Russians redid their espionage law. And they made it so vague that, essentially, they can arrest anybody and charge them with espionage to serve 20 years in jail. Anybody who they consider, quote, "a foreign agent" involved in, quote, "political activities" or holding secret information that can be defined by the U.S. - by the Russian government - can be charged with espionage under the new law.
And it's an incredibly powerful law for the Kremlin because they can essentially grab anybody and define espionage to fit, you know, what they're looking for. So in this case, I think the Russians know that, essentially, if they snatch up someone who's got some vague connections to the U.S. government or to law enforcement, most people understand and assume that there's something there, even if there is nothing there.
KING: So a man who was a former Marine would sort of fit the profile of somebody who they could pick up and kind of run with this. Let me ask you what you see the role of President Putin here and the role of President Trump here. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo says we want this guy back. Those are strong words. Do you think President Putin is testing President Trump, and if he is, what is he testing him on here?
SIPHER: Well, it's hard to say. I think President Trump is the wild card here. President Trump has - in the past, has made comments, you know, conflating, you know, Russian activity with U.S. activity. Remember when he made the famous comment that - about Putin was a killer, saying, well, we all have killers. I think President Trump - excuse me, President Putin - may be testing President Trump here. But it's hard to say.
The one thing I can say for certain, however, is this is not how the U.S. commits espionage overseas. We would never put a U.S. citizen without diplomatic immunity in harm's way this way, especially looking after low-level things like this. And so one thing I'm pretty confident of is that this person is not involved in any kind of coordinated intelligence activity on behalf of the United States. That doesn't mean it's not a big political deal.
KING: Very briefly, will the U.S, do you think, get access to Whelan?
SIPHER: Yes. They have to. I think, by law, they have a certain amount of time before the State Department can get access to him.
KING: John Sipher is a former member of the CIA's Clandestine Service and Senior Intelligence Service. Thanks for coming in.
SIPHER: My pleasure. Thank you much, Noel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.