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A cold war: Inside Marine veteran Paul Whelan’s fight for freedom

Then-Staff Sgt. Paul N. Whelan, adjutant, Marine Air Control Group 38 (Reinforced), 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing (Forward), pictured before the Kremlin in 2007. (Cpl. James B. Hoke/U.S. Marine Corps)

If Elizabeth Whelan had her druthers, she would be sitting at an easel in a warm studio.

Instead, she often leaves home at first light, takes a small ferry to a big ferry, the big ferry to a bus, the bus to a train, and the train to Washington, D.C., arriving after dark.

She makes the 15-hour pilgrimage every month to beseech lawmakers and federal agencies to help get her brother released from a Russian prison.

Paul Whelan, a 49-year-old from Novi, has been incarcerated for more than a year after his arrest for spying.

Elizabeth, one of three siblings trying to bring their brother home, said the past 12 months have been surreal.

“We’re in completely uncharted waters,” said Elizabeth, who lives on Chappaquiddick Island in Massachusetts. “Sometimes, it’s overwhelming.”

The Whelans have thrust themselves into two byzantine systems half a world apart: American diplomacy and Russian justice. Those murky realms are further clouded by the opaque relationship between the countries’ presidents.

This case of international intrigue might have started with a joke and betrayal by a longtime friend.

Whelan was director of global security for BorgWarner until the auto parts supplier laid him off earlier this month in a corporate restructuring. He is an avid traveler who has visited Russia seven times in 12 years, his family said. He is interested in its history and culture.

In December 2018, he was in Moscow for a wedding when a friend, Ilya Yatsenko, gave him a flash drive, said his family.

Whelan thought it contained photos of a trip the men had taken to Yatsenko’s hometown a year earlier. Actually, it listed names of members of a unit of the Russian Federal Security Service, which replaced part of the KGB.

“He was caught red-handed when conducting an intelligence operation,” said Maria Zakharova, Russia foreign ministry spokeswoman, during a press briefing in October.

Zakharova declined to be interviewed, referring a reporter to the ministry’s past statements on the issue. Yatsenko, who Whelan has known for a decade, couldn’t be reached for comment.

Russia had been suspicious of Whelan since his first visit to the country in 2006 when he expressed interest in meeting intelligence officers, a Russian newspaper Kommersant reported, quoting anonymous sources.

Investigators tapped his phone and recorded meetings where Whelan, a former Marine, hinted he was related to American intelligence and was interested in secret information, the paper reported. The sources said Whelan might have been joking.

U.S. intelligence experts scoffed at the notion of Whelan being a spy.

They said his poor record in the Marines made him an unlikely candidate for espionage. Also, it would be highly unusual for the CIA to send a spy into Russia without diplomatic protection.

It smells like a setup, said John Sipher, a retired veteran of the CIA’s national clandestine service.

Slipping secret documents to someone right before arresting them is an old KGB trick, he said. In fact, the entire thing — the sting, the arrest, monitored phones, video surveillance — seems straight out of the Cold War.

“The whole mess fits the profile and pattern of a Cold War KGB setup,” Sipher said.

A spokesman for the State Department said the agency is concerned by the lack of evidence in the case and has discussed the matter with Russian officials. “We will continue to raise Mr. Whelan’s case at every opportunity,” the spokesman said in a prepared statement.

David Whelan, who is Paul’s twin, said the State Department needs to do more to get his brother out of prison.

“What’s clear is that the U.S. government isn’t speaking out on his behalf,” he said. “What isn’t clear is why they aren’t doing it.”

Russian authorities won’t consider releasing Whelan until after his trial, which could be held in March, at the earliest, said his lawyers. During a court hearing on Christmas Eve, a Moscow City Court judge extended the detention by another three months.

Whelan’s Christmas was much like the rest of his year at Lefortovo Prison — cold, confused and alone, said his family. He is taking medication for a hernia that, under other circumstances, would be operated on.

‘Moscow goat rodeo’

If Russian officials had expected their captive to be docile, they miscalculated.

During a yearlong series of court hearings, where Whelan stands in a glass box guarded by an intelligence officer in a ski mask, he has been defiant, fiery, boisterous, even puckish, according to press accounts.

The hearings are pro forma proceedings to extend his detention, but he has used them to take advantage of his access to reporters.

Ignoring the judge’s order to be quiet, he has railed against his arrest and treatment in prison. Among his grievances: lack of evidence, denial of bail, limited ability to talk to American officials, and being prevented from calling anyone including his family.

During the hearing Tuesday, he began to read a handwritten statement before being interrupted by intelligence officers, the BBC reported.

“I remain innocent,” he said. “No espionage, no evidence, no red hands. FSB (former KGB) fools lie to you. They threaten me.”

He has referred to the legal proceedings as garbage, a kangaroo court, a dog and pony show and a Moscow goat rodeo. He might be hoping that he becomes such a public spectacle that the Russians boot him out of the country, say friends. He has certainly captured the attention of the country’s leaders.

During a press conference earlier this month in Washington, D.C., Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov laced into the prisoner.

“I would like to note that Paul Whelan has adopted an arrogant posture,” said Lavrov, according to a ministry transcript. “If his goal is to build an image of a martyr, this approach is probably wrong and unfair.”

Whelan hasn’t lost his sense of humor.

During a court hearing in October, he asked that the judge and prosecutor be replaced for lack of objectivity, reported the BBC. Then, looking at the chief investigator, he joked about adding his job as well to the futile request.

“What do you think, Aleksei (Khishnyak), shall we go for it?” he asked.

Highs and lows

As Whelan fights in Russia, his family tries to rally support in the United States.

They publicize his plight to anyone who will listen as they lobby Congress and the State Department to intercede on his behalf.

They had scarcely begun their campaign when they ran into a roadblock. Shortly after Whelan’s arrest, news reports described his checkered history with the Marines.

He received a bad-conduct discharge in 2008 for attempted larceny and dereliction of duty. As a Marine clerk in Iraq, he had tried to steal $10,000 from the U.S. government, according to military court records.

He also used another person’s Social Security number to enter a military computer system and grade his own examinations, thereby advancing his rank and pay.

The court martial, along with the possibility Whelan was a spy, made lawmakers leery of getting involved in his Russian arrest, said his family.

“There were a lot of highs and lows,” David said about the efforts to help Paul.

When several months passed without Russia providing any evidence that Whelan was a spy, Washington began to warm to his siblings’ campaign.

But the State Department and some Republican members of Congress still seemed skittish, possibly owing to the complex relationship between President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin, said the family.

With little support, siblings Elizabeth, David and Andrew Whelan were on their own. And their lives had hardly prepared them for this. They are a painter, librarian and engineer.

“People (in Washington) have job descriptions but none are ‘how-help-family-get-incarcerated-brother-out-of-Russia,’” Elizabeth said.

The Whelans split their duties with David handling the media, Andrew dealing with the U.S. Embassy in Russia and Elizabeth tackling federal officials.

She has met various organizations, advocacy groups, hundreds of lawmakers, and White House officials, including John Bolton, the former national security adviser.

“We’ve become different people,” she said about the Whelan band of activists. “I’ve learned more about government than an AP government course ever taught me.”

Growing support

Support for their brother grew during the summer.

Michigan members of Congress wrote to Trump and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, asking them to turn their attention to the prisoner’s plight.

Led by the Michigan delegation, the House adopted a bipartisan resolution in October telling Russia to either produce evidence against Whelan or let him go.

U.S. Sen. Gary Peters has introduced a similar bill in the Senate. “The fact that no evidence has been produced only reinforces that this is a political stunt,” the Bloomfield Township Democrat said.

As for the State Department, its sharpest comments on the issue have come from the embassy in Moscow. Embassy spokeswoman Rebecca Ross continually blasts the Russians with the kind of Twitter messages rarely heard in diplomatic circles.

“Almost one year & still no evidence,” she wrote Dec. 21. “Still no outside medical care or calls home. Why such mystery & isolation? Let Paul go home!”

The Whelans appreciate the strong language but what they really would like is such sentiment coming from Pompeo. That would carry more weight with the Russians, they said.

On Dec. 10, Pompeo met with Russian foreign minister Lavrov at the State Department. Afterward, he told reporters they had discussed Whelan, and that one of Trump’s highest priorities is bringing home citizens held abroad as soon as possible.

Lavrov then lashed out at Whelan, saying he had threatened jail guards.

Whelan’s family was pleased by Pompeo’s remarks but disappointed he didn’t respond to Lavrov’s allegation, which they said was false.

For Whelan’s father, Ed, it was another example of the State Department not doing enough to help his son.

“It’s disgraceful that an American citizen can be subjected to the abuses Paul has suffered without action by the U.S. government,” said Ed Whelan, who lives in Manchester, Mich., with his wife, Rosemary. Both are in their 80s.

During his court appearances, Paul Whelan has asked Trump to tweet about his predicament. Thus far, the president has remained silent.

Unopened Christmas presents

After being indicted in August, Paul Whelan began reviewing the evidence against him. None of it suggests he’s culpable, his lawyers told The Detroit News.

The review is time-consuming because there are several thousand pages of documents, said the attorneys. It’s in Russian so a lawyer who speaks English translates it to Whelan.

Whelan’s family considers the trial verdict a foregone conclusion, so they have encouraged Paul to rush through the review. The sooner the trial is held, the sooner the U.S. can work on his release, they said.

But Paul has insisted on reviewing every page, said the attorneys. He’s about halfway through the documents.

“Next year, we are planning to do it more intensively, from morning until evening,” said Olga Karlova, the English-speaking lawyer.

Just as the Russians haven’t publicly revealed the evidence against Whelan, they haven’t discussed what it would take to win his freedom.

Kremlinologists said Russia could want anything from the removal of sanctions, to the release of Russians held in the U.S., to the return of Russian diplomatic properties seized by the U.S.

Ed and Rosemary Whelan don’t know anything about the trials and tribulations of foreign policy. They just want their son to come home. Presents for their son lie unopened under their Christmas tree.

Not knowing when they’ll see him is hard, said Rosemary. Even harder is knowing how little the government can do to help him.

“If they can’t help an American citizen in Paul’s situation,” she asked, “who can?”


© 2019 The Detroit News