What We Know About The American Russia Has Detained On Spying Allegations

Jan 1, 2019
Originally published on January 1, 2019 2:58 pm
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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

The U.S. and Russia are beginning the new year much as they ended the last one - on a note of friction. Russia has detained an American and accused him of spying. A family member in the U.S. says Paul Whelan was picked up last Friday during a trip to Moscow, where he went to attend a wedding. For more on this case, we're joined by NPR national security correspondent Greg Myre. Welcome to the studio.

GREG MYRE, BYLINE: Hey, Audie.

CORNISH: What more have you learned from Russia and the U.S. government?

MYRE: So this really started to break yesterday, when Russia's FSB, the Federal Security Service, put out a brief statement saying that this man, Paul Whelan, was arrested on Friday for what they called spying activities. But they didn't give any details, so we don't know what they're accusing him of precisely. The State Department has confirmed that an American is being held, but they are not giving a name, citing privacy reasons. The U.S. embassy is allowed to see a person that's being held, and so we expect that to happen any day now.

CORNISH: As we mentioned, the family of this man, Paul Whelan, says he was in Moscow to attend a wedding. Have they said any more about him?

MYRE: Yeah. We have been hearing from his twin brother, David Whelan. And he says his brother Paul is a former Marine who developed an affinity for Russia over the years and had been there a few times, and he'd gone for this wedding. And the wedding was between a former Marine that Paul Whelan knows who is marrying a Russian woman.

And when they didn't hear from Paul Whelan last Friday, they got nervous and didn't really know what had happened, feared he'd been - perhaps something very serious had happened. And they did learn Monday that he'd been detained. He's from the Detroit area, and his family has contacted congressional representatives. They've put out a statement saying they have no doubt about his innocence. He'd have nothing to do with spying or espionage.

CORNISH: That's the personal. What else do we know about Paul Whelan's professional life?

MYRE: Well, apparently, he's been going to Russia since around 2006. Now, he was in the Marine Corps serving in Iraq at that time for a year. But you do get a little break, so he got a couple of weeks off. He was a single guy, so he decided to go to Russia all on the up-and-up. In fact, on the Marine Corps website, there was an article about him, about how some of the soldiers would take their break to go to unusual places. And they actually featured Paul Whelan.

After he got out, he continued to go both on vacation and through some of his work as a businessman. He's also served as a policeman for a while. Currently, he's the director of global security at a company called BorgWarner in Auburn Hills, Mich., which supplies automotive parts all around the world. But brother stressed that this trip was a private trip to Russia, not a business one.

CORNISH: Is there any sense about why the Russians might have picked him up? Why now?

MYRE: We don't know, but certainly, the mind jumps to the case of Maria Butina, the young Russian woman who pleaded guilty on December 13, just a couple weeks ago, of acting as a foreign agent. Important point to note - she's a civilian, and Whelan is a civilian. Countries can hold and charge civilians. Diplomats, if they suspect them of spying, they just sort of kick them out. But they have a lot more authority over civilians.

CORNISH: Have the Russians said that Whelan was arrested in response to Butina, though?

MYRE: No, they haven't said that. And, in fact, Putin addressed this back in - or addressed Butina's case back on December 20. He gives this long annual end-of-the-year press conference. And he said, we are concerned about her. She's a Russian national. But he felt the charges were made up. And it was asked specifically if he might retaliate, and he said, no, we're not going for eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth. That was December 20. Eight days later, Whelan is arrested.

CORNISH: That's NPR national security correspondent Greg Myre. Greg, thanks for your reporting.

MYRE: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.