Russia’s arrest of ex-Marine Paul Whelan on espionage charges is part of a larger Kremlin scheme to exacerbate partisan divisions in Washington, according to a former top CIA official in Moscow who says President Vladimir Putin likely hand-picked Mr. Whelan as a “pawn” in a much deeper Russian intelligence plot.
“They arrested him with a purpose,” said former CIA Moscow station chief Daniel Hoffman, who argues Moscow’s charges against Mr. Whelan have actually been contrived to ramp up political hype surrounding the separate case of convicted Russian operative Maria Butina, who recently pleaded guilty in U.S. federal court to acting as a Kremlin agent infiltrating U.S. conservative groups such as the National Rifle Association.
The late-December arrest in Moscow of Mr. Whelan, an ex-Marine and top security executive with a Midwestern auto parts company, has spurred speculation in the U.S. that Russian authorities grabbed him to trigger a prisoner swap for Butina — suggesting Butina must have valuable intelligence if the Kremlin was prepared to carry out such a brazen operation to retrieve her.
“The catch is that’s exactly the phony narrative Russian intelligence wanted to promote and many in Washington have taken it hook, line and sinker,” Mr. Hoffman said in an interview this week. Mr. Putin “knows that the worse you make Butina look, the more you’re throwing blood in the water for Democrats, who just took over the House of Representatives and are thirsty to hammer Republicans for not having recognized this alleged Russian agent who was trying to infiltrate their ranks.”
Mr. Whelan, 48, is being held in the notoriously harsh Lefortovo Prison in Moscow. Russian authorities began his trial this week on espionage charges, claiming he was “caught red-handed” with a thumb drive listing people who work for a secret Russian security agency.
The Trump administration has so far remained mum on the prospect of a spy trade.
Mr. Whelan, who was arrested at a Moscow hotel on Dec. 28, denies the charges against him, as well as the allegation he works for U.S. intelligence. His lawyers argued this week that he was set up, asserting he was in Moscow to attend a wedding and was given the thumb drive by someone who told him it contained photos of Russian churches. He was then detained by security agents and accused of spying before he ever even looked at the drive.
Intelligence sources say Russian agents likely had Mr. Whelan on a list of possible targets to grab on bogus espionage charges because of his background. He served for years as a U.S. Marine but was quietly discharged in 2008 on a charge of theft of personal property, the circumstances of which remain murky.
One intelligence source said in an interview this week that Russian officials knew they could seize on such background to make it look like he had the motivations of an American spy.
“At the same time,” said the source, “Whelan has this other aspect to his background — he holds Canadian, Irish and U.S. passports.” After British media reported Mr. Whelan was born in Canada to British parents before moving to the U.S. as a child, the source maintained that “to most people, this just sells it that he must be a spy.”
Mr. Whelan was known by his friends and family to enjoy traveling in Russia. He reportedly made several trips there over the past decade as a tourist and to visit and revisit friends he’d made along the way. The source told The Times Russian authorities were well aware of this, and of the fact that Mr. Whelan has been a supporter of President Trump — having on at least one occasion spread positive messages about him on Twitter and on Russian social media.
Stephen Slick, a former CIA Clandestine Service officer who heads the Intelligence Studies Project at the University of Texas at Austin, said there is little doubt the Russians will seek to pressure the U.S. into freeing Butina, asserting the alleged Russian spy’s imprisonment in New York is has been an “embarrassment” for Moscow.
But Mr. Slick says he’s skeptical of reading too deeply into the situation.
“The Russian security establishment is certainly capable of thinking strategically,” he told The Times. “But it seems improbable that Mr. Whelan’s arrest was staged with the aim of returning Ms. Butina to the front pages and fueling more partisan bickering in Washington.”
“More conventional analysis would hold that Mr. Whelan was framed, arrested, and will be convicted to set the stage for an exchange that repatriates Ms. Butina to Russia,” he said. “The Russian security services and courts are well practiced at this routine and reliably available to help resolve a foreign embarrassment like this one.”
Butina’s full activities in the U.S. remain a source of mystery. The Associated Press said her case provided a glimpse into Russia’s influence operations at a time when U.S. intelligence had assessed Moscow sought to sow discord on the American political landscape to give Mr. Trump an edge over Hillary Clinton in the 2016 election.
Prosecutors say Butina and her Russian patron, Alexander Torshin, used their contacts in the NRA to pursue back channels to American conservatives during the 2016 campaign, when then-candidate Donald Trump was in a heated battle against Ms. Clinton.
‘Wilderness of mirrors’
Some argue that Democrat-led allegations of collusion between Mr. Trump’s own campaign and Russian officials depend on evidence — such as that stirred by the Butina case — that Russian intelligence actually sought to penetrate Republican political circles.
With that as a backdrop, John Sipher, another CIA’s National Clandestine Service veteran with experience in Moscow, said “one of the plausible reasons for [Russia] arresting Whelan may have been to add to the chaos and tribal divisions” currently gripping the U.S. political landscape.
“[But] at the same time, its sounds like wilderness-of-mirrors stuff,” said Mr. Sipher, who himself also once served as CIA Moscow station chief, employing a phrase often used by legendary CIA counterintelligence chief James Jesus Angleton in his pursuit of Russian moles inside the U.S. intelligence bureaucracy.
“The Russians love wilderness of mirrors games,” Mr. Sipher said. “If they can get us confused and chasing our tails, all the better.”
“I would argue that one of the reasons the Russians supported Trump as a presidential candidate was that he was the ‘chaos candidate’ and they want to sow division and chaos on the American political landscape to weaken the United States,” he told The Times. “So, theoretically, this could be part of that.”
But Mr. Sipher said the true motivation behind Mr. Whelan’s arrest remains unclear.
“There is a lot of agreement that the Russians set Paul Whelan up, though, and if this is part of an effort to get Butina back — which I think it is — it would suggest they want to send a signal to her that she better not talk,” he said.
But others say the notion that Butina knows more than she has revealed to U.S. prosecutors about Russian attempts to infiltrate the National Rifle Association and other conservative political groups is exactly what Moscow wanted Washington to conclude from the arrest of Mr. Whelan.
“There was a means, a motive and an opportunity for Russian intelligence here,” Mr. Hoffman said. “Nothing the Russians do when it comes to espionage is unplanned. There is always a deeper purpose. They’re using [Mr. Whelan] and Butina as pawns in their strategic game.”
“From the very beginning, they wanted Butina to be discovered and to appear as something she wasn’t. They wanted to make it appear as if she was Anna Chapman 2.0,” he said, referring to the notorious Russian spy who was arrested in New York City in 2010.
Ms. Chapman, along with a group of confederates who had assumed false identities and lived as deep-cover agents in middle-class America (inspiring the FX television show “The Americans”) was swapped later that year in exchange for four Russians who had been imprisoned for spying for the West.
“Russian intelligence knows that if they could make Butina look like Chapman, it would cast a real pall over the Republican Party and the NRA in particular,” Mr. Hoffman said. “There’s nothing there, but the Russians know that the more attention her case gets, the more it will serve to pit Democrats against Republicans, which is exactly what Putin wants.”