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Former CIA officer says Whelan doesn’t fit the profile of U.S. intelligence

Russia has detained Paul Whelan, a former U.S. Marine, on charges of espionage. Whelan's family says he was traveling for a wedding. The arrest comes weeks after accused Russian agent Maria Butina agreed to cooperate with U.S. prosecutors. John Sipher, a former CIA officer based in Moscow, joins Nick Schifrin to discuss whether Whelan fits the profile of someone working in U.S. intelligence.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    To the case of an American arrested on espionage charges in Moscow. It bears many of the hallmarks of Cold War intrigue.

    And as foreign affairs correspondent Nick Schifrin reports, there may be a motivation behind the detention that lends new meaning to the term trade war.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Paul Whelan is a former Marine who served two tours in Iraq before he was court-martialed for charges related to larceny. During one of those tours, he vacationed in Moscow, the first of what his family calls regular trips.

    He lives outside Detroit, and works for the automotive supply company BorgWarner as its director of global security. Today, he's held at this detention facility in Moscow. After his arrest on Friday on suspicion of spying, Russian media today announced he was charged with espionage, and could face up to 20 years in prison.

    Yesterday in Brazil, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the U.S. was seeking more information.

  • Mike Pompeo:

    We have made clear to the Russians our expectation that we will learn more about the charges, come to understand what it is he's been accused of, and if the detention is not appropriate, we will demand his immediate return.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Shortly after, U.S. Ambassador to Russia Jon Huntsman visited Whelan in prison, and a State Department spokesperson said: "Ambassador Huntsman expressed his support for Mr. Whelan and offered the embassy's assistance through the office of American Citizen Services. Ambassador Huntsman subsequently spoke by telephone with Mr. Whelan's family."

  • David Whelan:

    Paul's a kind and a generous person.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Paul's twin brother, David, gave an interview to CNN, and released a statement saying Paul was in Moscow for a wedding and that his innocence is undoubted.

  • David Whelan:

    He was asked to come and help Americans who hadn't been to Moscow who were in the wedding party to see the sights and to get around. And so Paul did that.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Whelan visited Russia often. He supported the country's most famous soccer team. And he supported President Trump. Whelan had a profile on Russia's equivalent of Facebook.

    On election night 2016, he wrote in misspelled Russian, "Onward, President Trump."

    On inauguration day, he wrote, "God save President Trump."

    Whelan's arrest could be connected to the U.S. government's arrest of Russian citizen Maria Butina. Last month, she pleaded guilty to acting as an agent of the Kremlin to influence U.S. politics. She had met with Republicans such as former Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker.

    Whelan's family insists he wasn't working for the U.S. government.

    So, why did Russia arrest Paul Whelan? And how likely is it that he is a spy, as the Russians claim?

    For that, we turn to John Sipher, a 28-year veteran of the CIA who was based in Moscow in the 1990s. He subsequently oversaw operations against Russian intelligence services and is now with the consulting firm CrossLead.

    John Sipher, thank you very much for being here.

  • John Sipher:

    Nice to be here.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Former Marine, does global security, speaks a little Russian, is that the profile of someone working for U.S. intelligence?

  • John Sipher:

    It's definitely not the profile of someone working for U.S. intelligence, especially in a place like Moscow.

    Moscow is probably the most hostile counterintelligence operating environment in the world for U.S. intelligence, and we treat the work we do there very, very carefully, and we handle things very, very carefully.

    So the notion that we would use an American without diplomatic immunity who might get arrested and thrown in jail is incredibly unlikely. And then, given Mr. Whelan's background as well, it just doesn't fit with the kind of person who would be involved with U.S. intelligence.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    So, as you know better than I, the CIA also uses NOCs, right, non-official covers.

    So there are cases where the CIA turns to people, perhaps with a military background, or at the very least not diplomatic cover. But even that, this wasn't — this is not an example of someone who's going to be in Russia working for intelligence services?

  • John Sipher:

    Well, what's interesting is Mr. Putin grew up through the Cold War KGB. He ran the Russian intelligence service, the internal service. He's been president for almost 20 years. So, he's seen the U.S. intelligence service work.

    There's been arrests and there's been defections and things over the years. So he knows very, very well how we work, and he knows very well that this is not how we work. So, somebody like this just — it just doesn't fit our profile, especially in Moscow.

    Now, it's possible that we may use different cover — different cover in different places. But, in a place like Moscow, where they're tracking us 24 hours a day, and they're very focused on the United States as their main enemy, it would be — it would be foolhardy for us to try to do sort of sloppy intelligence operations like this.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    The Rosbalt agency in Russia today, which has connections to Russia's intelligence service, reported that Whelan has spent years recruiting Russians and had accepted some kind of USB drive today of employees of a classified security agency.

    Is that credible?

  • John Sipher:

    I don't — well, it may be credible that he accepted something. But I feel — I feel bad for him. I see him in many ways almost as like a hostage.

    The Russian intelligence law, which was changed in 2012, is such that it's so vague, that you can essentially arrest anybody and hold them for intelligence — or for espionage purposes, as if they're working against the Russian government in any way, if they're a foreign agent.

    It is certainly possible that the Russians could set somebody up that's not too savvy in the ways of these kind of security things, where he meets somebody, and they offer him something or they hand him something, and they arrest him illegally.

    And there's a long history of — through the Cold War of people accepting something and then being arrested, so they could be used like in these hostage situations.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    As setups.

  • John Sipher:

    Yes, absolutely.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    And so the long history, also, of swaps in the Cold War. So, 1986, the U.S. picked Gennadi Zakharov. Nicholas Daniloff, a U.S. journalist, was picked up subsequently afterwards, and they were swapped.

    In 2010, something that you were involved with, Russia had arrested four for spying. The U.S. found 10 so-called illegal Russian spying in the United States, including Anna Chapman most famously. And you were involved in that case.

    So, could this be another swap?

  • John Sipher:

    It's possible.

    And one of the reasons that they could have picked up or something set up Mr. Whelan is so that they could have some leverage to try to do some sort of negotiating or deal to get Ms. Butina out of jail, which suggests maybe that she's more important than we thought she was or she has information the Russians are scared about.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Because the Russians have claimed that they — not only was she not working for them, but she's not that important.

  • John Sipher:

    That's right.

    So it's a little early to talk spy swap. But, in this case, this guy is not a spy. So it doesn't — it doesn't make any sense.

    In the past, historically, there's been times where people who don't have diplomatic immunity and are kept in prison for a long time, when both governments realize it's in their interest to do a swap, they have done it. But in this case, where someone is wrongly accused, this fits more like we have seen in places like Turkey, Korea, Iran, where an American is arrested, and the U.S. government should put pressure on them just to let them out, not to give them something in return.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    John Sipher, thank you very much.

  • John Sipher:

    Thanks. My pleasure.

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