In 1986, Nicholas Daniloff was the Moscow correspondent for U.S. News and World Report. The American journalist had been in the country for five years, charting what would turn out to be the final years of the Soviet Union.
A Russian friend handed him a plastic bag containing photos from Central Asia. Unbeknown to Daniloff, the package also contained maps of Soviet deployments in Afghanistan that were marked “secret.”
“Suddenly a minibus drove up alongside me,” he recalled in a recent article for The Washington Post. “Six men jumped out. Several of them surrounded me, pinned my arms behind my back and handcuffed me before shoving me into the van.”
Daniloff was eventually released in a trade for Gennadi Zakharov, a Soviet physicist working for the United Nations who had been arrested in the United States for espionage-related activities shortly before Daniloff was taken into custody.
A lot has changed in Moscow since 1986, but the case of Paul Whelan — another American arrested after allegedly receiving secret documents from a Russian source — may show that the same tactics persist.
“The Russians are experts at setting people up or framing them,” Daniloff said by email Tuesday.
Whelan was arrested in late December after attending the wedding of a friend in Moscow. His attorney told journalists this week that while Whelan was in Russia, he had been handed a flash drive containing an undeclared “state secret."
“But how he got it, what he was supposed to do with it, and whether Whelan knew that he had secret information is unknown,” lawyer Vladimir Zherebenkov said Tuesday in a Moscow court. Some analysts believe that Russia hopes to trade Whelan for Maria Butina, who was arrested for allegedly working for the Kremlin in the United States.
Whelan has a unique background. He was convicted of trying to steal thousands of dollars while deployed to Iraq as a Marine, and he had shown an unusual interest in Russia, traveling to the country and attempting to make Russian friends on the social network VKontakte. But his arrest shows why many foreigners working in Russia are cautious about receiving documents from acquaintances.
“A certain degree of habitual paranoia is no bad thing,” said Mark Galeotti, a fellow at the Institute of International Relations Prague.
Galeotti, a British academic who tracks Russian criminal networks and frequently conducts research in Moscow, said he has to be cautious about people who promise to give him information: “If it’s not someone that I know very well or something that I was expecting, I wouldn’t take something that I don’t know what it is.”
According to the writer Stephen Boykewich, the practice of giving Westerners secret documents in a bid to ensnare them was a known practice when he worked as a journalist in Moscow in 2007. Boykewich later wrote an account of a time when he casually told a former CIA agent that he had been talking to a former Russian military intelligence agent in Moscow.
“Tell me you didn’t accept any documents from him,” the ex-CIA agent said, according to Boykewich. “Please tell me you didn’t accept any documents.”
Boykewich had a box full of floppy disks under his desk in Moscow that the former Russian spy had given him. His career as a journalist in Russia soon came to an end.
Simon Saradzhyan, a founding director of the Russia Matters project at Harvard’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, said that when he worked as a journalist in Russia, sometimes people had objects planted in their cars — though this was often for the means of extracting a bribe rather than geopolitical bargaining.
“The Russians benefit in several ways by these tricks,” said John Sipher, who ran the CIA’s operations in Russia in the 1990s. “They are much more focused on espionage games than is the U.S., and this puts pressure on the U.S. to respond politically since we cannot just arrest people in response.”
Such arrests can also carry a domestic message for would-be leakers. “They want to do all they can to discourage any channels for Russians to pass real information,” Sipher said.
There have been cases in which it appears actual spies have been caught. Russia arrested a retired Norwegian border inspector called Frode Berg in December 2016 after he was caught mailing envelopes containing cash and spy instructions during trips he made to Russia. Berg’s Oslo-based attorney said his client was working with the Norwegian intelligence services and that he had been misled about the risks of his actions.
Daniloff said that, in general, an ordinary tourist going to Russia shouldn’t have any problem and that Whelan’s unusual background may have been why he was targeted. “If you were a counterintelligence official, wouldn’t you want to talk to him and put him under pressure?” he asked.
Ultimately, though, a potential target for Russian authorities may want to think twice about going at all. “There is very little a visitor can do,” Sipher said. “The Russian espionage law is so broad they can arrest just about anyone.”