To hear the Russians tell it, American security executive Paul Whelan was a patient spy. They claim he spent years cultivating confidential sources via social media until he was arrested last week at his room in the Metropol hotel in Moscow, allegedly having just received a flash drive containing a list of employees for a secret Russian agency.
Whelan’s family disputes allegations, filed in a Russian court on Thursday, that the 48-year-old Michigan man had engaged in espionage, and say he was in Russia only to attend a friend’s wedding. Much remains unknown about Whelan and what exactly the Russians believe he was doing.
Over the years, Whelan, a Marine Corps veteran, has held himself out to friends and family as a world traveler, accustomed to working closely with FBI agents and American embassy personnel. And he was deeply interested in Russia and its people. He spent considerable time and energy developing a network of contacts there. For the past decade, he has had a profile on the social media platform VKontakte, Russia’s equivalent of Facebook, which is unusual for a non-Russian. Whelan has cultivated connections there that blossomed into offline relationships, some of his Russian friends said.
But that doesn’t make Whelan a spy, former intelligence officers said. In fact, his résumé suggests he’s perhaps the last person that the U.S. government would use to collect intelligence, they said.
“From my experience, we would almost never send someone to Russia without diplomatic immunity,” said John Sipher, who ran the CIA’s operations in Russia. “Given the laxity of Russian laws and the aggressiveness of their espionage apparatus, we could not guarantee the safety of someone traveling under unofficial cover.”
The circumstances around Whelan’s arrest remain murky. The few details about his supposed spy career have run in a news service, Rosbalt, operated by the wife of a former KGB officer close to Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Dan Hoffman, a former CIA officer who served as the agency’s chief of station in Moscow, said the Russians are likely to distort Whelan’s background to suggest he was engaged in espionage.
“As with all Russian propaganda, 90 percent of the story is true and the rest is lies,” Hoffman said.
Whelan was born in Canada and later moved to Michigan, where he embarked on a career in law enforcement in the early 1990s. He appears on some occasions to have exaggerated his credentials as a law enforcement and security expert and, according to former military colleagues, came across as naive.
In a 2013 deposition, stemming from a case in which Whelan wasn’t a party, he said that he had been a sheriff’s deputy in Washtenaw County and a police officer for the city of Chelsea.
But a representative for the Washtenaw County sheriff said the agency had no record of Whelan’s employment. And Chelsea police records show that he worked as a part-time police officer, as well as a dispatcher, a crossing guard, and a parking officer, also in a part-time capacity, from 1990 to 1996.
Whelan’s brother, David, said Paul had connections to the sheriff’s office going back to his days as a Police Explorer, a kind of law enforcement version of the Boy Scouts. But he acknowledged that he wasn’t certain Paul was a sheriff’s deputy and said that the two didn’t discuss their work lives.
Julie LeBourdais, a former colleague in the police department of Keego Harbor, Mich., said Whelan had worked as a patrol officer there from 1998 to about 2000. She remembered him being “straight as an arrow,” and said he seemed to know a lot about world affairs, which she chalked up to his experience in the military, although at that point Whelan had never deployed overseas.
In 1994, Whelan enlisted in the Marine Corps as a reservist, according to military records, and rose through the ranks to become a staff sergeant, deploying twice to Iraq and working as an administrative clerk and an administrative chief — jobs akin to office management for a military unit.
His work in the Marine Corps, which included assignments at bases in Michigan, Arizona, California and Missouri, doesn’t appear to have involved anything related to Russia.
His most recent assignment was at Marine Air Control Group 38, an aviation command-and-control unit based at Marine Corps Air Station Miramar, Calif., that supports the 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing. He deployed to Iraq’s al-Asad Air Base with MACG-38 for most of 2006, handling orders and other paperwork in what those familiar with the matter described as a deployment that didn’t take Marines “outside the wire.”
One person who deployed to Iraq with him in 2006 recalled Whelan learning Russian while the unit was there, writing the Cyrillic alphabet out on a board and taking the allotted holiday time to visit Moscow and St. Petersburg.
“I did not remain in touch with him after the deployment, but I do have 15 years of experience doing intelligence,” said T.J. Sjostrom, who served as a noncommissioned intelligence officer in the Marines and was in Whelan’s unit when it deployed to Iraq in 2006. “No intelligence agency would take someone with his record to be a spy.”
In January 2008, Whelan was convicted in a special court-martial for attempted larceny, three specifications of dereliction of duty, making a false official statement, wrongfully using another person’s Social Security number and 10 specifications of making and uttering checks without sufficient funds in his account, according to military court documents.
He was sentenced to 60 days’ restriction — which usually means restriction to a base — and knocked down two pay grades, according to the military court documents. According to his military record, he received a bad-conduct discharge and was separated from the Marine Corps on Dec. 2, 2008. The disciplinary proceedings caused him to leave the Marine Corps as a private.
The Marines declined to provide the charge sheet detailing the substance of the accusations the military court made against Whelan. His brother said he had no knowledge of the charges.
After leaving the military, Whelan entered the world of corporate security, eventually becoming the senior manager of global security and investigations at Kelly Services, a staffing firm.
In the 2013 deposition, he described his work as overseeing essentially all security-related matters for the company, including inquiries into employee misconduct, managing the physical security of company buildings, and handling employees’ secure access to company computers.
The job had an international component, too. “Kelly Services is a global company, and we work with federal agencies all the time,” Whelan said, mentioning the State Department, FBI and Drug Enforcement Administration, among others.
But according to Kelly Services, none of that work involved Russia, although the company has an office in Moscow.
“We have no information to suggest that Mr. Whelan ever traveled to Russia on Kelly business,” the company said in a statement.
Kathy Graham, a spokeswoman for BorgWarner, an auto parts distributor where Whelan is now the director of global security, said the company had no records of Whelan ever traveling to Russia for its business, either.
Ferris-Rotman reported from Moscow. Emily Rauhala and Julie Tate in Washington contributed to this report.