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American detained by Russia was convicted of trying to steal thousands of dollars while deployed to Iraq as a Marine

Former U.S. Marine Paul Whelan is being held in Russia on spying charges. Western officials await answers amid rumors he could be used as a bargaining chip. (Video: Reuters)

The Marine Corps found Paul Whelan, the American citizen detained by Russia on espionage charges, guilty of attempting to steal more than $10,000 worth of currency from the U.S. government while deployed to Iraq in 2006 and bouncing nearly $6,000 worth of checks around the same time, according to records obtained by The Washington Post.

The details of the charges against Whelan from a special court-martial two years later, which resulted in his discharge for bad conduct, add to an increasingly complex picture of the 48-year-old former Marine, whom Russian officials have accused of spying. His case grew more perplexing Friday after Ireland became the fourth nation to acknowledge him as a citizen and seek consular access.

Since his arrest last week in Moscow, Whelan has rocketed onto the public radar, drawing international attention to his complex journey from the Marine Corps Reserve to a detention cell in the Russian capital’s notorious Lefortovo Prison. People who served alongside Whelan said he was learning Russian and traveled to Moscow and St. Petersburg on vacation during the same deployment in which the Marine Corps accused him of attempted larceny. 

British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt said Jan. 4 he is extremely “worried” about Paul Whelan, who is being held in Russia on suspicion of spying. (Video: Reuters)

The Marines have not provided any additional information about the circumstances surrounding Whelan’s crimes while serving in the armed forces. Russian authorities have not said what Whelan is accused of doing beyond the relatively broad charge of espionage, which, if he is convicted, could land him between 10 and 20 years behind bars. 

Whelan served as an administrative chief in the Marines — a job akin to office manager that would have given him access to certain sensitive systems, probably including those the service uses to issue orders and hand out awards. 

In addition to convicting him of attempted larceny and bouncing checks, the Marine Corps also found Whelan guilty of falsely using another person’s Social Security number to sign into the online training system that Marines access to complete courses that can advance their rank and pay. The record of conviction says Whelan “proctored” an account on the system without permission. 

The Marines charged him with fraudulently opening electronic proctor accounts on the system, completing multiple examinations and grading his own examinations, which could have resulted in advancements in rank and pay. The special court-martial, however, found him not guilty of that charge. 

The special court-martial also found him guilty of willfully failing to report his leave on three occasions and going absent from his unit twice, in one case for two days. 

The court knocked him down two pay grades; restricted him to places of lodging, eating and worship for 60 days; and discharged him from the Marine Corps for bad conduct. He appealed the ruling, but the conviction was upheld. The bad-conduct discharge resulted in his rank being reduced to private after some 14 years in the Marine Corps Reserve.

The American detained in Russia has four passports. That could help him — or hurt him.

Under the Uniform Code of Military Justice, bouncing checks is a violation of an article designed to uphold discipline and good order and prevent conduct that brings discredit to the service. Broadly speaking, the military seeks to prevent officers from having outstanding debts that could offer adversaries leverage in espionage or blackmail.

Whelan’s brother David said he had no knowledge of the judicial proceedings or convictions in the Marine Corps. In a statement issued on behalf of the family Friday, he urged Congress and the State Department to help secure his brother’s release, and expressed gratitude to the U.S. ambassador to Russia, Jon Huntsman Jr., for his assistance.

“Our focus remains on ensuring that Paul is safe, well treated, has a good lawyer, and is coming home,” the statement said.  

Whelan’s family has maintained that he is innocent, and that the Michigan resident and former police officer was in Moscow for a friend’s wedding when he was arrested by members of Russia’s security services in an upscale hotel not far from the Kremlin. 

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has said Washington will demand Whelan’s release if his detention is not “appropriate.” Huntsman visited Whelan inside his cell. 

Whelan’s possible financial problems could have made him a prime target for Russian intelligence services. Intelligence services routinely look for people in financial distress whom they might recruit or blackmail. An active-duty Marine traveling in Russia would have quickly caught the attention of Russian intelligence services, said Dan Hoffman, a former CIA officer who served as the chief of station in Moscow. 

Hoffman emphasized that he had no knowledge of whether Whelan was recruited or approached. He said that from the moment Whelan set foot in Russia, he was probably monitored, and that the intelligence services would have developed a profile of his comings and goings and potentially his communications. The Russian government would have known that Whelan was coming when he applied for a visa. 

Whelan also had an active profile for years on the Russian social media platform VKontakte. That would have given the services a window into Whelan’s contacts in Russia. 

“The Russians have a saying: ‘What makes a person breathe?’ ” Hoffman said. 

The Russian government would have already known a lot about Whelan before his arrest in December, Hoffman added. “None of this was by chance. This was a chess game.” 

Hoffman, like other former U.S. officials, has speculated that the Russians may want to trade Whelan for Maria Butina, a Russian woman and gun rights activist who has pleaded guilty to acting as an agent of Russia in the United States. 

Whelan’s Russian lawyer, who is a former Soviet government investigator, has indicated that he hopes his client might be traded for Butina, telling the Daily Beast that he wants to bring back “at least one Russian soul.”

Whelan began traveling to Russia at least two years before his discharge from the Marines. Those who served with him in Iraq in 2006 recalled that he was learning Russian for fun during the deployment and took a vacation to Moscow and St. Petersburg during their weeks off, when many of the Marines went home to visit family. 

A now-defunct website that Whelan maintained around that time is filled with musings about the Russians he befriended, Russian cultural icons such as the stuffed animal Cheburashka and places he visited in the nation. Together, the public pages form the sort of profile someone engaging in espionage would be unlikely to keep.

“Having grown up during the Cold War, it was a dream of mine to visit Russia and meet some of the sneaky Russians who had kept the western world at bay for so long!!” Whelan wrote. 

He met some of his Russian friends through tour agencies, online language sites and social media, according to those who spoke to The Post. On his website, he posted photos of young Marines he served with in Iraq and recent graduates of the U.S. Naval Academy, as well as photos of Russians he counted as friends, some of whom he said were serving in the Russian military at the time.

Any attempt by Whelan to make inroads with Russian active-duty soldiers while an active-duty Marine could have put him on the radar of Russia’s security services. None of the content on his website at the time, however, suggests an awareness of such a risk.   

On one page, he posted a photo of Lubyanka, the former KGB headquarters in central Moscow that is now the headquarters of the Federal Security Service. 

“This is ‘Lubyanka’ where the KGB has our spies locked in the basement!!” Whelan wrote.

Much of the website content is lighthearted, with photos of pets, stuffed animals and cartoons. He also details his political views, railing against American liberals. 

The details of Whelan’s convictions in the Marine Corps come as Moscow copes with the diplomatic fallout of detaining a man who appears to be a citizen of four countries. 

In addition to demands by the Trump administration for greater details on Russia’s claims against Whelan, three other nations are now in the mix.

Whelan also carried passports from Canada, where he was born, as well as Britain and Ireland. Whelan obtained the two European passports through family lineage.

 A person familiar with Whelan’s case said he has a total of four passports. “He collected them as a game. There was an ongoing competition with his sister to see who could get the most,” the person said, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity surrounding the situation. 

Both Britain and Ireland are seeking consular access to Whelan, who is being held in prison on the outskirts of Moscow. 

Britain and Russia’s relationship sharply deteriorated last year after a former Russian double agent, Sergei Skripal, was poisoned in England with a nerve agent and spent months recovering. British authorities have blamed Russia for carrying out the attack — an assertion Moscow denies.

The minimal information provided by Russia — where many offices are closed until after Orthodox Christmas on Monday — has added to the intrigue. There has been no word from the Kremlin on Whelan’s arrest. 

Questions have persisted about whether the arrest amounted to retaliation for the U.S. conviction of Butina.

In December, Butina pleaded guilty to conspiring with a senior Russian official to infiltrate U.S. conservative groups. Butina, 30, is the first Russian national to be convicted of seeking to influence U.S. policy in the run-up to the 2016 election by acting as a foreign agent. 

Shortly before Butina pleaded guilty, Russian President Vladimir Putin said she was not known to any of his spy agencies. The Foreign Ministry has gone to great lengths to paint Butina as a political prisoner, notably by launching a wide-ranging social media campaign.  

“We don’t agree with individuals being used in diplomatic chess games,” British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt told Sky News. “Because it is desperately worrying, not just for the individual but their families, and we are extremely worried about him and his family as we hear this news.”

Julie Tate contributed to this report. Ferris-Rotman reported from Moscow.

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