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U.S. Officials Visit American Man Detained In Moscow On Spying Charges

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

There's a new test in relations between Russia and the U.S. An American has been jailed in Moscow on espionage charges. Just weeks ago, a Russian woman pleaded guilty to conspiracy here in the U.S., and some experts say Russia may be looking for a trade. So far, the U.S. has been tight-lipped about the espionage case, though diplomats did visit the man in prison today. NPR's Michele Kelemen reports.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: Secretary of State Mike Pompeo says he's seeking clarity from Moscow about the case against Paul Whelan.

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

KELEMEN: Today, U.S. Ambassador Jon Huntsman visited Whelan in Moscow's Lefortovo detention facility and spoke by phone with Whelan's family. Whelan is a 48-year-old ex-Marine who did two tours in Iraq before receiving a bad conduct discharge in 2008. He currently oversees security at BorgWarner, an auto parts company in Michigan. His brother, David Whelan, told MSNBC that he was in Moscow for a wedding.

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DAVID WHELAN: He has a law enforcement background. He's got his Marine background. He does corporate security. And he's aware of the risks of traveling in certain parts of the world. So it would just never have occurred to me that, A, he would have any sort of trouble in a large metropolitan area or, B, that his background would suggest that he would be willing to commit any crime, let alone an espionage crime.

KELEMEN: Russian officials say he was arrested last Friday while carrying out a, quote, "act of espionage." They've said little else about the case, and that surprises Stanford University's Michael McFaul.

MICHAEL MCFAUL: The fact that we don't know the facts I think is what's most intriguing about this. If the Russians had very concrete evidence of espionage, they have every reason to publicize them, and the fact that they haven't is strange to me.

KELEMEN: McFaul was the U.S. ambassador to Russia the last time an American was arrested and accused of spying there. At the time, in 2013, the Russians showed the accused man, Ryan Fogle, on television with wigs and other gadgets. Fogle worked at the U.S. embassy and had diplomatic immunity, so he was expelled as McFaul recounted.

MCFAUL: That got solved rather quickly. What's different about this case is that Mr. Whelan isn't a diplomat. And so he has a lot less rights in the country itself, and that makes it a lot more complicated.

KELEMEN: McFaul says the Russians may be looking to trade Whelan for Maria Butina, the Russian who pleaded guilty in a U.S. court recently of conspiracy to infiltrate U.S. conservative groups. Russia's foreign ministry paints her as a political prisoner. Its Twitter profile shows a picture of her with the hashtag #FreeMariaButina. McFaul says Americans might want to think twice now about traveling to Russia. The Whelan case, he adds, could also affect business ties.

MCFAUL: The Russians constantly complain, including government officials to me from time to time, about, you know, why aren't Americans doing more business in Russia, incredible investment opportunities here? Well, there's nothing that's going to discourage investors more than what seems to be an arbitrary arrest of an American in Russia.

KELEMEN: The State Department currently advises Americans to exercise caution in Russia due to, quote, "terrorism harassment and the arbitrary enforcement of local laws." Michele Kelemen, NPR News, the State Department.

(SOUNDBITE OF TALL BLACK GUY'S "THE DARK STREETS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.


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