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How The Curious Case Of Paul Whelan Is Unfolding Between The U.S. And Russia


Lots of people have a passport. Some people have two. But four? That is how many Paul Whelan has. He's the American now in a Moscow prison accused of spying. Russia claims that he was caught receiving classified information in a Moscow hotel. Former CIA officers suspect this is a setup by Russian intelligence. NPR national security correspondent Greg Myre looks at how the curious case of Paul Whelan is unfolding.

GREG MYRE, BYLINE: According to a Russian news agency, Paul Whelan met a Russian citizen a week ago at the storied Metropol Hotel right near the Kremlin. The Russian reportedly gave Whelan a flash drive listing all the employees of a Russian security agency. Moments later, Russian authorities arrested Whelan.

This account by the Rosbalt news agency has not been reported elsewhere. And former CIA officer Dan Hoffman says the story doesn't add up.

DAN HOFFMAN: The Metropol Hotel is a swanky hotel overlooking the Kremlin, not exactly the first place you'd pick to run a clandestine operation.

MYRE: Hoffman served as the CIA's Moscow station chief before he retired. He says the Russians have a long history of planting false evidence.

HOFFMAN: This has all the hallmarks of a Russian KGB-style setup.

MYRE: One such precedent was in 1986, when American journalist Nicholas Daniloff was seized in Moscow. Here's what he told NPR this week.


NICHOLAS DANILOFF: They arrested me after I had been given some material by a person that I thought was a friend and a source that's a Russian. And I was carrying this package with me when they arrested me. It was something that they had clearly planned.

MYRE: Daniloff was picked up just days after the U.S. arrested a Soviet official in New York and accused him of espionage. After several weeks of intense negotiations, Daniloff was released, and so was the Soviet official.

Paul Whelan's family says he first traveled to Russia in 2006. At the time, he was serving as a U.S. Marine in Iraq. He was authorized to take the trip for his vacation. Whelan, now 48, has been back to Russia several times since. Here's his twin brother, David Whelan, speaking to NPR this week.


DAVID WHELAN: I know that he's traveled there for personal interests, for visiting friends that he's met on social media. And he travels widely. I mean, Russia is just one of many places that he has traveled to over the last 20 or 30 years.

MYRE: Paul Whelan was born in Canada, became a U.S. citizen and also holds passports from Britain, where his parents were born, and Ireland, where his grandparents were born. David Whelan insists that his brother, who works for an auto parts company near Detroit, is not a spy.


WHELAN: There's no chance that the Russians are making an accurate accusation.

MYRE: Whelan has a Russian lawyer who's already raised the possibility of a trade for a Russian jailed in the U.S. That's an apparent reference to Maria Butina. She pleaded guilty last month to working as a Russian government agent in the U.S. She's also agreed to cooperate with the Justice Department, which could embarrass Russian President Vladimir Putin. Again, Nicholas Daniloff.


DANILOFF: Obviously the Russians want to get her back as soon as possible. One of their tried-and-true methods is to arrest an American in Moscow, essentially turn that person into a hostage and then try to negotiate a one-on-one exchange.

MYRE: Dan Hoffman, the former CIA officer, says Whelan's visits to Russia put him on the radar of the Federal Security Service, or the FSB.

HOFFMAN: There's no doubt that he came to the attention of the FSB years and years and years ago. And I'm sure that they tracked him very closely and kind of put his case on the shelf and decided to take it off the shelf and use it when it was an appropriate time to suit their tactical advantage.

MYRE: Two figures who could resolve this case, Presidents Trump and Putin, have not yet commented. Greg Myre, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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