Jailed American spent years collecting Russian contacts

Paul Whelan, a U.S. citizen detained in Russia for suspected spying, appears in a photo provided by the Whelan family on January 1, 2019. (REUTERS)
Updated 05 January 2019
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Jailed American spent years collecting Russian contacts

  • Whelan, 48, could face up to 20 years in prison if convicted of spying. He is also a citizen of Britain, Canada and Ireland, which brings international pressure on Russia from several fronts

WASHINGTON: A US corporate security executive and former Marine who has been jailed in Moscow on spying charges has spent more than a decade cultivating friends and contacts in Russia, both virtual and real.
Paul Whelan sought out friends throughout the country, most often through a social networking site that is similar to Facebook and popular largely in Russia. Several told The Associated Press that the American never seemed sinister, merely someone who was interested in Russia and wanted to be pen pals.
“I know him as a friendly, polite, educated, and easygoing guy,” said one of his contacts, who, like the other Russians interviewed for this story, spoke on condition of anonymity because of Whelan’s legal troubles.
Whelan was arrested Dec. 28 while on a two-week visit to the country and has been charged with espionage. The Russian government has so far given no details about the allegations against him, but a close look at his social media history suggests why he might have come to the attention of the Russian security services, regardless of his motives.
He has collected dozens of contacts on the social media site, nearly all of them men, many of whom have at least some connection to the military.
His family back home says he was nothing more than a tourist. In a Washington Post op-ed published Friday, his twin brother, David, urged the US government to pressure Russia to release him.
“Paul is a kind and considerate brother, son and uncle, and a generous and loyal friend,” he wrote. “He travels as often as he can, both for work and pleasure. He is many things to many people, but he is not a spy.”
Whelan, 48, could face up to 20 years in prison if convicted of spying. He is also a citizen of Britain, Canada and Ireland, which brings international pressure on Russia from several fronts. He was born in Canada to British parents, but grew up in Michigan, where he now lives.
His family said he was in Moscow over the holidays for the wedding of a fellow former Marine and had planned to travel to St. Petersburg before flying home this weekend. Instead he’s in Lefortovo, a notorious prison run by the KGB in Soviet times and still used for foreigners accused of spying.
Whelan has been visiting Russia since at least 2007, when he took advantage of a military program for Marines deployed in Iraq that gave them 15 days of leave and paid for the travel.
Even before then, he had begun developing a network of contacts throughout Russia. Some said they met him online in 2006 and became “pen pals,” trading practice in English for Russian. Whelan seemed fascinated with Russia and its culture, they said.
For nearly a decade, he has had an account on VKontakte, which means In Contact. Of his 58 friends at the time of his arrest, 54 were men. Many attended universities affiliated with the military, civil aviation or technical studies. Many share his interest in sports and firearms.
“We was guys with guns,” wrote another of his friends, who said he was a student working nights as a security guard when he first met Whalen online.
Both men, who live in separate Russian cities far from Moscow, said they first met Whelan in person in 2008 when he traveled around the country to meet some of his new friends. Others said they have only communicated online.
Whelan’s brother said it would not be surprising to find Russian soldiers among his contacts.
“I’m pretty sure that some of the people he knows through social media are probably Russian soldiers because there are a lot of Russian soldiers and he probably knows one,” David Whelan said in an interview.
One of Paul Whelan’s friends on VKontakte said he believed the arrest was a mistake because a true spy would never act as openly as he did. He said Whelan gave him his home address and they exchanged Christmas cards.
Former CIA officers also have expressed doubts that Whelan was working for US intelligence. They note that the CIA would be unlikely to use someone in Russia without diplomatic immunity and leave them vulnerable to arrest.
Whelan’s Marine record also would likely prevent US intelligence from hiring him. He began active duty with the Marines in 2003 and was deployed twice to Iraq, rising to staff sergeant. But his military career ended with a court martial in 2008, when he was convicted on charges that included attempted larceny and dereliction of duty.
Court documents released by the military show he was accused of attempting to steal more than $10,000 while on duty in Iraq, where he worked as a clerk, in September 2006. He was also convicted of using a false social security number and profile for a military computer system to grade his own examinations, and of writing 10 bad checks totaling around $6,000.
He was dropped two grades in rank and given a bad conduct discharge from the Marine Corps.
“This guy is not an intel asset,” said Malcom Nance, a veteran intelligence officer. “He’s not the type of person you would use as an asset. There is no way.”
Nance said he suspects Russian intelligence officers have been watching Whelan for years, wondering if they could use him in some way and maybe trying to flip him.
A member of Russia’s parliament suggested Friday that once the investigation into Whelan was completed, he could be swapped for Maria Butina, a Russian woman jailed in the US since July. She pleaded guilty last month to conspiring to act as a foreign agent by trying to infiltrate conservative circles and the National Rifle Association to influence US politics.
However, she has been cooperating with federal prosecutors and is unlikely to spend too much time behind bars. Federal sentencing guidelines call for no jail time to six months.
After his discharge, Whelan returned to his job in the temporary staffing company Kelly Services, based in Troy, Michigan, where he had worked since 2001 in the IT department until taking the leave of military absence. He was Kelly’s head of global security and investigations until 2016.
Early the following year, Whelan joined auto parts supplier BorgWarner as global security director. BorgWarner, based in Auburn Hills, Michigan, has facilities around the world but none in Russia and he never traveled to the country for business, company spokeswoman Kathy Graham said.


Sri Lanka in lockdown after deadly blasts leave scores dead

Updated 31 sec ago
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Sri Lanka in lockdown after deadly blasts leave scores dead

  • Eight blasts have ripped through churches and hotels
  • Social media blocked across the country in temporary ban

COLOMBO: An eight blasth has been reported in the Sri Lankan capital Colombo, as the government announced an immediate curfew.

The curfew will begin on Sunday night at 6:00pm local time (1230 GMT) and run until 6:00am local time (0030 GMT), the Sri Lankan defense ministry said.

The attack took place just hours after a string of bombings ripped through churches and hotels on Sunday monrning, killing at least 160 people.

Access to major social media platforms and messaging services has been shut down by the Sri Lankan government.

Police spokesman Ruwan Gunasekera said the seventh blast hit a hotel in the southern Colombo suburb of Dehiwala, killing two people.

A hospital source said Americans, British and Dutch citizens were among those killed in the six blasts, which also injured hundreds of people.

Sri Lanka’s Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe condemned the blasts as “cowardly” and said the government was working to “contain the situation.”

The public has been told to excercise caution in the following days, with emergency numbers being circulated for people who want to seek help.

The country’s police chief made a nationwide alert 10 days before the blasts that suicide bombers planned to hit “prominent churches,” according to the warning seen by AFP.

Police chief Pujuth Jayasundara sent an intelligence warning to top officers on April 11 setting out the threat.

“A foreign intelligence agency has reported that the NTJ (National Thowheeth Jama’ath) is planning to carry out suicide attacks targeting prominent churches as well as the Indian high commission in Colombo,” said the alert.

The NTJ is a radical Muslim group in Sri Lanka that came to notice last year when it was linked to the vandalization of Buddhist statues.

A police official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said at least 42 people were killed in Colombo, where three hotels and a church were hit.

The first explosions were reported at St. Anthony’s Shrine — a church in Colombo — and St. Sebastian’s Church in the town of Negombo just outside the capital. Dozens of people injured in the St. Anthony’s blast flooded into the Colombo National Hospital by mid-morning, an official told AFP.

“A bomb attack to our church, please come and help if your family members are there,” read a post in English on the Facebook page of the St. Sebastian’s Church at Katuwapitiya in Negombo.

Inside St. Anthony's Shrine where one of the bombings took place. (AFP)

Shortly after those blasts were reported, police confirmed three hotels in the capital had also been hit, along with a church in Batticaloa.

An official at one of the hotels, the Cinnamon Grand Hotel near the prime minister’s official residence in Colombo, told AFP that the blast had ripped through the hotel restaurant. He said at least one person had been killed in the blast.

An official at the Batticaloa hospital told AFP more than 300 people had been admitted with injuries following the blast there.

(Reuters)

“Emergency meeting called in a few minutes. Rescue operations underway,” Sri Lanka’s Minister of Economic Reforms and Public Distribution, Harsha de Silva, said in a tweet on his verified account.

He said he had been to two of the attacked hotels and was at the scene at St. Anthony’s Shrine, and described “horrible scenes.” “I saw many body parts strewn all over,” he tweeted, adding that there were “many casualties including foreigners.”

“Please stay calm and indoors,” he added. Photos circulating on social media showed the roof of one church had been almost blown off in the blast.

The floor was littered with a mixture of roof tiles, splintered wood and blood. Several people could be seen covered in blood, with some trying to help those with more serious injuries. The images could not immediately be verified.

Only around six percent of mainly Buddhist Sri Lanka is Catholic, but the religion is seen as a unifying force because it includes people from both the Tamil and majority Sinhalese ethnic groups.

Meanwhile, British Prime Minister Theresa May condemned the deadly string of Easter Sunday attacks on Christians in Sri Lanka as “truly appalling.”