By Ned Price
Americans, by now, are all too aware of the disinformation campaign Russian President Vladimir Putin mounted during the U.S. presidential election in 2016. A key question that remains, however, is to what extent the Trump campaign aided, abetted, or perhaps even conspired with Moscow in this effort.
As we await the findings of that ongoing investigation, another Russian disinformation campaign appears to be unfolding before our eyes — the detention in Moscow of American businessman Paul Whelan on espionage charges. This effort, just like the events surrounding the 2016 election, is seemingly predicated on fake news and propaganda. And, just as may have happened in 2016, Trump’s participation remains an important question mark.
First, the facts of the case, few of which are undisputed. What all parties acknowledge is that Russian authorities detained Whelan, a Canadian-born U.S. citizen and Marine veteran, at the end of December. Whelan’s family claims he was in Russia for a wedding. Russian authorities, on the other hand, say he was caught committing espionage, with a Russian news site contending he was caught with a flash drive with classified Russian intelligence.
If Russia’s allegations are true, Whelan is an American intelligence operative serving without the immunity from foreign prosecution typically afforded to U.S. officials. If he had immunity, Russia would have merely returned him to Washington, as the Russians have upon detaining other alleged American intelligence officers in the past, including this 2013 case that garnered significant media attention. Without knowing the full facts of the case, this is only one of the details that make Moscow’s claims highly improbable.
First, Whelan served for some 15 years as a Marine. That’s important because his military service provides a direct line between Whelan and the U.S. government. In the context of American intelligence operatives serving without immunity overseas, such a link is precisely what our intelligence community would want to avoid. Indeed, the perfect operative would have absolutely no discernible ties to Washington, obscuring to the fullest extent possible any affiliation with America’s intelligence services. And not only did Whelan serve his country, he did so in a fairly public way. A 2007 online Marine Corps news bulletin even noted his vacation to Moscow and features a photo of him across from the Kremlin. Deep cover this was not.
Just as tellingly is how Whelan left the Marines — with a court martial and a “bad conduct” discharge for attempted larceny. That fact is material today because America’s intelligence operatives serving without immunity hold an esteemed status within the intelligence hierarchy. They tend to be entrusted with our most sensitive secrets and directed to take part in our most delicate missions. The idea that a Marine with anything less than an honorable discharge would be vetted and selected for such a role may be the most glaring problem with the Russian narrative.
Moscow’s claims further appear to fall short when it comes to what we know of Whelan’s career history. Since 2017, Whelan has worked as the director of global security for a Michigan-based automotive parts supplier — a supplier that reportedly has no operations in Russia. Before that, he worked in security for a U.S.-based staffing firm where, according to a 2013 interview, his duties included preventing workplace violence. An operative assigned to the Russian target would have a natural reason for seeking information about sensitive elements of Russia’s national security establishment. Whelan, indeed, worked in security — but almost certainly a very different variety than what Moscow would have us believe.
What, then, might explain Whelan’s detention? Count me among those who think Putin may be seeking to swap him for Maria Butina, who has already pleaded guilty to infiltrating America’s conservative political movement as a Russian agent. The Russians may calculate that Whelan, a military veterans who has said positive things about President Donald Trump on Russian social media, constitutes the perfect quo for their quid — both in their eyes and in Trump’s.
That’s because Putin and Trump’s strategic interests may again be aligned, just as they were in 2016. Putin obviously wantshis agent, Butina, returned to Russia. The longer she remains in the United States, the more secrets she could be revealing to FBI and federal prosecutors about Russia’s efforts to penetrate American society. Prosecutors last month inadvertently released court documents revealing that Butina may even testify before a grand jury, underscoring her usefulness to American law enforcement and intelligence professionals.
But Trump, too, may have an incentive to see her returned to Russia. The apparent ease with which she reportedly integrated herself into prominent conservative circles — including the NRA and the National Prayer Breakfast — stands to embarrass the president and his Republican allies. What’s more, Trump and those in his orbit have every reason to be nervous about the information she may be able to provide special counsel Robert Mueller or other federal prosecutors about Putin’s assault on our democracy — and any cooperation his goons gleaned from American co-conspirators.
That’s why we may see the Whelan case resolved in fairly short order with a swap for Butina. But what we know today suggests that such an outcome would equate a confessed Russian agent who has been afforded due process with an apparent American businessman detained and imprisoned without evidence (that we know of).
This resolution might serve Trump and Putin’s interests, but it would run counter to the rule of law.
Ned Price served as a special assistant to President Barack Obama on the National Security Council staff, where he also was the spokesperson and Senior Director for Strategic Communications.
This article was first published on NBC News' Think. Opinions expressed in View articles are solely those of the author.