Paul Nicholas Whelan (born March 5, 1970) is a Canadian-born former United States Marine with U.S., British, Irish, and Canadian citizenship. He was arrested in Russia on December 28, 2018, and accused of spying. On June 15, 2020, he received a 16-year prison sentence.
According to a deposition Whelan gave in 2013, he was in law enforcement from 1988 to 2000 as a police officer in Chelsea, Michigan, and a sheriff's deputy in Washtenaw County. The Chelsea Police, however, said he worked in lesser roles and as a part-time officer from 1990 to 1996, while the Washtenaw County sheriff reported no record of his employment. A former colleague said he was a patrol officer from 1998 to 2000 in the Keego Harbor police department.
He was an IT manager for the Kelly Services staffing company from 2001 to 2003, and then 2008 to 2010. From 2010 to 2016 Whelan was Kelly Services' senior manager of global security and operations.
He enlisted in the Marine Corps Reserve in 1994. He took military leave from Kelly Services to serve with the Marine Corps Reserve from 2003 to 2008, including service in Iraq. He held the rank of staff sergeant with Marine Air Control Group 38 working as an administrative clerk and administrative chief, and he was part of Operation Iraqi Freedom. After a court-martial conviction in January 2008 on multiple counts "related to larceny", he was sentenced to 60 days restriction, reduction to pay grade E-4, and a bad conduct discharge. The specific charges against him included "attempted larceny, three specifications of dereliction of duty, making a false official statement, wrongfully using another’s social security number, and ten specifications of making and uttering[a] checks without having sufficient funds in his account for payment."
When arrested in Russia, Whelan was director of global security and investigations for BorgWarner, an international automotive parts manufacturer based in Michigan. His work with Kelly Services and BorgWarner gave Whelan contacts with the U.S. intelligence community, federal agents and foreign embassies.
Whelan traveled to Russia several times from 2006 and maintained an intermittent presence on a Russian language social media website, Vkontakte (VK), where he had approximately 70 contacts. He has studied Russian but communicated online using Google Translate. Whelan supported Donald Trump in the 2016 election and, following Trump's victory, posted in Russian Президент Трyмп Вперед!! (President Trump Onward!!).[b]
On December 28, 2018, Whelan was arrested in the Moscow area by the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB), which later confirmed his arrest. Whelan's twin brother David said Whelan arrived in Moscow on December 22 to attend the wedding of a former fellow Marine at the Hotel Metropol Moscow and to assist the groom's family members on their first visit to Russia, a country he had visited many times. He said his brother planned to return to Michigan on January 6, 2019, via Saint Petersburg.
According to the Russian news agency Rosbalt [ru], Whelan was apprehended in his hotel room at the Metropol while concluding a long outing with a Russian citizen, who handed him a USB drive containing "a list of all the employees at a classified security agency". The independent Latvian-based publication Meduza reported that the wedding attendees all banded close together for the duration of the holiday, and were taken aback by Whelan's decision to spend the day alone.
The BBC cited family members of Whelan, who said he previously bragged about knowing an agent of the FSB, and was privy to an unusual cache of personal details about his friend, including which intelligence training school he attended (biographical information typically reserved for a very close circle).
According to Whelan, his long-time friend had appeared unexpectedly in the hotel, followed by authorities, who later arrested him.
According to attorneys for Whelan, they could not provide the name of Whelan's Russian friend due to Russian secrecy rules, but Whelan's family identified the person as Ilya Yatsenko, whom the Russian newspaper Kommersant described as a major in the FSB's Department "K", which monitors Russian economic crimes.
Whelan was being held in Moscow's Lefortovo Prison.[c] As of March 2019, he shared a cell with another prisoner who spoke no English.
Former CIA officers have stated that the CIA would not recruit an officer with Whelan's military record, nor leave an officer exposed without a diplomatic passport. They further claim that Whelan's arrest is connected to tensions between Russia and the United States, including the detention of confessed unregistered foreign agent Maria Butina. On December 20, 2018, when discussing Butina's arrest, Russian President Vladimir Putin stated that Russia "will not arrest innocent people simply to exchange them".
U.S. Ambassador to Russia Jon Huntsman Jr. met with Whelan on January 2, 2019, while Whelan was in Russian custody. He told Whelan's family that Paul was "in good health and good spirits", but that the family needed to supply all his incidental needs aside from basic foodstuffs.[d] U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said: "We've made clear to the Russians our expectation that we will learn more about the charges, come to understand what it is he's been accused of and if the detention is not appropriate, we will demand his immediate return." On January 4, 2019, British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt said: "We don't agree with individuals being used in diplomatic chess games... We are all extremely worried about him and his family." As of January 4, British and Irish consular officials were seeking access to Whelan.
On January 3, 2019, Whelan's attorney, Vladimir Zherebenko,[e] said he was seeking his release on bail. He said a trial would not begin for at least six months, and that he would welcome an exchange of Whelan for Butina. He said: "I presume that he is innocent because, for now, I haven't seen any evidence against him that would prove otherwise." A few weeks later, Zherebenkov said Whelan had been unaware of the contents of the USB drive and believed it contained material solely of personal value such as "photographs, videos, anything at all, about his previous holiday in Russia."
On January 5, 2019, the Russian Foreign Ministry said that on the day after Whelan's arrest the United States had detained a Russian citizen, Dmitry Makarenko, in the Northern Marianas and transported him to Florida to face charges of unauthorized export of defense equipment.[f]
Conviction and sentencing
On June 15, 2020, Whelan was convicted and sentenced to 16 years in a Russian prison for espionage by a court in Moscow. His lawyers said they believed Russia would now seek a prisoner swap.
Whelan said in court that the case was a sham to use him to influence the United States: "We have proven my innocence... we have proven fabrication. This is slimy, greasy corrupt Russian politics, nothing more, nothing less."
Whelan was initially held at the Correctional Colony No. 18 under supervision of the Russian Federation's Federal Penitentiary Service. As of December 2020[update] he was held in a high-security prison, IK-17, eight hours drive southeast of Moscow.
Campaign to release
Family members said Whelan had been told that he had been arrested to be exchanged for a Russian prisoner in the United States, mentioning Konstantin Yaroshenko (who was released in return for American Trevor Reed), Viktor Bout, or Roman Seleznev. On July 27, 2022, it was announced that President Joe Biden had authorized a trade for Whelan and WNBA player Brittney Griner, who was arrested in Russia in February on drug charges, in exchange for convicted arms dealer Viktor Bout, nicknamed "The Merchant of Death". The Russian side insisted on the additional release of Vadim Krasikov, an assassin serving a life sentence for murder in Germany. After negotiations, only Griner was exchanged for Bout on December 8, 2022, as the Kremlin had refused to release Whelan and posed an ultimatum to the Biden administration of freeing Griner or no one.
Whelan's brother David Whelan approved of the decision to "make the deal that was possible, rather than waiting for one that wasn’t going to happen."
Whelan's family is a part of the Bring Our Families Home campaign which advocates to bring home wrongful detainees and hostages. Whelan's image is featured in a 15-foot (4.6 m) mural in Georgetown (Washington, D.C.) along with other Americans wrongfully detained abroad.
Whelan is a citizen of Canada, the United States, the United Kingdom, and Ireland. His twin brother David ascribed Paul's acquisition of the multiple nationalities to "probably a genealogical interest as much as anything."[g]
Whelan was born in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada, and raised partly in the Ann Arbor area of Michigan where he and his twin brother David graduated from Huron High School in 1988. David said the family had not known Paul had a bad conduct discharge. In addition to his twin brother, Paul Whelan has a brother, Andrew, and a sister, Elizabeth.
^The word "uttering" is a legal term that refers to the crime of "unlawfully passing a forged document with intent to defraud".
^In this posting, he misspelled the President's name in Russian. The proper Russian spelling for the President is Трамп or Tramp.
^Though he has been described as being held in "solitary confinement", the prison's program for new prisoners is more complex than simple isolation and changes after the first ten days.
^"But even with food, we were told that we might want to give him extra money. He'll need to buy things like razors, toilet paper, soap, things that would be on-hand anywhere else."
^Zherebenko has worked on the high-profile international case of a Russian accused of drug trafficking.
^Florida resident Vladimir Nevidomy pleaded guilty in June 2018 to conspiracy with Makarenko and was sentenced to 26 months in prison.
^"My grandfather came from Ireland to England and my father came from England to Canada, and that's where we were born. So we were eligible for British and Canadian citizenship because we were born in Canada to British parents. And then, the Irish changed the law in the early part of the century to allow grandchildren of Irish citizens to get Irish citizenship. So he just thought it's an opportunity to have that, so why not?"
^"U.S. v. Whelan, Docket #200800152"(PDF). The United States Navy Judge Advocate General's Corps (U.S. Navy JAG). Navy-Marine Corps Court of Criminal Appeals (NMCCA). August 26, 2008. Retrieved December 4, 2019. He was sentenced to 60 days restriction, reduction to pay grade E-4, and, a bad-conduct discharge.
^"U.S. v. Whelan, Docket #200800152"(PDF). The United States Navy Judge Advocate General's Corps (U.S. Navy JAG). Navy-Marine Corps Court of Criminal Appeals (NMCCA). August 26, 2008. Retrieved December 4, 2019.