Michigan man held for spying in Russia was frequent visitor

DETROIT (AP) – As a staff sergeant with the Marines in Iraq, Paul Whelan showed an affinity for Russia – even spending two weeks of military leave in Moscow and St Petersburg instead of at home in the United States (US) with family and friends.

The 48-year-old Detroit-area man had an account on a Russian social media site, where he posted festive notes on the country’s national holidays.

Now, he’s under arrest there on espionage allegations.

Whelan has visited Russia since at least 2007 and was there again for a friend’s wedding, showing other guests around, said his twin brother, David Whelan. He was due to return home on January 6, the brother said.

US officials are seeking answers about Paul Whelan’s arrest on spying charges. The Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) said Whelan was caught “during an espionage operation”, but gave no details.

This undated photo provided by the Whelan family shows Paul Whelan in Iceland. – AP

US Ambassador to Russia Jon Huntsman Jr visited Whelan on Wednesday in Moscow’s Lefortovo Prison, the State Department said.

“Ambassador Huntsman expressed his support for Whelan and offered the embassy’s assistance,” it said.

He also spoke by phone with Whelan’s family, the statement added, but did not disclose any details “due to privacy considerations for Whelan and his family”.

David Whelan disputes Russia’s allegation that his brother is a spy.

Former Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) agent John Sipher agreed, saying Paul Whelan’s spotty military career would keep US intelligence from hiring him for sensitive operations.

“He absolutely does not fit the profile of someone we would use in a place like Moscow,” said Sipher, who once ran the agency’s Russia operations in Moscow.

“Due to the oppressive level of counterintelligence scrutiny in Moscow, we do not put people without diplomatic immunity in harm’s way. Nor do we handle low-level intelligence collection operations in a place like Moscow.”

Paul Whelan attended high school in Ann Arbor, west of Detroit, and joined the Marine Corps Reserves in 1994. A decade later, he was made a staff sergeant and was deployed twice to Iraq, in 2004 and 2006.

His last duty assignment was with the Marine Air Control Group 38 Headquarters, 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing; Marine Corps Air Station in Miramar, California. He specialised in administrative posts.

Whelan was part of ‘The Rest and Recuperation Leave Programme’, which authorised 15 days of leave to service members on yearlong deployments to Iraq, according to another 2007 story on the website.

The military paid for the travel and most service members chose to return home, but others could travel abroad.

Whelan spent his two weeks in Russia, saying in the interview that the leave programme “gives those of us who are single an opportunity to travel throughout the world wherever we want to go and experience the diversity of culture.”