Paul Whelan’s Brother: Family Knew Little About His Interest in Russia
They learned about the Marine’s bad conduct discharge from media.
On Dec. 28, Russian security services arrested former U.S. Marine Paul Whelan in Moscow on suspicion of espionage. If convicted, he could face up to 20 years in prison. Russian authorities have been tight-lipped about the accusations levied against him, but former senior CIA officials have told Foreign Policy that it is highly unlikely that a person with Whelan’s background and no diplomatic cover would be chosen to run clandestine operations in Russian. Since his arrest, the media has pored over Whelan’s past, discovering a bad conduct discharge from the Marines, a Russian social media page, and multiple trips to Russia.
FP spoke with Whelan’s twin brother, David, to get the latest details on his case. What follows is an edited version of the conversation.
Foreign Policy: When did you find out that your brother had been arrested in Moscow, and what was that like?
David Whelan: I found out on Monday the 31st. We’d known over the weekend that he was missing. We’d heard by Sunday that someone had filed a missing persons report on him to the U.S. Embassy. Frankly, I just got up early on the Monday morning, and I did what librarians do—we go and do research. So I started doing internet searches for bad things that happened to Americans in Moscow, figuring that there might be a car accident or something. After narrowing down the search, I was starting to hit newswires saying that the Russians had detained Paul Whelan for espionage. And I just couldn’t believe it. And so that’s the first time anybody in my family had any idea what had happened to Paul.
FP: It’s like something out of a movie, your brother has been arrested for espionage in Moscow. What did you think?
DW: I mean, there was a wave of relief. You’re like, OK, so at least he’s alive, and that’s good news. But how do you even deal with a government like Russia that is taking your brother for details unknown for a crime that is just absurd? So we’ve been really struggling with that ever since.
FP: You’ve said publicly that you think there’s no way he was working for intelligence agencies. But do you think there was any chance he was involved in some kind of private work or thought he was getting into some kind of intrigue?
DW: I’m not sure, and I’d hate to speculate. I mean, I didn’t know about Paul’s bad conduct discharge from the Marines until this week. So there are clearly parts of his life and choices he’s made that I don’t know anything about. So is it possible that he did something like that? I suppose it could be possible. But I think the thing that strikes me is that the Russian espionage act, and I’ve only seen an English version, is so vague. It just sounds like something that someone of Paul’s background would be very well aware of the sorts of things that might trigger that and avoid them and be aware of the risks of traveling in a country like Russia where there might be arbitrary detainment.
FP: What do you know about Paul’s situation currently? What kind of conditions is he being held in?
DW: It sounds like he’s in a single cell. I think he actually requested it. He seemed in good spirits considering. He seemed OK as far as being in good health. He is lacking any sort of basic necessities, so no toilet paper and things like that. And so one of the things that the State Department helped us to do is set up an account where we can add funds in America and have them transmitted into his prison account so he can buy razors and stuff. He didn’t have his glasses. He needed to know the right words in Russian to ask that, and he didn’t know the word. We know that he’s now got a translator—I believe provided by the Russian government. And obviously now he has legal representation.
FP: Tell me a bit about Paul and his interest in Russia. Do you know when he first went to Russia?
DW: I don’t. The first account I can tell of him being in Russia—and I haven’t gone through his social media pages and things—it was an article that I saw in a military publication from late 2006 or 2007, and it’s a picture of Paul in front of the Kremlin. He’d been serving in Iraq with the U.S. Marines and had taken R&R [rest and recuperation] to go.
FP: Did he talk about his interest in Russia? Was it a thing that was known about him?
DW: No, I wouldn’t have ever said that I thought he had a particular interest in Russia. He loves to travel, so I’m not sure that Russia was necessarily ever a particular focus. I mean, it may have become one later. I don’t know that he ever went to Russia early on, so I’m not really sure where his interest would come from or even that it was a special interest in Russia.
FP: Paul’s lawyer has made some interesting statements to the press, saying that he hopes there’ll be a swap with a Russian national. I think the particular phrase he used was that they could maybe get back a “Russian soul.” How satisfied are you with what you’re hearing from Paul’s lawyer in Moscow?
DW: I think we’re in a position of just having to sort of watch and hope for the best. We didn’t have any part in the selection of his current lawyer. And as far as I can tell, the embassy isn’t allowed to be involved in the selection. According to their website and process, they’re supposed to provide the detainee with a list of English-speaking lawyers who could act on their behalf and then the detainee has to pick one. But it’s also my understanding that his current lawyer doesn’t speak English, and so I don’t think he would have been on a list from the embassy. So it’s really hard for us to understand how he was selected.
FP: What do you know about what he’s been charged with?
DW: The Russians haven’t said anything as far as I know. We haven’t gotten any official word from the U.S. Embassy staff about anything related to what happened.
FP: Is it true that Paul has four passports—Irish, British, Canadian, and American?
DW: Yes, that’s my understanding. I didn’t really know until I saw that he had asked for consular services. We’re a family that has immigrated. My grandfather immigrated to Britain from Ireland, my dad emigrated from England or Britain to Canada, and then the whole family moved on to America. So at birth we were both Canadian and British citizens. So that’s halfway there already.
FP: President Donald Trump and the White House have yet to issue a statement on this. Are you looking for the president to make a public statement on this, or would you rather things be done behind closed doors through quiet diplomacy?
DW: I only really want, and I think my family only really wants, Paul to come home and Paul to be freed. The people who know how to get Paul out of Russia the fastest aren’t in his family—they’re in the American government, they’re in the British, the Irish, the Canadian governments. Those are the people who I think will have the best idea about how to do that. And I’m not going to second-guess their decisions to make a statement or to not make a statement so long as everybody’s working toward the goal, and I have faith that everybody is working toward it.
This interview was edited for length and clarity.