McFaul: Whelan’s Arrest Is ‘Very Strange’

The former U.S. ambassador to Russia says the former Marine's detention doesn’t fit the pattern of previous ones.

Then-U.S. Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul, right, leaves the Russian Foreign Ministry headquarters in Moscow on May 15, 2013. (AFP/Getty Images)
Then-U.S. Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul, right, leaves the Russian Foreign Ministry headquarters in Moscow on May 15, 2013. (AFP/Getty Images)

It’s been over a week since news broke that former U.S. Marine Paul Whelan was detained by the Russian Federal Security Service on suspicion of espionage. In the past, Russian authorities have been quick to release details of allegations levied against U.S. citizens, but in this case they have been unusually quiet. Former senior CIA officers told Foreign Policy that, given Whelan’s background, it’s highly unlikely that he was acting on behalf of U.S. intelligence agencies, which would leave him without diplomatic immunity.

FP spoke to former U.S. Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul, who has himself been harshly criticized by the Russian government, about his experience in dealing with such arrests and why he has many unanswered questions about Paul Whelan’s detention. What follows is an edited version of that conversation.

Foreign Policy: What was your initial reaction to the arrest of Paul Whelan?

Michael McFaul: I was shocked. My next reaction was that this feels like a pretty typical tit-for-tat response by Vladimir Putin. One that I personally have been involved with in the past. And then over time this has become more confused—I’ve got a lot of questions. Initially it was rather shocking that a guy could be picked up like that. What was especially striking to me was how few details the Russian government put out about the alleged espionage. Because when I was in the government working at the White House and when I was ambassador I also dealt with issues of alleged cases of espionage. And in those cases the government of Russia was very proud to present the materials that they had allegedly collected on Americans.

FP: What for you is still to be answered? What are the big questions?

MM: Well the biggest one is what espionage was he doing. The story in the Russian press is quite convoluted, that he was asking for the names of some low-level officials on a USB drive. But you know that sounds all very strange to me. And again, the Russians are very good at counterintelligence—probably one of the best countries in the world at running that. They have extremely effective and pervasive monitoring systems in that country. If they caught him red-handed in this act, why haven’t we seen those photos? Why haven’t we seen tapes? That’s strange to me. And, by the way, they oftentimes make up this stuff. So it’s also even strange to me that they haven’t given us the made-up stuff as they’ve done with other people that they’ve detained. I want to learn more. This does not strike me as somebody familiar with intelligence operations in Russia. Mr. Whelan doesn’t strike me as a typical spy given his background. This doesn’t fit what I typically think of an intelligence operation inside Russia, which is a very risky place to do any kinds of operations. It doesn’t fit the normal standard operating procedure for me.

FP : Have the Russians made a mistake? Do you think they thought they’d got a genuine American spy?

MM: I don’t know. I honestly don’t know. Americans make mistakes. That I also know from previous cases, they do things that they think were innocent that the Russian government deems otherwise. But that’s why it’s so mysterious: Why do we not know more? Even the way the Trump administration has talked about it is rather odd. Especially Secretary [of State Mike] Pompeo’s comments the other day, I thought it was rather equivocal. So it just seems to me that there’s more to this story that the rest of us don’t know yet.

FP: What seemed equivocal about his comments to you?

MM: I thought it would be a little more emotional and outraged, I mean this is a U.S. citizen detained by what appears to be false pretenses. That’s outrageous, and we should be expressing some outrage. But I do think it was a good move that Ambassador [Jon] Huntsman went in to see him.

FP: Is it unusual that we haven’t heard from the president or the White House on this?

MM: No, I don’t know if it’s unusual or not. It’s striking to me how little the president’s talked about it. Not just talking about it but, do something about it. He has put forward a hypothesis about diplomacy that if he develops and nurtures these personal relationships with people like Putin, that will lead to concrete results that are good for the American people. He’s made that argument for years now. Well, here it is, here’s an American arrested.

FP: Trump has made it a point in the past of getting Americans held abroad released, he’s been quite proud of that.

MM: Exactly. Interacting with dictators and doing that as he did with the North Korean government. So, why not here? Maybe it’s happening behind the scenes, I don’t know, but I do think it’s odd.

FP: What is the usual protocol when an American is detained abroad?

MM: Well there’s there’s two very different scenarios. One scenario is with somebody who’s detained who has a diplomatic passport. And in those cases, because of diplomatic immunity, there’s an urgency that is expected from the country that is holding that citizen. That’s part of diplomatic protocol. Here it’s different. Why would an intelligence organization use somebody like this person [Whelan] who doesn’t have that? Then it’s just complicated. There’s the consular services part, which the Russians recognized, and that was a good thing. But after that there’s there’s not a standard procedure. The host government has all the power, outsiders have very little.

FP: When people now ask you, is Russia safe to visit, are you going to change your advice?

MM: I can’t travel to Russia, and if I did I’d be arrested, so I know very concretely what it feels like to be accused falsely of a crime by the Kremlin. And it’s scary, especially because they abuse all kinds of things around the world like Interpol. Having said that, I also believe strongly in trying to keep alive contacts between Russian and American societies. But an event like this gives me pause. And that’s why I now just echo what the State Department says if you go to their website, right there the first sentence in their advisory is a caution about the arbitrary enforcement of local laws. That’s a troubling thing that everybody has to think about.

Amy Mackinnon is a national security and intelligence reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @ak_mack

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