Paul Whelan’s Freedom Is a Family Affair

Siblings of former U.S. Marine detained in Moscow work around the clock to procure his release.

Paul Whelan, a former U.S. Marine accused of spying and arrested in Russia, arrives to attend his hearing at a court in Moscow on Aug. 23.
Paul Whelan, a former U.S. Marine accused of spying and arrested in Russia, arrives to attend his hearing at a court in Moscow on Aug. 23. Kirill Kudryavtsev/AFP/Getty Images

Elizabeth Whelan wanted to blend in in Washington. 

She studied photographs of members of Congress and their staffers and examined what they wore, the way they always had their cellphones in their hands. It was a little trick she’d learned over the years as a self-employed artist: People are more receptive to you if you look and act like them. So she bought a slew of new outfits that were a far cry from what she wears at home on Martha’s Vineyard.

“I wanted to be able to get past people just comforting me as a family member,” she said. “I wanted to get down to business.”

Business means securing the release of Elizabeth’s younger brother Paul Whelan, who was arrested on suspicion of espionage on Dec. 28 last year during a trip to Moscow, where he had gone for a friend’s wedding. The Russian prosecutor in the case claims he was caught “red-handed” with state secrets, but in a brief courtroom interview with the BBC Tuesday, Whelan said he had been set up by a friend who shoved something in his pocket moments before his arrest. 

Whelan’s case is expected to go to trial in January of next year, and a judge in Moscow has repeatedly denied requests to have him released on bail. With relations between Moscow and Washington at their nadir, Whelan’s arrest sparked speculation that Russia could seek to trade him for a Russian held in a U.S. prison. 

It has left Whelan’s family to face an inconceivable question: How do you spring your relative from a foreign prison? With no handbooks to follow, no idiot’s guide to getting your brother out of a Russian prison, the Whelan siblings divided tasks between them as they fielded requests from the world’s media and tried to get their heads around the machinations of the State Department and the Russian legal system. 

Whelan’s older brother, Andrew Whelan, an engineer with an eye for detail and a desire to remain behind the scenes, took on the task of managing the family’s communications with Moscow-based consular representatives. Owing to their family’s history of migration, Paul Whelan holds passports from Ireland, the United Kingdom, Canada, and the United States. He has been prevented from making phone calls, and his mail is often withheld for months at a time, making consular visits a critical line of communication for the family.

The consular visits are closely monitored by the Russian authorities, who limit the scope of what Whelan is allowed to say to the embassy representatives. For reasons that are not clear, he is not allowed to refer to anybody by name in the meetings, Paul’s twin brother David Whelan said in an interview with Foreign Policy

To get messages out, Whelan has framed them as cryptic messages or insider family jokes, which embassy representative then pass on to his family to decode.

“When we get them, we’re able to unpack them a lot more than if he’s able to spell them out,” said David Whelan.  

He has handled media inquiries since his twin’s arrest, and quickly set up a listserv that has sent out regular updates on his brother’s case. Elizabeth, whom David describes as a “relationship builder,” took on Washington and the task of raising their brother’s case in Congress and at the higher echelons of the U.S. government. 

“I had your basic civics and AP history and all that, but that doesn’t really prepare you for this,” said Elizabeth Whelan. In the early days after her brother’s arrest as she struggled to eat and contended with nightmares and bouts of crying, she set about learning the ins and outs of how the U.S. government works, how foreign policy is made, and who the key players are. 

Congressional staffers, she said, have been especially helpful, “Once I realized how they were communicating and what their inter-hive method of communicating was, I was able to sort of piggyback on that.”

Nine months after his arrest, his case reached an important milestone last week as a bipartisan group of lawmakers from Whelan’s home state of Michigan urged the Russian government to release him and called on their colleagues in both chambers to support a resolution introduced last week calling the Russian government to either produce evidence in the case against Whelan or to release him immediately. 

“Russian authorities have presented no credible evidence against Paul. I’m very concerned about Paul’s health condition and access to consular service throughout his detention,” said U.S. Sen. Gary Peters.

In January, when he was originally scheduled to return from Russia, Whelan had been due to have surgery to repair a hernia, a painful condition where part of the intestine pushes through a weak spot in the abdominal wall. His Russian defense lawyer, Olga Karlova, told Foreign Policy that the condition is currently being managed by painkillers, but Whelan will have to decide whether or not he wants to undergo surgery in Russia. 

As his pretrial detention has been repeatedly extended, Whelan’s patience appears to be wearing thin. For the first time at a hearing Tuesday, he shouted over the Russian judge as he read his verdict: “I’d like to say to my family that I love them and appreciate the support. They know that this is garbage.”

At a hearing in June, he called on U.S. President Donald Trump to intervene in his case, “Mr. President, we cannot keep America great unless we aggressively protect and defend American citizens wherever they are in the world,” he shouted to reporters from inside a glass box in the courtroom. “Tweet your intentions,” he asked the president. 

Trump has sought to make the release of Americans detained abroad a cornerstone of his legacy. Over the summer, the president issued a series of tweets calling for the release of the American rapper A$AP Rocky, who was held in Sweden and charged with assault. Trump later dispatched his hostage envoy, Robert O’Brien—whom Trump tapped on Wednesday as his new national security advisor—to Stockholm to secure his release. 

Trump has yet to make any public comments about Whelan’s detention, while U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has only once spoken publicly about the case. “If the detention is not appropriate we will demand his immediate return,” he said in January. 

In the first week after the news broke of Whelan’s detention, the media honed in on his four passports, his bad conduct discharge from the U.S. Marines, and the fact that he had befriended several former members of the Russian military on social media. But former CIA officers told Foreign Policy that it is highly unlikely that someone of Whelan’s profile would be dispatched for undercover work in Russia. 

“The media did a good job of amplifying messages about Paul that I think raised concerns that, well, if there’s smoke there’s fire,” David Whelan said.

The Whelans fear that this speculation may have slowed the U.S. response in the early days after his detention. It prompted Ryan Fayhee, a former senior prosecutor at the Department of Justice, to reach out and offer his services to the Whelan family pro bono. 

“There was this sense that our government was only willing to fight for someone who didn’t have a checkered past,” said Fayhee, now a partner at Hughes Hubbard and Reed. 

In instances where an American is taken hostage abroad, the U.S. government can stand up an interagency fusion cell that coordinates efforts to bring them home. The mechanism was intended to deal with cases of hostage-taking by criminal gangs or terrorist groups, but when a person is detained by a nation-state as opposed to a criminal gang or a terrorist group, designating them as a hostage can be diplomatically precarious. 

Instead, Elizabeth Whelan shuttles between congressional offices and government departments as she tries in whatever way she can to move the needle forward on her brother’s case. 

“We’ve sort of had to try and make our own [fusion cell]” she said. “I’ve got to be the coordinating person that runs from one to another.”

She makes the trip every six weeks or so, taking two ferries, a bus to Boston, and an eight-hour train ride to Washington, where she stays in a hostel to try to stretch her budget.

“I’ve spent a ridiculous amount of money on the stupidest things,” she said. 

David said the family often wondered what would have happened to Paul if he didn’t have three siblings to advocate on his behalf.

“What if it was just our 80-year-old parents? What must be like for people in these situations with literally no resources?” he said.

Amy Mackinnon is a staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @ak_mack

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