Spying suspect was discharged from Marines over theft
The US Marine Corps found Paul Whelan, the man detained by Russia on espionage charges, guilty of attempting to steal more than $10,000 worth of currency from the US government while deployed in Iraq in 2006 and bouncing nearly $6,000 worth of cheques around the same time, according to records seen by The Washington Post.
The details of the charges against Whelan from a special court-martial two years later, which resulted in his discharge for bad conduct, add to an increasingly complex picture of the 48-year-old former Marine, whom Russia has accused of spying. His case grew more perplexing last Friday after Ireland became the fourth nation to acknowledge him as a citizen and seek consular access.
A person familiar with Whelan's case said he has a total of four passports. "He collected them as a game. There was an ongoing competition with his sister to see who could get the most," the person said, speaking on the condition of anonymity.
Since his arrest last week in Moscow, Whelan has rocketed on to the public radar. People who served with Whelan said he was learning Russian and travelled to Moscow and St Petersburg on holiday during the same deployment in which the Marine Corps accused him of attempted theft.
Russian authorities have not said what Whelan is accused of doing beyond the relatively broad charge of espionage, which, if he is convicted, could land him between 10 and 20 years behind bars.
Whelan served as an administrative chief in the Marines, a job akin to office manager which would have given him access to certain sensitive systems, probably including those the service uses to issue orders and hand out awards.
Whelan's possible financial problems could have made him a prime target for Russian intelligence. Intelligence services routinely look for people in financial distress whom they might recruit or blackmail. An active-duty Marine travelling in Russia would have quickly caught the attention of Russian intelligence services, said Dan Hoffman, a former CIA officer who served as the chief of station in Moscow.
Hoffman emphasised he had no knowledge of whether Whelan was recruited or approached. He said that from the moment Whelan set foot in Russia, he was probably monitored. The Russians would have known Whelan was coming when he applied for a visa. "The Russians have a saying: 'What makes a person breathe?' " Hoffman said.
US officials have speculated the Russians may want to trade Whelan for Maria Butina, a Russian woman and gun rights activist who has pleaded guilty to acting as an agent of Russia in the US.
Yesterday Russia's foreign ministry claimed that the US had detained a Russian citizen on the Mariana Islands (a US commonwealth in the Pacific), and transferred him to Florida a day after Whelan's arrest.
Russia's deputy foreign minister Sergei Ryabkov, added that Russia was not interested in an exchange.