Bargaining chip or spy? Career ambassador says Paul Whelan case 'too sloppy' to be spycraft

Posted at 3:58 PM, Jan 08, 2019
and last updated 2019-01-08 18:26:54-05

(WXYZ) — More than a week since the long arm of the Russian government reached into our back yard, much is still unknown about the circumstances surrounding the arrest of a Novi man.

Accused of espionage, Paul Whelan has been alone in a detention cell in Lefortovo prison. For days, his family says, he was without toiletries and a change of clothing.

Whelan is a former Marine, discharged after being court-marshaled for larceny. He has four passports from four different countries, and a fascination with Russia and with Russians. It was a friend’s wedding, his family says, that brought him there last week.

Melvyn Levitsky is a retired U.S. Ambassador and Assistant Secretary of State whose career in diplomacy made him very familiar with how Moscow operates.

“It’s a society that’s built on fear and suspicion,” Levitsky said. “Even now, when the communist party is gone.”

Today, Levtisky is a professor of policy and practice at the Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy at the University of Michigan.

According to Russian media, Whelan was arrested in his hotel room moments after he accepted a flash drive that contained the names of Russian intelligence agents.

“What a coincidence,” Levistky joked. “Five minutes after he gets passed the flash drive. Obviously, that had their eye on him.”

Levtisky says the Whelan case reminds him of what happened to journalist Nick Daniloff in the 1980s, arrested by the KGB and accused of espionage. He spent 13 days in the same prison where Whelan sits today, and the parallels don’t end there.

“Somebody gave (Daniloff) a package,” Levitsky said. “They took the package, they photographed it, they arrested him on the spot. It was all a setup deal."

“So the names have changed, but the playbook has stayed the same,” said Channel 7’s Ross Jones.

“It’s sort of like déjà vu all over again,” Levitsky replied.

Daniloff was finally released in a trade with the Soviet Union.

Still, questions about Whelan's interest in Russian linger. While we don’t know for certain what brought him to Moscow, Levtisky says nothing about the Whelan case suggests he was a U.S. agent.

“If he were one of ours—in other words, a spy—we wouldn’t have been this sloppy,” he said. “Normally, you would have our spies undercover so that they couldn’t be arrested in this way.”

The cover, Levitsky says, wouldn’t as a businessman, but as a diplomat. That way if the agent is caught, he or she would be returned to the U.S. Embassy.

That’s what happened when Ryan Fogle was arrested by Russian officials in 2013, donning a blonde wig. He was ultimately returned to U.S. custody.

“I can’t imagine the CIA or any of the intelligence agencies would put someone in that kind of situation given the relationship right now,” Levitsky said.

As for how this will end, Levtisky’s best guess is what others have already predicted: that Whelan will become a bargaining chip, used to secure the release of Maria Butina, the Russian agent who pleaded guilty to trying to influence our election. Butina hasn’t yet been sentenced.

“Unless the administration has changed its ways, we will do anything we can to get an American citizen that’s unjustly accused or unjustly put in jail, to get that person back to the United States," Levitsky said.

Contact 7 Investigator Ross Jones at or at (248) 827-9466.