The curious case of Paul Whelan

(Lutz Creative)
(Lutz Creative)

 

The case of Paul Whelan, the former Marine and Michigan resident who has been charged with espionage in Russia, keeps getting stranger and stranger.

A Canadian-born US citizen, Whelan is also apparently a British citizen. Who also happens to carry an Irish passport. Ireland’s Department of Foreign Affairs describes him as “an Irish citizen,” and like the American and British embassies, has offered him consular assistance.

So, if you’re keeping score, that’s four countries, four separate citizenships, and four passports. Meanwhile, the Russian lawyer working on Whelan’s case, and approved by him, Vladimir Zherebenkov, has been described by human rights activists and prison monitors as likely to have been chosen by the same Federal Security Service (FSB) that arrested him in the first place.

Whelan is security chief for auto parts supplier BorgWarner, and was, according to his family, visiting Russia for a friend’s wedding when he was arrested and charged with spying. In an interview with The Daily Beast, his lawyer stated his objective in handling the case is:

to arrange a trade and bring home “at least one Russian soul.” It’s widely assumed that the intention is to exchange him for Maria Butina, who recently pleaded guilty to conspiring to act as an unregistered agent for Moscow and signed a broad cooperation agreementwith the U.S. Justice Department. Prosecutors said she tried to build a back channel between Kremlin officials and Republican operatives during the 2016 presidential campaign.

Such spy-for-spy exchanges are pretty standard stuff. The most recent high-profile example I can come up with dates from 2010, when the Obama Administration exchanged 10 Russian sleeper agents for four Russians who had been convicted and imprisoned for spying on behalf of the United States. In a scene straight out of the movies, the swap took place on a runway at an airport in Vienna.

But is Whelan a spy? Former CIA officers have told the New York Times and other media outlets that they doubt it. US intelligence operatives typically work under some form of diplomatic cover that gives them immunity from prosecution should they be caught.

Most C.I.A. officers work in foreign countries while posing as diplomats, and if caught by a hostile government in an act of espionage, their diplomatic passports ensure they cannot be long detained, and at worst face expulsion.

Former C.I.A. officials who have operated in Moscow said the agency almost never sends officers into Russia without diplomatic protections. The United States, said John Sipher, a former C.I.A. officer who served in Moscow and ran the agency’s Russia operations, would “never leave a real intelligence officer vulnerable to arrest.”

Whelan was in Russia as a private citizen, ostensibly to attend a wedding and show visitors around Moscow. But he was also a regular visitor to the country, dating back to 2006, showing up every six months or so. He had an account on Vkontakte, the Russian version of Facebook, which is unusual for the casual visitor. And his social media contacts include ordinary Russians, but also many others, mostly men, with connections to academies run by the Russian Navy, the Defense Ministry, or the Civil Aviation Authority.

So is Whelan a spy? Beats me. But this case just keeps getting more intriguing by the day.

Smug liberals got played too

bts_sanders-stein

Hey, you liberals who flocked to Bernie Sanders in the 2016 primaries, then stayed home from the polls or threw your vote to Jill Stein because you’d become convinced that Hillary Clinton wasn’t progressively pure enough for you … The Russians played you too.

Thanks to the 37-page indictment released yesterday from special counsel Robert Mueller, we know conclusively that the Russian operation to undermine Clinton and boost the chances of then-candidate Donald Trump also included pushing pro-Sanders messages in the primaries and seeking to suppress the Democratic vote or steer voters toward third parties, especially Stein, during the general election.

Read the excerpts for yourself.

Screenshot 2018-02-17 11.52.35

Screenshot 2018-02-17 11.56.32

If you think these efforts didn’t affect the outcome of the race, think about this: The number of votes Stein won in Michigan was four times greater than Trump’s margin of victory over Clinton in the state. And without winning Michigan, Trump doesn’t win the White House.

As painted in the indictment, these efforts were less about Russian love for Trump (other than as a classic Chekist “useful idiot“) and more about their intense dislike for Hillary Clinton:

The Russian operations on social media were meant to communicate derogatory information about Hillary Clinton and other candidates, including Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio. And they were supposed to support Sanders and Trump.

“Use any opportunity to criticize Hillary and the rest (except Sanders and Trump—we support them),” they were directed, according to the indictment.

This was because the Russians involved really didn’t like Hillary Clinton.

Around September 14 in 2016, for example, one “account specialist” of a Russian-controlled Facebook group called “Secured Borders” was reprimanded for having a “low number of posts dedicated to criticizing Hillary Clinton.”

The specialist was also told, “it is imperative to intensify criticizing Hillary Clinton.”

I could see this unfolding in real time on social media as I watched many of my very liberal friends, family, students, and former students become increasingly hostile toward Clinton and alienated from the mainstream of the Democratic Party as they first embraced Sanders and then Stein.

They had convinced themselves that there was no substantive difference between Trump and Clinton, and therefore it mattered not whether they “voted their conscience” and cast a ballot for Stein or simply stayed home in protest.

And they often justified their decisions by repeating the Russian attacks and talking points flooding social media.

In the year and half since the election, many of those same liberals have smugly pointed at the ease with which Republicans, especially the so-called white working class, were manipulated into backing a carnival barker for president.

So, liberals, how does it feel knowing that the Russians got you too?

NATO trolls Russia … with history!

Anti-Soviet partisans, Latvia, 1949.
Anti-Soviet partisans, Latvia, 1949.

 

While the American president’s¹ ceaseless fawning over Vladimir Putin leaves many NATO members wondering just how committed to the defense of the West we really are, the alliance is finding its own clever way to troll the Russian bear.

Monday NATO released a slickly produced eight-minute historical docudrama called Forest Brothers: Fight for the Baltics, telling the story of the anti-Soviet partisans² who fought a guerrilla war against the Russian occupation of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania in the years after World War II.

Here’s the description posted at NATO’s YouTube channel:

After the Second World War, soldiers from across the Baltics who had fought on both sides of the war disappeared into the forests to wage Europe’s bloodiest guerrilla war against the occupying Soviet forces.

This short docu drama includes interviews with former partisan fighters and those who supported them and dramatic battle scene recreations and interviews with modern-day Special Forces of Lithuania, the direct descendants of the Forest Brothers.

Watch the video here:

Needless to say, the film elicited what Latvian state media characterized as “predicable criticism.” For example, this from Russia’s Deputy Prime Minister:

And this, from the official Russian mission to NATO:

And this, from the Russian mission to the EU:

Looks like NATO hit a soft spot. That’s quality trolling.

¹I just need to take a break from saying or writing his name. I think you understand.

² It’s summer and we’ve all got better things to do than engage in deep historical research, so for a quick and dirty way to learn a little more about guerrilla war in the Baltics after the war, check out the Wiki entry. 

The Russians call it “kombinatsiya”

47412610.cached

Over at the Observer, former National Security Agency analyst and counterintelligence officer John Schindler breaks down for the layman the Russian terms for the espionage operation that has engulfed President Trump and his inner circle.

As he writes, the fallout from Moscow’s spy-game shows no signs of letting up, and so it behooves us to learn a little bit about what it looks like and to understand how it works.

As the Trump administration’s Russia problem shows no sign of going away, protesting presidential tweets notwithstanding, it’s time to think about it properly. Understanding what the Kremlin’s up to helps to see the big picture. This means learning a bit of spy lingo. Espionage, like everything else, has its own culture—including special verbiage—which varies from country to country.

N7J0179 - Duckies Awards Web Badges-2Russia’s espionage culture is unique and in key ways markedly different from how Western countries approach the spy-game. It’s a product of the Soviet secret police, that brutal and cunning force, and it’s no accident that Vladimir Putin’s spies proudly call themselves Chekists today to commemorate them—just as they did in the days of the KGB. “There are no ‘former’ Chekists,” as the KGB veteran Putin has stated, and this attitude permeates his Kremlin.

From provokatsiya (provocation) to dezinformatsiya (disinformation) and aktivniyye meropriyatiya (active measures), Schindler explains the kombinatsiya (combination of techniques) that makes up the tangled ties between the 2016 election, TeamTrump, and the Kremlin.

With a former National Security Advisor (Mike Flynn), a former Trump campaign manager (Paul Manafort),  a long-time Trump confidant, personal advisor, and notorious political dirty-trickster (Roger Stone), a former Trump campaign national security aide (Carter Page), the current Attorney General (Jeff Sessions), and now a top White House advisor (Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner) all implicated in questionable contacts with and connections to Russian figures tied to the Kremlin and/or Russian intelligence agencies, Schindler’s piece is a must-read.