CIA veterans are alleging that the arrest of Paul Whelan in Russia is more about the capture of Maria Butina than anything else, the Daily Beast reported.
Since her arrest, Russia has denied that she was a spy. In fact, Russian President Vladimir Putin said in early December that “nobody” working for his spy agencies “knows anything about” Butina. Yet, now, Russia has captured Whelan, claiming he was on a “spy mission” while in Moscow. It makes the Russian claims Butina was a “nobody” suspicious at best.
“This wasn’t planned yesterday,” said former CIA Moscow station chief Dan Hoffman. “It was probably planned back after [Butina] was arrested. They want to deter future U.S. actions against other private citizens.”
For a country that has claimed Butina wasn’t more than a citizen, the Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson seemed awfully concerned about Butina’s treatment, claiming she was being tortured by the government.
“We designated her as a political prisoner from the very first days,” Maria Zakharova said just two days after Putin dismissed her being important to the country. “It’s not about justice, it’s not justice. It’s just inquisition. It’s medieval inquisition. Because she is intimidated, she was tortured and was not treated like a human being, not like a woman. I think she was treated and is still treated probably as a terrorist or something like that.”
Department of Justice lawyers have said since September that the concern about Butina from the Russian consulates indicates the leaders are more concerned about Butina than they should be if she were just an activist.
“Since the detention hearing in this case, the actions of the Russian Federation and its officials toward the defendant have confirmed her relationship with, and value to, her own government,” they wrote. “To date, the Russian government has conducted six consular visits with the defendant.”
They also noted that the Kremlin had doled out more diplomatic notes for Butina than for other Russians imprisoned. It was one of the main reasons the U.S. lawyers determined it wasn’t “hypothetical” she’d be a flight risk if she was released on bail.
Former CIA officer John Sipher argued that it was “highly unlikely” Whelan was working for an intelligence agency because doing so now would be far too risky.
“From my experience, we would almost never send someone to Russia without diplomatic immunity,” he said. “Given the laxity of Russian laws and the aggressiveness of their espionage apparatus, we could not guarantee the safety of someone traveling under unofficial cover.”
“We would never leave a real intelligence officer vulnerable to arrest, and give Putin a weapon to trade for someone like Ames, Hanssen or Butina,” Sipher continued.
It isn’t the first time that Russia has arrested an American alleging they were a spy, however. The Beast recalled the arrest of reporter Nicholas Daniloff in 1986 by the KGB. It was just three days after the FBI arrested alleged intelligence officer Gennadi Zakharov.
Pundits have speculated that Butina would likely be released on a prisoner swap at some point, but those cable news comments came before Whelan was arrested.
Just prior to the announcement that Whelan was taken, Putin sent a note to Trump saying that he was open to a meeting again, though it was focused on Syria.