The saga of U.S. citizen Paul Whelan, accused of espionage, is just getting started. He now sits in Moscow’s infamous Lefortovo Prison, his home for at least the next 60 days. The Russian Federation formally charged Whelan with espionage.

Whelan’s act of espionage

Russian media outlet Rosblat, citing an unidentified Russian intelligence officer, describe how Whelan was meeting with a Russian citizen with whom he had cultivated a personal relationship online. This unidentified Russian met with Whelan in his hotel room during a wedding Whelan was attending in Moscow’s Metropol hotel. The Russian version of events have Whelan engaging this individual online, then in person during Whelan’s personal travel to Russia. Whelan, allegedly requested the individual provide a list of names of the employees of an unidentified security service. The individual provided Whelan a USB thumb drive and a few moments after the exchange, the FSB (Russian internal security service, successor to the KGB) entered the room and arrested Whelan.

Whelan the Marine

The Detroit Free Press describes Whelan’s ignoble departure from the U.S. Marine Corps following his court martial. Wheelen has risen to the rank of staff sergeant but was convicted of several larceny-related charges and given a bad-conduct discharge and reduced to the rank of private in December of 2008.

Secret Squirrel Syndrome

As more and more information about Whelan and his affinity toward Russia comes to light, the odds of his being associated with any U.S. intelligence entity continue to decline.

What does come across is a Whelan is an “intelligence officer wannabe.” That is a person who creates a fiction where they play a central role, and then weaves their actions and their storyline to give the appearance of self-importance with linkage to the world of the intelligence officer.

Whelan was originally identified as a U.S. citizen, then we learned that he holds both U.K. and Irish citizenship. Are there more, perhaps Canada? The UK’s Independent notes that Whelan was born in Canada to British parents. One only has to look at the recent FX series, The Americans, to see that an intelligence officer would have multiple passports, right?

An intelligence officer?

Did he really request the names of the employees of a Russian security service or is this a Russian fiction? It’s as likely that he is a victim of his own fantasy, as it is that he is a victim of Russian shenanigans.

Based on his attempts to be a “guys guy” to his Russian social network contacts and meet with them over a beer during his travels to Russia, one can easily see him percolating up onto the radar of the Russian FSB.

Is it possible he requested something tangible to show others upon his return to the U.S. that he’s operating under cover for the U.S. intelligence? Of course. It is as likely that he was having a beer with a contact and that the provision of secret materials is a convenient fiction created by the FSB.

Whether Russia tit-for-tat or self-inflicted wound, the reality is Paul Nicholas Whelan’s desire to be the Secret Squirrel, projecting the appearance of an unorthodox intelligence officer, has now landed him in the thick of the US-UK – Russia realpolitik. His next 60 days at Lefortovo Prison, may just be the beginning of a longer stay in Russia.

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Christopher Burgess (@burgessct) is an author and speaker on the topic of security strategy. Christopher, served 30+ years within the Central Intelligence Agency. He lived and worked in South Asia, Southeast Asia, the Middle East, Central Europe, and Latin America. Upon his retirement, the CIA awarded him the Career Distinguished Intelligence Medal, the highest level of career recognition. Christopher co-authored the book, “Secrets Stolen, Fortunes Lost, Preventing Intellectual Property Theft and Economic Espionage in the 21st Century” (Syngress, March 2008).