Q&A: Brother of accused spy in Russia says family operating on hope, mixed with anger

Paul Whelan, a Canadian citizen has been detained in Moscow on espionage charges. His twin brother David Whelan spoke to CBC's Mark Gollom about the accusations against his sibling, and how the family has been coping since being thrust in the spotlight following the arrest.

Russia media sources say Paul Whelan alleged to have worked as a spy for 10 years

Paul Whelan, a Canadian citizen who lives in Novi, Mich., has been detained in Moscow on espionage charges. But his twin brother David Whelan, shown here, is adamant that he's innocent. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

It was sometime before the U.S. Thanksgiving when David Whelan said he last spoke to his twin brother, Paul, who expressed concern about going to Russia for his friend's wedding in Moscow.

Paul Whelan wasn't worried about the trip itself. Rather he was concerned that with winter coming, no one would be watching out for their parents, who, along with Paul, live in Michigan.

"My parents ended up being fine and it was Paul [who] ended up in trouble," David Whelan told CBC News.

He first learned that Paul, 48, was missing when the groom contacted the family to say he never showed up for the wedding.

David Whelan, a Newmarket resident and law librarian in Toronto, said he immediately went online, googling terms like "American killed in Moscow" and "American, car crash in Moscow" to see if the worst might be true.

Instead, he came across a newswire that said Paul was alive, but had been arrested in Moscow, charged with espionage. Now David and his two other siblings are working for the release of their brother.

Paul remains detained in Moscow's Lefortovo Prison. So far, U.S. Ambassador to Russia Jon Huntsman and his staff are the only Westerners who have had contact with the ex-marine.

Paul Whelan was born in Canada, but has lived and worked most of his life in the U.S. He holds Canadian, American, British and Irish citizenship. The U.S. has taken the lead in his case — but Canadian, British and Irish officials are all also working on the file, David said.

Paul Whelan, a former U.S. marine who holds citizenship in four countries, was arrested in Moscow last month on suspicion of spying. (Submitted by the Whelan Family)

Indeed, the family just learned that Russia has given permission for consular officials from those countries to have access to his brother, which they expect will happen by the end of the week.

David said he has learned that Paul is being held in a single prison cell but still hasn't received basic supplies like toiletries, which must be paid for by the inmate. Paul's family has created a bank account so he can purchase those necessities, David said, but it has been a convoluted process.

"It's like the worst kind of echo game, where someone yells and it's a week before the answer comes back," David Whelan said. "So I think we just have to be very patient."

Paul has been assigned a lawyer — but he speaks only Russian. Translation had been an issue until Russian officials provided a translator.

(Officials wouldn't initially give Paul his glasses, David said, and he didn't know how to ask for them.)

David said the family still has not been told the official charges against Paul, learning only what he's accused of from media reports.

His brother is alleged to have worked as a spy for 10 years and to have been caught with a memory card containing a classified list of secret Russian operatives, according to Russian media sources.

Canadian-born Paul Whelan is reportedly being held in Moscow's Lefortovo Prison. (Shamil Zhumatov/Reuters)

The family is getting most of its information from the media, David said, including facts about his brother he never knew — such as that Paul, while serving as an administrative clerk in Iraq in 2006, was accused of attempting to steal more than $10,000 US and was given a bad-conduct discharge from the U.S. military.

"Really disappointed. Disappointed in his behaviour. And sad that he had to hide it," David Whelan said about being surprised by those revelations.

Some have raised questions about his brother's activities: his multiple passports, his trips to Russia, and his account with VKontakte, a Russian social media network, which showed he had a circle of Russian acquaintances.

But David dismisses those connections; he is adamant his brother is no spy.

Many former intelligence officers have too rejected the idea that Paul is involved in espionage, saying he doesn't fit the profile.

David Whelan spoke to CBC News about the accusations against his brother, and how the family has been coping since being thrust in the spotlight following Paul's arrest.

How has it been for you and your family dealing with all of this?

For the most part OK. We're operating on hope and sometimes a little bit of anger. And you sort of mix the two and you power through it. And you realize at least you're not in Lefortovo Prison. So you do what you can to try and get him home.

The Russian government hasn't told us anything about the charges. It's frustrating. It's [13] days now that he's been in detention and it's hard to figure out what you're going to do … to keep up your hope when you have no idea what you're trying to shadowbox against.

I think the most bizarre part of it is you're trying to live a normal person's life. I sit on the GO Train coming in and no one knows who I am. And then you get on the phone five minutes later [with the media] to say 'Yeah, no, Paul's not a spy.'

Any concerns about him being interrogated?

At this point, I'm trying not to worry about the things that happened, because you can't really do anything about them.

There's lots of stories, talk on social media, that imply or suggest that your brother is a spy. How do they affect you?

They don't bother me. I realize they're nonsense. I've been dealing with a lot of trolling and probably bots on Twitter. 

The only emotion it really brings to mind is sadness because Paul doesn't know all of this has happened to him. And he's going to have to live with it for the rest of his life. It's going to be all over the internet, all of the speculation, all of the crazy ideas.

There's only one person who actually said: 'He should be killed,' and things like that. And so we had that person blocked. But but for the most part, I just ignore it, because I realize it's another part of this whole sideshow.

You recently wrote a column in the Washington Post to declare that your brother is not a spy. Was there ever a moment when you thought: 'Is he involved in espionage? I don't know.'

No. I now realize that there's an awful lot of things that I thought I knew about my brother, or just didn't know at all about my brother. Like a detail that I thought he had done one thing, and he ended up having done it a different way or whatever. But no, there's no way he's a spy. I've never ever thought that that could possibly be true.

In 2008, Whelan was given a bad-conduct discharge from the military. (Submitted by David Whelan)

He doesn't live his life in the way a spy would. I guess maybe I've watched too many Jason Bourne movies or something. But he doesn't live in that confidential or clandestine sort of way in his life. One of my kids said to me that I would be more likely to be a spy than Uncle Paul — and I think that that's true.

Some are puzzled as to what he was doing in Russia: Why spend so much time there? Why have a Facebook account in Russia?

I think he's a person who likes to travel. And Russia just happens to be one of the places he travels. On Facebook and VKontakte, he has friends who are in the military. How long has anybody been on Twitter and collected so many friends? 

I think his activity may look different, but it really is the same [as anyone else's]. But through the lens of being in a Russian prison now, any contact with Russia is like illuminated. I think if he wasn't in Lefortovo Prison right now, I don't think any of his interest in Russia would be at all interesting.

Some question the fact he had multiple passports.

I was born with two as a British and Canadian citizen. And when he naturalized in America and my family emigrated, that was his third. And I think he just thought that from a heritage standpoint, sort of nod to his Irishness, he would take advantage of that Irish passport.

Families live their lives sort of thinking that the family is sort of pretty normal — until other people take a look your family. And when you see your family sort of opened up on a global stage, you can look at a little bit odd.

David Whelan, of Newmarket, Ont., is the twin brother of Paul Whelan. David says his family has been doing everything they can to advocate for Paul's release. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

They say they found a flash drive on him.

I understand that if I were to give you a flash drive right now, and you took it from me, you could have potentially violated the [Russian espionage] act — even though you don't have any idea of what's on it. So if that is really the story, I think that's the most likely thing. I can't imagine Paul would have taken a USB from someone, knowingly taking information that was confidential.

So it's possible somebody gave it to him?

Yes, but that's a sting. That's just entrapment. Paul's still not a spy. I think if someone he didn't know had given him a USB stick, I'm almost certain he wouldn't have accepted unless it's like, 'Oh, here's a free offering at Hotel Metropol.' And you might say, 'OK, thank you.' 

One former intelligence agent I spoke with thought maybe Paul is an adventure-seeker. Is that fair? 

He's cautious. I think he's got some bad knees [from] when he did some skydiving when he was younger. And he's my age, with a doughy disposition. He's not a thrill-seeker.

Or somebody who fancies himself a Jason Bourne? Or a spy who wants to get into the biz, trying to gather information?

I think he would have been more careful and he would have carried himself in very different way. 

Some former intelligence officials I spoke with believe your brother may have run afoul of Russian authorities and that's why they targeted him. Anything he may have done to catch their attention?

I haven't heard of anything that would been like law-breaking or anything like that. I have seen some stories that suggested that maybe the fact that he had the contact friends who were in the military, that maybe that flagged him as a potential person. But, I mean, it really is hard to know. I'd be speculating but, no, I think that Paul is such a seasoned traveller that I think he would be wary of going to another country and doing something that would catch negative attention in the way that would then lead to something like this.

I think they must have had a file on him, or some information on him before, and just decided: This is the time [we're] going to pick him up for whatever reason. But I really do think it was just wrong place, wrong time.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.


Mark Gollom

Senior Reporter

Mark Gollom is a Toronto-based reporter with CBC News. He covers Canadian and U.S. politics and current affairs.