Spy Versus Spy – The Cases of Maria Butina & Paul Whelan


One of the basic rules of intelligence is to make sure there is a plan in place to deal with unexpected, though not unreasonable, events.  One of the most obvious is the possibility that an intelligence officer or agent operating under a deep (unofficial) cover is arrested by counterintelligence instruments of the country/organization that is the penetration target.  This is the circumstance with which Maria Butina’s superiors, in the appropriate section of Russian intelligence, were confronted when she was picked up by the American authorities.  Her Russian case officers and their superiors immediately would have turned to their already prepared action plan.

Paul Whelan’s case was different, in terms of the charge that he was stealing Russian classified material – i.e. information gathering.  Maria Butina was seeking to influence American policy and/or governmental process.  In both instances, however, they would have had plans for emergencies and their projects would have built-in “rescue” plans even if those plans merely involved eventual trades for the other side’s captured “assets.”  It’s all included in the theme of “Don’t take it personally.  It’s only business.”

Operationally, the situation is quite different with Paul Whelan.  He was picked up in Moscow by the Russians in what may have been a fake entrapment aimed at obtaining a trade-off for Butina, already in U.S. custody.  In support of this theory is the fact that Whelan’s background story is far more complicated and personally suspect, while the background and connections of Butina are relatively straightforward.  Reportedly, Paul Whelan was discharged from the Marine Corps for stealing or planning to steal $10,000 during his service during the Iraq War.  The details are not clear.  It has been speculated that this would have made him ineligible to have a relationship with American intelligence in subsequent years.  That supposition is not true, and the Russians know it.

American intelligence, like all major intelligence services, uses people of many backgrounds – some acceptable, some quite unsavory.  In fact, a questionable personal life, if properly documented, can act as an excellent cover device.  The real question would be whether the person involved could be trustworthy with regard to his or her loyalty and legitimacy of reporting.  Interestingly, Whelans’s public record does not indicate time served in the brig for the crime he purportedly committed.  Something is fishy there and the Russians would have made note of that.

In any case, the Russian internal security service at the very least would have had an eye on him during his several trips to Moscow and even more so through their electronic surveillance of the internet and his regular cyber correspondence with Russian citizens.  FSB, SVR and GRU (now GU) intelligence instruments just don’t miss such things.  Another interesting issue is that news sources have reported that Whelan held different security roles with the American firm Borg-Warner (B-W).  These ranged from consultant to Director of Security.  This doesn’t jibe with the fact that a company as sizeable as B-W would likely not hire a person for a senior security position without a considerable record of work in that field.  A less than honorable discharge from the Marine Corps for stealing or planning to steal ten thousand dollars wouldn’t pass the usual screening process for any security-related job with a major corporation such as B-W.

Granting Whelan’s story, for sake of argument, his documented behavior in extensive e-mail correspondence with various Russians on a strictly casual friendly basis just doesn’t follow with the rest of his story.  His personal manner and interests do not jibe with the character of a man supposedly in search of innocent Russian “pen pals.”  Of course, the Russians would have picked up on this and his several trips to their country.  Paul Whelan definitely could have been on a list of counterintelligence targets – for various reasons and even possible future utility.  The fact is that his holding four passports; British, Canadian and Irish just had to draw attention.

Maria Butina’s connections with the United States through her friendship with Aleksandr Torshin, who was an officer in the Russian Central Bank, carried impeccable bona fides.  Torshin had begun his American contacts through numerous trips beginning 2011.  He travelled regularly to the U.S. for meetings with international bankers.  Butina came along as his “special assistant.”  She is credited with coming up with the idea of establishing a “gun rights” organization and she along with Torshin made effective contact on a high level with the NRA.  The two even organized a conference in Moscow on the subject of individual gun rights attended by NRA officials. It was a clever way to carry out the mission of penetrating the right-wing political structure in the United States.

The idea of a personal gun rights organization in Russia strains credulity, but it appealed to the Americans.  Butina took up residence in the U.S. and obtained her master’s degree from American University.  She also had a “special” relationship with an active Republican Party member.  With Torshin’s help she became well known in financial circles and among NRA members.  Torshin became Deputy Governor of the Central Bank of Russia and that didn’t hurt either.

It may be hard to accept, but Russia has, since before World War II, specialized in developing long term assets in the United States and elsewhere.  Alger Hiss, Kim Philby and others are good examples of their earlier successes, so their successful placement of Maria Butina in the American scene is just not that unusual.  What is important for this essay is that their project was followed by the FBI and other U.S. counterintelligence entities.  Equally important is the fact that Paul Whelan was conveniently arrested in Moscow for “receiving a memory card” with a classified list of Russians connected to intelligence.  He is being held in Lefortovo prison and Butina pled guilty in December 2018 to “acting as an illegal foreign agent.”  She faces a maximum sentence of five years in federal prison and then deportation.  Meanwhile, the negotiations for a trade for Paul Whelan proceed quietly.  Now it’s just a matter of seeing if the U.S. will give up something of value in addition to Maria Butina.

Of course, there is more to this story than what appears, but isn’t that always the case?