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U.S. Officials Want Details Into Why An American Was Arrested In Russia


The U.S. ambassador to Russia, Jon Huntsman, has been allowed to visit the American citizen now detained in Moscow. His name is Paul Whelan. He is a former Marine who was taken into custody last week during what Russia claims was an act of espionage. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo says the U.S. is still waiting for details about the charges against him.


MIKE POMPEO: We've made clear to the Russians our expectation that we will learn more about the charges and come to understand what it is he's been accused of. And if the detention is not appropriate, we will demand his immediate return.

MARTIN: Joining us now from Moscow, reporter Charles Maynes, who's been covering this. Charles, thanks for being here.

CHARLES MAYNES, BYLINE: Good to be with you.

MARTIN: What can you tell us about this meeting between the U.S. ambassador, Jon Huntsman, and Paul Whelan? What was communicated between the two men? Do we know?

MAYNES: Well, what we know is from the State Department, actually. They confirmed that Ambassador Huntsman met with Mr. Whelan in Lefortovo Prison. This is a prison in Moscow with a long history of holding alleged spies and political prisoners during the Soviet period. Mr. Huntsman expressed support, offered the embassy's assistance.

He also spoke by telephone with Mr. Whelan's family. But in the interest of privacy, they're providing no details on the charges or circumstances of the arrest - and, you know, might also point out that there's some real questions as to the delay to access to Mr. Whelan. Of course, he was arrested on December 28. And, usually, you get quicker access to someone like that.

MARTIN: Whelan's family rejects this whole thing. They say they don't believe he's a spy. They insist he was in Moscow for a wedding. We're also getting more details about his past, including a complicated history with the U.S. military. What can you tell us?

MAYNES: That's right. Yeah. Mr. Whelan's a former Marine. He served two tours in Iraq in 2004 and 2006. The Marine Corps, however, released his service records. And they show that he was convicted in 2008 of a court martial on charges related to larceny and given a bad conduct discharge. After his military career, though, he went into law enforcement.

Mr. Whelan most recently has been working BorgWarner. This is a Michigan-based company that does propulsion systems for car engines. They have offices in Europe, in China, through Asia but not in Russia. But that said, Mr. Whelan actually has traveled to Russia quite frequently, according to his family, since about 2007. And, of course, they say, as you note, he was in town for a wedding at the time of his arrest.

MARTIN: Is the Russian government staying sort of hush-hush on this or are they out there trying to frame their own version of events?

MAYNES: They are pretty quiet on it, but I think for a good reason. It's the holidays here. So this is sort of the grand national slumber after New Year's. Things really don't open up for a few days still. We did, however, see a report in the Russian media. This is from Rosbalt. This is an independent newspaper that's quite well-sourced within the FSB. And they, today, issued a story that provided some details of Mr. Whelan's arrest. Again, it's their version, citing FSB sources.

But they claim that the - he was caught essentially receiving a flash drive with - it contained names of Russian intelligence agents in his Metropol hotel room. That's in downtown Moscow. The problem is that skeptics feel that - look, it was a flash drive in 2019. You know, did Mr. Whelan even know what was on it? And the whole thing seems kind of very made-for-TV. So I think we're waiting for that to appear on state television here.

MARTIN: OK. Reporter Charles Maynes with the latest there in Moscow. Thanks so much.

MAYNES: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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