A lawyer for the Irish American man being held in Russia on suspicion of spying has claimed that on his arrest, classified Russian materials were found on 48-year-old Paul Whelan.
Whelan, a former US marine who also holds Irish, British, and Canadian citizenship, was arrested on Dec. 28 and formally charged in early January on allegations he procured a memory stick with a secret list of Russian agents.
His family says he was visiting Moscow for the wedding of a retired Marine and is innocent.
Vladimir Zherebenkov, Whelan’s lawyer, told Russian news agencies before the hearing that Whelan had something with him that contained "state secrets" when he was arrested.
NPR reports that Whelan had expected to receive photos of Russian churches on the thumb drive but that it actually contained confidential material. The American had not looked at the material on the drive as he was arrested immediately after the handover.
"The Russian reportedly gave Whelan a flash drive listing all the employees of a Russian security agency. Moments later, Russian authorities arrested Whelan," NPR report.
"He was expecting to see on the flash drive some personal information like pictures or videos, something like that, about that person's previous trips around Russia," Zherebenkov also told reporters.
"We don't know how the materials that contain state secrets ended up there."
Zherebenkov, who was likely picked out by the FSB who arrested him, said his mission is to bring home a “Russian soul” in an exchange deal, the Daily Mail reports.
It is possible the Russians will attempt an exchange deal for Maria Butina, 29, who was jailed in the U.S. last year after pleading guilty as an agent to influence conservative groups during the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign.
However, Whelan’s multiple passports could prove to complicate Russia’s plans.
“This could be an example of a Russian miscalculation,” Andrea Kendall-Taylor, a former C.I.A. officer and now an analyst with the Center for a New American Security, told The New York Times.
“There is a constant overestimation of their ability to orchestrate events. Now they have this idea they were going to detain someone in tit-for-tat diplomacy with the United States. But then, whoops, this guy has four different citizenships, and that complicates the whole situation for the Russians.”
Whelan was born in Canada to a British couple, Edward and Rosemary Whelan. It is believed Whelan obtained Irish citizenship through an Irish ancestry claim.
An ex-U.S. Marine, Whelan was found guilty of attempting to steal over $10,000 and pass bad checks to pay off debt while he was deployed to Iraq in 2006. He was court-martialed and discharged from the Marine Corps on bad conduct.
According to The New York Times, former CIA officers have said it is highly unlikely Whelan, who has made repeated visits to Russia, was working for an American intelligence service because the U.S. almost never sends officers into Russia without diplomatic protections.
Whelan will now appear in court where it is expected his prison sentence will be extended. Spying charges in Russia can carry a prison sentence of up to 20 years.