I’m sure Paul Whelan, the American who’s just been charged by Russia with espionage, would love to be a spy.
He comes across as a Walter Mitty type who once claimed to have been a sheriff’s deputy in Michigan when in reality he was part-time policeman and parking warden. His connection to the sheriff’s department was confined to his days as a Police Explorer, a crime-busting version of Boy Scouts.
The former Marine Corps reservist did two tours of duty in Iraq, but he was not exactly dodging the suicide bombs in downtown Baghdad. He worked as an administrative clerk, before being drummed out of the service in disgrace for theft, false accounting and bouncing cheques.
Not exactly CIA material – though some people who’ve seen too many Jason Bourne films might think: ‘Ha! The perfect cover – publicly throw him out of the service and then recruit him as a spy!’
Except, as we know, real life isn’t like the movies.
At the time he was detained in a Moscow hotel he was working as the ‘director of global security’ for an American car parts firm, BorgWarner. But his employers say he would never have needed to travel to Russia on business.
So why did he go there?
According to reports, Whelan was learning Russian while in Iraq and would travel to Moscow and St Petersburg when he had holiday time-off.
He became active on social media, particularly the Russian equivalent of Facebook, called VKontakte, but mainly to keep in touch with around 70 male acquaintances. People who’ve been interviewed since his arrest say he would pop up every six months or so with chit-chat and small talk.
One of the highlights was to mourn the loss of his 16-year-old cat: ‘Farewell to my loyal friend, Mittens’.
When Trump was elected, Whelan posted messages of support and when Russia annexed the Crimea he suggested they could have Alaska as well, as long as they took the former governor and vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin too.
He loves to travel the country by train, collecting tea glass holders stamped with Russian historical scenes.
All very quaint but it’s the circumstances of his arrest on 28 December which are the most interesting because of their uncanny resemblances to events of the Cold War in 1986.
Whelan was staying at the Metropol Hotel in Moscow for the wedding of a friend from his Marine Corps days to a Russian woman. As a self-styled Russian ‘expert’ he even gave the wedding guests a tour of the Kremlin museums before everyone retired to their rooms ahead of the big day.
Whelan never made it to the wedding because he was detained in his hotel room after being caught in possession with a memory stick he’d just been given by someone he knew. The USB stick contained details of all the employees at a classified security agency, and Whelan was accused of trying to recruit the person he was meeting.
His arrest came two weeks after a Russian citizen, Maria Butina, admitted in a US court to acting as a foreign agent in an organised effort, backed by Russian officials, to lobby Americans in the National Rifle Association and the Republican Party. She was originally arrested in July.
The parallels with the 1986 case of the US journalist Nicholas Daniloff are uncanny.
When he received planted documents from a Soviet person, who he thought was a friend, Daniloff was arrested and charged with spying.
He was held just days after the US had arrested a Soviet aide at the United Nations, called Gennady Zakharov, who was allegedly gathering classified data in New York.
The Reagan administration later negotiated Daniloff’s release and Zakharov was freed the next day in a tit-for-tat move that Daniloff believes is being attempted now by Russia.
“It looks like the Russians are trying to set up a one-on-one exchange, Whelan for Butina in Washington, and to tell you the truth, I’m surprised they didn’t arrest an American sooner than they did,” said Daniloff, who is now 84.
The fact that, as foreign secretary Jeremy Hunt suggests, this could all be part of a diplomatic chess game, should not disguise the fact that a lot of spying is continuing on both sides.
As Angela Stent, a professor at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service and a former expert on the government’s National Intelligence Council, said: “The rates of espionage are now as high if not higher than they were in the Cold War.
“There is a huge degree of mutual suspicion between the intelligence services that never went away.”
But, it seems, if there are more spies than ever, that Whelan is not one of them, in my opinion.
“The CIA would never leave an American vulnerable without immunity, especially for such low lever stuff,” said John Sipher, who spent 28 years in the intelligence agency’s National Clandestine Service including running the Russian operations.
“There is no way we would ever use anybody like this guy Whelan. We only handle critical, high-level spies with meticulous tradecraft. Putin knows very well that this is not US intelligence. He’s seen the real thing over the years. This is a political game, pure and simpler. An ugly game.”
Anthony Harwood is a former foreign editor of the Daily Mail and US Editor at the Daily Mirror.