US ambassador to Russia Jon Huntsman visited an American detained on suspicion of being a spy in Russia on Wednesday after a delay that is rattling the State Department.
Huntsman visited Paul Whelan, a 48-year-old former Marine accused of being a spy, six days after Whelan was arrested. Under the Vienna Convention of 1963, people arrested abroad have the right to be visited by consular officers from their home country — the State Department stipulates that notification of all cases should be made in the first 24 to 72 hours after the arrest. The State Department did not respond to the question of why it took days for a US official to see Whelan, but one official said: “We have expressed our concern about the delay in consular access through diplomatic channels.”
Earlier Wednesday, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said they expected consular access to Whelan “within the next few hours.” Shortly thereafter, the Russian Foreign Ministry said access had been granted. It was a few hours after that that the State Department confirmed that Huntsman visited Whelan in the Lefortovo Detention Facility.
“Ambassador Huntsman expressed his support for Mr. Whelan and offered the embassy’s assistance,” a State Department official said, adding, “Ambassador Huntsman subsequently spoke by telephone with Mr. Whelan’s family.”
An automated response to journalists set by Whelan’s brother, David, said that he did not have any updates to share. Whelan was adamant that his brother was not spying in Russia and was there for a wedding.
According to his family, Whelan was visiting Moscow for a wedding. David Whelan said in a statement released first to CNN that the family lost contact with his brother on Dec. 28. Whelan currently works as global security director for BorgWarner, an automotive components manufacturer based in Michigan. BorgWarner put out a statement confirming Whelan’s employment and directing further requests for comment to the State Department. Previously, Whelan was in global security at office staffing firm Kelly Services, and was also a Marine.
Some former CIA officials have speculated that Whelan, who, according to his profile page on Russian social media site Vkontakte, is supportive of US President Donald Trump, was taken to potentially be used to bargain for Maria Butina. Butina admitted to being a Russian foreign agent last month after spending at least two years attempting to build Russian influence through organizations such as the National Rifle Association.
What comes after the US consular visit is as yet unclear.
In other high profile cases of detained Americans — for example, in the case of Pastor Andrew Brunson, who, until this fall, was detained in Turkey — senators have gone to see the detainee and keep pressure on the foreign government.
The offices of Sen. Debbie Stabenow and Gary Peters, both of Michigan, did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the record regarding whether they would push to visit or otherwise offer support to their constituent, though Peters did write on his Facebook page, “It is very concerning when a foreign adversary like Russia feels empowered to detain an American citizen. The Trump Administration must act swiftly and with transparency to make sure Russia is adhering to international law.”
Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, who was vocal and visible in the case of Brunson, put out a statement arguing NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine should withdraw his invitation to Dmitry Rogozin, the current head of the Russian space agency. “Given Dmitry Rogozin’s involvement in Russia’s annexation of Crimea and continued bloodshed against the Ukrainian people, as well as Russia’s recent detention of an American citizen and continued interference in Western democracies, Administrator Bridenstine should withdraw this invitation immediately before Congress is forced to take action,” her statement said.
However, Shaheen, who visited Brunson in Turkey, won’t be pushing to do the same for Whelan; Shaheen is on a Russian travel “black list,” and so cannot go to Russia. The office of Sen. Lindsey Graham, the Republican from South Carolina who went with Shaheen to see Brunson, did not immediately respond to a request for comment as to whether he would try to make it to Moscow.