Don’t Look Like a Spy in a Foreign Country – A Cautionary Tale for World Travelers

By Michael W. Trott
March 15, 2019

Speculation continues to swirl around Paul Whelan, the U.S. citizen recently charged with espionage by Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB) and who is currently awaiting trial.

On the surface, his arrest appears to be a potential setup for a future spy swap with the U.S. for Maria Butina, a Russian national who recently pled guilty to charges of conspiring to act as a foreign agent of Moscow. As soon as Butina was arrested in July 2018, the Russians probably put this effort into motion. The only question was which American tourist would be the unlucky pawn.

For some Americans or foreign travelers, this is yet another cautionary tale.

Paul Whelan, a former U.S. Marine who was arrested in Moscow at the end of last year, looks through a glass enclosure as his lawyers talk in a courtroom in Moscow on Jan. 22. (Pavel Golovkin/AP)

Paul Whelan, a former U.S. Marine who was arrested in Moscow at the end of last year, looks through a glass enclosure as his lawyers talk in a courtroom in Moscow on Jan. 22. (Pavel Golovkin/AP)

I have no inside information as to whether Paul Whelan was in fact engaged in any act of espionage. But, based on the claims, I have significant doubts any American or foreign intelligence agencies were behind the FSB’s assertions, as they are not consistent with any real spy tradecraft.

In this case – and for what the Russians needed – he just had to be an unwitting but believable actor in a contrived international political performance.

While I was serving in the U.S. military in Germany in the mid 1980’s through the early 1990’s and during the Cold War, it wasn’t unheard of for East German or Soviet spies to manipulate Westerners into unwittingly participating in acts of espionage. Many times, it would be young and unassuming servicemen with access to sensitive or classified information that would be drawn into these types of “spy” performances.

Here’s one way this could be done: After making acquaintances with a naïve Western soldier or airman, the enemy spy would build some level of trust and rapport. At some point, they would ask for a simple favor – for example, “Would it be okay to just get me a copy of the base telephone book?” While such a book might not technically be classified, it could still be marked as confidential. After a plausible story (e.g., just wanting to find contact numbers for German friends who worked on the base), sometimes the naïve Western serviceman would provide them a copy in what felt like a harmless gesture.

What the young soldier or airman wouldn’t know was that the person requesting the book (or other documents) had ensured the delivery took place at a spot that made it appear like a clandestine meeting – with another foreign agent taking lots of photos of the handoff. (We might call this the “opening act.”)

During another chance meeting not long after, the soldier or airman would meet a “new” friend – perhaps at a favorite local bar or restaurant. This person would share a few photos with them, informing them that their first “friend” to whom they had delivered the sensitive document/s was actually a known spy under surveillance. Once they explained that they would be sharing the damning photos and information with the U.S. military or intelligence agencies, you can imagine the panic that would immediately wash over this young person.

Now under some level of blackmail, their old “friend” would have a new urgent need for “just” one more document. While this document could also be relatively harmless, the friend (agent) might also try to increase their request and this time ask for something classified as “sensitive,” “secret” or higher.

If they complied with the new request and again had photos taken of the performance, you could consider this as “Act Two” in the sad saga. The performance and requests would get exceedingly more intense during “Act Three” – that is, if the young soldier or airman didn’t get smart and just march into their commander’s office, base police or military investigations unit, tell their story and put an end to it all.

In these situations, these servicemen or women hadn’t set out to engage in espionage but rather allowed themselves to be drawn into a compromising situation involving sophisticated spycraft. If they didn’t fast become wise to the exploitation drawing them in, their careers and freedoms would be at risk – and they could even face charges of espionage by the U.S. government.

While not exactly the same, the situation Mr. Whelan finds himself in is similar. Whelan is a frequent traveler to Russia for business and leisure, making him a tempting target for the FSB. He holds four passports, which raise questions even though they’re all completely legal. He was an enthusiast for local Russian culture and had many social media connections with individuals in the Russian military and defense ministry.

What may have been his biggest blunder, however, was accepting a thumb drive from someone he didn’t know. He believed it to contain innocent travel photos, but it actually contained alleged state secrets – thus the arrest minutes after he received it. I can only assume there may be another unfortunate set of “staged” circumstances that portray him in compromising positions, which will make his defense difficult.

And that’s just what the Russians want.

This isn’t the first incident like this, nor will it be the last. This cautionary tale is not necessarily about avoiding being caught as a foreign spy (though that would be a good rule of thumb).

My point for frequent global travelers is that you must pay careful attention to world news and events, the international political climate, the possible motivations of strangers you meet and, very importantly, the norms, culture and laws of the country you’re visiting. Without a doubt, one must also consider ramifications from a hostile regime.

Another recent case in point is regarding Michael White, a 13-year U.S. Navy veteran who has now been sentenced to 10 years in an Iranian prison after he posted a picture of his Iranian girlfriend on a social media site. (He is also being accused of “insulting the country’s top leader,” but no further details were available on that charge.) Most Muslim countries strictly enforce Sharia law, and other unfortunate tourists have been “educated” on them by being thrown into jail (e.g., after being arrested for holding hands or kissing in public in Dubai).

If you enjoy traveling and experiencing the world, you need to consider how your lack of knowledge of a country or society may turn your ordinary actions into extraordinarily painful lessons (or worse, as in the case of poor Otto Warmbier).

Knowledge is power – if you want to stay out of trouble.

(For more information on the above, read this article in The New York Times and this account by be Reuters.