U.S. diplomats head to China despite row over Houston consulate

By Humeyra Pamuk

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – A flight bound for Shanghai carrying U.S. diplomats has left the United States as Washington presses ahead with its plan to restaff its mission in China a day after a U.S. order to close the Chinese consulate in Houston sharply escalated tensions.

A person familiar with the matter told Reuters the flight, carrying an unspecified number of U.S. diplomats, left Washington on Wednesday evening. The State Department did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

An internal State Department email dated July 17, seen by Reuters, said the department was working to arrange a charter flight to Shanghai from Washington’s Dulles International Airport departing on Thursday.

The source said this flight had departed earlier than initially planned.

The email said a tentative July 29 flight to Tianjin and Beijing was in the initial planning stages and a target date for another flight, to Guangzhou, was still to be determined.

The memo said priority was being given to reuniting separated families and returning section/agency heads.

The U.S. is working to fully restaff its mission in China, one of its largest in the world, which was evacuated in February because of COVID-19, the illness caused by the new coronavirus.

Thursday’s flight went ahead despite a dramatic move by Washington to close China’s consulate in Houston amid sweeping espionage allegations.

China warned on Thursday it would be forced to respond to the U.S. move, which had “severely harmed” relations.

It gave no details, but the South China Morning Post reported that China may close the U.S. consulate in Chengdu, while a source told Reuters on Wednesday it was considering shutting the consulate in Wuhan, where the United States withdrew staff at the start of the coronavirus outbreak.

Two flights have so far taken place to return some of the more than 1,200 U.S. diplomats with their families to China since negotiations for the returns hit an impasse in early July over conditions China wanted to impose on the Americans.

The impasse caused the State Department to postpone flights tentatively scheduled for the first 10 days of July.

U.S.-China relations have deteriorated this year to their lowest level in decades over a wide range of issues, including China’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic, bilateral trade and a new security law for Hong Kong.

Washington and Beijing have been negotiating for weeks over the terms of how to bring U.S. diplomats back amid disagreement over COVID-19 testing and quarantine procedures as well as frequency of flights and how many each can bring back.

(Reporting by Humeyra Paumuk; Additional reporting by David Brunnstrom; Editing by Mary Milliken and Diane Craft)

U.S. orders China to shut Houston consulate as spying accusations mount

By Cate Cadell and David Brunnstrom

BEIJING/WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The United States gave China 72 hours to close its consulate in Houston amid accusations of spying, marking a dramatic deterioration in relations between the world’s two biggest economies.

The U.S. State Department said on Wednesday the Chinese mission in Houston was being closed “to protect American intellectual property and Americans’ private information.”

China’s foreign ministry said Washington had abruptly issued the demand on Tuesday and called it an “unprecedented escalation.” The ministry threatened unspecified retaliation.

The Chinese Embassy in Washington had received “bomb and death threats” because of “smears & hatred” fanned by the U.S. government, spokeswoman Hua Chunying wrote in a tweet.

“The U.S. should revoke its erroneous decision,” she said. “China will surely react with firm countermeasures.”

Communist Party rulers in Beijing were considering shutting the U.S. consulate in the central city of Wuhan in retaliation, a source with knowledge of the matter said.

U.S.-based China experts said Beijing could also opt to target more important consulates in Hong Kong, Shanghai or Guangzhou, something that could hurt American businesses.

The Houston move comes in the run-up to the November U.S. presidential election, in which President Donald Trump and his Democratic rival, Joe Biden, have both tried to look tough towards China.

Speaking on a visit to Denmark, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo repeated accusations about Chinese theft of U.S. and European intellectual property, which he said were costing “hundreds of thousands of jobs.”

While offering no specifics about the Houston consulate, Pompeo referred to a U.S. Justice Department indictment on Tuesday of two Chinese nationals over what it called a decade-long cyber espionage campaign that targeted defense contractors, COVID-19 researchers and hundreds of other victims worldwide.

Pompeo also referred to recent speeches by the head of the FBI and others that highlighted Chinese espionage activities.

“President Trump has said: ‘Enough. We are not going to allow this to continue to happen,'” he told reporters. “That’s the actions that you’re seeing taken by President Trump, we’ll continue to engage in this.”

Republican Senator Marco Rubio, acting chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, described the Houston consulate on Twitter as the “central node of the Communist Party’s vast network of spies & influence operations in the United States.”

Trump was due to hold a news conference at 5.30 p.m. (2130 GMT), the White House said.

The New York Times quoted the top U.S. diplomat for East Asia, David Stilwell, as saying that the Houston consulate had been at the “epicenter” of the Chinese army’s efforts to advance its warfare advantages by sending students to U.S. universities.

“We took a practical step to prevent them from doing that,” Stilwell told the Times.

Stephen Biegun, the State Department’s number two diplomat, told the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee the decision was made in response to “longstanding areas of concern.”

He said these included intellectual property theft and commercial espionage, as well as unequal treatment of U.S. diplomats, exporters, investors and media in China and abuse by China’s security services of the welcoming U.S. posture toward Chinese students and researchers.

A Chinese diplomat, speaking to Reuters on condition of anonymity, denied the spying allegations and said the Houston mission acted like other Chinese consulates in the United States – issuing visas, and promoting visits and businesses.

‘RACE TO THE BOTTOM’

U.S.-China ties have worsened sharply this year over issues ranging from the coronavirus and telecoms-gear maker Huawei to China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea and clampdown on Hong Kong.

Jonathan Pollack, an East Asia expert with the Brookings Institution, said he could not think of anything “remotely equivalent” to the move against the Houston consulate since the U.S. and China opened full diplomatic relations in 1979.

“The Trump Administration appears to view this latest action as political ammunition in the presidential campaign… It’s part of the administration’s race to the bottom against China,” he said.

Overnight in Houston, firefighters went to the consulate after smoke was seen. Two U.S. government officials said they had information that documents were being burned there.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin said the consulate was operating normally.

But its closure within a short period of time by Washington was “an unprecedented escalation of its recent actions against China,” Wang said.

A source with direct knowledge of the matter said China was considering closing the U.S. consulate in Wuhan, where the State Department withdrew staff and their families early this year due to the coronavirus outbreak that first emerged in the city.

China’s foreign ministry did not immediately respond to a request for comment on whether it would shut the consulate.

Wang said the U.S. government had been harassing Chinese diplomats and consular staff for some time and intimidating Chinese students. He said the United States had interfered with China’s diplomatic missions, including intercepting diplomatic pouches. The State Department did not respond to a request for comment on the Chinese accusations.

(Reporting by Cate Cadell in Beijing and David Brunnstrom in Washington; additional reporting by Nikolaj Skydsgaard in Copenhagen, Patricia Zengerle, Daphne Psaledakis, Mark Hosenball, Steve Holland and Arshad Mohammed in Washington, Michelle Nichols and Echo Wang in New York and Rama Venkat in Bengaluru; Writing by David Brunnstrom and Nick Macfie; Editing by Peter Graff and Rosalba O’Brien)

U.S. accuses Chinese nationals of hacking spree for COVID-19 data, defense secrets

By Raphael Satter and Christopher Bing

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. Justice Department on Tuesday indicted two Chinese nationals over their role in what the agency called a decade-long cyber espionage campaign that targeted defense contractors, COVID researchers and hundreds of other victims worldwide.

U.S. authorities said Li Xiaoyu and Dong Jiazhi stole terabytes of weapons designs, drug information, software source code, and personal data from targets that included dissidents and Chinese opposition figures. The cyber criminals were contractors for the Chinese government, rather than full-fledged spies, U.S. officials said.

U.S. Assistant Attorney General for National Security John Demers said at a virtual press conference the hackings showed China “is willing to turn a blind eye to prolific criminal hackers operating within its borders.”

“In this manner, China has now taken its place, alongside Russia, Iran, and North Korea, in that shameful club of nations that provides safe haven for cyber criminals in exchange for those criminals being on call for the benefit of the state.”

Messages left with one of several accounts registered in the name of Li’s digital alias, oro0lxy, were not immediately returned. Reuters could not immediately locate contact details for Dong. The Chinese Embassy in Washington did not immediately return a message seeking comment, although Beijing has repeatedly denied hacking the United States.

The indictment mostly did not name any companies or individual targets, but U.S. Attorney William Hyslop, who spoke alongside Demers, said there were “hundreds and hundreds of victims in the United States and worldwide.” Officials said the investigation was triggered when the hackers broke into a network belonging to the Hanford Site, a decommissioned U.S. nuclear complex in eastern Washington state, in 2015.

Li and Dong were “one of the most prolific group of hackers we’ve investigated,” said FBI Special Agent Raymond Duda, who heads the agency’s Seattle field office.

A July 7 indictment made public on Tuesday alleges that Li and Dong were contractors for China’s Ministry of State Security, or MSS, a comparable agency to the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency. The MSS, prosecutors said, supplied the hackers with information into critical software vulnerabilities to penetrate targets and collect intelligence. Targets included Hong Kong protesters, the office of the Dalai Lama and a Chinese Christian non-profit.

As early as Jan. 27, as the coronavirus outbreak was coming into focus, the hackers were trying to steal COVID-19 vaccine research of an unidentified Massachusetts biotech firm, the indictment said.

It is unclear whether anything was stolen but one expert said the allegation shows the “extremely high value” that governments such as China placed on COVID-related research.

“It is a fundamental threat to all governments around the world and we expect information relating to treatments and vaccines to be targeted by multiple cyber espionage sponsors,” said Ben Read, a senior analyst at cyber-security company FireEye.

He noted that the Chinese government had long relied on contractors for its cyber-spying operations.

“Using these freelancers allows the government to access a wider array of talent, while also providing some deniability in conducting these operations,” Read said.

(Reporting by Chris Sanders; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and Richard Chang)

U.S. senators unveil bill to curb foreign espionage, influence on campuses

(Reuters) – A bipartisan group of U.S. senators introduced legislation on Thursday aimed at protecting research and innovation on U.S. campuses and preventing suspected theft of intellectual property by China and other countries.

There is a growing push in Washington to clamp down on spying and intellectual property theft that some Chinese nationals are suspected of engaging in at U.S. universities and colleges.

The “Safeguarding American Innovation Act” proposes to strengthen the U.S. State Department’s authority to deny visas to foreign nationals seeking access to certain sensitive technologies related to U.S. national security and economic security interests.

It also proposes penalizing individuals with fines and imprisonment for failing to disclose foreign support on federal grant applications, as well as lowering the threshold for U.S. schools and universities to report foreign gifts.

“This bill will help us stop foreign governments from stealing our research and innovation while also increasing transparency to ensure that taxpayers know when colleges and universities accept significant foreign funding,” Senator Rob Portman, a Republican and lead sponsor, said in a statement.

The bill, co-sponsored by at least nine Republicans and six Democrats, also aims to give the Department of Education authority to punish U.S. schools that fail to properly report gifts received from foreign entities.

In one of the highest-profile cases to emerge from a crackdown on Chinese influence within universities, a Harvard University professor pleaded not guilty on Tuesday to charges that he lied to authorities about his ties to a China-run recruitment program and funding he received from the Chinese government for research.

Reuters, citing sources, reported last month that the United States is planning to cancel the visas of thousands of Chinese graduate students believed by the Trump administration to have links with China’s military.

(Reporting by Ismail Shakil in Bengaluru; additional reporting by Patricia Zengerle in Washington; Editing by Mark Heinrich and Paul Simao)

Assange tried to call White House, Hillary Clinton over data dump, his lawyer says

By Michael Holden

LONDON (Reuters) – Julian Assange tried to contact Hillary Clinton and the White House when he realized that unredacted U.S. diplomatic cables given to WikiLeaks were about to be dumped on the internet, his lawyer told his London extradition hearing on Tuesday.

Assange is being sought by the United States on 18 counts of hacking U.S. government computers and an espionage offense, having allegedly conspired with Chelsea Manning, then a U.S. soldier known as Bradley Manning, to leak hundreds of thousands of secret documents by WikiLeaks almost a decade ago.

On Monday, the lawyer representing the United States told the hearing that Assange, 48, was wanted for crimes that had endangered people in Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan who had helped the West, some of whom later disappeared.

U.S. authorities say his actions in recklessly publishing unredacted classified diplomatic cables put informants, dissidents, journalists and human rights activists at risk of torture, abuse or death.

Outlining part of his defense, Assange’s lawyer Mark Summers said allegations that he had helped Manning to break a government password, had encouraged the theft of secret data and knowingly put lives in danger were “lies, lies and more lies”.

He told London’s Woolwich Crown Court that WikiLeaks had received documents from Manning in April 2010. He then made a deal with a number of newspapers, including the New York Times, Britain’s Guardian and Germany’s Der Spiegel, to begin releasing redacted parts of the 250,000 cables in November that year.

A witness from Der Spiegel said the U.S. State Department had been involved in suggesting redactions in conference calls, Summers said.

However, a password that allowed access to the full unredacted material was published in a book by a Guardian reporter about WikiLeaks in February 2011. In August, another German newspaper reported it had discovered the password and it had access to the archive.

PEOPLE’S LIVES “AT RISK”

Summers said Assange attempted to warn the U.S. government, calling the White House and attempting to speak to then- Secretary of State Clinton, saying “unless we do something, people’s lives are put at risk”.

Summers said the State Department had responded by suggesting that Assange call back “in a couple of hours”.

The United States asked Britain to extradite Assange last year after he was pulled from the Ecuador embassy in London, where he had spent seven years holed up avoiding extradition to Sweden over sex crime allegations which have since been dropped.

Assange has served a prison sentence in Britain for skipping bail and remains jailed pending the U.S. extradition request

Supporters hail Assange as an anti-establishment hero who revealed governments’ abuses of power, and argue the action against him is a dangerous infringement of journalists’ rights. Critics cast him as a dangerous enemy of the state who has undermined Western security.

(Reporting by Michael Holden; Editing by Gareth Jones)

Chinese government hackers suspected of moonlighting for profit

FILE PHOTO: An attendee looks on during the 2016 Black Hat cyber-security conference in Las Vegas, Nevada, U.S. August 3, 2016. REUTERS/David Becker/File Photo

By Joseph Menn, Jack Stubbs and Christopher Bing

LAS VEGAS (Reuters) – One of the most effective teams of Chinese government-backed hackers is also conducting financially-motivated side operations, cybersecurity researchers said on Wednesday.

U.S. firm FireEye said members of the group it called Advanced Persistent Threat 41 (APT41) penetrated and spied on global tech, communications and healthcare providers for the Chinese government while using ransomware against game companies and attacking cryptocurrency providers for personal profit.

The findings, announced at the Black Hat security conference in Las Vegas, show how some of the world’s most advanced hackers increasingly pose a threat to consumers and companies not traditionally targeted by state-backed espionage campaigns.

“APT41 is unique among the China-Nexus actors we track in that it uses tools typically reserved for espionage campaigns in what appears to be activity for personal gain,” said FireEye Senior Vice President Sandra Joyce.

Officials in China did not immediately respond to Reuters request for comment. Beijing has repeatedly denied Western accusations of conducting widespread cyber espionage.

FireEye said the APT 41 group used some of the same tools as another group it has previously reported on, which FireEye calls APT17 and Russian security firm Kaspersky calls Winnti.

Current and former Western intelligence officials told Reuters Chinese hacking groups were known to pursue commercial crimes alongside their state-backed operations.

FireEye, which sells cybersecurity software and services, said one member of APT41 advertised as a hacker for hire in 2009 and listed hours of availability outside of the normal workday, circumstantial evidence of moonlighting.

The group has used spear-phishing, or trick emails designed to elicit login information. But it has also deployed root kits, which are relatively rare and give hard-to-detect control over computers. In all, the group has used nearly 150 unique pieces of malware, FireEye said.

The most technically impressive feats included tainting millions of copies of a utility called CCleaner, now owned by security company Avast. Only a small number of specially selected, high-value computers were fully compromised, making detection of the hack more difficult.

Avast said that it had worked with security researchers and law enforcement to stop the attack and that no damage was detected. The company did not have any immediate further comment on Wednesday.

In March, Kaspersky found the group hijacked Asus’ software update process to reach more than 1 million computers, again targeting a much smaller number of end-users. Asus said the next day it had issued a fix for the attack, which affected “a small number of devices.”

“We have evidence that at least one telecom company may have been the intended target during the Asus compromise, which is consistent with APT41’s espionage targeting over the past two years,” said FireEye spokesman Dan Wire.

But FireEye and Slovakia-based cybersecurity company ESET said the gaming compromises aligned with financial motives more than national espionage. Among other things, the group won access to a game’s production environment and generated tens of millions of dollars’ worth of virtual currency, FireEye said.

(Reporting by Joseph Menn, Jack Stubbs and Chris Bing; Editing by Greg Mitchell and Nick Zieminski)

U.S. charges WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange with espionage

FILE PHOTO: WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange leaves Southwark Crown Court after being sentenced in London, Britain, May 1, 2019. REUTERS/Henry Nicholls/File Photo

By Sarah N. Lynch and Mark Hosenball

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. Justice Department unveiled 17 new criminal charges against WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange on Thursday, saying he unlawfully published the names of classified sources and conspired with and assisted ex-Army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning in obtaining access to classified information.

The superseding indictment comes a little more than a month after the Justice Department unsealed a narrower criminal case against Assange.

Assange was initially charged with conspiring with Manning to gain access to a government computer as part of a 2010 leak by WikiLeaks of hundreds of thousands of U.S. military reports about the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

He now faces a total of 18 criminal counts and could face many decades in prison if convicted.

“These unprecedented charges demonstrate the gravity of the threat the criminal prosecution of Julian Assange poses to all journalists in their endeavor to inform the public about actions that have been taken by the U.S. government,” said Barry Pollack, an American attorney for Assange.

The Justice Department said that not only did Assange aid and encourage Manning with the theft of classified materials, but he jeopardized the lives of human sources that included Afghans, Iraqis, journalists, religious leaders, human rights advocates and political dissidents from repressive regimes by publishing their identities.

Law enforcement officials said on Thursday that the State Department had pleaded with Assange not to reveal the identities of such sources, but Wikileaks ignored the warning.

Manning was arrested in May 2010 and convicted by court-martial in 2013 of espionage in connection with the 2010 Wikileaks disclosures.

President Barack Obama reduced Manning’s sentence to 7 years from 35 years, but she is now in jail after repeatedly refusing to testify before a grand jury investigating Assange.

Wikileaks describes itself as specializing in the publication of “censored or otherwise restricted official materials involving war, spying and corruption.”

Assange is now fighting extradition to the United States, after Ecuador in April revoked his seven-year asylum in the country’s London embassy. He was arrested that day, April 11, by British police as he left the embassy.

He is now serving a 50-week sentence in a London jail for skipping bail when he fled to the Ecuadorean embassy in 2012.

The decision to charge Assange with espionage crimes is notable and unusual. Most cases involving the theft of classified information have targeted government employees, like Manning, and not the people who publish the information itself.

In the wake of Assange’s arrest, prosecutors in Sweden re-opened a criminal investigation into allegations that Assange sexually assaulted a woman during a visit to Sweden.

Swedish authorities recently indicated they may send British authorities a fresh request for Assange’s extradition.

The decision regarding which country should have its chance to prosecute him first is now in the hands of Home Secretary Sajid Javid, Britain’s interior security minister.

The Justice Department’s quick turnaround with the filing of a more substantial indictment against Assange is not surprising.

Under extradition rules, the United States had only a 60-day window from the date of Assange’s arrest in London to add more charges. After that, foreign governments do not generally accept superseding charges.

(Reporting by Sarah N. Lynch and Mark Hosenball; Editing by Leslie Adler and Phil Berlowitz)

Russia extends detention of ex-U.S. Marine accused of spying

Former U.S. marine Paul Whelan who is being held on suspicion of spying talks with his lawyers Vladimir Zherebenkov and Olga Kralova, as he stands in the courtroom cage after a ruling regarding extension of his detention, in Moscow, Russia, February 22, 2019. REUTERS/Shamil Zhumatov

By Tom Balmforth and Alexander Reshetnikov

MOSCOW (Reuters) – A Russian court on Friday ruled that Paul Whelan, a former U.S. Marine accused of spying, should be held in a pre-trial detention facility for a further three months to give investigators more time to look into his case.

Whelan, who holds U.S., British, Canadian and Irish passports, was detained in a Moscow hotel room on Dec. 28 and accused of espionage, a charge he denies. If found guilty, he could be imprisoned for up to 20 years.

The case has put further strain on already poor U.S.-Russia relations as has that of another detained American, private equity chief Michael Calvey.

Russia’s Federal Security Service detained Whelan after an acquaintance handed him a flash drive containing classified information. Whelan’s lawyer says his client was misled.

Whelan had met the same person in the town of Sergiev Possad in May last year where they visited the town’s monastery and other tourist sites, the lawyer, Vladimir Zherebenkov, told reporters on Friday.

When Whelan returned to Russia again in December to attend a wedding, the same acquaintance unexpectedly turned up and gave him a flash drive containing what Whelan thought were photographs of the earlier trip, the lawyer said.

“Paul and I consider this was a provocation and a crime by his acquaintance,” said Zherebenkov, saying Whelan had known the man, whom he did not name, for several years.

Whelan on Friday appeared in court in a cage and looked downcast when he spoke briefly to reporters before masked security officials cut him off.

“I could do with care packages, food, things like that, letters from home,” Whelan said.

The court on Friday said Whelan would be held in pre-trial detention until May 28, extending an earlier ruling to keep him in custody until Feb. 28.

The U.S. embassy in Moscow said a consular official had visited Whelan in custody on Thursday.

It said, however, that it was unable to provide further information as Whelan had not been allowed by investigators to sign a privacy act waiver (PAW) that would legally allow the U.S. government to release information about the case.

“In every other instance, we have been able to obtain a signed PAW, but in Mr. Whelan’s case, the Investigative Committee is not allowing this to happen. Why is this case any different?” embassy spokeswoman Andrea Kalan wrote on Twitter.

(Additional reporting by Maria Tsvetkova and Maxim Rodionov; editing by Andrew Osborn)

Ex-U.S. marine held in Russia for spying was misled, says lawyer

Former U.S. marine Paul Whelan, who was detained by Russia's FSB security service on suspicion of spying, looks out of a defendants' cage before a court hearing in Moscow, Russia January 22, 2019. REUTERS/Maxim Shemetov

By Andrew Osborn and Tom Balmforth

MOSCOW (Reuters) – The lawyer for a former U.S. Marine accused of spying by Russia said on Tuesday that his client had been misled before his arrest and believed that a thumb drive handed to him in a hotel room had contained holiday snaps rather than secret information.

Russia’s Federal Security Service detained Paul Whelan, who holds U.S., British, Canadian and Irish passports, in a Moscow hotel room on Dec. 28.

Whelan appeared in a Moscow court on Tuesday, where a judge rejected a release on bail. If found guilty of espionage, he could be jailed for up to 20 years.

Whelan, who denies the charges, was detained after receiving a thumb drive containing a list of all the employees of a secret Russian state agency, the Russian online news portal Rosbalt.ru reported this month.

Rosbalt cited an unnamed Russian intelligence source as saying that Whelan had been spying for 10 years, using the internet to identify targets from whom he could obtain information and that the list he was caught with had long been of interest to U.S. spies.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov appeared to support that version of events, later telling reporters Whelan had been “caught red-handed” carrying out “specific illegal actions” in his hotel room.

But Vladimir Zherebenkov, Whelan’s lawyer, said on Tuesday that his client had accepted the information unknowingly.

“Paul was actually meant to receive information from an individual that was not classified,” Zherebenkov told reporters.

“These were cultural things, a trip to a cathedral, Paul’s holiday … photographs. But as it turned out, it (the thumb drive) contained classified information.”

The lawyer said Whelan had not been able to see what was on the thumb drive because he had been detained before he had a chance to do so.

Wearing a blue shirt and dark trousers, he looked calm but somber as he stood inside a glass cage in the courtroom.

The hearing was closed to reporters, but his lawyer said afterward that Whelan had made a 15-minute speech rejecting the allegations against him in detail.

The lawyer declined to clarify if Whelan had known the individual who handed him the information.

He said Whelan had been experiencing some minor health problems in custody and was receiving treatment.

Whelan’s family have said he is innocent and was in Moscow to attend a wedding.

(Additional reporting by Katya Golubkova; Writing by Andrew Osborn; Editing by Christian Lowe and Kevin Liffey)

Retired U.S. Marine held in Russia for spying is innocent: family

Paul Whelan, a U.S. citizen detained in Russia for suspected spying, appears in a photo provided by the Whelan family on January 1, 2019. Courtesy Whelan Family/Handout via REUTERS

By Gabrielle T’trault-Farber and Barbara Goldberg

MOSCOW/NEW YORK (Reuters) – A retired U.S. Marine who has been detained by Russia for alleged spying was visiting Moscow for the wedding of a former fellow marine and is innocent of the espionage charges against him, his family said.

Paul Whelan had been staying with the wedding party at Moscow’s Metropol hotel when he went missing, his brother, David, said.

“His innocence is undoubted and we trust that his rights will be respected,” Whelan’s family said in a statement released on Twitter on Tuesday.

Russia’s FSB state security service said Whelan had been detained on Friday, but it gave no details of his alleged espionage activities. Espionage can carry a prison sentence of between 10 and 20 years under Russian law.

A U.S. State Department representative said Russia had notified it that a U.S. citizen had been detained and it expected Moscow to allow consular access to him.

“Russia’s obligations under the Vienna Convention require them to provide consular access. We have requested this access and expect Russian authorities to provide it,” the representative said, without providing details of the American’s identity or the reasons behind his detention.

David Whelan told CNN that his brother, who had served in Iraq, has been to Russia many times in the past for both work and personal trips, and had been serving as a tour guide for some of the wedding guests. He apparently disappeared on Friday and his friends filed a missing persons report in Moscow, his brother said.

David Whelan told the news channel that the family was relieved at first when they heard he was in custody.

“It’s knowing that he’s not dead, it weirdly really helps,” he said.

He declined to comment on his brother’s work status at the time of his arrest and whether his brother lived in Novi, Michigan, as address records indicate.

BorgWarner, a Michigan-based automotive parts supplier, said Whelan is the “company’s director, global security. He is responsible for overseeing security at our facilities in Auburn Hills, Michigan and at other company locations around the world.”

BUTINA CASE

Daniel Hoffman, a former CIA Moscow station chief, said it was “possible, even likely” that Russian President Vladimir Putin had ordered Whelan’s arrest to set up an exchange for Maria Butina, a Russian citizen who pleaded guilty on Dec. 13 to acting as an agent tasked with influencing U.S. conservative groups.

Russia says Butina was forced to make a false confession about being a Russian agent.

Putin’s aim was “to make us feel some pain and his family to feel some pain. That’s their (Moscow’s) pressure point,” Hoffman told Reuters.

“Putin knows there will be a lot of public square pressure to get this guy out,” he said.

Putin told U.S. President Donald Trump in a letter on Sunday that Moscow was ready for dialogue on a “wide-ranging agenda,” the Kremlin said following a series of failed attempts to hold a new summit.

At the end of November, Trump abruptly canceled a planned meeting with Putin on the sidelines of a G20 summit in Argentina, citing tensions about Russian forces opening fire on Ukrainian navy boats and then seizing them.

Trump’s relations with Putin have been under a microscope as a result of U.S. Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into alleged Russian meddling in the 2016 U.S. election and possible collusion with the Trump campaign.

Moscow has denied intervening in the election and Trump has branded Mueller’s probe as a witch hunt.

Russia’s relations with the United States plummeted when Moscow annexed the Crimean peninsula from Ukraine in 2014, and Washington and Western allies have imposed a broad range of sanctions on Russian officials, companies and banks.

(Reporting by Barbara Goldberg in New YorkAdditional reporting by Jonathan Landay in Washington and Rich McKay in Atlanta, Editing by Bill Tarrant, Paul Simao, Richard Balmforth)