American citizen Paul Whelan sits in prison in Russia accused of espionage. Although Whelan fits an unlikely profile for a spy, some of his behavior such as possessing US, UK, Canadian and Irish passports and having made multiple contacts within the Russian defense and security services may have contributed to his downfall. Whelan’s arrest on December 28, 2018 is reportedly based on him receiving classified information from a Russian citizen. Whelan claims he thought they were holiday pictures. There is some indication that Whelan’s contact may have helped set him up to avoid paying a $1400 debt he owed for some iPhones Whelan provided him.
Whelan is not the first American to have this happen to him. In 2000, former US Navy officer Edmund Pope was arrested for espionage and spent 253 days in prison before being pardoned. Like Whelan, Pope was a frequent visitor to Russia and may have been deliberately targeted and set up for arrest by his contacts there.
It is not just a Russian phenomenon. In 2018 a UK academic researching policy and defense issues was arrested, tried and convicted in a Gulf country and received a life sentence. He was subsequently pardoned. His arrested apparently stemmed from asking the wrong person sensitive questions as part of his research. Australian-British academic Dr. Kylie Moore-Gilbert was arrested in Iran on espionage charges in September 2018 and sentenced to 10 years in prison.
These are cautionary tales for travelers, and while these incidents are relatively rare, they occur often enough to be a concern. Enough of a concern that travelers should be aware of it and realize that depending on the country and the nature of their visit, it can present a critical risk. Some things to consider:
- Are there any geopolitical issues occurring between your home country and the country you are visiting that can impact your visit?
- What is the nature of your visit and who will you be meeting with / what will you be doing?
- What is your profile and how are you likely to be perceived by the host government or non-governmental actors?
- Are you an academic, journalist, auditor, consultant, aid worker, photographer or involved in another profession that will put you in a position where you are asking potentially sensitive questions or engaging in activities that might be deemed suspicious?
- Who are your local contacts and who do you plan to meet with? Consider conducting a risk assessment on them to determine what concerns may exist?
- Are you involved in any contentious business dealings or other situations that might increase your risk? These can include things like negotiating pricing and conditions, terminating or laying off local staff, resolving issues with local partners or suppliers, etc.
- Be cautious implementing personal security measures. Personal security measures are important and we encourage their use, but if you appear to be running surveillance detection routes or checking for hidden cameras or recording devices, local security services may mistake you for someone that you are not. This is very environmentally and situationally dependent, but evaluate your situation to determine if this activity mitigates risk or increases it.
This is a challenging area to address. You can start by looking at the potential risks you face and consider how to mitigate them and to contingency plan for addressing issues or situations that might arise.