American Detained in Russia on Espionage Charges 'Is Not Our Spy,' Security Source Says

"The Russians are just blowing smoke," a government security source tells PEOPLE

US citizen arrested in Russia, Novi, USA - 01 Jan 2019

American citizen Paul Whelan, who was arrested on espionage charges in Russia, is not a secret agent for the United States, a government security source tells PEOPLE.

“He is not our spy,” the security source says of 48-year-old Whelan. “The Russians are just blowing smoke.” The source is not authorized to communicate with the press and spoke to PEOPLE on the condition of anonymity.

News of Whelan’s arrest broke on New Year’s Eve when Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB) announced that it had detained the Michigan resident. The FSB said he was arrested during a “spy mission” and is the subject of an investigation.

The FSB did not explain what Whelan allegedly did wrong, only that he was being held on suspicion of espionage.

Whelan went to Moscow in December to attend a wedding, his twin brother David said in a statement from the family posted to Twitter.

“We noticed that he was not in communication on the 28th, which was very much out of character for him even when he was traveling,” reads the statement. The family learned through news reports that their missing loved one was arrested that day.

US citizen arrested in Russia, Novi, USA - 01 Jan 2019

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Paul is a “retired Marine,” according to the family statement. According to Marine Corps records, though, Whelan did not retire from the Marines but has what the services euphemistically call “bad paper,” a type of military discharge that, among other things, creates issues with veterans benefits — and security clearances.

“In terms of getting a clearance, there’s a world of difference between being retired military and having bad paper,” says the security source. “And a spy needs a clearance.”

The U.S. Marine Corps confirmed to PEOPLE that Paul Whelan joined its Reserve component as a clerk on May 10, 1994. He deployed twice to Iraq and attained the rank of Staff Sergeant, the sixth rung of the enlisted ranks, in 2004.

In 2008, Whelan’s military career took a sharp downturn. Military records show that in January of that year, he was convicted at a special court-martial on several charges related to larceny. In February, the Marine Corps demoted Whelan to Private, the lowest enlisted rank, and gave him a Bad Conduct Discharge. He was discharged in December of that year.

In civilian life, Whelan obtained a Federal Firearms License, and in 2015 founded Kingsmead Arsenal, selling firearms in Novi, Michigan. The company did not immediately respond to PEOPLE’s request for comment.

Additionally, Whelan works in corporate security at BorgWarner, an American-based auto supply business. “We can confirm that Mr. Whelan currently serves as the company’s director, global security,” wrote BorgWarner spokeswoman Kathy Graham in a statement posted on the company website. “He is responsible for overseeing security at our facilities in Auburn Hills, Michigan and at other company locations around the world.”

The company has been in contact with American officials, and is directing all further inquiries on Whelan to the U.S. State Department.

The missing man’s family remains focused on his personal security. “We are deeply concerned for his safety and well-being,” reads the statement posted by brother David on Twitter. “His innocence is undoubted and we trust that his rights will be respected.”

The Russian FSB did not respond to a request from PEOPLE to confirm the charges against Whelan and to discuss his detention.

On Wednesday, Russia granted consular access to Whelan two days after U.S. officials requested access, according to multiple outlets.

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