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Government Shutdown: Russian arrest of alleged US spy shows impact

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A US citizen identified as Paul Whelan was arrested in Russia on Friday and charged with espionage, and it’s not clear how the Trump administration plans to respond.

This appears to be linked to the fact the State Department is one of the agencies impacted by the government shutdown.

When INSIDER reached out to State for a comment on Whelan’s arrest, it initially received an automatic response from a spokesman that stated, “I am not in the office because of the furlough resulting from the lapse in U.S. Government appropriations.”

Meanwhile, a spokesperson for the National Security Council told INSIDER to “check [with] State” when asked for a comment on Whelan’s arrest.

The US embassy in Moscow also did not immediately respond to a request for comment from INSIDER.

In a December 26 Facebook post, the embassy made it clear it’s not operating at full capacity during the shutdown.

“At this time, scheduled passport and visas services in the United States and at U.S. Embassies and Consulates overseas will continue during the lapse in appropriations as the situation permits,” the embassy said. “We will not update this account until full operations resume, with the exception of urgent safety and security information.”

A State Department spokesperson eventually responded to INSIDER and said the agency was aware of Whelan’s arrest.

“We have been formally notified of the detention by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. 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 spokesperson said.

Read more: A US citizen has been arrested in Russia on spying charges

It’s not unusual for a government agency to take some time to respond to queries from reporters, nor is it out of the ordinary for the White House to tell journalists to ask certain agencies about matters they’re likely to take point on.

But this situation is still telling in terms of how a government shutdown impacts US diplomatic operations.

A spokesperson for the State Department told INSIDER employees were notified at the start of the shutdown whether they’re in a position that qualifies as “excepted” or “non-excepted.”

“As outlined in the Department’s guidance, excepted functions include those necessary for emergencies involving ‘the safety of human life or the protection of property’ and those necessary for activities essential to national security, including the conduct of foreign affairs essential to national security,” the spokesperson said.

“Many of the Department’s bureaus and posts are implementing shutdown procedures, including the furlough of personnel performing non-excepted functions,” the spokesperson added. “Approximately 33% of U.S. direct hire overseas employees and approximately 45% of U.S. direct hire domestic employees have been furloughed.”

The spokesperson also said that consular operations, including visa and passport services, will continue “as long as there are sufficient fees to support operations.” Overseas embassies and consulates are also expected to continue to provide “routine and emergency U.S. citizen services.”

Some State Department operations are continuing because of available residual balances, including Diplomatic Security; Defense Trade Controls fee-funded services; Overseas Buildings Operations; Education and Cultural Affairs; International Narcotics and Law Enforcement; Population, Refugees, and Migration; and the Office of Foreign Missions.

“Those entities with residual balances available for payroll and other specified activities will continue operating until their respective balances are insufficient to continue,” the State Department said.

David Rothkopf, a foreign policy expert and visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said the State Department’s response to Whelan’s detention goes beyond the limitations presented by the shutdown.

“It would certainly seem, based on the response [INSIDER] got, that the State Department’s ability to respond has been impacted by the shutdown,” Rothkopf told INSIDER. “That said, it is not unheard of for the State Department to be reticent on such matters nor is it unusual for the White House to punt to the State Department. It is more unusual for the Russians to take someone like this into custody rather than expelling them … and that of course, suggests the individual may be used in a trade, for [Maria] Butina for example.”

Read more: Accused Russian agent Maria Butina pleaded guilty to engaging in a conspiracy against the US

Pointing to a New York Times report that said the State Department did not spend any of the millions of dollars it’s been allocated to combat Russian election meddling, Rothkopf added that “the issue at the current State Department is not money.”

“Even without the furlough they are soft-peddling pressure on Russia — even as Russian attacks on the US continue and further evidence of their plots against US democracy is revealed,” Rothkopf said.

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