US Russia Spying

FILE - This undated file photo provided by the Whelan family shows Paul Whelan in Iceland. (Courtesy of the Whelan Family via AP)

The story reads like a deplorable return to the Cold War, when nations dealt in human hostages, but this time there is a trade war twist.

There is rampant speculation that China is holding two Canadian citizens and Russia a mysterious man who has American, British, Canadian and Irish passports in order to pressure Canada and the United States to release a Chinese executive arrested in Vancouver and an admitted Russian agent of influence who recently pleaded guilty in a U.S. court.

The American with the many passports, Paul Whelan, was seized in Moscow and accused of possessing a secret roster of Russian agents. But his employment as director of security for a Michigan firm seems an unlikely cover for a spy, and Russian security services have a record of planting evidence. The former Marine traveled to Russia frequently on personal business and could have attracted the attention of Russian security for that reason. The State Department has been cautious, saying he should be freed if the charges against him are not substantiated.

In any event, his seizure has been speculatively linked to the arrest of a Russian woman, Maria Butina, for being an unregistered foreign agent seeking to win friends for Russia at the National Rifle Association. It is entirely possible that Russia is setting up a swap to get its agent back, as it has done before.

The spy plot thickens because the Chinese executive, Meng Wanzhou, was arrested in Canada at the request of the United States. Ms. Meng is not just any executive, but the daughter of the founder of China’s largest private company, the controversial telecommunications company Huawei, and its vice chairwoman and chief financial officer.

Huawei rivals Apple as a producer of smart phones. It is active in developing the next cellphone network system, but the American government suspects it of working for the Chinese intelligence services. It has been banned since 2014 from bidding on U.S. government contracts — and with good reason.

Last year the heads of the FBI, CIA and National Security Agency warned that Americans should not use Huawei products or those of another Chinese electronics firm, ZTE. FBI Director Christopher Wray told Congress that allowing them “to gain positions of power inside our telecommunications networks” would create “the capacity to maliciously modify or steal information ... [and] to conduct undetected espionage.”

Ms. Meng is accused by the U.S. government of illegally concealing from several banks Huawei’s ownership of firms engaged in violating U.S. and possibly also UN sanctions against Iran.

The Chinese decision to seize former Canadian diplomat Michael Kovig and entrepreneur Michael Spavor within days of Ms. Meng’s arrest in Canada is seen as clear evidence that she is regarded as a very important person in China.

In an unusual plot twist, soon after Ms. Meng’s arrest in early December, Mr. Trump broke with a longstanding “hands-off” precedent for such cases in telling Reuters he would intervene to return her to China “if I think it’s good for the country, if I think it’s good for what will be certainly the largest trade deal ever made ... what’s good for national security.”

Canadian Foreign Minister Christia Freeman made the appropriately starchy response that the Meng affair should not be politicized, saying, “Canada understands the rule of law and extradition ought not ever to be politicized or used as tools to resolve other issues.”

That is going strictly by the book, something that hostage-takers usually ignore.

Ms. Meng’s extradition is now before a Canadian court, which may take offense at Mr. Trump’s remarks and free her. Meanwhile, the plot writers are busy working on the next episode in this round-robin case.