RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Thirty-three years ago, NPR led its newscast with a headline that draws parallels to today.
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UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: American journalist Nicholas Daniloff could be sentenced to death under Soviet law if he is convicted of espionage. It appears he will stand trial. Daniloff, yesterday, was formally charged with spying.
MARTIN: The year was 1986. Nicholas Daniloff had been working in Moscow as a reporter when he was arrested by the KGB. It happened just days after U.S. authorities arrested a Soviet employee of the United Nations in New York. After intense negotiations with the Kremlin, the two men were exchanged in a prisoner swap. More than three decades later, another U.S. citizen is now being held in Moscow. Paul Whelan was detained last week in Russia on suspicion of espionage. His family says he was there attending a friend's wedding. This, of course, comes after a Russian named Maria Butina pled guilty to a charge of conspiracy here in the U.S. We spoke with Nicholas Daniloff about the parallels he sees.
NICHOLAS DANILOFF: Well, I think the major thing is that it looks like the Russians are trying to set up a one-on-one exchange, Whelan for Butina, in Washington. And to tell you the truth, I'm surprised that they didn't arrest an American sooner than they did.
MARTIN: Why do you say that you're surprised it took as long as it did?
DANILOFF: Well, she was arrested some time ago, wasn't she? And she has been held in prison. And obviously, the Russians want to get her back as soon as possible. So one of their tried-and-true methods is to arrest an American in Moscow. Essentially, turn that person into a hostage and then try to negotiate a one-on-one exchange.
MARTIN: The Russians stated that they caught Paul Whelan in the act of spying. That was the same accusation leveled against you. Did they present any evidence, in your case?
DANILOFF: Essentially, they arrested me after I had been given some material by a person that I thought was a friend and a source that's a Russian. Some of that material seemed to be photographs of Soviet soldiers in Afghanistan. And I was carrying this package with me when they arrested me. It was something that they had clearly planned for some time. Now, in the case of Whelan, what it seems to me they're trying to do is to fabricate a case of espionage against him. They're pretty good at doing that.
MARTIN: Can you take me back to the day you were arrested? What do you remember of it?
DANILOFF: I remember a great deal. I was arrested by an arrest team, thrown into a minibus, handcuffed, taken to a prison where I was then brought up into an interrogation room and interrogated for about four or five hours. At the end of that time, I was permitted to make a telephone call to the U.S. embassy, but it was a Saturday, and I knew that the only person I'd get at the embassy was a U.S. Marine. So I called my wife, and she raised holy hell. She organized, essentially, a big media campaign against the Russians for doing this, and the whole thing took off. It became an enormous international incident.
MARTIN: What were the conditions you were held in?
DANILOFF: I was in a cell with a cell mate. Sometimes it was cold in that cell. The one thing I would say is that I was not tortured physically, and I wouldn't expect Whelan to be tortured physically. But what you have to understand is that when you are snapped off a street, thrown into a prison, denied access to your embassy, you are being subjected to mental torture.
MARTIN: Vladimir Putin said during his annual address - his annual press conference, rather, an eye for an eye, or a tooth for a tooth, that that holds. But, he added, we will not arrest innocent people simply to exchange them for someone else later on. What do you make of that?
DANILOFF: Yeah. I think that's a marvelous deceptive statement. What the Russians are trying to do now is to fabricate an espionage case against him. When they say he was caught in an act of espionage, you know, that's a really interesting statement because to catch somebody in an act of espionage, you have to position an arrest team to witness that act of espionage.
MARTIN: It means they were surveilling him.
DANILOFF: Right. Exactly. And I imagine that that's where some of the difficulty lies.
MARTIN: Nicholas Daniloff, thank you so much for talking with us.
DANILOFF: You're welcome.