The two-time Olympic gold medalist and WNBA superstar’s nightmare came to a dramatic conclusion a day earlier when the United States and Russia executed a prisoner exchange on a tarmac in the United Arab Emirates. Since February, she had been held in a Russian prison after being caught with vaping cartridges that contained minimal amounts of cannabis, and she was sentenced to serve nine years in prison for the crime, though the Biden administration quickly deemed her wrongfully detained.
“We’ve had a chance to talk to the team who traveled with her,” he said during an interview on CNN. “They tell us she was in good spirits. She was incredibly gracious and kind and humble on the flight, very, very appreciative of the effort to get her home. Appears to be in good health but we’re going to make sure. That’s why she’s going to go to a medical treatment facility in San Antonio to get looked after, to make sure that we’re taking care of her before she rejoins her family.”
Griner’s wife, Cherelle Griner, and her parents were expected to meet her at the facility, a senior administration official told CNBC on Thursday.
“So happy to have Brittney back on U.S. soil,” Special Presidential Envoy for Hostage Affairs Roger Carstens said on social media. “Welcome home BG!”
Securing Griner’s freedom, however, came at a major cost: releasing convicted Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout roughly six years before his prison sentence was set to expire. Bout, nicknamed “the Merchant of Death,” spent decades selling illicit arms to rival factions in war-torn African nations (defying embargoes from the United Nations) and in the Middle East, at times to enemies of the U.S.
Kirby said the administration conducted a “national security assessment” on the risks of including Bout and found it to be a sufficient deal.
“With any kind of exchange like this, we do a national security assessment, and that was the case here with Mr. Bout — to take a look at what the risks might be,” he said. “Again, we’re going to be vigilant. We’re going to watch. He’s on the street now. He would have been free in six years — it’s not like he was serving a life sentence. And the other thing I would tell you is, I think it speaks volumes about our confidence and our comfort in our ability to protect our national security interests that we were able to make this deal.”
There are some concerns, as one Defense Department official said, that Bout could return to his previous occupation as an arms dealer, and while Kirby said that was his decision to make, “if Mr. Bout chooses that path, we will continue to make sure we can hold him accountable.”
Russian officials were only willing to swap Griner for Bout, while the U.S. wanted to get Griner and retired Marine Paul Whelan, who has been detained for nearly four years, home for the convicted arms dealer who was arrested in a Drug Enforcement Agency sting in Thailand in 2008 and later extradited. The Biden administration has said multiple times since the news of the swap broke that there was no option on the table at this time to secure Whelan’s release.
Whelan was arrested in 2018 on claims that he was a spy, which he denies, and he was later sentenced to 16 years in prison. The Russians are treating Whelan differently than Griner or Trevor Reed, whom the administration got back in a prisoner swap in April, due to the espionage charge, which the U.S. has said is bogus.
“It has to do with the nature of the sham charges against him, which were based on espionage. That is the hook that the Russians seem to have in him. And we’re just not able to deal with him the same way that we were able to deal with Mr. [Trevor] Reed or, in this case, with Ms. Griner,” Kirby said on Thursday, though he added on Friday that U.S. officials now “have a much better understanding of where the Russians are on him. We’re going to use that knowledge and context going forward.”
He characterized the discussions to get Whelan back home as “active,” though it’s unclear what bargaining chips the U.S. has left that would entice the Russians more than Bout.