Brittney Griner released by Russia in 1-for-1 prisoner swap for arms dealer Viktor Bout
Brittney Griner-Viktor Bout prisoner swap met with both praise and criticism
Court docs show Bout’s release requested for “significant foreign policy interests of the United States”
According to the documents, the U.S. government said it was making the request to have Bout, who was being held in a federal prison in Illinois, released “based on significant foreign policy interests of the United States.”
The Department of Justice filed for Bout’s release on Nov. 29, according to court documents, which were docketed under seal that day. The Justice Department requested that Judge Victor Marrero grant the request.
The Justice Department asked to have Bout released to U.S. Marshals between Dec. 2 and Dec. 16 and “to maintain custody of Bout unless and until the President of the United States executes clemency power. “
Blinken defends prisoner swap, says Biden made “hard call”
In an interview with “Face the Nation” moderator Margaret Brennan, his first since the prisoner swap, Secretary of State Antony Blinken defended the decision to make the exchange, saying it was “totally unacceptable that Brittney Griner was behind bars.” He also addressed criticisms that Bout was not worth the risk of Griner being released.
“In the case of Viktor Bout, these are hard decisions. Those of us who work for the president make recommendations and give advice. He has to make the tough calls. He made a difficult call,” Blinken stated. “Viktor Bout’s been off the playing field since 2008, which is a very good thing, and he served about half of his sentence. He was going to be released at some point in the future. And I’m glad that Brittney Griner was able to return home. “
The secretary revealed in July that the U.S. had put forward a “substantial proposal” to Russia aimed at securing both Griner and Whelan’s release. He stated that Thursday talks reached a point where it was clear that Brittney could be brought back. “
“The choice wasn’t between getting one American or the other back. We had to choose one or none. The president decided that it was important for Brittney to return home as soon as possible, and that he would work with Paul to get Paul back,” Blinken stated, echoing the sentiments of other U.S. officials. officials.
Blinken said that the deal to secure Griner’s freedom had no bearing on talks with Russia on other issues and included no other provisions.
“What we’ve demonstrated all along is that despite the challenges, to say the least, in the larger relationship, despite the Russian war of aggression against Ukraine, we are able to work on specific issues, distinct issues that we have, to see if we can make progress. He said that we have been working all along to return Americans who were unjustly detained.” “This was about Brittney returning home. This was about bringing unjustly detained Americans home to their families. That was the main focus. It’s all that and more. It’s also not less. “
Footage shows Griner learning she was coming home
Russian state media outlets released footage that shows Griner leaving what appears to be the penal colony where she was being held, boarding a jet in Moscow and walking across the tarmac to freedom in Abu Dhabi.
The footage shows Griner signing paperwork at the remote facility in Mordovia, where she was transferred in November. Griner is seen getting into a van with two duffel bags.
Griner is then seen boarding a jet with her bags. After Griner flashes a photo of her passport, the clip cuts to Griner sitting in the plane wearing a gray skull cap and red coat. Off camera, a man with a strong Russian accent asks Griner, “What’s your mood?” “
“Happy,” Griner replied, nervously laughing.
“Are you ready for our flight?” He asked.
“Yes, I’m ready,” she said.
The man switches to speaking Russian, and the cameraman translates for Griner:
“Do you know where you’re headed to?”
“You’re flying back home. “
“To the U.S.? “
“To the U.S.”
“Everything will be fine. “
More footage shows the moment Griner and Bout were exchanged on the tarmac in Abu Dhabi. Griner is seen in the same red coat walking alongside three officials. Bout, carrying an envelope in his hand, approaches Griner and embraces one of the Russian officials who are escorting him. Griner, who is 6′ 8 inches tall, leaves with the man who escorted Bout.
The footage was shot from inside the plane that Bout boarded. The footage then shows Bout being examined by doctors. They also take his temperature and blood pressure.
U.S. had choice of “bring Brittney home or no one at all,” White House press secretary says
Pressed on the circumstances surrounding the one-to-one prisoner exchange with Russia, which left Whelan imprisoned, White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said the Russians were “not willing to negotiate in good faith” for Whelan’s release.
“[What] we were left with is either we bring Brittney home or no one at all,” she told reporters during the White House press briefing.
Jean-Pierre said that in recent weeks, it became clear to the Biden administration that the Russians “continued to treat Paul differently … with their totally illegitimate charge” accusing him of espionage.
“This was not a choice for us of which American to bring home. This was not an option. She stated that it was a choice between bringing one American home or bringing none home. “We brought one home today.”
Jean-Pierre reiterated that the U.S. is committed to securing Whelan’s release and said the administration made “every possible offer available” to no avail. She said that Mr. Biden is available to speak with Whelan’s family Thursday or when they feel ready to talk to the president.
“We would have preferred — of course we would have preferred — to see them both released, that’s what we have been calling on,” she said. “But we didn’t want to miss the chance to secure the release one of them. It was a choice between one and none, not one. “
Jean-Pierre also provided a timeline of the more immediate events leading up to Griner’s release, which began with administration officials pursuing “many different avenues” over the past months to secure her freedom.
Mr. Biden approved moving forward with Bout’s release this past week, and over the past 48 hours, Griner was moved from the penal colony where she was imprisoned to Moscow, and then flown to the United Arab Emirates.
On Wednesday, U.S. officials met with Whelan’s family. Bout’s conditional grant was granted on Thursday after U.S. officials confirmed Griner’s arrival in the UAE.
Jean-Pierre said Cherelle Griner was invited to the White House for a meeting with national security adviser Jake Sullivan and, when she arrived Thursday morning, was welcomed into the Oval Office where Mr. Biden told her of Griner’s return, Jean-Pierre said.
Griner is on the plane back to the U.S., she said.
WNBA chief: League feels “joy and relief” with Griner’s release
Cathy Engelbert, commissioner of the WNBA, said the league is “grateful beyond measure” to all who helped secure Griner’s freedom.
“There has not been a day over the past ten months where we all haven’t had Brittney Griner on our minds and in our hearts and that has now turned into a collective wave of joy and relief knowing that she will soon be reunited with her family, the WNBA player community, and her friends,” she said in a statement. “BG has shown remarkable courage and dignity in the face enormous adversity. “
Echoing the sentiments of others, Engelbert said the WNBA hopes for Whelan and other Americans unjustly detained to be returned to the U.S.
Paul Whelan “greatly disappointed that more has not been done” to secure release
Paul Whelan spoke by phone to CNN from the Russian penal colony where he is being held, and said he was “greatly disappointed that more has not been done to secure my release, especially as the four year anniversary of my arrest is coming up. “
Whelan said he was glad to hear Griner had been freed, but added that he was “led to believe that things were moving in the right direction, and that the governments were negotiating and that something would happen fairly soon.” The retired Marine said the Russians considered him a spy, meaning they place him on “a level higher than what they did with Trevor [Reed] and Brittney” in talks with the U.S.
“That raises a lot of concerns because none of it is true. He said that they are trying to get out the United States what the United States may be unable to provide, but that this is essentially political extortion.”
“I would say that if a message could go to President Biden, that this is a precarious situation that needs to be resolved quickly,” he added. “My bags are packed. I’m ready for home. I just need an aircraft to take me home. “
Pelosi: Putin’s “cruelty” against Griner shows “brazen contempt for human rights”
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi commended Mr. Biden, Blinken and national security officials for their work in freeing Griner from Russia and said both the country and Congress are “overjoyed” to learn of her release.
“Today, our hearts are with her dear wife, Cherelle, and the entire Griner family as their beloved Brittney is safely on her way back to America and will be home for the holidays,” the speaker said in a statement.
Pelosi lamented that Griner suffered “unthinkable trauma” for 10 months while she was wrongfully imprisoned in Russia and criticized Russian President Vladimir Putin for the harm to Griner during her detention.
“Putin’s cruelty against Brittney — and his monstrous actions against Ukraine — are staggering reminders of his brazen contempt for human rights, human dignity and the rule of law,” she said.
Pelosi, too, said Congress supports the Biden administration’s ongoing efforts to secure the release of Whelan and other Americans wrongfully detained in Russia.
Griner was moved from penal colony a “couple days ago,” officials say
Senior administration officials told reporters in a call Thursday morning that Griner was moved a to Moscow “couple days ago” from the penal colony where she was imprisoned, before being taken to the UAE for the prisoner swap. According to officials, Griner was spoken to by the president from the UAE’s tarmac. She is now in the air and heading back to the USA.
One official said she is “in good health” and was in an upbeat mood, eager to get back to her wife, friends, family and WNBA.
The officials said it became clear in recent weeks that the U.S. could bring Brittney Griner home or no one at all. The Russian’s made it clear that Griner’s release could only be achieved by exchanging Bout. Bout was granted an act of clemency by the president to be released. However, he remains guilty of the charges against him.
Yesterday, a senior U.S. official visited Whelan’s sister in person to share the news about Griner. Officials also stated that the president has made it clear to Whelan’s family that he is available to share his commitment to Paul’s cause when they are ready. A senior U.S. official also called Paul from prison to inform him about today’s news.
The officials also thanked former New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, who was working as a private citizen in order to facilitate Griner’s release, thanked the officials.
The officials said the negotiations with Russia were very targeted and only about bringing wrongfully detained Americans home. They also said that they briefed Ukraine about the negotiations to ensure they understood the focus of the talks on that one issue.
One official expressed the deepest appreciation to the UAE for assisting in facilitating the transfer.
— Gillian Morley
Former U.S. ambassador to Russia says prisoner swap was “take-it-or-leave it proposition”
Ambassador John Sullivan, who stepped down as the top U.S. diplomat in Moscow in September, said on “CBS Mornings” that the talks to free Brittney Griner were “extremely difficult negotiations,” with the Russians focused only on freeing Griner in exchange for Bout.
“We’re dealing with a government that isn’t bound by law or morals, our counterparty. This is not a typical diplomatic negotiation. My understanding is that the Russians presented President Biden with a take it or leave it proposition. Brittney was the one for one,” Sullivan stated, citing conversations with former and current officials. “And unfortunately, we had to leave other Americans, especially Paul Whelan. “
The ambassador said he believed the Russians “had in mind a particular deal in this case, because Brittney Griner is such a celebrity, so popular in the United States — popular, I might add, among basketball fans and others in Russia. Brittney’s case dominated the discussion and was the main focus.
Sullivan said he believed the White House and State Department were “turning with a laser focus on” securing Whelan’s release, now that Griner is heading home.
The ambassador said Griner has almost certainly been evaluated by doctors on her flight back to the U.S., and may not have been aware of her imminent release ahead of time.
“I’m confident, as we’ve done in prior cases, there will be personnel on the plane — medical, social, others, who will be helping Brittney,” he said. “This is a huge change for her. She may not have known anything about the transfer until they took them to the airport and placed her on a plane. It is quite a shock.
Who’s Viktor Bout,?
The release of Viktor Bout, the international arms dealer nicknamed the “Merchant of Death,” has long been a high priority for the Kremlin. Bout, a former Soviet military translator, is believed to be close to Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Western officials say Bout’s arms trafficking operation helped fuel civil wars across the world by supplying more sophisticated weapons, sometimes to both sides of the bloody conflicts.
He was arrested in a sting by U.S. drug enforcement agents in Thailand in 2008. After a lengthy legal fight, he was convicted on terrorism charges for conspiring to kill Americans and sentenced to 25 years in prison.
“Viktor Bout, in my eyes, is one of the most dangerous men on the face of the Earth,” Michael Braun, the former chief of operations for the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, told “60 Minutes” in 2010.
According to a New Yorker profile published in 2012, Bout insisted that he was never a spy, but others, including his former business partner and a former CIA officer, said he had once worked for the GRU, the Soviet foreign military intelligence agency.
“They will try to lock me up for life,” Bout told The New Yorker before his sentencing. “But I’ll return to Russia. I don’t know when. But I’m still young.”
Read more here.
Blinken says U.S. “will not relent” in efforts to secure Paul Whelan’s release
Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in a statement that while the U.S. is celebrating Brittney Griner’s release, Paul Whelan and his family “continue to suffer needlessly.” He reiterated the commitment of Mr. Biden to the administration’s efforts in securing Whelan’s release.
“Despite our ceaseless efforts, the Russian Government has not yet been willing to bring a long overdue end to his wrongful detention,” Blinken said. “I wish we could have brought Paul home today, on the same plane as Brittney. We will not stop trying to bring Paul and all other U.S. citizens held hostage or wrongfully arrested abroad home to their loved ones.
Paul Whelan’s brother says Biden administration made “the right decision” to bring Griner home
David Whelan, the brother of Paul Whelan, the 52-year-old Marine veteran who remains imprisoned in Russia, says he’s happy Griner is free and praised the Biden administration’s handling of her release.
“I am so glad that Brittney Griner is on her way home,” he wrote. “As a family member of a Russian hostage I can only imagine the joy she’ll have, being reunited and in time for holidays,” he wrote. “
He said that the government “this time” told the Whelan family in advance that “Paul would be left behind.” Whelan’s brother pointed out that Griner’s release was different from American Trevor Reed in April, when the Whelan families were not informed in advance.
This time, David Whelan said the “early warning meant that our family has been able to mentally prepare for what is now a public disappointment for us. It was a disaster for Paul.” He said that he didn’t know if Griner’s release had been made public to his brother, but that he would be sure to learn from Russian media. He said that his parents had spoken to him every day since Dec. 2, adding that they expect to speak to him soon.
David Whelan also said that there “has always been a strong possibility that one might be freed without the other,” and reiterated, “It is so important to me that it is clear that we do not begrudge Ms. Griner her freedom.”
He called on the U.S. to be more assertive and more nimble, saying it needs “a swifter, more direct response,” perhaps “taking more law-breaking, Kremlin-connected Russians into custody.”
Read more here.
Lauren Hoenemeyer contributed reporting.
Cherelle Griner: “Today my family is whole”
Cherelle Griner, Brittney Griner’s wife, said she was “overwhelmed with emotions” and expressed “sincere gratitude” for Mr. Biden, Vice President Kamala Harris, Secretary of State Antony Blinken and other national security and State Department officials.
She also offered thanks to Griner’s teammates on the Phoenix Mercury and the Women’s National Basketball Players Association.
“Today my family is whole,” she said in the Oval Office on Thursday morning.
While celebrating her wife’s release, Cherelle Griner said the couple would “remain committed” to working to free other Americans still held hostage.
“There are still people out here who are enduring what I endured the last nine months of missing tremendously their loved ones,” she said. “Today is a happy day for me, my family. “
The background to the prisoner exchange
It is not clear what caused the breakthrough but the Biden administration made at most one concession by agreeing that the swap would be reduced to one American for one Russian.
At the end of November, the State Department blasted the Russian government for a failure to bargain in good faith. As recently as Sunday, on CBS News “Face the Nation,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken said U.S. negotiators were “actively engaged” with their Russian counterparts.
Asked by CBS News about reports of Russia’s desire for a one-for-one swap in spite of America’s hopes to return both Griner and Whelan, Blinken noted that any deal would be subject to mutual agreement.
“The other side gets a vote in this. It’s more than what we want. It’s what they’re willing to do,” Blinken stated, while not denying the Russian reports. He did however indicate that the administration was pushing for both Americans’ return.
“One way or another, one day or another, we’re going to see that through,” he said.
In July, the Biden administration said it had offered the Kremlin what it described as a “significant proposal” to bring both American prisoners home. Although the White House did not confirm what the U.S. offered, officials privately indicated to CBS News that initial reports that Bout could be released were inaccurate and that the president was willing to allow two Russian prisoners to return to the U.S. in exchange for Whelan and Griner’s freedom.
Biden: “It’s a good morning”
President Biden delivered brief remarks celebrating Griner’s release from Russia, but pledged that his administration remains committed to freeing Paul Whelan from Russian custody, too.
“It is a good morning,” Mr. Biden said. “This is a day that we have worked towards for a long while, and we never stopped pushing for her freedom. We had to go through intense negotiations. “
Flanked by Harris, Blinken and Cherelle Griner, the president offered gratitude to administration officials for their work to secure Griner’s release, as well as the United Arab Emirates for helping to facilitate her return.
Mr. Biden acknowledged the difficulty of the months following Griner’s arrest and detention in February, which he called “hell,” but said she was in “good spirits” and “relieved” to be heading home. He requested that she be allowed “space, privacy, and time” to heal after her detention.
“The fact remains that she’s lost months of her life and experienced the needless trauma,” he said.
The president praised Griner’s athletic abilities, calling her an “incomparable athlete,” and said despite the mistreatment she endured, she acted with “grit and incredible dignity. “
“She represents the best about America,” Mr. Biden said.
The president said that just as his administration did not forget about Griner, “we’ve not forgotten about Paul Whelan. “
“This was not a choice of which American to bring home. Mr. Biden stated that we brought Trevor Reed home when we had the chance earlier in the year. “Sadly, Russia has treated Paul’s case differently to Brittney’s. While we have not yet succeeded, we are not giving in. We will not give up. “
The president said his administration has been and remains in touch with Whelan’s family, and vowed to continue negotiating for his release.
“I don’t want any American to sit wrongfully detained,” he said.
Former DEA agents say Bout’s return was priority for Putin
Former U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration agents involved in the apprehension of Bout more than a decade ago told CBS News correspondent Catherine Herridge that the Russian arms dealer was always considered a serious threat to U.S. and to global security, given the global reach of his weapons deals. Former agents claimed that it was a difficult task to bring him to justice. It took place across three continents. He was eventually captured and extradited from Thailand. He was convicted of conspiring to murder Americans.
Another former DEA agent told CBS News in a text message, “This will damage the deterrence and consequences of committing crimes against the United States knowing they have this method now of negotiating to get killers and criminals out of serving their sentences in the US.” The agent stated that organized criminal groups would “continue causing harm to US citizens.” “
And one other DEA agent said the trade was “terrible for our rule of law and just reduced our criminal trials to trivial political stunts. “
Bout has always been a high priority for Putin, one former U.S. official told CBS News, due not only to his background and high profile, but also because of his personal closeness to the Russian leader.
Prior to his arrest, Bout was accused by the U.N. of arming Liberian President Charles Taylor during the brutal civil war in Sierra Leone. He was the inspiration for Nicholas Cage’s character in “Lord of War”. Bout’s release will be criticized by some of the DEA agents that he was being tracked down and arrested.
— Tucker Reals, Catherine Herridge and Andy Triay
“Bring Our Families Home” campaign cheers release of Brittney Griner
Bring Our Families Home, a campaign by family members of American hostages, applauded the release of Griner but reiterated its call for Mr. Biden to bring Whelan back to the U.S.
“We celebrate the long overdue return of Brittney Griner and her safe return home to her wife, family, teammates, and the WNBPA who fought for her relentlessly. While we celebrate Brittney’s homecoming, our hearts break for the Whelan family,” Jonathan Franks, the group’s spokesperson, said in a statement. “Paul Whelan has been letdown and left behind at most three times by two Presidents. He deserves better from his government. Our Campaign urges President Biden to immediately secure Paul’s return using all available tools. “
I’m a journalist who specializes in investigative reporting and writing. I have written for the New York Times and other publications.