Dec 9, 2022

Biden made the right bad deal for Brittney Griner

WNBA star Brittney Griner has landed back in the United States. Image: Lorie Shaull
WNBA star Brittney Griner has landed back in the United States. Image: Lorie Shaull

It was a bad deal for Putin, too.

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Today's read: 10 minutes.

On Thursday, President Biden announced that Brittney Griner was coming home.

The two-time Olympic gold medalist and star of the WNBA's Phoenix Mercury has been in Russian custody since February. She was accused of entering the country with illegal vape cartridges containing less than a gram of cannabis oil. She was sentenced to nine years in prison, and reportedly spent the last few months of her time in Russia in a penal colony.

As far as we know, Griner was guilty as charged. Her lawyers have said the cannabis oil was prescribed as treatment for chronic pain and other issues, and wrote it off as a mistake that the star made while traveling. After all, it wasn't Griner's first time in Russia, and she is experienced traveling overseas to play basketball. Given the ongoing tensions between the U.S. and Russia — the war in Ukraine, the oil battles, and the sanctions — the context of the arrest and the unusually harsh sentence led the United States to classify her detention as "wrongful."

On Thursday, Griner's freedom was exchanged for that of Viktor Bout, an infamous international arms dealer sometimes called "the merchant of death." Bout was 10 years into his 25-year prison sentence for conspiracy to kill U.S. citizens and providing aid to a terrorist organization. Biden commuted his sentence. In a surreal scene, he and Griner actually passed each other on the runway in Abu Dhabi, where the exchange took place.

Left out of the exchange was Paul Whelan, a businessman and former Marine who has been imprisoned in Russia on suspicion of spying since December 2018. Many observers expected Whelan to be part of any swap for Bout, though Whelan's family and Biden maintained throughout negotiations that his and Griner's cases would be dealt with separately.

"It is so important to me that it is clear that we do not begrudge Ms. Griner her freedom," Paul's brother David Whelan said. "As I have often remarked, Brittney's and Paul's cases were never really intertwined. It has always been a strong possibility that one might be freed without the other... to prolong the punishment of one American in a foreign hostage situation on the hope that you might be able to bring home two of them is absolutely the wrong call for the President to make."

Critics of the president expressed disappointment that Whelan wasn't coming home in the deal. Some pointed to Griner's profile — an African American woman, gay, and a basketball star who once kneeled during the national anthem — and suggested the Biden administration cared more about bringing her home than a former Marine who served his country. Others, like former President Trump, suggested the deal was a "one-sided transaction" and we traded away a dangerous criminal for a woman "who openly hates our country."

The Biden administration has emphasized that they attempted to make Whelan a part of this deal, but Russia would not engage in negotiations for his release.

"Sadly and for totally illegitimate reasons, Russia is treating Paul's case differently than Brittney's. And while we have not yet succeeded in securing Paul's release, we are not giving up," Biden said.

On Friday morning, Griner landed in San Antonio, Texas, where she will be taken to a hospital, evaluated, and reunited with her wife, Cherelle, and her parents.

In the meantime, the questions about what just happened are already bubbling over. Was it a good deal?

The arguments that it was a bad deal are pretty straightforward.

First is the idea that Bout is just too dangerous to have on the loose, especially at a time when Russia is in need of arms (for its war in Ukraine) and wants to continue supporting its proxy groups across the globe.

Michael Braun, the former chief of operations at the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), who helped lead the operation to arrest Bout, called him "one of the most dangerous people on the face of the planet" in a 60 Minutes interview in 2010.

In a recent piece in Foreign Policy, Braun argued that we can't risk "another bout with Viktor Bout." Braun explained that Bout is believed to be a former officer in Moscow’s military intelligence unit, the GRU. In the prime of his trafficking days, he was flooding weapons into terrorist organizations, narcotics cartels and insurgent groups. He could transport tanks, helicopters and weapons "by the tons" to "virtually any point in the world."

Not only would it "be a slap in the face of the law enforcement officers and operatives who labored to bring Bout down," Braun wrote, "It would also pose a grave threat to the national security of the United States and its allies... as experts on Russia often quip, there’s really no such thing as a ‘former’ Russian intelligence officer. Indeed, even after formally leaving the GRU, Bout enjoyed the backing of—and at times took assignments from—his former employer."

The other argument is that the swap sets a bad precedent. Griner's detention may have been partly justified, given that it seems like she really was possessing cannabis oil. But what does it teach Russia about the value of holding Americans hostage?

The Washington Examiner editorial board said Biden made a "bad, deadly deal" and added that "the idea of paying ransom to Russian President Vladimir Putin is obviously repugnant and counterproductive. Much like Chinese authorities, the Russians will be encouraged by Biden’s weakness to take even more U.S. hostages and hold them on flimsy or false charges in hope of extracting concessions."

The Examiner also took a shot at her politics. Griner once described being a Black person in America as "a world where we just can’t live. We can’t wake up and do whatever we want to do. Go for a run, go to the store to buy some candy, drive your car without the fear of being wrongfully pulled over."

The Examiner's editorial board added that perhaps "she will learn from this experience what generally happens when you violate laws abroad, outside the freest and fairest nation on Earth. She may have also gained some perspective on the fact that there are places where racism is much worse than it is in the U.S."

Others have harped on the distinction between Griner and Whelan, and the fact the U.S. secured Griner's release but not his. On Fox News, Tucker Carlson emphasized this, saying "the former Marine, who's been there for four years already, gets left behind in Russia while the celebrity athlete who gets busted with hash oil is championed by her celebrity media friends like Gayle King and is home in just months. I mean, that's what happened. And it seems like a metaphor for how America under Joe Biden is working at this point. 'But no,' says Joe Biden. 'We had no choice to take but to take Brittney Griner over Paul Whelan. Putin demanded that.'...

Carlson, citing NBC's Andrea Mitchell, said we know this decision was, in fact, a “choice."

"[Mitchell] is someone who's been in Washington covering news for more than 50 years, someone who is deeply supportive of the Joe Biden administration — contributed to a story that contained this line: 'The Kremlin gave the White House the choice of either Griner or Whelan — or none.' So Mitchell's piece attributed this fact to a 'senior U.S. official.' It was not a guess," Carlson said. "And then, as with the early reporting on Paul Pelosi last month, that account was scrubbed and sanitized, and the new version of the NBC story assures us that: 'The Kremlin ultimately gave the White House the choice of either Griner or no one.'"

My take is a little different.