An American detained abroad is once again breathing the air of freedom. While we appreciate that freedom is not free, has the air suddenly been priced, too?
The question on everyone’s mind is: What went down with Russia to secure Brittney Griner’s release from imprisonment and infamy? And might it lead to a stop-and-swap marketplace detaining Americans abroad for outsized exchanges costing our foreign policy?
The public version is that there was a swap of Griner for “Merchant of Death” Russian terrorist Viktor Bout sitting in a U.S. prison. Having failed in an earlier offer to recover both Griner and compatriot Paul Whelan, Washington then suffered a "Sophie's choice" and decided to embrace culture icon Griner and leave Marine veteran Whelan behind.
But since the Bout offer had been in play since July, what later enticements appeared on the table? Obama-style deals come to mind. Recall the pallets of cash overnighted to Tehran as a sweetener for the Iran nuclear deal in 2015.
And then there was the Bowe Bergdahl trade: five Taliban fighters for one U.S. soldier, follow me, who had abandoned his post and defected to the self-same Taliban. This trade was a head-spinning infinity loop only a dealmaking politician could love.
Now we learn that Saudi Arabia facilitated Briner’s return somewhat — coincidentally only days after the Biden administration’s get-out-of-jail-free card on the Khashoggi murder.
This one is an inverted infinity loop. Such devices most often get triangulated into recoveries and rarely make the news.
Undoubtedly, Putin will give his prodigal terrorist a hero’s welcome. Furthermore, the fact that Bout is an ethnic Ukrainian will be saluted — facing West. Then watch the Kremlin replace the Merchant’s old Gordon Gekko-sized mobile phone with the latest technology. Such is the terrorist’s tale: from the arms market, to the body market, and back.
We know what goes down in the arms market. But after this swap with Griner, how does the body market work now? A basketball player for a monster terrorist sizing up Kyiv? No inflation reduction act could ever temper this pricing.
The families of other hostages are already pressing for details on what market Biden is making here. Those with high profile cases will go hard. Others will press more lightly, cautious against antagonizing efforts possibly in play for their own loved one’s return.
They cannot help but think that Griner’s celebrity factored into her recovery — something they do not have. One culture warrior claimed the opposite, that Griner’s social unconventionality is what made her a Russian target.
But his snark-bite overlooked that she had been favored with a seven-figure baller salary over seven seasons .,, and that she confessed to the drug charges.
To my view, her captivity was an unplanned function of wrong place, wrong time, wrong vape cartridge. While she was not a mole, a molehill nonetheless she presented and politicians on both sides shoveled it into a mountain. To the Biden administration and today’s narrative her appealing unconventionality was worth more than a fight, obviously, in that it ended with one less Bout.
This comes three years to the day of another hard-won recovery of an innocent, patriotic American who had been unmercifully held in Iran for years. In full disclosure, I served as Acting Special Presidential Envoy for Hostage Affairs. I received him with the American flag at Ramsfield U.S. Airforce Base in Germany in conjunction with his family.
But there were other families, too, to consider. Before his pre-dawn arrival, I phoned families of hostages who were not coming home that day. I assessed that it would be worth a jolting phone call to them.
Why? So they would be prepared to hear “hostage released” in the media and manage their ongoing anxieties. But mostly to console them. Each took a measure of hope, but then brought it home with “but what are you doing about our case?” (Note: Take a look at the nonprofit Hostage US which supports families and recovered hostages.)
Mr. President, we take relief in knowing that Ms. Griner’s ordeal in foreign detention is over. But Americans are going to want courtside seats on what went down and your gameplan for less famous others.
The scoreboard cannot be explained by political airballs. Please show us how our foreign policy interests were protected and assure us that the arms market indeed was not turned into a body market exploiting Americans abroad.
Hugh Dugan served as Acting Special Presidential Envoy for Hostage Affairs and Senior Director for International Organization Affairs in the National Security Council after having advised 11 U.S. ambassadors to the United Nations since 1989. Read Hugh Dugan's Reports — More Here.
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