One is perhaps the world’s most notorious arms dealer, a man known as the “Merchant of Death” who sold weapons to terrorists, rebels and militants around the world before finally being hunted down and locked up for conspiring to kill Americans.
The other is a basketball player who got caught with a little hashish oil.
By no measure are they comparable, yet the Biden administration has proposed trading the merchant of death for the imprisoned basketball player as well as a former Marine held in Russia on what are considered trumped-up espionage charges. In the harsh and cynical world of international diplomacy, prisoner exchanges are rarely pretty, but unpalatable choices are often the only choices on the table.
Whether the swap would go through remained unclear. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken made the offer public in part to reassure the families of Brittney Griner, the basketball player, and Paul Whelan, the former Marine, that the administration is doing all it can to free them.
Russian officials, who have long sought the release of the arms trafficker Viktor Bout, confirmed the discussion Thursday but said Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov was too busy to talk with Blinken now.
The disclosure of the negotiations raised obvious questions about what, if any, standards should apply when the United States agrees to trade prisoners, a conundrum that has challenged the nation’s leaders since its founding.
The debate becomes all the more complex when it involves exchanging not soldiers on a battlefield or spies in a Cold War but dangerous criminals for civilians whose real crime is being caught up in wrong-place, wrong-time international intrigue.
“The fact that Bout is a big fish isn’t really part of the calculus,” said Jeremy Bash, who was chief of staff at the CIA when the United States made a high-profile spy swap with Russia in 2010. “We value our own citizens a thousand times more than we value the foreign criminal. Israel takes the same approach. They’d trade a thousand Hamas fighters for one IDF soldier. We in the U.S. take the same attitude. We will do almost anything to save an American life.”
But other veterans of past administrations expressed concern that such exchanges, especially one that seems on its face to be as imbalanced as swapping a death-dealing arms merchant for an athlete who may have vaped, would only encourage the imprisonment of more Americans who could be used as hostages.
“I take a pretty hard line on it,” said John Bolton, a former UN ambassador and national security adviser. “It’s one thing to exchange prisoners of war. It’s one thing to exchange spies when you know that’s going on.” But “negotiations and exchanges with terrorists or with authoritarian governments” become dangerous “because then you’re just putting a price on the next American hostage.”
Griner’s case has commanded attention not just because she is a star player in the WNBA but because her arrest came a week before Russia invaded Ukraine and seemed to be a brazen attempt by Moscow to gain a bargaining chip. President Joe Biden has come under enormous pressure to find a way to free her and approved the offer of Bout over the concerns of the Justice Department, which often takes a dim view of horse trading the criminals it puts away.
Among those who say that prisoner swaps should not be controversial is Trevor Reed, a former U.S. Marine who was freed in April from Russian custody in exchange for a Russian pilot serving a lengthy prison term in the United States on cocaine trafficking charges.
“The thing that you have to understand is countries like North Korea — Russia now, obviously, China, Syria, Iran, Venezuela — countries like that are going to take Americans hostage no matter what,” Reed told CNN’s Jake Tapper in May. “And even if they don’t receive some type of exchange for those prisoners, they will do that anyway just out of pure malice just to show the United States that ‘We took your citizens.’”
For their families as well, the choice looks different than for geopolitical figures worried about the precedent. “It’s a hard call, and fortunately, I’m not the president of the United States,” Whelan’s brother, David, told Fox News on Thursday. “But if the president makes that difficult decision, I would absolutely support Paul’s release if that’s the outcome.”
In recent years, the U.S. government has sought to create a more systematic approach to such situations. President Barack Obama signed an executive order in 2015 creating a special presidential envoy at the State Department dedicated to bringing home wrongfully detained US citizens.
President Donald Trump signed legislation in late 2020 shortly before leaving office codifying the special envoy and directing the State Department to evaluate every case of an American detained overseas to determine if they are being held illegitimately and refer those who are to the hostage affairs office.
Just this month, Biden signed an executive order building on the 2020 law to provide support for families of Americans wrongfully detained or held hostage overseas and to authorize financial and travel sanctions on those who are deemed responsible.
But Jared Genser, a longtime human rights lawyer who represents Americans held by foreign governments and has advocated some of the changes, said the reforms have not gone far enough. He has sent a proposal to Blinken and Jake Sullivan, Biden’s national security adviser, urging a multinational agreement to facilitate joint responses to hostage taking, so that if a citizen of one signatory nation were wrongfully detained, many nations would take common action against the perpetrator. He also outlined the idea in a Wall Street Journal guest essay.
“In essence, since ’79, we are over and over and over again trying the same failed approach to recover our hostages,” Genser said in an interview. “We do this on a case-by-case basis, country by country, with blinders on as we do these negotiations. If a case gets a lot of public profile, it gets more resources and attention. But if you can’t get higher profile, you get no or little help at all.”