President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris appeared giddy last Thursday as they surrounded a phone in the Oval Office and announced that basketball player Brittney Griner was “on her way home” from Russia. Quite a different scenario would have presented itself had White House photographers been present as the family of former U.S. Marine Paul Whelan learned that he would not be coming home from a Russian prison.
Viktor Bout’s family also celebrated as the convicted arms dealer arrived in Russia after being released from prison in the United States. He received a hero’s welcome from President Vladimir Putin, who negotiated his release for the motherland.
Griner is portrayed by the Biden Administration and its friends in the media and on Capitol Hill as a heroic victim, with her release illustrating the strength and resolve of the President and his Team. Nothing could be further from the truth.
There was nothing heroic about the facts surrounding Griner’s predicament, and the Biden Administration in reality was beaten like a drum in this prisoner exchange, which depicts, if anything, its abject weakness in handling matters of diplomacy and national security.
The White House, of course, claims that in securing the release of the basketball player, the United States got everything it could out of the Russian government. This very well may be the case, but it is hardly cause for celebration. It is, if anything, a tacit admission that America no longer carries the weight it used to in international politics, especially when it comes to playing hardball with our adversaries, and that Washington now is forced to settle for the other side’s demands rather than ours.
The contrasts between the two named participants in this prisoner swap would be comical were they not evidence of such a serious matter. On the one hand is Viktor Bout, a man already proven in an American court of law to have trafficked in illegal arms against our national security interests, now freed from prison with a dozen years still remaining on his 25-year sentence. On the other hand is Brittney Griner, a lesbian female basketball player who admitted in a Russian court that she broke that country’s laws by bringing cannabis into the country.
Bout, known as the “merchant of death,” is now free to resume his pre-conviction career of arming terrorists; Griner will no doubt return to the basketball court and rake in millions of dollars in book and movie deals along with product endorsements.
The Biden Administration continues to assure us that it tried its very best to secure Whelan’s release and that it never caved to Russian demands that only one American imprisoned in Russia – Griner or Whelan, but not both — would be released in return for Bout’s freedom. The appearance, if not the reality of the Griner-Bout swap, however, indicates that the Administration in fact did prioritize Griner over Whelan. This, despite Griner having been caught red-handed bringing cannabis oil in her luggage into Russia and later admitting to her crime, while Whelan has consistently denied the espionage charges against him.
This Administration’s refrain that it did absolutely everything it could to secure Whelan’s release as well as Griner’s, is followed quickly with the promise that our government “will never give up” working to secure the release of Paul Whelan.
That promise may appear rather hollow, insofar as there is no American still imprisoned in Russia who would appear to have the political cache needed to motivate this President to continue to press for the former Marine’s release.
What is worrisome, however, considering the degree to which Putin outplayed Biden in this instance, is the possibility that the Russian leader might relent and offer to release Whelan. If that happens, heaven knows what other vital national security interest of ours Biden might give up, possibly even agreeing to release Robert Hanssen, the former FBI special agent who is serving multiple life sentences at the “Supermax” prison in Florence, Colorado after being convicted in 2001 of having been a double agent for the Soviet Union for over 20 years.
For a president as weak and seemingly clueless as our current commander-in-chief, sadly, nothing should surprise us.
Bob Barr represented Georgia’s Seventh District in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1995 to 2003. He served as the United States Attorney in Atlanta from 1986 to 1990 and was an official with the CIA in the 1970s. He now practices law in Atlanta, Georgia and serves as head of Liberty Guard.