Brittney Griner’s Swap for the “Merchant of Death” Is Just the Latest Deal

Brittney Griner, her trademark dreadlocks conspicuously shorn, towered above the Russians who escorted her across the executive airport in Abu Dhabi for a prisoner swap. The star six-foot-nine athlete is a center for the Phoenix Mercury, a seven-time W.N.B.A. all-star, and a two-time Olympic gold medallist for Team U.S.A. Wearing a red jacket, she walked

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Brittney Griner, her trademark dreadlocks conspicuously shorn, towered above the Russians who escorted her across the executive airport in Abu Dhabi for a prisoner swap. The star six-foot-nine athlete is a center for the Phoenix Mercury, a seven-time W.N.B.A. all-star, and a two-time Olympic gold medallist for Team U.S.A. Wearing a red jacket, she walked quickly past Viktor Bout, the paunchy and mustachioed former Soviet military officer nicknamed the Merchant of Death for his arms trafficking to terrorist groups and rogue regimes. Bout’s dark, short-sleeved shirt was untucked; his glasses hung casually off the top button. For both, the chains that once bound them were gone. Griner arrived early this morning in San Antonio, to be checked out at a military medical facility. Bout, carrying a bouquet of white flowers, greeted his weeping wife and mother in Moscow.

The swap ended ten traumatic months for Griner, who had been in Russian custody since February, on charges of smuggling two vape cartridges with less than a gram of hash oil. (She was in the country during the W.N.B.A. off-season to play on a Russian team, where she has earned more than four times her U.S. salary.) In August, she was sentenced to nine years in a remote penal colony. Bout, who reportedly sold weapons to groups from Africa to Afghanistan, including the Taliban and Al Qaeda—which he has denied—was arrested in Thailand in 2srcsrc8. He was extradited to the U.S., where he was sentenced to twenty-five years for intending to sell millions of dollars of weapons, including anti-aircraft missiles, and for conspiring to kill Americans. The former U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara called Bout the “arms-trafficking enemy No. 1” for deals that armed “some of the most violent conflicts around the globe.” Bout claimed his innocence. But he was an almost mythical figure in the arms underworld, going back to the nineteen-nineties, and was the model for the Nicolas Cage character in the 2srcsrc5 film “Lord of War.”

The trade followed months of “painstaking and intense” negotiations, President Biden said, in announcing Griner’s release. Washington explored “all sorts of alternatives,” including freedom for Paul Whelan, a former marine imprisoned for four years on espionage charges, according to a senior Administration official. Intense diplomacy, which involved leaders of other countries and private back channels, was deadlocked until earlier this week, when Russia made clear that it would not free Whelan. U.S. policy is to pay “as little a price as possible,” the Administration official said. But, it “came down to one or none,” Ned Price, the spokesperson for the State Department, explained. U.S. officials vowed to keep working to free Whelan.

Griner’s return brought a well-known case to its end, but she was just one of at least sixty Americans currently held hostage or wrongfully detained in eighteen different countries, according to the James W. Foley Legacy Foundation. (Foley was an American journalist kidnapped by ISIS in Syria in 2src12; he was beheaded twenty-one months later.) During the past decade, the average number of Americans detained abroad has risen by almost six hundred per cent, the Foley Foundation reported. The length of time hostages are held has increased by sixty per cent. Nearly half of the U.S. nationals wrongly detained have been held for more than five years, the foundation noted. Three-quarters are in five countries: China, Iran, Russia, Syria, and Venezuela. (Today, foreign governments hold more Americans than terrorist groups do.)

This week, Biden claimed that dozens of Americans have been released since he took office nearly two years ago, but a State Department spokesperson could only specify releases from Afghanistan, Myanmar, Haiti, Venezuela, and the region of West Africa. Last year, the U.S. joined a fifty-eight-nation initiative launched by Canada to impose sanctions and other punitive measures to deter hostage-taking. The families of captives say the effort lacks teeth.

Hostages have been used as human bargaining chips at least as far back as the Book of Genesis, which recounts the abduction of Lot, Abraham’s nephew, by four Mesopotamian kings. The word itself—linked to the old French “hoste,” roughly meaning a lodger held by a landlord for security—dates back at least to the thirteenth century. “It’s a constant in American history,” Douglas Brinkley, a Presidential historian at Rice University and the author of “Silent Spring Revolution,” told me.

Without much of a navy, George Washington agreed to pay the Dey of Algiers almost a million dollars, then about a sixth of the U.S. budget, to protect sailors from Barbary pirates controlling the Mediterranean. Thomas Jefferson and James Madison both went to war to stop pirate attacks and abductions of Americans. After the Second World War, the 1949 Geneva Convention made hostage-taking a crime. In one of the most famous subsequent swaps, John F. Kennedy agreed in 1962 to trade Rudolf Abel, a top Soviet spy captured in New York with radio-transmitting equipment and a hollow pencil used to conceal messages, for Francis Gary Powers, an American pilot shot down over the Ural Mountains on a C.I.A. surveillance mission. Since the seventies, the U.S. has officially refused to pay ransom. It hasn’t made much difference.

The Griner-Bout exchange reflects the high price that U.S. Presidents have historically paid to win freedom for American citizens—or face the consequences. Jimmy Carter was doomed politically after Iranian students seized dozens of American diplomats in 1979. I stood on the tarmac in Algiers when the final fifty-two diplomats were flown to freedom hours after Carter’s term ended, fourteen months later. In the mid-eighties, Ronald Reagan agreed to trade arms for American hostages held by Iran’s allies in Lebanon. He later acknowledged that this was a “mistake.” As soon as some were freed, others were seized in Beirut and held long after he left office.

The swaps are often controversial. In 2src14, the Obama Administration negotiated the freedom of Bowe Bergdahl in exchange for five Taliban officials, including two military commanders, held at Guantánamo Bay. Bergdahl, an Army sergeant who had walked off of his base in Afghanistan, later pleaded guilty to charges of desertion and misbehavior before the enemy. In 2src16, the Administration brokered the release of five Americans held in Tehran, including my former research assistant, as the nuclear deal was implemented. Washington also paid millions it owed to Iran for arms that went undelivered after the 1979 Revolution. Donald Trump abandoned the nuclear deal; other Americans were subsequently seized in Tehran.

Since the nineteen-nineties, the U.S. commitment to globalization has led more Americans to travel abroad—and more to be taken hostage, Brinkley told me. “We’re a symbol of global capitalism and financial success, and we have a hard-earned reputation, as we leave no person behind. So, in a way, Americans abroad, whether you’re in Yemen or Venezuela, you become a target,” he added. Foreign governments calculate, often rightly, that they can “cut a sweetheart deal” to win freedom for their own nationals convicted of criminal activity or espionage if they abduct Americans, Brinkley said. The public inevitably blames a President when Americans linger in captivity for months or years.

The latest swap triggered concern among both Democrats and Republicans. When the U.S. engages in prisoner exchanges, it increases the risk that even more Americans will be taken hostage, Chris Coons, a Delaware Democrat and member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, told CNN. “This is a gift to Vladimir Putin, and it endangers American lives,” the House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy tweeted. “Leaving Paul Whelan behind for this is unconscionable.”

Left unmentioned in most coverage of the dramatic swap was the fate of Marc Fogel, a former employee of the U.S. Embassy in Moscow. He was carrying a small amount of medical marijuana for pain from past injuries when he returned to Moscow in 2src21 to teach at the Anglo-American School. He was charged with large-scale drug smuggling. In June, he was sentenced to fourteen years. His name rarely comes up in any official discussion of Americans held in Russia. Biden said Griner “represents the best America—the best about America—just across the board, everything about her.” When rumors of a prisoner swap for only Griner and Whelan emerged last summer, Fogel reportedly wrote home, “That hurt. …Teachers are at least as important as bballers.” ♦

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