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Where do things stand for Paul Whelan after Brittney Griner's release?


WNBA star Brittney Griner has been freed after spending most of this year in Russian detention. Today, her wife, Cherelle Griner, thanked the Biden administration for bringing this dark chapter in the family's life to an end. She also took care to point out there is still work to do.


CHERELLE GRINER: Today, my family is whole. But, as you all are aware, there are so many other families who are not whole. And so BG is not here to say this, but I will gladly speak on her behalf and say that BG and I will remain committed to the work of getting every American home.

KELLY: National Security Council spokesman John Kirby joins us now from the White House. Hey there.

JOHN KIRBY: Hi. How are you tonight?

KELLY: I'm all right. Thank you. I want to start with the intense negotiations - that's President Biden's term - the intense negotiations that secured this release. Can you share detail on the final hours as it came together?

KIRBY: This really - this deal really kind of came to fruition over the last week or so, Mary Louise. And it itself was the culmination of literally months of back and forth with the Russians on Brittney's case and Paul's as well.

KELLY: Well, that's part of why I ask - 'cause the outlines of this deal were floated over the summer, and Russia didn't bite. Why now?

KIRBY: We had floated a very serious proposal - didn't go anywhere for a little while, and we began to then float alternate proposals, again, with the minds - in our minds, getting both Brittney and Paul out. So we were trying to be as flexible as we could, but it really - this particular deal kind of came to closure in the last week or so, and it was apparent to us that it was either this or nothing. This was the deal we could get, and now was the moment we could get it. And as we've said before, we felt like we had a moral obligation to take the Russians up on this to at least get one of the two home.

KELLY: You referenced there that there's another American, a former Marine, Paul Whelan, who is still in Russia. He's been detained there since 2018. Are you confirming there that the U.S. push was to make this a two-for-one - that you wanted to bring him home the same time?

KIRBY: I don't want to get too much into the details of the negotiations in terms of the specifics, but I can assure you that our efforts were designed to get both of them home. That was the goal. And we offered different permutations of deals to the Russians with that as our desired outcome. And again, we just weren't able to get that done today. It was clear to us that the furthest we were going to be able to go was just getting Brittney out for Mr. Bout, and so we ended up taking that deal.

But I want to stress that we are still in active discussions with the Russians now about Paul. We're not giving up on that. We're - as the president said, we're going to stay at that task.

KELLY: What leverage does the U.S. have now that Viktor Bout's release is no longer available as a bargaining chip?

KIRBY: The Russians treated Paul separately, differently, uniquely because of the sham espionage charges that they levied against him. So in their minds, they never really were that interested in Mr. Bout for Paul. They were only interested in Mr. Bout for Griner - for Brittney Griner, excuse me.

KELLY: For Brittney Griner, yeah.

KIRBY: So they've held him apart as something separate. They put him in a special category, and that has made the negotiation process difficult. But we're - like I said, we're not considering it impossible. We're going to keep working at it.

KELLY: Still working on that front. Let's stay with Viktor Bout, the convicted Russian arms dealer who's just been swapped for Brittney Griner. Are you convinced he no longer poses a national security threat to the United States?

KIRBY: Anytime we do a swap like this, we do a national security assessment of the implications. That was done in this case, and what I can tell you is we're going to stay vigilant. Nothing's more important to the president and our national security, and we're going to defend that national security at every turn and as appropriate and - whether that regards the behavior and conduct of Mr. Bout now that he's a free man or anyone else that might...

KELLY: This is...

KIRBY: ...Threaten our security.

KELLY: Forgive my jumping in. This is a guy nicknamed the Merchant of Death, who - Senator Bob Menendez, the Democrat who chairs the Foreign Relations Committee...

KIRBY: Right.

KELLY: ...Is calling his release a, quote, "deeply disturbing decision."

KIRBY: This was the deal we could get. Now was the moment we could get it. We did a national security assessment, but we're going to stay vigilant. We're not going to take anything for granted. Look, nobody's doing touchdown dances here about the fact that Mr. Bout is a free man.

KELLY: Yeah.

KIRBY: He still had another six or so years to serve. It was never a life sentence. So at some point, he was going to get out.

KELLY: Right.

KIRBY: It's a little earlier than planned, but the alternative would have been to leave Brittney Griner in a penal colony...

KELLY: But...

KIRBY: ...In Russia for a crime she didn't commit.

KELLY: Which no one would have wanted to see.

KIRBY: Exactly.

KELLY: Thank you so much for your time today. That's National Security Council spokesman John Kirby. Thanks.

KIRBY: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Sarah Handel
[Copyright 2024 NPR]
Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.