By Simon Hankinson*
There’s an old joke among poker players: if you can’t find the sucker at the table, it’s you. While it’s wonderful to see an American civilian released from an unjustly long sentence in a foreign land, it must be said that the Biden administration just revealed who was the sucker in its negotiations to release Brittney Griner from the Russian gulag.
Let me state up front: I am glad “BG,” as her wife Cherelle calls her, is coming home. She didn’t deserve a long prison stretch for the minor transgression of bringing in some cannabis oil into a Moscow airport. Not only are some of Russia’s laws unduly harsh, but it is obvious that they selectively enforce them against Americans for political advantage.
All that said, this administration has just shown its “tell”—what card players call an unconscious verbal or physical expression that hints at what hand they are holding. And what this trade tells us is that Biden places left-wing ideology ahead of all other national interests. It explains this administration’s total refusal to enforce border laws, and its insistence on pushing radical gender ideology on health providers, schools, sports and even diplomacy and the U.S. military.
In negotiating this prisoner swap, Griner’s “intersectionality” score apparently overrode all other considerations. That’s why she’s free, while other “ordinary” Americans molder in foreign jails. That’s why weapons dealer Viktor Bout—convicted of plotting against the lives of Americans—will soon be free to do it again.
To summarize, Griner is a Phoenix Mercury WNBA player who was arrested last February for possession of cannabis oil, which is illegal in Russia. She was convicted and sentenced to nine years in a “remote penal colony in Russia.” Her sentence, while draconian, was classically Russian.
Griner’s situation was far from unique. Nearly 50 million Americans travel abroad each year, thousands of whom get arrested for various reasons. At any given time, a few thousand Americans languish in foreign prisons—some for legitimate reasons, and some for trivial or trumped-up political charges. The U.S. cannot be expected to bargain for them all.
I’ve argued before that making trades for prisoners is a dangerous game. At his press conference announcing Griner’s release, President Joe Biden lamented that he had not been able to secure the release of Paul Whelan, an American sentenced to 10 years in 2018 for spying. The administration had declared both Griner and Whelan “wrongfully detained,” a category mandating extra diplomatic efforts to secure a prisoner’s release.
The rumor for months was that they wanted both Whelan and Griner in exchange for a high-value prisoner like Bout.
Biden never mentioned Mark Fogel, an American teacher who was arrested in August 2021 on the same charge as Griner (possession of marijuana). Fogel, like Griner, said his marijuana was medical, for pain management, but that didn’t stop him from being sentenced to 14 years in prison.
Fogel has never been declared “wrongfully detained” by the State Department, and there was never any indication of making him part of the deal for Bout. Not coincidentally, he also has zero points on the “intersectionality” scale, he is not a public figure, and his release would thus carry zero public relations value for this administration.
Bout was a prolific arms dealer, selling weapons to the world’s dictators, terrorists and criminals. His 2008 arrest in Thailand by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency must have cost enormous staff time and resources. At the time of his swap, he had 15 years left on his 25-year sentence.
Bout obviously had serious clout in the Kremlin; they wanted him back, badly. That’s not to say they deliberately took Griner as a bargaining chip, but Putin certainly used his leverage extremely well.
As a consular officer in foreign countries from India to Africa, I worked on many cases of Americans overseas who were at the mercy of foreign legal systems, including those characterized by corruption, lengthy delays, harsh and non-sensical sentencing, and third-world jail conditions. It is something we warn Americans about for each country of concern. Nonetheless, Americans are a headstrong people, and some will take risks and visit even places like Yemen, Iran, Somalia and Russia.
Griner knew that Russia was a risky place to live. The State Department had a “do not travel” warning in effect for the country when Griner returned, and Russia’s unnaturally high conviction rates, long sentences and prison conditions are no secret.
Griner took the chance in order to keep working and earning money. We can’t blame her for that. But we can fairly criticize the Biden administration for putting their short-term political advantage ahead of U.S. national interest.
Biden’s team got Griner out, but at a high cost yet to be paid. The deal exposed not just the administration’s willingness to count domestic politics into trade value, but their preference for favored groups. We’re now the suckers at the table.
Everyone knows it—Russia most of all.
*Simon is a senior research fellow in the Border Security and Immigration Center at The Heritage Foundation.
This article is part of an agreement between El American and The Heritage Foundation.