Biden comes under increasing pressure to win Whelan’s release
President Biden is under increasing pressure to secure the release of Paul Whelan, a former Marine being held in Russia, following the release of WNBA star Brittney Griner in a trade for the Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout.
The Whelan family has voiced support for the president’s efforts to sure Paul Whelan’s release, but Biden has come under criticism from Republicans and former President Trump for both not winning Whelan’s freedom and for trading Bout for Griner.
“Biden’s now aiding both sides of the war,” tweeted Rep. Kevin Hern (R-Okla.), suggesting the newly freed Bout could help Russian President Vladimir Putin source arms for use in his country’s war with Ukraine.
Trump, a potential presidential opponent for Biden if he runs for reelection in 2024, has sought to put on the pressure.
Trump on Sunday said he turned down a deal to release Whelan in exchange for Bout, saying he wouldn’t have made the deal to bring back a hundred people for him.
In response, David Whelan, Paul Whelan’s brother, accused the Trump administration of not appearing interested in the case, adding that the Biden administration is “much more engaged in wrongful detentions.”
The White House took pains in the hours after Griner’s release to show how it had continued to seek Whelan’s freedom. Griner’s family and advocates have also signaled solidarity with the Whelan family.
Officials from the National Security Council (NSC) communicate with the Whelan family roughly every other week. This is in addition to weekly calls the Whelan family has with the special envoy for hostage affairs team, a senior administration official told The Hill.
The NSC team and the State Department met virtually with Whelan’s sister, Elizabeth Whelan, on Monday. That followed a conversation between her and Biden last week, according to national security adviser Jake Sullivan.
“We are bound and determined to ensure that we work through a successful method of securing Paul Whelan’s release at the earliest possible opportunity,” Sullivan said, adding that the commitment to Whelan’s release is “absolutely rock solid, intense.”
The Biden administration has insisted that the Russians treated Griner’s release differently than Whelan’s and had different demands.
“The big challenge we had over the course of the past several months is that what Russia was asking for to secure Paul Whelan’s release was not something that we had to be able to give. That is a problem we are trying to solve,” Sullivan said on Monday.
Much of the criticism surrounding Griner’s release and Whelan’s continued captivity is the price the U.S. paid to win the WNBA superstar’s freedom.
Bout is an infamous arms dealer whose arrest and 2011 conviction put a capstone on decades of international arms sales that earned him the nickname “Merchant of Death.”
The administration at one point wanted both Griner and Whelan released for the price of Bout. Russia refused, arguing the espionage charged that Whelan was convicted on meant he could not be included. The U.S. and Whelan’s family say those charges were trumped up.
Republicans critical of the trade have said that giving up Bout was simply too much to not bring Whelan back as well.
The Whelan family has put pressure on the administration to secure Paul Whelan’s release. But they have also defended Biden from Trump’s criticism.
“The business with the former president, basically saying he turned down an offer to bring back Paul, was a surprise and not a welcome one,” Elizabeth Whelan said in a phone call with The Hill. She also said the family was unable to have meaningful contact with Trump’s national security council after then-national security adviser John Bolton left his position.
Still, Elizabeth Whelan said the family is not trying to make her brother’s release a partisan issue.
“We have to really deal with the here and now. For whatever it’s worth, many different administrations have had Americans kept overseas… and you just have to deal with whoever’s in office at the moment. We’re fortunate that right now we have a lot of commitment from this administration to bring Paul home and that’s where we’re focusing our energy.”
The Biden administration, in defending the president’s move to grant Bout clemency, said they assessed that he no longer posed a security threat to the U.S.
A senior administration official told The Hill that the U.S. carefully considers all ramifications when commuting the sentence of someone convicted of crimes.
“This was done in this case, and we of course will stay vigilant. While we are under no illusions about Viktor Bout, he has spent the last 12 years in detention,” the official said. “Should Viktor Bout return to crime, this does not stop us from detaining him again in the future.”
Samuel Ramani, an associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute, said the Biden administration is likely correct that Bout does not pose an immediate threat to the U.S., though “that doesn’t mean he can’t be a threat down the line.”
“So it’s possible that given the fact he’s just an amoral character who basically will sell arms or work with basically anyone, he could work with terrorist groups, and that is a risk,” Ramani said.
Another criticism of Bout’s release to secure Griner’s freedom is that it will incentivize other regimes to take Americans hostage.
John Hardie, deputy director of the Russia Program at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, said the U.S. has a number of Russians in custody, including computer hackers, whom Putin wants returned.
“The Russians really don’t like that … there will be no shortage [of people] that Moscow wants to get back in years to come. I do worry that playing this hostage negotiation game will incentivize them to keep doing it on their end,” he said.
The Biden administration has made efforts to deter state and nonstate actors from taking Americans hostage or arresting them for political purposes.
The president issued an executive order in July to increase sanctions authorities to target hostage takers, bolster information sharing between federal agencies to understand heightened risks for Americans traveling abroad and increase travel warnings for Americans to identify where they face an increased risk of being taken hostage.
Elizabeth Whelan said that deterrence against American hostage-taking and consequences for countries that engage in this behavior must be strengthened.
“I haven’t seen any evidence that we’re actually doing that, that we’re actually using that executive order, and that is what is going to bring wrongful detention to a halt,” she said.
“I’ve been very keen to see this executive order put in place … I see it as a really great tool, and also it’s a tool that other countries can use.”
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