Defense & National Security — White House feels heat to free Paul Whelan
President Biden faces growing pressure to secure the release of former Marine Paul Whelan from Russia captivity after WNBA star Brittney Griner was released in a trade. We’ll share where negotiations are and what’s holding up a deal.
Plus: The next step for the House committee investigating the Jan. 6, 2021, attack, and how the U.S. has helped counter destructive Russian cyberattacks amid the Ukraine war.
This is Defense & National Security, your nightly guide to the latest developments at the Pentagon, on Capitol Hill and beyond. For The Hill, I’m Ellen Mitchell. Sign up here or in the box below.
Biden under rising 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.
Whelan’s family has voiced support for the president’s efforts to secure his release, but Biden has come under criticism from Republicans and former President Trump for both not winning the former Marine’s freedom and for trading Bout for Griner.
Criticisms: “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 the president 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.
Clapback: In response, David Whelan, Paul Whelan’s brother, accused the Trump administration of not appearing interested in the case, adding 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.
Meetings: 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.
Also from The Hill:
- Whelan’s family defends Biden efforts amid criticism from Trump
- Whelan’s family meets with US officials amid fresh calls for his release
Jan. 6 panel to release criminal referrals Monday
The committee investigating the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol will hold its final event on Monday, during which it will release publicly its list of criminal referrals and vote to publish its final report two days later.
Chairman Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.) told reporters Tuesday that the committee has escalated its timeline for a public-facing event that will cap its more than yearlong investigation.
“We looked at the schedule, and it appears we can complete our work a little bit before that. So why not get it to the public as quick as we can,” he said.
Unfinalized: Thompson said the panel has not finalized the referrals but is considering “five or six categories,” with the committee flagging behavior for entities such as the Justice Department, the House Ethics Committee and professional associations including bar associations.
“Some referrals go one place. Some go another,” he said.
A new date: While the committee’s final meeting was set to be Dec. 21, the panel will instead release its final report that day.
What’s expected: The criminal referrals are expected to walk through what laws the committee alleges were violated in the plot leading up to the attack by a group that could include former President Trump, White House leaders like chief of staff Mark Meadows, and attorneys advising Trump like Rudy Giuliani and John Eastman.
Jeffrey Clark, a DOJ attorney Trump weighed installing as attorney general to forward his baseless claims into voter fraud, may also be on the list.
It would be up to the Justice Department to determine whether it wishes to pursue any prosecution based on the committee’s recommendations.
A hint: The panel has hinted the GOP lawmakers who rebuffed its subpoenas could be referred to the House Ethics Committee, often criticized for failing to do more aggressive policing of its members.
Still, it may be the only option for the panel to address the subpoenas that were ignored by House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (Calif.) and Reps. Scott Perry (Pa.), Jim Jordan (Ohio), Andy Biggs (Ariz.) and Mo Brooks (Ala.).
Also from The Hill:
- Jan. 6 panel eyes new beginning with DOJ as partner in Trump probe
Lawmakers ask Pentagon chief for details on waivers
Three House members on Tuesday sent a letter to Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin to ask for additional details about how former generals receive waivers to consult on behalf of foreign governments.
Who sent it: The letter from Reps. Suzan DelBene (D-Wash.), Michael Cloud (R-Texas) and Jason Crow (D-Colo.) comes after a Washington Post report in October noted more than 500 retired military personnel received waivers to pursue jobs with foreign governments with known human rights abuses and histories of political oppression.
The concerns: The lawmakers said they are concerned about a lack of transparency in the waiver approval process and reporting to Congress, the lack of standardized internal procedures at the Defense Department to implement the waiver approval process and the lack of enforcement when retired personnel violate the law through failing to report that they are advising for a foreign government.
They said they are also worried about potential conflicts of interest that were identified during the waiver approval process and the extent to which International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR) concerns are discovered and resolved during the approval process.
A quick explainer: ITAR is intended to control the export of defense and military technologies to protect national security.
Right to know: The three House members said the public has a right to know the extent of influence that foreign powers might have over the country’s former military leaders and if high-ranking retired officers are taking advantage of their roles in government to create employment opportunities with foreign governments.
The request: They requested that the State and Defense departments publicly release their annual report on waiver approvals for retired generals and an additional report summarizing and indexing waiver applications for the past 10 years.
Ex-NSA chief: Putin prefers cyber war before nukes
Retired Gen. Keith Alexander, the former National Security Agency director and head of U.S. Cyber Command, said on Tuesday that Russian President Vladimir Putin is likely to continue using cyberattacks against Ukraine before using nuclear weapons.
Alexander explained that although Russia hasn’t done significant damage so far on the cyber front, Putin is not prepared to use nuclear weapons against Ukraine, as he knows doing so could pull the U.S. and other NATO countries into the war.
“I think he will use [cyber] clearly before nuclear,” Alexander said.
“If he uses nuclear, he’s dead,” he said, adding “if [Putin] uses the nuclear option, I believe that will cause NATO to rethink [whether] they’re in or out.”
“I think [Putin] recognizes that, and I think the administration made that clear,” he continued.
Also from The Hill:
- How the US has helped counter destructive Russian cyberattacks amid Ukraine war
ON TAP TOMORROW
- The State Department will continue its 2022 U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit with President Biden delivering keynote remarks at 8 a.m.
- The House Oversight and Reform Committee will hold a hearing on “The Rise of Anti-LGBTQI+ Extremism and Violence in the U.S,” at 10 a.m.
- The McCain Institute will host a virtual discussion on “Reaffirming America’s Strategic Alliances,” with Lithuanian Prime Minister Ingrida Simonyte and former Defense Secretary Mark Esper, at 10:30 a.m.
- Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin will welcome Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi to the Pentagon at 11:45 a.m.
- The Stimson Center will hold a forum on “North Korea: Is Denuclearization Dead?” at 2 p.m.
- Defense News will hold a webcast on “Smart Bases for Defense,” with Jay Bonci, chief technology officer, Office of the Chief Information Officer, U.S. Air Force, at 2 p.m.
- The Center for Strategic and International Studies will host a discussion on “Emerging Security Issues in Space Policy,” with Assistant Defense Secretary for Space Policy John Plumb and other officials at 2 p.m.
- The Hudson Institute will hold a talk on “Taiwan Policy in the New Congress,” with Rep. Don Bacon (R-Neb.), at 3 p.m.
WHAT WE’RE READING
- Schumer: Omnibus expected to include Electoral Count Act, Ukraine funding
- Kremlin labels Christmas withdrawal from Ukraine ‘out of the question’
- Putin to skip marathon annual news conference amid Ukraine war setbacks
- Russia using more Iranian-made drones in attacks on Ukraine infrastructure: think tank
- ISIS officials killed in raid in Syria
- Pentagon chief: Russia ‘modernizing and expanding its nuclear arsenal’
- Founder of Proud Boys’ Hawaii chapter, another rioter receive 4-year sentences for Jan. 6 attack
- Zelensky thanks Biden for ‘unprecedented’ support in latest call
OP-EDS IN THE HILL
- Bout’s release threatens global security; it’s also an opportunity
- Putin’s war on Ukrainian power grid reveals more than he’d like
That’s it for today. Check out The Hill’s Defense and National Security pages for the latest coverage. See you tomorrow!
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