WNBA star Brittney Griner prisoner swap raises questions about how hostage deals are made

Friends and family of WNBA star Brittney Griner cheered on Thursday upon the news that Russia had released her in a prison swap. 

It had been nearly 300 days since Griner was arrested at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport in February, when customs officials said they found vape canisters with cannabis oil in her luggage. She was convicted and sentenced to nine years in prison in August.

Now, four months later, she’s headed home after the US and Russia had a high-level prisoner exchange on Dec. 8. The exchange did not include the return of another American, Paul Whelan, who has been jailed for nearly four years.

Some have wondered if a prisoner swap between one of the world’s most notorious arms dealers and a pro-athlete caught with cannabis oil is a fair trade.

Hugh Dugan is a former State Department special envoy for hostage affairs who has worked on deals to bring back Americans from abroad. Dugan joined The World’s host Marco Werman for more on how this deal was made. 

Marco Werman: In your opinion, was this a good deal?

Hugh Dugan: It’s great for the Brittney Griner family, her fans, Americans. It’s not a good deal for other Americans overseas who all of a sudden become commoditized against some of the most notorious criminals in the world.

Explain what you mean by Americans overseas who could be commoditized.

Well, anyone could be taken. In a country that doesn’t have the same due process we have, they can be detained and leveraged. If the public relations surrounding that raise the awareness and the value of that person, then the captors are in a strong position to bargain for something they want.

Have we seen that pattern emerge before or after prisoner swaps?

It’s a risk that we take. We get into a marketplace. We encourage this type of behavior in foreign adversaries and terrorists. If they see that we are in a market to go in this direction, they are tempted to take us there.

So, the negotiations over a swap like this, to bring Griner home, they’ve been going on for quite a while. Russia has been focused on Viktor Bout for a long time. The fact that it all comes through now, does that tell us anything about the dealmaking itself?

Having been a hostage negotiator, I witnessed that each hostage case is unique. So, if you’ve seen one hostage case, you’ve seen only one. To say that her ordeal was longer or shorter than others is really hard to qualify. But from a timetable perspective, it went rather quickly. It’s been months which have been agonizing, but not years. The fact that talks went forward as they did despite the Ukraine conflict was impressive. But in fact, we really didn’t get around to making first senior-level contact until about July.

For some time, as you know, there was talk of swapping Bout in exchange for two Americans in Russian detention, Brittney Griner and Paul Whelan. It’s notable that Paul Whelan, whom Russia accuses of being a spy, was not part of this deal. What do you make of that?

He’s been held there longer and it took us quite a bit longer years ago to actually determine he was wrongfully detained. He is a retired US Marine. He’s been sitting and languishing, as have other Americans in Russia, who don’t have the same notoriety or celebrity status. But obviously, our desire to have brought out more than one American did not happen. So, you could say that Russia presented the Americans with the type of “Sophie’s choice,” and we opted to bring Brittney Griner home and leave Paul Whelan to his own.

Is it possible that the rather public push to bring Griner home raised her value so much that the Kremlin could succeed in separating Paul Whelan from the deal?

Certainly, when there is more publicity brought around a case, it can be beneficial or quickly toxic. I think what probably did not work to our benefit in this case was that we seemed to rush the Russian process in in court. We were assuming and broadcasting relentlessly that she was wrongfully detained without giving the local judicial process its due course. And I believe that that might have made worse a bargaining power and made it more difficult for Russia to save whatever face it thinks it needed to save and in terms of providing a recovery.

This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity. AP contributed to this report.

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