What The Right Gets Wrong About Brittney Griner -- And Paul Whelan

What The Right Gets Wrong About Brittney Griner -- And Paul Whelan
Brittney Griner of the Phoenix Mercury handles the ball during Game Three of the WNBA semifinals in Tempe, Arizona in October 2021

If there’s one clear lesson from the Britney Griner/Paul Whelan controversy keeping partisans in America’s culture wars all worked up, it’s this: stay out of Russia. As my man Charles P. Pierce puts it in Esquire : “The government there appears to be operating on the same business plan as the drug cartels in this hemisphere, or the Somali ship hijackers: Grab up an influential hostage and get what you can in return.”

Russia’s government is a criminal syndicate under Vladimir Putin. No foreigner, and particularly no American with a public identity, has any legal rights there whatsoever. Britney Griner was hardly a household name in America when airport authorities in Moscow grabbed her up for carrying a few grams of hash oil in her luggage—a catastrophically naïve and thoughtless act. I, for one, had barely heard of her, and I read the sports page before I read anything else in the morning paper; WNBA basketball just isn’t my thing.

Nevertheless, from the moment Griner’s plight became known, she was a valuable commodity to be traded. She seems a decent person, if somewhat unworldly—as pampered star athletes tend to be—respected and beloved by people who know her. I’m glad to see her set free. Basketball star or not, it can’t ever have been easy being who she is. May she live long and prosper.

His eminence Fox News’ Tucker Carlson assured his audience that Griner despises America, because she once objected to a pregame ceremony featuring the “Star-spangled Banner” in the immediate wake of Breonna Taylor’s killing by Louisville police. “That’s the kind of position that gets you rewarded by Joe Biden,” Carlson said. “Hate America? Perfect!”

To which James Carville had a perfect response: acknowledging that negotiating with kidnappers is a perilous thing, but sometimes the only thing. “Does anyone in their right mind think that if Brittney was a blonde Chi Omega from SMU that the reaction would have been the same? Of course not!”

Griner herself took care to explain that her protest against police violence didn't mean she hated America. By taking a knee during the anthen, she said, "I don't mean any disrespect to our country. My dad was in Vietnam and a law officer for 30 years. I wanted to be a cop before basketball. I do have pride for my country."

Meanwhile, it tells you all you need to know that what the Putin regime wanted in return was notorious international arms dealer Victor Bout, a murderous cynic responsible for thousands of deaths worldwide. Definitely Vladimir’s kind of guy. Not that there’s any shortage of dead-eyed killers in the Kremlin orbit. Putin’s “special military operation” in Ukraine makes that abundantly clear.

Does Bout going free after eleven years in a US penitentiary make Russia more murderous? Not to where you’d notice.

That’s one reason I’m unmoved by conservative histrionics over the the deal. The Biden administration was offered a take-it-or-leave-it trade for Britney Griner. They took it.

Even the family of Paul Whelan, also languishing in a Russian prison since 2018, understands the logic of that. (Although if you were Whelan’s sister or twin brother, would you antagonize the White House?)

Many Republican politicians haven’t been so shy. Florida Sen. Rick Scott was typical. “I’m glad Brittney is coming home,” he tweeted “but what about U.S. Marine vet Paul Whelan? He’s still held by Putin in Russia. For Biden to give Putin a dangerous arms dealer — someone known as the ‘Merchant of Death’ — is weak & disgusting. Doing so while leaving Paul behind is unforgivable.”

Almost needless to say, former President Trump has taken a similar line. “The deal for Griner is crazy and bad,” he announced on Truth Social. “I would have gotten Paul out, however, just as I did with a record number of other hostages.”

History, however, records that Trump did nothing for Whelan back when he could have. He wouldn’t even talk with the man’s family on the phone.

It’s also true that official denials aside, Whelan’s personal history is, shall we say, a good deal more complicated than Britney Griner’s. For starters, he isn’t just a “former Marine,” as contemporary accounts insist. He was busted in rank and drummed out of the Corps after a Court Martial convicted him of six counts of larceny and altering his own personnel record online.

His family never learned of these things until after Whelan was arrested in his room at Moscow’s Meripol Hotel with a USB drive in his pocket containing lists of FSB operatives. He claims his ostensible Russian friend, himself a member of the Russian security agency, planted it there. He was also carrying four passports: U.S., Canadian, British and Irish. Not illegal, but unusual. The U.S. government has adamantly and repeatedly denied that he was or could ever have been, given his compromised history, an American spy.

But when has the U.S. government ever burned a captured operative? Like undercover cops, spies often have dicey histories. Living a lie takes specialized talents. Whatever Paul Whelan was playing at during his many business trips to Russia, he made himself vulnerable.

Perhaps inadvertently, perhaps not.

Either way, President Biden needs to bring him home. And either way, it’s going to cost.


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