Griner 'in very good spirits' but US isn't doing 'backflips' over freeing Russian arms dealer: Kirby

The basketball star is at a military hospital after her release from Russia.

December 11, 2022, 12:17 PM

Brittney Griner is doing well while recovering in Texas after being freed from Russian detention and returning to the U.S. last week, White House National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said Sunday.

"She's [in] San Antonio at the Brooke Army Medical Center getting appropriate mental health care as well as physical health care, just to make sure that she's ready for her reintegration back into American society," Kirby told ABC "This Week" co-anchor Martha Raddatz.

"They'll work that out with the doctors and the family as to how much longer she'll need to be there. But our initial reports are she's in very good spirits and in good health," Kirby said.

Griner, a WNBA star who had pleaded guilty to drug charges after carrying a vape with hashish oil into Russia -- which she maintained was an inadvertent mistake -- was released as part of a prisoner exchange between Moscow and Washington.

In return for Griner's freedom from a penal colony, the U.S. released Viktor Bout, a notorious former arms dealer serving a 25-year sentence in Illinois following a conspiracy conviction.

The U.S. was unable to secure the release of former Marine Paul Whelan as part of the deal, too. Whelan has been in Russian captivity for nearly four years on espionage charges that the White House says are false; ABC News reported in July that a "substantial proposal" was originally put forward was to exchange both Americans for Bout.

"This business of getting wrongfully detained Americans home, there's nothing easy about it. ... And there are tough decisions that go into it," Kirby said on "This Week."

National Security Council spokesman John Kirby speaks during a press briefing at the White House, on Nov. 28, 2022, in Washington, D.C.
Patrick Semansky/AP, FILE

Bout, also known as the "Merchant of Death," was set to leave prison in 2029. He was initially captured in a sting operation in Thailand in 2008. At the time he was seen as the world's largest weapons smuggler, supplying arms to former President Charles Taylor of Liberia, to rebels in Sierra Leone and brokering or selling weapons that fueled conflicts in Afghanistan, Angola, Congo, Rwanda and Sudan.

He was extradited to the U.S. on narco-terrorism charges and in 2011 was convicted of conspiring to kill Americans, to supply anti-aircraft missiles and of aiding a terrorist organization.

Critics of Bout's swap said the U.S. gave up too much to get Griner back, rather than additional American detainees. Critics also said the deal will encourage future hostage-taking by other countries to win concessions from the U.S.

When pressed by Raddatz about this on "This Week," Kirby said the Biden administration was committed to assisting wrongfully detained Americans and that they did not make the decision to release Bout lightly.

"Nobody's doing backflips over there about the fact that Mr. Bout is a free man six years earlier than he would have been. But we're going to protect our national security. And if Mr. Bout decides to go back to his previous line of work, then we're going to do what we need to do to hold him accountable," Kirby said.

Like others in the administration, he insisted that it was impossible to reach a deal that would have included Whelan's release.

"They were treating Paul very separately, very distinctly because of these sham espionage charges they levied against him," Kirby said. "And then it kind of come together last week in the end game with just a Bout-for-Griner deal."

Basketball player Brittney Griner stands with U.S. Special Presidential Envoy for Hostage Affairs Roger Carstens and her wife Cherelle after arriving in the U.S. following her release by Russia.
U.S. Dept. of State
Basketball player Brittney Griner at the Australia vs. United States quarterfinal in Tokyo 2020 Olympics on August 4, 2021.
Brian Snyder/Reuters, FILE

It was also last week when "it really occurred to us that there was just no chance" of freeing Whelan as well as Griner, Kirby said.

"I understand the criticism," he said of the deal's detractors. "They weren't in the room. They weren't on the phone. They weren't watching the incredible effort and determination ... to try to get both Paul and Brittney out together. In a negotiation, you do what you can, you do as much as you can. You push and you push and you push, and we did. And this deal we got last week, that was the deal that was possible."

Nonetheless, he said, "We are still negotiating for Paul Whelan's release." While Kirby declined to speak more specifically in public, he said, "We have a better sense of the context here, where the Russia's expectations are, and we're just going to keep working on it."

Kirby acknowledged "the argument about encouraging hostage taking, we understand that argument." But he said the administration had taken steps both to inform Americans who are considering traveling to unsafe countries and, with sanctions and visa restrictions, to deter foreign governments who may use those Americans as political prisoners.

Kirby also briefly addressed the status of Russia's unprovoked invasion of Ukraine, now in its 10th month. Russian President Vladimir Putin has recently shifted to attacking civilian infrastructure, which Kirby said shows Putin "is trying to bring the Ukrainian people to their knees as winter approaches."

Responding to reporting that Ukrainian drones had struck airfields in Russia, Kirby said: "We are certainly not encouraging or enabling Ukrainian operations inside Russia. We are trying to make sure that they can defend their territory."

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