Brittney Griner Is Freed In A Swap For A Russian Arms Dealer : Consider This from NPR President Biden on Thursday announced the negotiated release of WNBA star Brittney Griner from a penal colony in Russia and her return to the U.S. She had been detained since February, when Russian authorities found a small amount of hash oil in vape cartidges that were in her luggage when she arrived in the country.

In return, the U.S. released convicted Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout.

NPR's White House Correspondent Franco Ordoñez and Moscow Correspondent Charles Maynes walk through the details of the deal.

And White House National Security Council Spokesman John Kirby explains how the negotiations unfolded.

In participating regions, you'll also hear a local news segment to help you make sense of what's going on in your community.

Email us at considerthis@npr.org.

The Deal That Freed Brittney Griner

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PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: Well, good morning, folks. And it is a good morning.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

These are the words Brittney Griner's supporters have been waiting to hear for nearly 10 months.

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BIDEN: She's safe. She's on a plane. She's on her way home.

KELLY: At the White House on Thursday, President Biden announced the negotiated release of the WNBA star from a Russian penal colony.

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BIDEN: Brittney will soon be back in the arms of her loved ones, and she should have been there all along.

KELLY: Griner was first detained back in February at an airport outside Moscow. She was traveling there to play for a professional Russian team, as she did every year during the WNBA offseason. This time, Russian authorities found vape cartridges with a small amount of hash oil in her luggage, and they arrested her. The U.S.-Russia relationship was already tense. But a few days later, it got much worse when Russia launched its full scale invasion of Ukraine. Today, Biden praised Griner for staying strong throughout her ordeal.

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BIDEN: She endured mistreatment and a - at a show trial in Russia with characteristic grit and incredible dignity. She represents the best America - the best about America. It is across the board - everything about her.

KELLY: As the months wore on, many advocates pressured the administration to broker Griner's release - her WNBA coach, fellow players from the women's and men's game. But none were louder than her wife, Cherelle Griner. She was at Biden's side when he made the announcement.

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CHERELLE GRINER: Thank you, everybody, for your support. And today is just a happy day for me and my family. So I'm going to smile right now. Thank you.

KELLY: Brittney Griner's release was a moment of joy. It also prompted a lot of questions, which you could hear shouted out the president as he left the lectern.

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KELLY: In exchange for Griner, the U.S. agreed to release convicted Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout. Then, there was the question of Paul Whelan, another American who is still detained in Russia. Biden suggested he would keep negotiating for Whelan's release.

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UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: What do you say to the Whelan family, who said this is a catastrophe for Paul, Mr. President?

KELLY: CONSIDER THIS - Brittney Griner is finally coming home, but her release did not come cheap. We'll hear from our correspondents and Biden's national security spokesman about how the negotiations unfolded.

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KELLY: From NPR, I'm Mary Louise Kelly. It's Thursday, December 8.

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KELLY: It's CONSIDER THIS FROM NPR. To hear more about how the deal for Griner's release came together and what the White House and Kremlin are saying about it, my colleague Ailsa Chang spoke with two NPR correspondents, Franco Ordoñez in Washington and Charles Maynes in Moscow.

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Hey to both of you.

FRANCO ORDOÑEZ, BYLINE: Hey, Ailsa.

CHARLES MAYNES, BYLINE: Hey there.

CHANG: OK, so Franco, I mean, this was a pretty dramatic moment this morning. But can we just back up? Tell us how this swap came to pass over many, many months, right?

ORDOÑEZ: Right. It was an agreement for many, many months - a lot of backroom negotiations between Washington and Moscow. In the end, it was a one-for-one prisoner swap. Griner, as you noted, was swapped for a convicted Russian arms trader, Viktor Bout, which was made at the Abu Dhabi airport in the United Arab Emirates today. Biden actually signed an order, cutting short Bout's 25-year sentence. The White House invited Griner's wife, Cherelle Griner, to the White House for a meeting with the national security adviser, Jake Sullivan. But when she arrived, she was directed to the Oval Office, where President Biden was there to tell her himself that Brittney Griner was coming home.

CHANG: And Charles, how did news of this whole prisoner exchange break in Russia?

MAYNES: Well, we learned of this in Moscow from Russia's foreign ministry, which issued a statement saying the trade had taken place after lengthy negotiations. Russian state TV later aired video from the security services here that showed a smiling Griner, hair now cropped short, signing her release papers, then leaving the prison colony in Mordovia to get on a plane. And there's even a bit where the FSB agents engage Griner on camera. Let's listen.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Through interpreter) Do you know where I'm heading to?

BRITTNEY GRINER: No. I don't know where.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Through interpreter) No?

GRINER: I don't know.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Through interpreter) You're flying back home.

GRINER: To the U.S.?

UNIDENTIFIED TRANSLATOR: To the U.S.

GRINER: OK, OK.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Through interpreter) Everything will be fine.

CHANG: Everything will be fine. But, Charles, I mean, the U.S. has been pursuing this deal for months now, and Russia seemed to be holding out the whole time. What do you think changed here?

MAYNES: Well, you know, one of the reasons the Russian government has given all along is that Griner's legal proceedings needed to run their course before any trade could happen. So just last month, Griner exhausted her appeals process and began formally serving out her nine-year prison term. Now, beyond the legal wrangling, there's little question, you know, Moscow enjoyed the political pressure building on the White House to get Griner home. But there's also a certain logic to the Russian position. You know, her conviction sent Griner to prison, but it also did - was open the door, legally speaking, for her to be pardoned...

CHANG: Right.

MAYNES: ...Because Griner had now been convicted of a crime.

CHANG: Exactly. OK. Well, this whole detention has been quite high profile, in part because Griner is such an accomplished and well-known athlete, and there has been a lot of activism surrounding her detention. Franco, can you talk about that piece of this? Like, what was the reaction like to her release?

ORDOÑEZ: It's been really big and from so many different sectors of society. Former President Barack Obama said he was grateful for Griner's, quote, "long overdue release." The Phoenix Mercury, which is Griner's basketball team, had had a regular count of the days that she was in detention. The team posted, no more days - she's coming home. And at the White House, Griner's wife, Cherelle, was visibly moved.

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GRINER: So over the last nine months, you all have been so privy to one of the darkest moments of my life. And so today, I'm just standing here overwhelmed with emotions.

ORDOÑEZ: Biden acknowledged that there was a lot of pressure that he was under in, you know, different ways. Brittney Griner wrote him a letter this summer saying, quote, "I'm terrified I might be here forever." And as Charles pointed out, progress seemed to have stalled for a few months. But a few weeks ago, Biden said that he had hoped Putin would be more willing to discuss a prisoner exchange after the U.S. midterm elections were over.

CHANG: After the elections. OK. Well, Charles, you have followed Griner's case for months now. You've attended, like, every stage of her trial in Moscow. Can you just remind us of some of what you saw, what you heard during that time?

MAYNES: Yeah. You know, this trial unfolded against the collapse in U.S.-Russian relations over the conflict in Ukraine. And it's a situation that made many feel Griner was a hostage to geopolitics rather than a defendant in a drug trial. You know, as to the proceedings, you know, they took place in a small courtroom with 6-foot-9 Griner often in a cage, and it was incredibly hot there. It was over the summer. You know, at one point, a U.S. embassy official nearly fainted from the heat. And yet, I was struck by how Griner just handled herself throughout. You know, she was very calm, given the circumstances. In fact, one of the few times I saw her grow openly emotional was when her Russian teammates and coach came to testify on Griner's behalf. Despite her ordeal, despite everything, you know, there's clearly a lot of affection between them even now.

CHANG: Yeah. Well, tell us more about Viktor Bout, the man exchanged for Griner. Like, why did the Russians want him back so much?

MAYNES: Well, Russia has wanted Bout back ever since he was detained initially in Thailand, in a U.S. sting operation in 2008. Bout is - been colorfully labeled the Merchant of Death by the media.

CHANG: Right.

MAYNES: But, you know, his story is more complicated. I mean, he's a one-time Soviet military translator who started a global gunrunning business, arguably one of the world's most successful ones, providing arms to civil wars in Africa, the Middle East, Latin America, even for the U.S. military operations in Iraq for a time. He was sentenced to 25 years in prison by a U.S. court in 2011 on narcoterrorism charges - in other words, trafficking weapons that could kill Americans, not that necessarily did. Either way, Russia's government has always argued he was illegally extradited by the U.S. - to the U.S., excuse me - and his case was an example of an American judicial overreach. And his release will certainly be celebrated here as well.

CHANG: Well, Franco, I mean, there's also another U.S. prisoner who's still detained in Russia, Paul Whelan. The White House had made it clear for months - right? - like, that they wanted Whelan to be part of this trade. And I'm wondering, did they say why Whelan wasn't included? And what have we heard from Whelan's family about this latest news?

ORDOÑEZ: Well, Paul Whelan's brother, David, said in a statement that he was glad that Griner was on her way home but that it was also a disappointment for the family and a, quote, "catastrophe for Paul." They were thankful, though, that U.S. officials warned them in advance and did note that the Biden administration made the right decision, in their words, to make the deal that was possible rather than waiting for one that wasn't going to happen.

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KELLY: NPR's Franco Ordoñez and Charles Maynes speaking with my colleague, Ailsa Chang.

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KELLY: I got a chance to put more questions about the deal for Griner's release to someone in a position to know. John Kirby is the spokesman for the White House National Security Council. I asked him about the final hours of those negotiations.

JOHN KIRBY: This deal really kind of came to fruition over the last week or so, Mary Louise. And it itself was the culmination of literally months of back and forth with the Russians on Brittney's case and Paul's as well.

KELLY: Well, that's part of why I ask - 'cause the outlines of this deal were floated over the summer, and Russia didn't bite. Why now?

KIRBY: We had floated a very serious proposal - didn't go anywhere for a little while, and we began to then float alternate proposals, again, with the minds - in our minds, getting both Brittney and Paul out. So we were trying to be as flexible as we could, but it really - this particular deal kind of came to closure in the last week or so, and it was apparent to us that it was either this or nothing. This was the deal we could get, and now was the moment we could get it. And as we've said before, we felt like we had a moral obligation to take the Russians up on this to at least get one of the two home.

KELLY: You referenced there that there's another American, a former Marine, Paul Whelan, who is still in Russia. He's been detained there since 2018. Are you confirming there that the U.S. push was to make this a two-for-one - that you wanted to bring him home the same time?

KIRBY: I don't want to get too much into the details of the negotiations in terms of the specifics, but I can assure you that our efforts were designed to get both of them home. That was the goal, and we offered different permutations of deals to the Russians with that as our desired outcome. And again, we just weren't able to get that done today. It was clear to us that the furthest we were going to be able to go was just getting Brittney out for Mr. Bout, and so we ended up taking that deal. But I want to stress that we are still in active discussions with the Russians now about Paul. We're not giving up on that. We're - as the president said, we're going to stay at that task.

KELLY: What leverage does the U.S. have now that Viktor Bout's release is no longer available as a bargaining chip?

KIRBY: The Russians treated Paul separately, differently, uniquely because of the sham espionage charges that they levied against him. So in their minds, they never really were that interested in Mr. Bout for Paul. They were only interested in Mr. Bout for Griner - for Brittney Griner, excuse me.

KELLY: For Brittney Griner, yeah.

KIRBY: So they've held him apart as something separate. They put him in a special category. And that has made the negotiation process difficult. But we're - like I said, we're not considering it impossible. We're going to keep working at it.

KELLY: Still working on that front. Let's stay with Viktor Bout, the convicted Russian arms dealer who has just been swapped for Brittney Griner. Are you convinced he no longer poses a national security threat to the United States?

KIRBY: Any time we do a swap like this, we do a national security assessment of the implications. That was done in this case, and what I can tell you is we're going to stay vigilant. Nothing's more important to the president than our national security, and we're going to defend that national security at every turn and as appropriate and - whether that regards the behavior and conduct of Mr. Bout, now that he's a free man, or anyone else that might...

KELLY: This is...

KIRBY: ...Threaten our security.

KELLY: Forgive my jumping in. This is a guy nicknamed the Merchant of Death, who - Senator Bob Menendez, the Democrat who chairs the Foreign Relations Committee...

KIRBY: Right.

KELLY: ...Is calling his release a, quote, "deeply disturbing decision."

KIRBY: This was the deal we could get. Now was the moment we could get it. We did a national security assessment, but we're going to stay vigilant. We're not going to take anything for granted. Look, nobody's doing touchdown dances here about the fact that Mr. Bout is a free man. He still had another six or so years to serve. It was never a life sentence. So at some point, he was going to get out. It's a little earlier than planned, but the alternative would have been to leave Brittney Griner in a penal colony in Russia for a crime she didn't commit.

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KELLY: That's John Kirby, spokesman for the White House National Security Council.

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KELLY: It's CONSIDER THIS FROM NPR. I'm Mary Louise Kelly.

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