Congressman: Russia arrested Griner before invasion to extract gains

Former Soviet military officer and arms trafficking suspect Viktor Bout, center, deplanes after arriving in White Plains, New York, to face terrorism charges Nov. 16, 2010 (Photo by U.S. Department of Justice)
Former Soviet military officer and arms trafficking suspect Viktor Bout, center, deplanes after arriving in White Plains, New York, to face terrorism charges Nov. 16, 2010 (Photo by U.S. Department of Justice)

Russia arrested WNBA star Brittney Griner just before its invasion of Ukraine as a tactic to gain political leverage over the United States, said Rep. Michael McCaul, the ranking Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

CBS News reporter Catherine Herridge asked McCaul to confirm a statement to the network by a former U.S. official – who was “involved in discussions” with the Russians – that Moscow “deliberately targeted Brittney Griner and that it wasn’t an accident.”

“I think they absolutely targeted Ms. Griner, knowing full well they were going to invade Ukraine, and she became the political pawn in Putin’s game if he needed something from us,” the congressmn said in an interview that will be streamed in prime time Friday.

See McCaul’s remarks:

Griner was arrested at a Moscow airport in February for trying to bring a cannabis-filled vape cartridge into the country. Bout was convicted on terrorism charges in the U.S. in 2011 for trying to sell tens of millions of dollars worth of missiles to the Colombian terrorist group FARC, which intended to shoot down American passenger jets.

On Friday, Russian President Vladimir Putin said he’s open to more prisoner swaps.

“This is the result of negotiations and the search for compromises,” Putin said at a a press conference in Kyrgyzstan. “In this case, compromises were found and we aren’t refusing to continue this work in the future.”

‘Huge repercussions’
Meanwhile, a former Drug Enforcement Administration official who helped take down Viktor Bout in a sting 14 years ago was stunned upon learning of the Biden administration’s swap of the notorious Russian arms trafficker known as the “merchant of death” for WNBA star Brittney Griner.

Tom Pasquarello said the exchange Thursday will have “huge repercussions.”

“I’m kind of in disbelief that someone with the potential to orchestrate arms deals that can kill Americans anywhere in the world would be traded for a prisoner,” he told Yahoo Sports. “I think this sends a terrible message that the U.S. will negotiate, that the U.S. will make concessions and that, if an American is held overseas, there’s always the potential that the U.S. will acquiesce to the demands of people like [Russian President Vladimir] Putin and bail them out.”

John Bolton, who served as national security adviser under President Trump, said the “Bout-for-Griner prisoner swap is not a trade, it’s an American surrender.”

“This is not what American strength looks like. Terrorists and rogue states are smiling,” he said.

Democratic Sen. Bob Menendez of New Jersey, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, called the prisoner swap a “deeply disturbing decision.”

“This should be a moment of deep reflection for the United States government to recognize we have a serious problem with hostage-taking of Americans,” Menendez said in a statement.

“The Russians and other regimes that take American citizens hostage cannot pretend that there is equivalence between the Brittney Griners of the world and people like Viktor Bout, the so-called ‘Merchant of Death.’ Nothing could be further from the truth, and we cannot ignore that releasing Bout back into the world is a deeply disturbing decision.”

Menendez said the U.S. must stop “inviting dictatorial and rogue regimes to use Americans overseas as bargaining chips, and we must try to do better at encouraging American citizens against traveling to places like Russia where they are primary targets for this type of unlawful detention.”

‘Well, he has served most of his term’
Nancy Pelosi, at one of her last weekly press conferences as speaker of the House, was asked about Republican criticism of the swap.

“Well, he has served most of his term is my understanding, the majority of his term,” Pelosi said of Bout, who was scheduled to be released in 2029.

“I agree with their characterization of who he is, he is bad guy. But the fact is that we wanted Brittney Griner freed, and that’s the leverage that we had, to do just that,” Pelosi said.

In a “60 Minutes Overtime” interview after Bout’s arrest in 2010, Mike Braun, former chief of operations for the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, described Bout as “one of the most dangerous men on the face of the earth.”

See the “60 Minutes” segment:

Amid outrage over U.S. Marine veteran Paul Whelan remaining in a Russian prison over espionage charges the U.S. regards as unfounded, President Biden and the White House have insisted the U.S. was given the choice only of Bout for Griner or for no one.

At the White House daily briefing Friday, press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said the Russians were willing to release Griner but were “not willing to negotiate in good faith for Paul Whelan.”

However, independent investigative reporter Jordan Schachtel pointed out that NBC News quietly edited a report that contradicts the White House’s claim.

The original NBC report – archived here – said “the Kremlin gave the White House the choice of either Griner or Whelan — or none.”

The report cited a “senior U.S. official.”

The current version reads “the Kremlin ultimately gave the White House the choice of either Griner or no one after different options were proposed.”

Further, NBC cited Whelan’s Russian lawyer, Vladimir Zherebenkov, saying there was a choice.

NBC said that according to Zherebenkov “the deal was an exchange of ‘one to one,’ and that choosing Griner, 32, appeared ‘more humane’ because she is a woman and an Olympic champion, while Whelan was in the military and it is ‘easier for him to be in custody.'”

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