Truth, lies, and prisoner swaps

It’s possible to believe that bringing American WNBA star Brittney Griner home is a good thing, but exchanging her for the aptly named Merchant of Death was a bad deal and the administration completely botched the negotiations.

The truth is that trading a hardened arms dealer known as “The Merchant of Death” and war criminal for a basketball player caught with a marijuana vape is a bad deal by any objective measure.  One did not do anything wrong by the standards of most modern countries.  The other was once considered the second most dangerous man in the world.  There is no comparison between the two or parity in the exchange.  In and of itself, this doesn’t mean that the Biden Administration should not have made the deal.  Sometimes, a bad deal is the only one you have; everyone has overpaid for something at some point in their lives for whatever reason.  It does, however, mean that some level of objectivity is required in evaluating the net benefits, and some understanding of the risks that might be unleashed in the future by setting such a precedent.  The clear benefit is that Brittney Griner is finally coming home after ten months of detention in a Russian penal colony.  Whatever her politics, she is an American citizen with all the rights and benefits that come with it.  She did not deserve a nine year sentence in a prison camp complete with forced labor.  We should be happy she is home.  At the same time, we cannot avoid accepting that this benefit comes at great cost:  Viktor Bout is a convicted arms dealer known to have supplied dangerous weapons to rogue regimes and terrorists across the globe, many of which ended up killing Americans.  He is also known to have close ties with Russian President Vladimir Putin, with whom we are currently engaged in a proxy war in Ukraine.  The Kremlin described his release as “a true Christmas present.”  This is a man who was arrested while peddling some 30,000 AK-47 assault rifles, 10 million rounds of ammunition, five tons of plastic explosive, ultralight airplanes equipped with grenade launches, mortars, drones, Dragunov sniper rifles complete with night vision, vehicle mounted anti-aircraft cannons capable of downing a jet plane, and between 700 and 800 shoulder fired surface to air missiles. 

Most seem to believe  Mr. Bout will go back to plying his old trade with potentially devastating consequences.  “The Merchant of Death is back in action, with more hatred against America and with greater motivation to fuel conflicts and support Russia in its outrageous and disastrous war with Ukraine,” explained Derek Maltz, the head of DEA Special Operations Division who oversaw the undercover investigation that led to the original conviction.  “Bout was a master,” said Mike Braun, DEA chief of operations during the investigation. “There was no one who came close to his ability to move any type of armaments around the world and deliver them with absolute precision, with air drops, landing on unimproved air strips, using old Soviet heavy cargo aircraft.”  If anything, Mr. Braun thinks Mr. Bout is likely to be even more lethal after spending more than a decade in prison developing connections with other hardened inmates and their networks.  “Anyone who thinks he’s washed up and [Russian President Vladimir] Putin is not going to push him back into service, it’s beyond me,” he said. “People who believe that don’t understand how the real underworld works.”  This is undoubtedly why the Biden Administration itself said that we paid a “heavy price” for Ms. Griner’s release, and why few are suggesting the deal was fair.  Of course, everyone is entitled to form their own opinion on whether it was ultimately worth it, but this does not preclude questioning key aspects of how the process unfolded or considering potential future risks.

How did we arrive at this deal and what other options were considered?  As to the former, it appears the Biden Administration came up with the idea in the first place, announcing publicly over the summer that they would trade Mr. Bout for Ms. Grenier and a former marine held in custody since 2018, Paul Whelan.  CNN reported it this way over the weekend.  “It was later that month the White House made the unusual decision to reveal publicly it had placed a significant offer on the table to secure both Griner’s and Whelan’s release.  For Griner and Whelan, they were willing to exchange Viktor Bout, who was convicted in 2011 on charges including conspiring to kill American citizens.”  This strongly suggests the problems surrounding the situation go beyond simply making a bad deal.  It seems we started the process with a truly awful negotiating strategy, one both willfully blind to the larger implications and incredibly naïve to how these high stakes deals work.  Putting this another way, in the middle of a proxy war with Russia, someone thought it was a good idea to make our opening offer the return of the Merchant of Death, a man with the connections to provide thousands of arms to the Russian war effort?  Russia could only perceive this as outright desperation. Not surprisingly, they rejected the deal as initial offers almost always are, making it clear a two-for-one exchange would be a “non-starter.”  This was said to cause “intense frustration” for US officials, though it should have been obvious that would be the case.  In response, we proceeded to make a series of unspecified proposals which were not surprisingly rejected as a matter of course.  A senior administration official told CNN that they “tried to articulate other options, other categories of options, to create the space to really have the haggling that we want to have.”  This apparently included other people held in custody.  “If you’re haggling, you’re getting closer,” the official said. “And instead we have had no change or softening of a response that is simply a demand for something we just can’t provide because it’s not something in our control.”

Apparently, no one in the administration has ever negotiated the purchase of something as simple as an automobile.  There’s an old expression about negotiating with yourself that nicely summarizes the incompetence on display.  The administration offered their trump card up front, what you might say was their best offer, figuratively telling the dealer they would pay well over sticker price, and then proceeded to negotiate with themselves until they realized it was Mr. Bout for Ms. Griner or nothing.  The Art of the Deal this is certainly not, especially when you consider they should have been aware that Russia had previously sought the return of Mr. Bout during the Trump Administration.  Former Trump National Security Advisor John Bolton, a prominent Trump critic in recent years, said, “The possibility of a Bout-for-Whelan trade existed back then, and it wasn’t made, for very good reasons having to deal with Viktor Bout.”  He continued to describe it as a terrible deal.  “Obviously, there’s a lot of very understandable human emotion here in getting Griner released, but this is a very bad mistake by the Biden administration,” Mr. Bolton told CBS News.  “There are occasions when you swap spies. Obviously, there are legitimate exchanges of prisoners of war,” he continued. “But this doesn’t even approximate that. The idea that somehow what Brittney Griner did — very foolishly, in my estimate — but that whatever she did compares to Viktor Bout is something that shows just how desperate the administration was to make this deal. And I’m just very worried about the effect it has and the danger that it can put many other Americans in, all around the world.”  Mr. Bolton’s former boss, President Donald Trump is equally worried.  He took to Truth Social to savage the administration.  “I turned down a deal with Russia for a one on one swap of the so-called Merchant of Death for Paul Whelan,” Trump tweeted. “I wouldn’t have made the deal for a hundred people in exchange for someone that has killed untold numbers of people with his arms deals. I would have gotten Paul out, however, just as I did with a record number of other hostages.”

This apparently was enough for the media to turn their attention from the horrible deal and its implications to President Trump himself, a favorite pastime of theirs.  Mr. Whelan’s brother, David, responded with a largely false tweet.  “Former President Trump appears to have mentioned my brother’s wrongful detention more in the last 24 hours than he did in the 2 years of his presidency in which Paul was held hostage by #Russia (zero).  I don’t suggest he cares now any more than he did then (zero).”  Not surprisingly, Mr. Whelan was invited to spread this falsehood further by the media.  “My brother pleaded from his prison for President Trump to tweet about him during President Trump’s term in office, and President Trump didn’t,” Mr. Whelan told Fox News’ Neil Cavuto.  “And now to talk about Paul at all, it’s really offensive.”  “I just wanted to call out the fact that during his presidency, Trump never, ever mentioned Paul’s name in public. Not once in his many, many tweets or any sort of public statement,” he said in another interview. “In a sense, you could say they did nothing.”  Of course, this is factually incorrect when we know that the Trump Administration was actively considering proposals to bring Mr. Whelan home.  They certainly weren’t doing “nothing.” They were objectively evaluating options and they (rightfully, in my opinion) concluded that letting loose the second most dangerous man in the world in exchange for a former marine was almost as bad a deal as President Biden struck for Ms. Griner.  As to why former President Trump did not call attention to the matter publicly, nothing could be more obvious:  The last thing you want in sensitive negotiations is to tip your hand that you are desperate for a deal by discussing it in public, which, of course, is what the Biden Administration inexplicably chose to do.  If the former President had personally brought it up, it would have brought attention to the matter and increased the public pressure to get some deal, any deal done, exactly as it did with President Biden.  The Merchant of Death would’ve been freed years earlier and already arming Russia in Ukraine.  Further, we know for certain that President Trump was actively engaged in bringing hostages home over and over again.  As CNN, not exactly a Trump-friendly outfit, reported in May 2020 after the release of Lebanese American Amer Fakhoury, “The President has made the release of American hostages overseas a priority, bringing detained US citizens home from Afghanistan, North Korea, Egypt, Iran and Turkey. The elevation of Robert O’Brien from Trump’s envoy for hostage negotiations to his national security adviser in September 2019 has made the issue even more prominent.”  There is no doubt Trump was successful:  He secured the release of 58 hostages without providing any recompense or exchanges at all.  At a minimum, this suggests there is a better way to handle these matters despite the lies to the contrary, but once again everyone should make up their own mind.

There is, however, one more thing to consider:  What are the long term ramifications of exchanging those guilty of low level, if not entirely trumped-up charges for high-value, criminal masterminds or terrorists?  Few have remarked on how bizarre the overall situation truly is:  America has spent around $100 billion arming Ukraine in her war against RussiaWe have implemented a wide array of largely ineffectual sanctions.  We have declared Russian aggression to be an abomination and committed to doing whatever it takes to help Ukraine defeat Russia.  Some have even recommended regime change in Russia as the only realistic solution.  Ukrainian President Voldymyr Zolenksyy is Time’s Man of the Year.  Whatever your opinion on the matter, the war has been ongoing for almost a year now, and yet we’re simultaneously treating Russia as a potentially reasonable partner in a prisoner negotiation, fully knowing that they would not be seeking the release of a notorious arms dealer without good reason.  In other words, we are not merely negotiating with ourselves, which would be bad enough.  We’re negotiating with an enemy we are actively opposing and for a prisoner that can help their war effort against our very own goals.  This makes no logical sense in the short term, especially knowing that we are also relying on Russia to mediate negotiations with Iran, and could lead to catastrophe in the long term.

The future is, of course, notoriously hard to predict, but there is no reason to doubt that other rogue nations and bad actors are considering whether holding high profile Americans hostage is a valid strategy to secure the release of key assets.  If we’ll negotiate with an enemy in the middle of a proxy war, giving them exactly what they want with very little in return, why wouldn’t they assume we would not do the same in the future?  The Biden Administration itself seems keenly aware of this possibility, trying to preemptively claim it will not be the case.  “Any inference that somehow this has become the norm would be mistaken, and I don’t think governments around the world would be wise to draw that inference,” an official told CNN. “But in the rare case when there is an imperative to Americans home, which is a real priority for this president, there sometimes are no alternatives left, and a heavy price has to be paid.”  The question now is why would they believe anyone will listen to them after this display of weakness?  What does a rogue actor have to lose when we are not going to send in a SEAL team to get a prisoner out?  Of course, the long term implications are what many on both sides of the political spectrum are worried about.  “I think American citizens everywhere just got made a commodity,” Robert Zachariasiewicz, a DEA official involved in the initial investigation of Mr. Bout told Politico recently. “We just told bad actors everywhere that it’s good business to falsely detain or kidnap American citizens, and the best bargaining chip you can have is an American citizen. We just told them we will negotiate, so you better have some equity in your back pocket.”  Mr. Bolton feels the same.  “This is not a deal. This is not a swap. This is a surrender,” he said. “And terrorists and rogue states all around the world will take note of this, and it endangers other Americans in the future who can be grabbed and used as bargaining chips by people who don’t have the same morals and scruples that we do.”

For better or worse, time will certainly tell.  In the meantime, anyone telling you this is undeniably a good deal should really consider the facts, the history, and ignore the media spin.

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