With Griner’s release, questions remain over fate of Americans still held in Russia

The Biden administration on Thursday secured the release of Brittney Griner from Russia the controversy persists around the still-imprisoned American Paul Whelan, who remains inside Russia. John Kirby, the strategic communications coordinator for the National Security Council, joins Judy Woodruff to discuss.

Read the Full Transcript

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And to look more closely at the Biden administration's efforts to secure Griner's release and the controversy surrounding Paul Whelan, who remains imprisoned in Russia, we're joined by John Kirby.

    He is the strategic communications coordinator for the White House National Security Council.

    John Kirby, welcome back to the "NewsHour."

    How is it, I think the question that many have on their minds right now, that the Russians had so much leverage over the U.S. that they were able to give us, the United States, back, in essence, a professional basketball player who had been found guilty of a very minor charge in exchange for winning the release of a notorious arms dealer, someone who was considered one of the most wanted men of the world, and then he was convicted of conspiracy to kill Americans?

  • John Kirby, NSC Coordinator For Strategic Communications:

    Thanks, Judy. Appreciate you having me.

    Look, I mean, obviously, nobody wanted to see Mr. Bout be a free man here six years before his sentence was due to be complete. And we were acting in good faith with the Russians over many, many months to try to secure not just Brittney Griner, but Paul Whelan.

    That said, through all those weeks and months, it was clear two things, one, that they were treating Mr. Whelan separately, because of the sham espionage charges that they levied against him. And, therefore, there was not going to be a way of getting Paul and Brittney together out, and, two, that the only way they were going to accept Brittney Griner's release was by Mr. Bout.

    So this was the deal we could get. This was the moment that we could get it. And the choice was either we get one American home or we get none. And we felt we had a moral obligation to do what we could to get Brittney Griner back home to her family and her teammates, where she belongs. And we're going to continue that work to get Mr. Whelan home.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, Americans surely are celebrating Brittney Griner's release.

    But the — another part of this question is, we heard Paul Whelan's brother, David, tell our Nick Schifrin that the Russians were asking for another prisoner convicted of espionage in the United States, that there would have been or could have been a deal if that had happened. Why didn't that happen? Why didn't that take place?

  • John Kirby:

    I'm going to be very careful here, Judy, because we're still actively trying to get Paul home. And I'd really rather not get into any kinds of details of what the options might look like and what that might be. We are very actively working on this. And we're going to stay at that task.

    But I think you can understand why we wouldn't want to get into speculative discussions, when we still don't have Paul back home, where he belongs. We still don't have an agreement to get him released.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    When you say very actively working on it, it sounds like — are negotiations under way right now regarding Mr. Whelan?

  • John Kirby:

    We have not stopped trying to negotiate for Mr. Whelan's release. And that continues today. And it'll continue tomorrow and the next day.

    Yes, we are in active discussions with the Russians still, even as we concluded Brittney Griner's case, to continue to work on Paul's.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Let me ask you about the comments from a former DEA agent. His name is Zachariasiewicz.

    He told our Nick Schifrin just now — he said, in his view, this trade sends — or this — what happened sends a message to the world that illegal detention and kidnapping of American citizens is a good business.

  • John Kirby:

    I think a couple of things here.

    First of all, we have taken a lot of actions to try to discourage exactly that, hostage-taking, by instituting new sanctions, new visa ban requirements. We have also incorporated, as I think I heard in that interview, guidance to Americans that are traveling overseas about the detention risk in any country, including Russia. We want them to be well-informed.

    So I think any nation that would come away from this trade thinking, oh, well, there's a license, I can just go do this, would be making a dangerous presumption, because we're going to continue to hold people accountable for this.

    At the same time, we need to think about the signal it sends to the American people that, if you do everything right, and if you still get wrongfully detained in a country, your government's not going to forget you. And we might be having to make some difficult decisions, tough decisions, decisions that we didn't take lightly, like this one.

    But, if we have to do that, if that's the only recourse, you need to know, as an American, that your president, your government is going to stand behind you and do what we can to bring you home.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, what is it right now to stop the Russians from grabbing another American anywhere in Russia right now?

  • John Kirby:

    Mr. Putin has done this before, Judy. This is not a new tactic for him. And I think Americans that are traveling to Russia or want to travel to Russia ought to think about, that the fact that he has done this before.

    And it could happen again. That's why, again, we have got that designation Russia and other countries a detention risk. We want Americans to, if — we want them to go overseas, obviously, for pleasure or for work, but we wanted to do so fully informed.

    What we — and we don't want to see, of course, another American wrongfully detained in Russia or anywhere else. But, unfortunately, this is a tactic that Mr. Putin has used in the past.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    I want to quote something else that the former DEA agent just said to Nick.

    And that is not only that it greatly tarnishes the rule of law in this country, but he went on to say that it reduces a judicial verdict, literally, to a political stunt.

    Is that — is that what this was?

  • John Kirby:

    A political stunt. My goodness. I think I will just refrain here a little bit.

    There was no politics here. This wasn't a stunt. Judy, this was about getting an American citizen back home to her family and her teammates, where she belongs. She shouldn't have been detained in Russia for one hour, let alone the 10 months that she was in, as the president called it, intolerable conditions.

    The same goes for Mr. Whelan, who has now suffered four years of wrongful detention. No, this is not about a political stunt. This is not about abrogating the rule of law. This is standing up, actually, for the rights of American citizens at home and around the world, and doing so unapologetically.

    Again, we're not celebrating the fact that Mr. Bout is walking free. But we're going to stay closely — we're going to watch, be vigilant on our national security. We made an assessment before we agreed to release him. It's important to remember that he wasn't serving a life sentence. He was going to be out in 2029. So, eventually, he was going to be a free man. It's six years earlier.

    But, believe me, we're going to stay vigilant. We're going to watch what he does. And if he or anybody else in Russia continues to threaten American national security, we have the tools in place, we have the will in place to hold them accountable.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    One other comment that Mr. Zachariasiewicz made was that the President Biden has now lost the Department of Justice, that, in the view of the people he talks to there, this was a win for the State Department, that the Department of Justice thought this was wrong.

    Is that what's going on internally in the administration?

  • John Kirby:

    The entire national security team worked very, very hard over many months to arrange to get Brittney Griner home.

    At the same time, they were working to get Paul Whelan home. They're going to stay at that task, the entire interagency team. And that includes people from the Justice Department. I can't speak for every member of the Justice Department, but I can say, writ large, across the national security team that supports President Biden and President Biden himself, this was an extraordinary, long, dedicated effort by national security professionals across the administration to make this deal and to get Brittney Griner on that plane on the way home.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Final quick question.

    Marc Fogel, 61-year-old teacher, American teacher, still being held in Russia, any word on his con — on his fate? Is the administration actively working to get his release as well?

  • John Kirby:

    We are certainly working to try to better understand his situation.

    There's a limit to what I can say in this particular case, for a variety of reasons. So, I'm going to have to be a bit guarded and careful here. But we're certainly mindful of the situation. And we're doing the best we can to get as much information and context as we can about that individual's state.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    John Kirby, joining us from the White House, thank you so much.

  • John Kirby:

    Yes, ma'am.

Listen to this Segment