Dec 08, 2022

Brittney Griner’s detention highlighted a concerning trend,

Updated 3:08 PM EST, Thu December 8, 2022 Editor’s Note: Peter Bergen is CNN’s national security analyst, a vice president at New America and a professor of practice at Arizona State University. Bergen is the author of “The Cost of Chaos: The Trump Administration and the World.” The views expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion on CNN. The release of basketball legend Brittney Griner, who was being held in a Russian penal colony on minor drug possession charges, in exchange for the notorious Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout, who was serving a long prison sentence in the United States, underlines an emerging trend of hostile states holding Americans to gain leverage over the US government. We used to think primarily of American hostages being taken by terrorist groups like ISIS or al Qaeda, but in the past few years we have seen an increase in governments taking Americans as de facto hostages, according to a recent report by the James W. Foley Legacy Foundation, which advocates for Americans who are held hostage and “wrongful detainees.” Griner is simply the most famous example of this and has served to bring the issue to the attention of many who otherwise might not have been aware of the dangers that face Americans who travel to countries such as Russia, China, Iran and Venezuela – countries that are known to detain Americans to gain leverage over the United States. And the price of being released in these cases is quite high. Griner was released in exchange for Bout, who is arguably not only the world’s most infamous arms dealer, but who no doubt will be quite useful to Russian President Vladimir Putin in acquiring weapons on the international arms market for Russia’s war in Ukraine. There have been several other prisoner swaps just this year in which the Biden administration has had to make some tough decisions about who to release in order to get Americans safely home. Take the case of Trevor Reed, a former US Marine, who was detained by the Russians in 2019 on espionage charges that he has always denied. In April, Reed was exchanged for Konstantin Yaroshenko, a convicted Russian drug smuggler who had been serving a 20-year prison sentence in the US since 2011. Yaroshenko has denied the charges against him. Or consider the case of Mark Frerichs, an American contractor working in Afghanistan, who was held for more than two years by the Taliban (now the de facto Afghan government). Frerichs was released in exchange for clemency for Haji Bashir Noorzai, who was in prison in the US on drug trafficking charges for 17 years. The Bush administration described Noorzai as one of the most-wanted drug dealers the year before his arrest. The release of Noorzai was long sought by the Taliban, who regard him as a key ally. Or take the case of the seven Americans detained in Venezuela for many years, who were exchanged two months ago for a couple of Venezuelans imprisoned in the US for conspiring to smuggle cocaine. Both of the convicted drug dealers are nephews of Venezuela’s first lady. There are other Americans still being held by governments overseas and other deals will have to be made to get them home. Griner’s release has brought attention to another American still being held by the Russians: Paul Whelan, who has been detained since 2018 on what the US government says are spurious espionage changes. Whelan has denied the allegations. He was reportedly transferred to a prison hospital at the end of November. What will be the price of releasing Whelan? Surely it won’t be nothing. And, again, the Biden administration will have to make a tough call about what price it is willing to pay. My own view is that getting wrongfully detained Americans home from countries like Russia is generally worth the price. And hopefully the Griner prisoner swap will help set the stage for a similar deal for Whelan.