Was WNBA star Brittney Griner the subject of so much White House attention because she was an important showpiece?
Nobody can claim they are unhappy Griner is home safely. No one can sit here and say she should have been left to suffer in Russia. But at the same time, Griner, through all fault of her own, ended up in the middle of a foreign policy struggle.
In the case of Russia, the US specifically warns people like Griner,
do not travel to Russia due to the unprovoked and unjustified invasion of Ukraine by Russian military forces, the potential for harassment against US citizens by Russian government security officials, the singling out of US citizens in Russia by Russian government security officials including for detention, the arbitrary enforcement of local law, limited flights into and out of Russia, and the Embassy’s limited ability to assist US citizens in Russia.
What did we learn from all this?
Firstly, Americans should not try to smuggle drugs into foreign countries with stricter laws than here at home, whether we’re at war or not. Griner’s actions amounted to a near-Hollywood trope, all the way back to Midnight Express, the “good” kid trapped in a horrible nightmare of foreign detention. (Luckily we didn’t have to watch the, um, “romantic scene” pressed against the glass as in Express.)
We also learned, in WNBA terms, that the Biden administration has no game. They signaled their desire to get Griner home so clearly the Russians knew the negotiations were going to be one-sided even before they started. If the Russians would have held out a little longer they might have gotten Alaska back in a trade for Brittney; best to re-read The Art of the Deal for tips. It was another reminder of how bad Biden is at foreign affairs, and how transparent he is about domestic political gains.
The State Department estimates that Griner was just one of more than 3,000 Americans imprisoned abroad, on grounds ranging from small amounts of dope to murder. For all but a handful, State explicitly says they cannot get them out of jail, tell a foreign court or government they are innocent, provide legal advice or represent them in court. The president certainly is not in the habit of making calls to, say, the Thai government telling them to please let your boyfriend Corn Pop go, honest, he didn’t mean to have that baggie of ecstasy stuffed in his underwear at Customs.
Other than being Brittney Griner, the key to getting the full force of the US government working for your release is to be “wrongfully detained,” a qualification that applies to fewer than forty out of those 3,000-some Americans locked up. There is a formal list of qualifications to turn an arrest into a wrongful detention, but the real criteria is politics.
The 2020 Robert Levinson Hostage Recovery and Hostage-Taking Accountability Act, named after the American missing in Iran, establishes eleven criteria for a wrongful detention designation, any one of which can be a sufficient basis to secure the detainee’s release. These include “credible information indicating innocence of the detained individual,” “credible reports the detention is a pretext for an illegitimate purpose,” “the individual is being detained solely or substantially to influence United States government policy or to secure economic or political concessions from the United States government,” or a conclusion that US “diplomatic engagement is likely necessary.” Secretary of state Antony Blinken must personally approve such a designation, and upgrade the case from the State Department’s Bureau of Consular Affairs (where I worked for twenty-two years) to the Office of the Special Envoy for Hostage Affairs.
It helps to take a look at two cases where the government did not step in Griner-style.
Marc Fogel is “the other American” imprisoned in Russia on minor drug charges. He previously taught history at the international Anglo-American School in Moscow, and was well-known and well-thought-of by diplomats not only from the US but also Great Britain, Canada and elsewhere (Fogel is a better comparison to Griner than Paul Whelan, whose espionage case is complicated and shares few details with Griner’s and Fogel’s dope runs. Whelan was also passed over largely unnoticed by the media just this April in the exchange of Trevor Reed, another former Marine who had been held for more than two years over a bar fight, for Konstantin Yaroshenko, a Russian pilot serving a twenty-year federal prison sentence for drug smuggling.)
For the past eleven months, Fogel has been held in Russian detention centers for trying to enter the country with about half an ounce of medical marijuana he’d been prescribed in the United States for chronic pain after numerous injuries. He is facing a fourteen-year sentence. His trial featured politicized accusations of close connections to the American embassy, confusion over a visa issue and his personal friendship with the ambassador, and false claims he’d intended to sell marijuana to his students. All this led to a tougher than usual sentence. But the State Department has denied Fogel “wrongfully detained” status. Why not help Marc Fogel, President Biden?
Or consider the case in Japan of Navy lieutenant and former Mormon missionary Lieutenant Ridge Alkonis, currently locked up on a three-year sentence after two people were killed in a traffic accident doctors said may have been caused by a medical episode. Alkonis and his family hiked Mount Fuji when on the way home Alkonis blacked out at the wheel of his car and crashed in a restaurant parking lot, killing two Japanese citizens. Neurologists diagnosed Alkonis with Acute Mountain Sickness, which can cause sudden fainting up to twenty-four hours after rapid altitude change.
Alkonis’s family offered $1.65 million in compensation to the Japanese family, along with an apology. The Japanese family, however, uncharacteristically refused the settlement and instead demanded jail time for Alkonis. Senator Mike Lee of Utah claims Alkonis is being targeted as a proxy for American forces stationed in Japan, who remain unpopular among many Japanese. On its face, the case certainly looks politicized. Why not help Lieutenant Alkonis, President Biden?
If neither of these cases catches your interest, as with Joe Biden, the State Department has thousands more to choose from. The point is not to have seen Brittney Griner suffer more; it’s to ask what makes her case special enough to warrant the designation “wrongfully detained” and the offer of a lopsided prison swap.