Former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo hit the Biden administration for exchanging “bad guys for celebrities” after it secured WNBA star Brittney Griner’s release from a Russian prison in a swap for an international arms dealer known as the “Merchant of Death.”
Pompeo said the Trump administration had entered into discussions with Russia about Paul Whelan — the former Marine who remains in a Russian penal colony — but was very specific about standards surrounding any exchange.
“The Trump administration was always very clear: we weren’t going to trade bad guys for celebrities, because it creates the wrong incentives for the bad guys as we go forward,” Pompeo said on “Fox News Sunday.”
“It’s not good for American national security. It’s not good for people who are traveling across the world,” he said.
Pompeo said the aim during the Trump administration was to “get every American back” — but without creating the risk that other US citizens would be taken.
“And there is no doubt that today, not just [Russian president] Vladimir Putin, but all the bad guys, the Iranians, others, who hold Americans in detention see that if you take a celebrity, the chance of getting one of your bad guys back out of American control is greater,” Pompeo said.
“And I think for people out there of notoriety, it is more likely they will be taken hostage today and that is not a good policy,” he added.
Griner, who had been detained in Russia since she was arrested on drug charges at a Moscow airport in February, was released last Thursday in exchange for Viktor Bout, who was convicted in 2011 of conspiring to kill Americans by supplying weapons to the FARC terror group in Columbia.
The Biden administration was criticized for not making sure Whelan, who’s serving a 16-year sentence in a Russian penal colony on trumped-up espionage charges, was part of the exchange.
John Kirby, the White House’s coordinator for strategic communications at the National Security Council, said Russia never gave the US an option on releasing Whelan.
”There was never a choice posed by the Russians, well, hey, you give us Bout back, and then you can decide whether you want Brittney or Paul. That was never the arrangement. It was only Ms. Griner for Mr. Bout,” Kirby told Fox News’ Shannon Bream.
He said the Russians considered Whelan in a different light than Griner because he was arrested for espionage.
“He is put in a special category by the Russians. And try as we might, and believe me, Shannon, we did right until the very end, we were making efforts to try to get both of them out. There was just no way to get there,” Kirby said.
Bream questioned Kirby about what kind of message swapping Griner for the criminal known as the “Merchant of Death” sends to America’s enemies.
Kirby said “it’s a common tactic” used by Putin.
“That’s why the president has put in place additional accountability measures, visa restrictions, other sanctions that give us a little bit more influence and ability to affect the decision-making of potential hostage-takers,” Kirby responded.
“We’ve also included on the State Department website, for every country you want to visit, there’s now a new designation which will let you know what the detention risk is if you want to travel to a certain country, whether it’s for business or pleasure,” he said.
In the Pompeo interview, Bream asked about comments made by former National Security adviser John Bolton that there had been talks in the Trump administration about exchanging Bout for Whelan.
She asked Pompeo, who would have been director of the CIA at the time, whether he was aware of the negotiations.
”I don’t want to comment on our internal discussions. We were working hard on each of the cases, including Paul Whelan’s case during my time in service. We were talking with the Russians at multiple levels. Our ambassador there on the ground there in Russia, John Sullivan, was working with him. There were lots of discussions about what the right mechanism forward was,” he said.
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