Decoding Talking Points: Paul Whelan

A week ago I had never heard of Paul Whelan, and it’s extremely likely you hadn’t either. Last week, however, when it was announced that the Biden Administration had negotiated for the release of WNBA star Brittney Griner, the right-wing entertainment machine went into full spin cycle. A friend of mine even took to social media to call President Biden a traitor because he agreed to release Viktor Bout in exchange for Griner.

This is pure partisan non-sense.

Let’s start with the fact that any American citizen being detained by a foreign country should be a high priority for the State Department, and by all indications that’s what the State Department spends a fair amount of time doing – negotiating to get American citizens released. Should Brittney Griner have taken a CBD vape into Russian, where they are illegal? Absolutely not. Did it warrant a nine-year prison sentence? Meh. Seems like someone from the Russian team UMMC Yekaterinburg, for whom she plays during the WNBA offseason, might have made sure she knew the law.

Meanwhile, the man Faux News and its minions are painting as some kind of American hero, Paul Whelan, is nothing of the kind. Dishonorably discharged from the Marines in 2008 for charges related to larceny, Whelan was arrested in Moscow in December of 2018 on suspicions of espionage. The charges seem to be politically motivated, but nonetheless the charges against him are far more serious that those against Griner and thus it was easier to secure Griner’s release.

Rest assured, if a Republican had been President and this exact same scenario had played out Griner would be viewed as an American hero returning home and we would still never have heard of Whelan. It is purely for the cynical gamesmanship, with right-wing media correctly assuming that their viewers won’t bother to fact-check, look up who these people are, the circumstances surrounding their arrests, or the efforts made by two different White Houses of two different parties to secure the release of Whelan.

Don’t join in this silly game. Let’s be smarter!

To be sure, Bout, the so-called Merchant of Death, is a bad guy. If you saw the Nicholas Cage movie “Lord of War,” this is that guy. He was due to be released in six years anyway, so letting him go a little early was deemed acceptable by the US State Department if it meant getting an American citizen back. It would seem like a slippery slope, trading high value military prisoners for more or less average American citizens, but it’s a game of chess, not checkers, and I will not pretend to know all of the angles.

John Kirby, Strategic Communications Coordinator for the National Security Council, knows those angles, and in an interview on PBS News Hour on Thursday he assured us that measures are being taken to discourage and prevent other citizens from being taken. It starts, of course, with Americans making smarter choices about where to travel and under what circumstances. This doesn’t seem like a particularly good time to schedule a trip to Russia or China, for example. Kirby also made it perfectly clear that the US has been working to get Whelan released, but thus far the Russians have been unwilling to engage in that particular discussion. They wouldn’t discuss it with the former President, a Republican, and they won’t discuss it now with President Biden. It’s not a partisan thing, it’s Russia not wanting to cooperate with us unless the deck is stacked in their favor.

Does that mean we should have let Griner remain imprisoned? I guess that depends on how you feel about the situation. For my part, I’m glad an American was brought home and hope we can welcome Whelan (who is also a citizen of Canadian, the UK and the Irish Republic) home soon.

Let’s be better than the talking points, and especially let’s avoid repeating them without engaging the facts first.

-B

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