(NEW YORK) — U.S. Special Presidential Envoy for Hostage Affairs Roger Carstens, the official who brought Brittney Griner back to the U.S., told ABC News’ Good Morning America on Monday that he spoke to Paul Whelan just hours after landing in Texas with Griner.
“I landed at 4:30 in the morning, and at 9:30, Paul called from the penal colony in Russia. I explained to him, I said, ‘Paul, it was one or nothing, we were not going to be able to get you out. We’re going to keep working on it, but I understand you’re a little frustrated with that,” Carstens told GMA co-anchor Robin Roberts.
“The president’s focused. The secretary’s focused. We’re meeting today, Monday morning, to go through the next steps of the strategy, but Paul, we haven’t forgotten you, we’re coming to get you,” Carstens added.
Whelan, a former Marine, has spent four years in detention since he was seized in 2018 by Russia’s domestic intelligence agency, the Federal Security Service, while visiting Moscow for a friend’s wedding. He was sentenced to 16 years in prison on espionage charges but the U.S. and his family say that they were fabricated in order to take him as a political bargaining chip.
Carstens said the work to bring Whelan home hasn’t stopped and “was ongoing while we were on the plane coming home with Brittney.”
Griner, a WNBA star who had pleaded guilty to drug charges after carrying a vape with hashish oil into Russia — which she maintained was an inadvertent mistake — was released last Thursday as part of a prisoner exchange between Moscow and Washington. In return for Griner’s freedom from a penal colony, the U.S. released Viktor Bout, a notorious former arms dealer serving a 25-year sentence in Illinois following a conspiracy conviction — prompting criticism from some.
Carstens, who was appointed to his position by former President Donald Trump in 2020, countered on Monday to say U.S. national security experts did an assessment and determined that Bout being released was no longer a threat to U.S. security. He called decisions in a case like this “tough,” but said “it’s our moral obligation to get an American.”
“I kind of flip it around, to me what’s unacceptable is not Viktor bout. What’s unacceptable is an American wrongfully detained and held in a foreign jail cell. We have a moral obligation. Having a blue passport means something,” he said. “While it’s tough to make some of the decisions that we’ve made, we start from the premise and from the belief that it’s our moral obligation to get an American.”
Carstens also offered more details about the flight home with a talkative Griner following her release from a Russian penal colony last week. When he tried to show her to her seat on the plane, “she was having none of it,” he said.
“She said, ‘Look, I’ve been listening to Russian for ten months. I want to speak English, I want to chat with people,'” Carstens said. “And then as I tried to point her to her seat, she just walked past me and went right to the crew and started introducing herself to the crew members. And also, I watched her and she connected with everyone, looked in their eyes, shook hands, got to know their names, and only when that was all done she went back.”
“I was really impressed at how she values the other people, to include the people that were trying to bring her home,” he added.
Carstens said Griner spent about 12 hours of the 18-hour flight talking with others on the plane and slept for the other six.
“We talked about a lot of things, anything from her time held in the Russian penal colony, going through the trial process, obviously her love for Cherelle, her teammates, everything that she missed, the things that she misses about the United States and America,” he said. “But I think I left with the impression that this is an intelligent, impressive woman who’s very self-aware, very kind, very humble, and above all, authentic, and you get B.G. when you’re talking to B.G.”
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