DOJ officials call Biden’s Griner, ‘Merchant of Death’ swap ‘mistake,’ ‘madness’

A Friday report in the Washington Post noted US Department of Justice officials viewed President Joe Biden’s prisoner swap of WNBA player Brittney Griner for dangerous Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout as a “mistake.”

According to the outlet, people from America’s top law enforcement agencies have expressed concern that the “discrepancy of offenses by the two prisoners” meant that the deal was not a good one.

The Post detailed this gap in offenses, stating that Griner was detained for “possessing a small amount of cannabis oil. Bout, whose arms fueled conflicts from Sudan to Rwanda to Afghanistan to Angola, is nicknamed the ‘Merchant of Death,’ and his illicit transactions with violent regimes and militant groups earned him a 25-year sentence in federal prison.”

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WNBA star and two-time Olympic gold medalist Brittney Griner, right, enters a cage in a courtroom prior to a hearing in Khimki just outside Moscow, Russia, Thursday, Aug. 4, 2022.
(Evgenia Novozhenina/Pool Photo via AP)

Many in the media blasted the trade Friday, arguing that Biden should have received more hostages from Russia in return for such a dangerous prisoner. Some argued that Marine veteran Paul Whelan, who is still serving a sentence in Russia on espionage charges, should have been included in the deal.

As the Washington Post claimed Friday, top government officials feel the same way. The piece stated, “But the president also faced opposition from his own Justice Department, which viewed Thursday’s one-for-one prisoner swap involving Griner and the notorious arms dealer Viktor Bout as a mistake given the discrepancy of offenses by the two prisoners.”

It added, “Within the Justice Department, many officials resisted the idea of ‚Äč‚Äčtrading Bout before his scheduled release in 2029, according to current and former officials.”

The piece quoted an anonymous DOJ official, who said of Griner’s release, “If she were my relative, I would want to do the swap. But trading a notorious international arms dealer for a basketball player is madness.”

The Post noted that the State Department had been seeking a trade with Russia “involving Bout that would include the release of both Whelan and Griner.” Although “officials familiar with the matter” said “Moscow refused unless the United States also secured the release of Vadim Krasnikov, a former colonel from Russia’s internal spy agency.”

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BANGKOK, THAILAND - JULY 28: Viktor Bout sits inside a detention cell at Bangkok Supreme Court on July 28, 2008, in Bangkok, Thailand.  A Thai court postponed the extradition hearing, for a second time, of Viktor Bout, after his attorney failed to turn up on Monday for the hearing to extradite Bout to the US to face terrorism charges in connection with alleged arms smuggling.  (Photo by Chumsak Kanoknan/Getty Images)

BANGKOK, THAILAND – JULY 28: Viktor Bout sits inside a detention cell at Bangkok Supreme Court on July 28, 2008, in Bangkok, Thailand. A Thai court postponed the extradition hearing, for a second time, of Viktor Bout, after his attorney failed to turn up on Monday for the hearing to extradite Bout to the US to face terrorism charges in connection with alleged arms smuggling. (Photo by Chumsak Kanoknan/Getty Images)

Ultimately the US caved to pressure and decided to accept “Griner for Bout, one-for-one.” During a recent news conference, Secretary of State Antony Blinken commented on the decision, saying, “This was not a choice of which American to bring home. The choice was one or none.”

The piece stated that Justice Department officials “have long chafed at some of the prisoner exchanges pushed by the State Department, in part because law enforcement officials tend to believe that authorities should adhere to a ‘like for like’ rule, in which only individuals of equal status or criminal history should be exchanged.”

It added, “federal law enforcement officials frequently object to proposed swaps of convicted criminals for people who committed relatively minor offenses.”

The Post mentioned that “law enforcement nevertheless worries that there will be negative consequences to the Griner-Bout trade that won’t immediately be apparent.” It quoted former DEA agent Robert Zachariasiewicz, who was “opposed to the swap.”

He told the paper, “We just showed that it is really useful to have an American in your back pocket because you never know when you need them to trade.”

NBC News issued an embarrassing correction after reporting President Biden could have received Paul Whelan, instead of WNBA star Brittney Griner, in the White House's controversial trade for the

NBC News issued an embarrassing correction after reporting President Biden could have received Paul Whelan, instead of WNBA star Brittney Griner, in the White House’s controversial trade for the “Merchant of Death.”
(Sofia Sandurskaya, Moscow News Agency photo via AP/AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko)

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On Thursday, CNN senior justice correspondent Evan Perez also reported that US law enforcement officials were displeased with this trade, saying they believed it to be “epically bad.”

The New York Times also featured a Friday report on the “criticism” sparked by the deal. Although it mentioned that “right wing” Americans are in “full outrage mode” over the swap, it acknowledged that there are “legitimate questions” that “can be raised about these swaps, including whether they encourage still more hostage-taking or could endanger Americans, like Mr. Whelan, who are left behind.”

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