US hostage envoy told US Marine veteran to ‘keep the faith’ as they secured Griner’s release from Russia but not his

Paul Whelan (Courtesy photo)

Victoria Cavaliere

Bloomberg News

The U.S. special envoy who helped secure WNBA star Brittney Griner’s release from Russian custody said he spoke to detained American Paul Whelan and assured him “we’re coming to get you.”

Roger Carstens, the Special Presidential Envoy for Hostage Affairs, told CNN’s “State of the Union” on Sunday he was in touch with Whelan on Friday, the day after Griner was freed by Moscow in a prisoner exchange for a Russian arms dealer. Carstens said Whelan “shared his frustration” that he wasn’t included in the swap.

“I explained to him that ‘all this was a case where it was either one or none. We weren’t able to get you out of this go round,’” he said. Carstens said he told Whelan to “keep the faith. We’re coming to get you.”

While negotiations for some U.S. hostages are ongoing, Carstens said the Biden administration intends to soon begin using an executive order that directs the government to identify and impose sanctions on foreign officials involved in wrongful detentions and abductions of American citizens.

“Believe me, we’re working on target packages right now,” he said.

The Biden administration is facing criticism for the terms of Griner’s release, including the swap for Viktor Bout, known as the “merchant of death,” and the failure to bring home Whelan, a former U.S. Marine. President Joe Biden said last week that “Russia is treating Paul’s case differently than Brittney’s.”

Kevin McCarthy, who is in line to become speaker of the House next month, said that trading Bout without getting Whelan is an “unconscionable” move and a “a gift” to Russian President Vladimir Putin.

John Kirby, a spokesman for the National Security Council at the White House, defended last week’s swap as the best deal available at the time, and said Russia is treating Whelan differently than Griner, who was arrested on drug charges, because he is accused of espionage.

“We are now more informed, clearly, having gone through this process over the last few months,” Kirby said on ABC’s “This Week” on Sunday. “We have a better sense of the context here, where the Russians’ expectations are and we’re just going to keep working on it.”

Carstens and Kirby declined to discuss details of the negotiations in the television interviews.

Carstens, who picked up Griner in the United Arab Emirates, said that as he brought her home “my brain is already thinking about Paul Whelan. What do we do when we get back? What’s our next move? What’s the strategy?”

Carstens has also traveled to Syria to try and gain the freedom of Austin Tice, a freelance journalist who has been held there since he was kidnapped while on assignment in 2012.

“We’re still working on it,” Carstens said of the case. “I’m optimistic. I think there are always paths forward that allow us to get an opportunity for some like Austin Tice.”


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