John Kirby, National Security Council coordinator for strategic communications, said the Biden administration will continue to work to get detained US citizen Paul Whelan back to the US after a release was secured for Brittney Griner on Thursday.
“Viktor Bout was never a bargaining chip for Mr. Whelan, and the Russians consistently made that clear. So I think we need to make that well-known. We will work as hard today and tomorrow and the next day to get Mr. Whelan home as we have been working since he’s been in Russia wrongfully detained,” Kirby told CNN’s Kate Bolduan.
In July, CNN reported that the Biden administration offered to exchange Bout, a convicted Russian arms trafficker serving a 25-year US prison sentence, as part of a potential deal to secure the release of Griner and Whelan, according to people briefed on the matter.
“It has to do with the nature of the sham charges against him, which were based on espionage,” Kirby told CNN Thursday.
Whelan, a US citizen and former Marine who was arrested in 2018 on espionage charges — which he has consistently and vehemently denied — is serving a 16-year prison sentence in Russia.
Kirby said that the US is “not back to square one” in its negotiations for Whelan’s release, adding that “we are going to stay at those active discussions going forward.”
In an exclusive call with CNN today, Whelan said he was happy that Griner was released but was “disappointed” the Biden administration had not done more to secure his release.
“The stoicism, the courage that he continues to display is not something that’s lost on us here. And I can tell you, we worked really, really hard to get Mr. Whelan home. That was always the goal, to get both of them home, and we just couldn’t make it work. This was the deal that we could get, and now was the moment we could get it. And we just felt the choice was either get one American home or get none and it was important to at least get one home and we’re able to do that,” Kirby said.
Pressed on whether the world is more dangerous with Bout freed, Kirby said, “I can assure you … our focus on our national security interests is not going to change. … And so with Mr. Bout being back on the street, we’re gonna stay focused on making sure we can defend this country.”
CNN’s Betsy Klein contributed reporting to this post.