Editor's note: An earlier version of this report incorrectly stated David Whelan's relationship to Paul Whelan. They are brothers.
President Joe Biden announced that WNBA star Brittney Griner had been released from detention in Russia, celebrating her one-to-one swap for a notorious arms dealer who had been convicted and imprisoned in the U.S.
However, Paul Whelan, former security director of automotive supplier BorgWarner and a former U.S. marine who in 2020 was sentenced to 16 years in prison in Russia on spying charges that he denies, was not included in the exchange. Whelan was arrested in December 2018 while attending a wedding in Moscow after receiving a flash drive with "state secrets" that he says he thought contained holiday pictures.
One U.S. official said that Russia was unwilling to negotiate his inclusion, and so Biden had to choose between getting Griner back or no one.
Whelan's brother, David, said in a statement that the White House had alerted them in advance he would not be included in the swap.
"That early warning meant that our family has been able to mentally prepare for what is now a public disappointment for us. And a catastrophe for Paul," he said.
Biden said, "This was not a choice of which American to bring home. Russia is treating Paul's case differently" from Griner's and promised Whelan's family that his administration would continue negotiating for his release.
Griner, 32, was exchanged in a one-to-one swap for Viktor Bout, a notorious arms dealer, according to a statement from Russia's foreign ministry.
"She's safe, she's on a plane," Biden said Thursday at the White House. "She's on our way home after months of being unjustly detained in Russia, held under intolerable circumstances. Brittany will soon be back in the arms of her loved ones."
Biden spoke to Griner by phone Thursday morning from the Oval Office, in the company of her wife, Cherelle Griner.
Griner had been sentenced to nine years and moved to a penal colony last month. The Phoenix Mercury basketball star who played in Russia during the off-season pleaded guilty to drug smuggling in July after customs officials found vape cartridges containing cannabis oil in her luggage at a Moscow airport in February.
Tensions between the U.S. and Russia are at their highest since the Cold War over Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and U.S. support for Kyiv, complicating the efforts to secure Griner’s release. The deal for Griner drew criticism from some congressional Republicans, who complained that Biden also should have secured Whelan’s release in exchange for Bout.
“Surely an arms dealer is worth two innocent people?” Representative Adam Kinzinger, an Illinois Republican, wrote on Twitter.