Brittney Griner Deal 'Puts Target on Back of Every American': Congressman

Republican Representative Mike Waltz says authoritarian governments will increasingly see Americans abroad as bargaining chips amid U.S. officials seeking a deal with Russia for the release of imprisoned WNBA player Brittney Griner.

Waltz made the remarks during a Newsmax appearance Wednesday, the same day U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said he would approach his Russian counterpart with a proposed prisoner swap. While President Joe Biden has been under pressure to secure Griner's release, her situation has revived debates over whether prisoner swaps incentivize the arrest and kidnapping of Americans.

A two-time Olympic gold medalist who plays for the Phoenix Mercury, Griner has been detained since February 17 after Russian authorities said they found cannabis oil in her luggage at a Moscow area airport. Griner's arrest came amid heightened tensions over Russia's impending invasion of Ukraine, and U.S. officials have insisted the WNBA star was improperly detained.

Brittney Griner in Russian Court
A Republican member of Congress says a prisoner swap to free WNBA basketball star Brittney Griner will lead to more U.S. citizens being targeted. Above, Griner has handcuffs removed before a hearing at the Khimki Court, outside Moscow, Russia, on July 27, 2022. Alexander Zemlianichenko/Getty Images

Blinken said on Wednesday that he would speak with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov for the first time since the invasion of Ukraine to discuss a proposal to secure the release of Griner and Paul Whelan, an American imprisoned on spying charges.

"Of course, we all want our American citizens to come home, but not in this way," said Waltz on the conservative television network.

While Blinken declined to discuss details of the proposed deal, the Kremlin has sought the release of Viktor Bout, a Russian arms dealer nicknamed the "Merchant of Death."

Waltz said that Bout "has provided Russian arms, to our adversaries all over the world for decades" and Blinken's deal will encourage more "hostage diplomacy."

"This is why dictatorships—like Venezuela, Iran, China, Russia—take Americans hostage, because they know they'll get something for it," he said. "They know eventually some administration will pay. And this just puts a target on the back of every American out there."

The U.S. Justice Department opposes prisoner swaps.

Blinken acknowledged during his press conference on Wednesday that arbitrarily detaining citizens for political gain is carried out in "many countries," a practice he said the U.S. is actively seeking to end.

"But we have two objectives," continued Blinken. "We want to see those who are wrongfully detained to be released and be able to return home. At the same time, it's important that we work to reinforce the global norm against these arbitrary detentions, against what is truly a horrific practice."

Blinken said President Joe Biden had signed an executive order intended "to respond to and impose costs on those who engage in the practice." He added that he would speak more in the coming weeks and months about efforts underway to deter arbitrary detention of citizens.

The executive order Blinken referred to was signed by Biden earlier this month. According to an administration fact sheet, the order allows federal agencies to impose sanctions and other costs "on those who are involved, directly or indirectly, in hostage-taking or wrongful detentions."

Additionally, the order directs agencies to share intelligence information, which doesn't jeopardize sources or methods, with the families of those wrongfully detained. Under the order, agency experts will also be required to develop ways to deter future hostage-taking and wrongful detentions.

A State Department spokesperson declined to disclose the number of wrongfully detained U.S. citizens when reached for comment by Newsweek, citing privacy concerns and sensitivity around efforts to secure their release.

Earlier this spring, the Biden administration secured the release of former U.S. Marine Trevor Reed from a Russian penal colony in a prisoner swap with Konstantin Yaroshenko. Blinken said it was an example of one of the "tough decisions" that Biden is willing to make to free U.S. citizens that are being detained abroad.

Update 07/28/22, 4:54 p.m. ET: This article was updated with additional information and background.