The United States government has put forward an offer to the Russian authorities to secure the release of two wrongfully detained Americans in the country – Paul Whelan and Brittney Griner. Paul Whelan is a former US Marine and Brittney Griner is a WNBA superstar athlete.
On this episode, we speak again to Paul’s sister, Elizabeth Whelan. Elizabeth talks to us about her recent call with President Biden, the US proposal to Russia to secure Paul and Brittney’s release, the Russian government asking for more as well as push back within the US. We also discuss what the Russian and US governments need to do as well as what journalists, news editors and the public can do to help bring Paul and Brittney home.
If you prefer, you can watch the video version of this interview on YouTube.
For more information on Paul Whelan, please check out the following:
Get the latest updates on hostage cases we at Pod Hostage Diplomacy are working on including new episodes by subscribing to our fortnightly newsletter, the Hostage Briefing. Subscribe here.Support the show
SITREP Pod 2: Free Paul Whelan, American held in Russia | Pod Hostage Diplomacy
Daren Nair, Elizabeth Whelan
Daren Nair 00:05
Welcome to Pod Hostage Diplomacy. We work to free hostages and the unjustly detained around the world. Together with their families, we share their stories and let you know how you can help bring them home.
Elizabeth Whelan 00:18
Now when it comes to using the family to get... for Russia to get what they want, if that's the case, they've picked the wrong family, because I'm not going to carry water for the Russian authorities.
Daren Nair 00:28
These are some of the most courageous and resilient people among us.
Mariam Claren 00:32
I never thought that my mother, Nahid Taghavi, will ever have a link to negotiations in Vienna about the JCPOA. That's so crazy.
Daren Nair 00:43
People who have never given up hope.
Paula Reed 00:46
Trevor told his girlfriend to tell me to... to be strong. So, I'm trying to be strong for Trevor.
Joey Reed 00:50
You know, if Trevor can cope with what he's dealing with...
Paula Reed 00:53
Joey Reed 00:53
We can sure cope with the stress.
Daren Nair 00:55
People who will never stop working to reunite their families.
Joey Reed 01:00
We'd like to meet with the President. We believe that, you know, he has... he's surrounded by lots of experienced and and educated advisors. But I don't believe that any of them have ever had a child taken hostage by a foreign country, especially not a superpower like Russia.
Daren Nair 01:15
And we will be right there by their side until their loved one comes back home.
Richard Ratcliffe 01:20
Because if enough people care, then the right people will care enough.
Daren Nair 01:24
I'm Daren Nair, and I've been campaigning with many of these families for years. When I first started campaigning with these families, I noticed they struggled to get the media attention they needed. So, I decided to create this podcast, which is a safe space for the families to speak as long as they need to about their loved ones, and what needs to be done to bring them home.
Mariam Claren 01:45
Nobody can prepare you for what our family's going through. Even if someone had told me one year before, in one years, this is going to happen. Prepare yourself. It's impossible.
Daren Nair 01:59
Thank you for listening. And welcome to Pod Hostage Diplomacy. Welcome to Pod Hostage Diplomacy. Paul Whelan, American citizen for Michigan and a former United States Marine, has been wrongfully imprisoned in Russia since 28 December 2018. The United States government has classified Paul as being wrongfully detained and they have called on the Russian government to release Paul immediately and allow him to come home to his family in the U.S. To give you an idea who has been calling for Paul's release within the US government, here are just a few names: U.S. President Joe Biden, U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, U.S. Ambassador to Russia John Sullivan, and the United States Congress. The House of Representatives have to date passed three bipartisan resolutions calling for Paul's release. Paul's wrongful detention in Russia is not a one-off case.
Fellow Americans Trevor Reed and Brittney Griner have also been detained in Russia. Trevor and Paul's family believed that they were detained by the Russians to be used as bargaining chips to extract concessions from the U.S. government. This is state-sponsored hostage-taking, also known as hostage diplomacy. The current U.S. travel advisory for Russia, issued by the State Department, has a ‘Level 4 Do Not Travel’ rating. This travel advisory was last updated on 19 July 2022, with some new information on wrongful detentions. The updated travel advisory states the following: "Do not travel to Russia due to the unprovoked and unjustified invasion of Ukraine by Russian military forces. The potential for harassment against U.S. citizens by Russian government security officials. The singling out of U.S. citizens in Russia by Russian government security officials including for detention. The arbitrary enforcement of local law, limited flights into and out of Russia. The embassies limited ability to assist U.S. citizens in Russia. COVID-19 related restrictions and [(4:00)] terrorism. U.S. citizens residing or traveling in Russia should depart Russia immediately.” And finally, it says “exercise increase caution due to wrongful detention.”
Here is some further information in that travel advisory within the country summary section: "The department has determined that at least one U.S. national is wrongfully detained by the Russian government. Russian security services have arrested U.S. citizens on spurious charges, singled out U.S. citizens in Russia for detention and/or harassment, denied them fair and transparent treatment, and have convicted them in secret trials and/or without presenting credible evidence. Russian officials may unreasonably delay U.S. consular assistance to detained U.S. citizens." Now, that was the current U.S. State Department's travel advisory for Russia, which was updated last month. We've had the honour of interviewing Paul's sister, Elizabeth Whelan three times to date. We always tell the families we interview that we'll be campaigning right by their side until their loved ones come back home, and we mean it. So, we'll keep you up to date with our campaigns through SITREP Pods like this one or Breaking News Pods.
Now, thankfully, Trevor Reed was released on 27 April this year in a prisoner swap between the U.S. and Russia. Unfortunately, Paul Whelan was left behind. We interviewed Elizabeth a few days after that swap on the fourth of May and that was the last time we spoke. Since then, there have been many significant developments. Some positive, some negative. And the situation can change at any moment. We're recording this interview on Sunday, 14th August and we’ll be publishing it on Wednesday, 17th August. As of this moment, both Paul Whelan and Brittney Griner are still being held in Russia. However, that could change very soon. Fingers crossed. Today, we have the honour of speaking to Elizabeth Whelan once again. Elizabeth, welcome back and thank you for joining us.
Thank you so much, Daren. It's a pleasure to be speaking with you again. Although, I'm very sorry that we're not yet celebrating [(6:00)] Paul's return. Thank you so much for having me on the podcast.
You're very welcome. Now, for our listeners who aren’t aware of Paul's case, can you please give them a brief summary of what happened to Paul?
Absolutely. So, Paul, he's 52 years old now but at the time he was 48, working as a global security specialist for a large automotive company. He would travel around the world to various different countries. One of the countries he would go to, not on business, was Russia. Over the years, he had made friends in countries all over the world and would travel back whenever he could. This sort of familiarity led one of his friends, a U.S. Marine also, who was getting married to a Russian woman to ask Paul if he would accompany the wedding party to Moscow in December of 2018 to show the tourists around. And so, Paul was delighted to be able to help a friend and went over to Moscow. Unfortunately, one of the people he had previously known in Russia, somebody who he considered a close acquaintance, actually set him up which led to an arrest by the FSB. This friend came and gave a thumb drive to him and said it had holiday pictures on it. The FSB broke down the door of his hotel a few minutes later and arrested him on charges of espionage. It was an extraordinary time.
Our family lost touch with him. We didn't know where he was and then finally, his twin brother David, saw in the news that he had been arrested on these charges. That has led to now Paul being incarcerated by the Russians for over three and a half years. He spent a couple of years in the Lefortovo sorry, about a year and a half in a Lefortovo prison, leading up to, basically, a sham trial. His lawyer was appointed by the Russians. He had to have emergency [(8:00)] surgery at the prison, and then he was sentenced in this trial to a 16-year sentence of forced labor. So, now he's in a distant province of Mordovia, about eight hours away from Moscow, working at a forced labor camp in this Stalin-era, Gulag. It is tremendously difficult on him, but he is being as strong and courageous as one possibly could under the circumstances.
I'm sorry to hear that, Elizabeth, and like I said, we'll continue to campaign with you until Paul's back home. Now, for those of our listeners who aren't aware, American WNBA star Brittney Griner, was detained in Russia earlier this year. The U.S. government has stated that she is being wrongfully detained. Elizabeth, would you be able to talk to us about Brittney Griner's case and how it relates to Paul?
Absolutely. I mean, obviously the details of Brittney Griner's case, I'm not going to pretend, I can speak to them really any more than I can speak to my brother's. Paul has not been able to tell us the details of what actually happened through his arrest or trial ever since he's been held. And so, we know, basically what we see in the media, about Brittney's arrest. However, the minute it happened, I realized that she was going to be basically wrongfully detained, and I was glad to see that the Robert Levinson Act, a piece of legislation passed last year, that sort of established some criteria around wrongful detention and that includes someone being arrested to be used against the U.S., basically, that Britney fell into that category. Now, obviously her celebrity brought an enormous amount of attention to Paul's case, to the issue of wrongful detention and all of that is very good.
Unfortunately, that same celebrity has also been like a freight train which has run over some of the attention to [(10:00)] Paul, and we do worry that he will sort of be lost in the dust as the media spins up the story of Brittney and tends to think now of Paul as an afterthought. It's unfortunate. We really need them to be united together. But in the meantime, I have nothing but sympathy and the most heartfelt feeling for Brittney, for Cherelle, her wife, for the family and friends. This is an awful scenario to be in. It is just the worst, and, unfortunately, a very small number of people understand exactly what's going on with hostage diplomacy, and I appreciate, Daren, at the opportunity to talk on your podcast and perhaps explain a little bit more about what these countries like Russia are doing to the U.S. and to our citizens when they arrest people on these charges.
So, I think people have been very distracted by the whole idea of, has Brittney done something wrong, has she not done something wrong, and rather than focusing on the fact that she literally could have had lint on her shoe and the Russians would have decided that that was a reason to arrest her. It could have been anything. It probably could have been anybody who fit whatever criteria that they had. They needed I feel another American in order to try to coerce the U.S. government because they hadn't had any success at that point. They're still holding Paul for some sort of reason, and so, the issue here isn't whether or not Brittney has done something, has broken a law in Russia. The issue is that Russia is conducting hostage diplomacy. They are coming up with reasons, whether fake or not, to hold Americans. Hold them basically hostage, in order to get something from the U.S. It's a [(12:00)] huge problem. It's happening around the world. There are over fifty Americans being held in eighteen countries around the world, and Paul and Brittney are two of these victims and we need to show some unity to help get them home.
I absolutely agree with you, Elizabeth. I think there's a saying that goes, "Learn to tell the difference between a sworn enemy and an imperfect friend." From what I've noticed with Paul's detention and especially with Brittney Griner's detention, there's a lot of internal debate within the United States about her being a woman, her being African-American, her being queer, and identity politics. That's what the Russians want. They want the United States, they want the Americans to fight with each other. But the thing is, the real perpetrators here are the Russians, and we need to focus on them. So, there have been some big developments since we last spoke in May. One of them includes a call with the President. Can you tell us more about that?
Absolutely. It actually has been a rough summer from that point of view. Obviously, we were upset about Paul not coming home with Trevor, as delighted as we were to see Trevor Reed return. Then, all the celebrity and the noise around Brittney's arrest, and we wonder what that means for Paul. Then, I see on Twitter, sometime in early July, I think it was, that the President had called and spoken to Cherelle Griner, and there's been this big push. Within, I think families whose loved ones are detained overseas to try to get in front of the President, as if that is going to be the key to getting their loved ones home. Although, I've always sympathized with that view, I felt it was a little bit misdirected because it's not President Biden who's holding our loved ones hostage. It's these [(14:00)] foreign countries, and we need to make sure that we're pushing against them, not necessarily against the President. But, of course, it's always very comforting to feel that the President is on your side and is working to bring your loved one home.
So, when I saw that the President had called Cherelle, I actually had a bit of a Twitter meltdown, not perhaps the wisest thing to do. But I was so upset at a process that forced families to feel that they had to have this presidential attention, because I felt that behind the scenes, what I knew was going on, did not reflect that. And yet, in the public and to the media, we were constantly being asked, were we getting the President's attention? And now, here is the President himself, sort of unevenly distributing his attention, and so that's what I got upset about. It led to a bit of a media firestorm and my brother and I ended up doing a lot of appearances that week trying to explain that we were not upset at Brittney Griner, at Cherelle Griner, at anybody in the Griner camp. We weren't upset at the President. What we were upset about was that, there wasn't a better way to deal with this problem of hostage taking and also, once you do start giving attention to one family, you kind of have to do it to all it. You really can't be uneven handed. So, I ended up having a very good conversation later in the week with Jake Sullivan, the National Security Advisor, where he gave me the information that settle me back down, because it has been difficult to get. It's hard.
The State Department, for example, with whom we have had a lot of contact, isn't always able to give us the detail of information that a family wants, and after a while, we get a little frustrated, I think, with the way the State Department has to work with us. And so to hear, of course, from the National Security Advisor, really calm me down [(16:00)]. Well, then, the next day, I'm in New York City. I'm attending an opening, had some artwork and a show, am walking down the street to meet somebody actually from Hostage US, who I have to recommend highly. Hostage US is an organization that supports families while their loved ones are being detained and held hostage and also helps those people when they come home. And so, I was meeting somebody from that organization, and I thought, "Oh, my phone is ringing. It must be her telling me she's stuck on the subway or something like that." And it turned out to be the President, and I was shocked. It took me a minute to realize who was on the phone. Your brain just doesn't expect the President to be on your cell phone.
And I zipped into a restaurant where it was just opening. The waiters and such were putting the tables out. I just went in there and sat quietly and it's really funny because if that had happened locally where I live, someone would have come over and said, "Oh, we're not open," and tried to usher me out. But as it was New York and they're probably used to people doing odd things all the time, they just let me sit there and finish the conversation. But he was really reassuring. He is so cognizant of all of these detention, all of these wrongful detentions and the hostage situations but regardless of how much effort he puts in, how much he cares, he's not the problem. It's the Kremlin that's the problem. It's Russia that's the problem. And I made that clear to him, that we really did understand that because I'm sure that, all you see in the media is, "What is President Biden going to do?" Well, how about somebody asking what President Putin is going to do and why he hasn't done it already? Because that's where the fault of this situation lies.
President Biden inherited Paul's situation. Paul [(18:00)] had been already held for two years by the time the current administration came along, and no one, not this President or another President or anyone, can wave a magic wand at this and boom, people are free. It just doesn't work like that. That's not what hostage diplomacy is and that's why it's so important that we bring hostage diplomacy to an end with punishments, and deterrence, and that executive order that the President put out a few weeks after that, basically calling for the opportunity to punish these hostile foreign countries, I think is a very significant move.
So, quick question on the call from the President. So, I'm a big fan of the West Wing. I watched every episode at least two, three times. Please don't judge me. But the question is, what was the call like? Was it, he's executive assistant says, "Please hold for the President," or did President Biden just start talking immediately?
Well, so, I'm not going to really discuss the details of the call just because I feel it sort of-
No, I understand. I just want to know the first few words. Was it him-
It was really funny. So, I see private number on my phone but I've got a number of people who call me like that, clients and stuff. So, I said hello, and I'm expecting my friend Chris to say, "Hey, I'm still coming on the subway or something." And somebody says, "Hello. This is Joe Biden." And I just didn't, like you said, normally a call from the White House, there's a switchboard saying, "Please hold. Jake Sullivan will be on the line," or whoever it happens to be. This completely took me by surprise. So, I was just like, "Yeah?" Because it just didn't clue and he probably wondered, this is probably not the reaction he gets all the time when he calls people. Finally, the neural synapses started actually working and that's when I realized who it is. [(20:00)] And I better get myself into a quiet place to have the conversation. So, it was a very informal call. It was six or seven minutes long. It was really reassuring but I also tried to, just, I don't know, just explain myself that we knew that his people were on this already. We had total faith that the U.S. was doing what it could, that we understood that the problem was with Russia and had been with Russia.
Well, it's good that you spoke to the President and I know, as you said before, not many families - actually, very few - have been able to speak to President Biden himself. In the case of the call with Cherelle Greiner, she spoke to both President Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris, right? Which has never happened to any of the other families. And again, this goes to the point. Sorry, go ahead.
No, it's true. And this is the sort of thing that some of these other families whose loved ones have been held for a lot longer. It can cause concern, anxiety. We're all after, we're competing for the same resources. And so, as delighted as I am to have had that call, I did in follow-up conversations with people throughout the U.S. government, strongly suggest that some moves get made very quickly to address all of the other families and to try to even out, not so much even the attention, but the information because what we're really looking for is not so much reassurance as information. Not to get way off on it, on a different topic, but there's a policy initiative called PPD 30, about hostages which was put in place during the Obama administration, that allows certain bits of information to be declassified, and then shared with families so that they can be kept up to date. [(22:00)] That is not currently part of policy when it comes to wrongful detention. So, that means families of wrongful detainees can't get the same level of information, even though you're just talking about a nomenclature difference.
And this is something that I've been very concerned about and have spoken out about within the government a lot, about how we also need access to that information, because if we knew what was going on, at least to a greater extent than we do at the moment, there might not be this line of people trying to get to see the President. Because right now, we feel we have to get the reassurance and understand that activity is happening, that has been sort of created at that point. There are often large important decisions that have to be made that the President does have to weigh in on. If we're going to trade somebody that's an unpalatable option or that the Department of Justice is not keen on. Sometimes, that takes a President commuting a sentence or some other large decision like that to take place. So, we understand that a President has to be involved at some level.
But my feeling is that, if we were all getting much more information at the lower level on a constant basis, that we would understand the President's position, how the NSC was working on the case, and that would be very reassuring rather than having to do these kinds of media songs and dance that lead to these calls. It's extremely frustrating. The politics of the situation, unfortunately, cannot be ignored and I'd like to see a lot more of the policy around bringing home wrongful detainees, attacking the problem, be taken out of the political sphere, and be dealt with in some manner that doesn't have to be a circus all the time.
I absolutely agree with you. Now, Secretary Blinken, [(24:00)] Secretary of State Antony Blinken, has publicly proposed a prisoner exchange between the U.S. and Russia. So basically, the exchange is for Paul and Brittney with Victor Bout, the arms dealer, who Nicolas Cage played in the movie, Lord of War. Do you want to talk about that and the pushback the U.S. government is getting from Russia?
Yeah, and I'll start off by saying that I don't believe Secretary Blinken ever actually said that. I think, what he said was that they had made a significant offer to the Russians, and that media speculation then said, "Well, that must be Victor Bout." And then, one of the media outlets released what they said was from a source within the government about different parts of what that negotiation can be about, and I can't begin to tell you how annoyed I am about this subject. And so, you'll have to pardon me, because I'm going to get on my soapbox about this. To begin with this whole- the Whelan family has not been made aware of the specifics of the negotiations, even though, obviously, we know what the Russians have been asking for over time that has also changed over time. They have not always been consistent about what they wanted, but we have been really annoyed or I should say, I have been really annoyed. Let me take this on myself. With this whole concentration on the idea of the swap, like prisoners being exchanged on the foggy bridge at night with the lamps glowing and everybody in trench coats.
This entire story of the swap on the tarmac or whatever it happens to be. The media seems to love this. Their fixated on it, and they want to continuously talk about whether or not someone like Victor Bout should be returned and then get every pundit in the world on their shows [(26:00)] weighing in. It drives me nuts for a number of reasons, as did the quote-unquote "leak" this one media outlet decided to release, because what you are doing, and I'm addressing media, very specifically at this particular moment, what you're doing by advertising that, by promoting specific talking points of the Russians, is that you're providing cover for them, basically, to double down on ridiculous requests and you're also narrowing the scope of negotiations, and these are ongoing cases. The fallout for doing something like that could possibly lead to one or more wrongful detainees being left in a country and a negotiation not working.
It is very important that the media understand that by promoting Moscow's talking points and doing their work for them by narrowing the scope of a discussion like this, that this has real-life impact on my brother. I will be very upset if we find out that Paul is left behind again, because I know that the talking points that the media decided to put out there and the divisiveness that the Russians have been able to create in the public sphere, around Brittney Griner and around Paul, that will have a direct impact on this. So, there's just this assumption that has been made, "Oh, well. Blinken must have said, Victor Bout." But he didn't. He did not actually say that, and it would be really useful if folks looked a little bit deeper on these subjects. So, I was very glad to get back to Secretary Blinken himself. I was so pleased to see him get out and the media and [(28:00)] say, "Hey. By the way, we have made an offer and we made it in June and the Russians haven’t been getting back to us."
I think it was very important to state that because I know, as a family member, all the work that's been done behind the scenes, month after month, by so many people here and in Russia, to try to get Paul out, to try to get Trevor out, to try to get Brittney out. But I'm not always, of course, free to mention that. And there is sort of this idea that, "Well, nothing is being done. Nothing is being done." When actually, there's quite a bit that's being done, but we choose not to run to the media and broadcast all of it. So, it was really good for the Secretary to do that and to put the Russians on notice that this business, which they have done time and time again of just ignoring and not engaging in a diplomatic channels as they could be, that we weren't going to put up with it. I thought that was a really strong move.
Thank you for clarifying that, Elizabeth. That's very helpful for myself and for our listeners. Now, U.S. domestic politics can be a polarising issue, and the government has received a lot of criticism of this proposed prisoner swap, even though the previous administration did engage in prisoner swaps themselves and brought Americans home. So, what are your thoughts on this?
Well, you're right. The political and even the social landscape right now is fractured in a terrible way, and I do hate to see Paul and Brittney being dragged into this entire situation. I noticed around the time of Brittney's, so I'm on Twitter on certain amount, and I noticed around the time of Brittney's sentencing, all of a sudden, the Twitter trolls roll out in great [(30:00)] force, basically, trying to stir up different types of politics at our end in terms of saying, "Who should come home first or what about all the people who are in jail in the U.S. on cannabis charges? What about this? And what about that? And what about what Brittney said x number of years ago about this, that, and the other, likewise about Paul? Just trying to gin up the American public, and unfortunately, some rather craven politicians decided to jump on that bandwagon and rather than actually talking about hostage diplomacy and how it needed to show a united front and bring home every American who is wrongfully detained, instead they used the situation around Brittney's arrest to make political points.
Media picked up these stories so that they could get more clicks and likes, and it is really terrible because I've had friends of Paul's, people who are supporters of Paul get in touch with me and say, "Well, we want Paul to be brought home first. He deserves to be brought home first," or to say something negative about Brittney's situation because they want Paul's situation to be addressed. And even though they have Paul's - I mean, they care deeply about Paul - they don't seem to understand that by pushing this narrative, by actually inflaming this division, they're actually, potentially causing a situation where Paul may end up being left behind again. Because by showing how divisive an issue Brittney can be in the public sphere like this, all that does is provide cover for Russia to put President Biden in an uncomfortable position of having to do another one for one [(32:00)] swap, rather than two for one or whatever he might want to do if a prisoner trade is decided upon. So, these folks who think by saying something awful about Brittney because they want Paul promoted, they might actually be causing more trouble for Paul than they probably intend to.
What we really need to see is for people to put all of these identity politics, and partisanship, and discussions about religion, and party or any of that stuff, put all of that aside and instead, as Americans unify around this idea that foreign countries can't take Americans and hold them hostage and hold any administration - Republican, Democratic - whichever one hold any administration in such a way that we're coerced into doing something for this foreign nation. This is a national security issue. This is not about cannabis. This is not about why was Paul in Russia. It is not about why Brittney was in Russia. If we have the ability to get a visa to go to a country, we should expect when we're in that country, not to get falsely arrested, not to be wrongfully detained, not to be held as a hostage in hostage diplomacy. This is where we need to focus everyone's attention. And I am very upset at the politicians who have decided to cause a divisive issue around Paul and and Brittney, which neither one of them deserve and which both of them will have to live with when they come home for the rest of their lives.
People who don't know better, don't understand hostage diplomacy are making statements that are actually going to cause problems in the negotiations to bring them home [(34:00)], are going to cause problems in the negotiations to bring home other Americans held in other countries. There's nothing that Russia likes to see more than our ability to fight with each other over the stupidest things. And this has to come to an end. I also asked the media to take some time and look at these issues, point out what's going on, point out that it's Russia that is trying to gin up these problems, point out the politicians that are actually, potentially going to do harm to our ability to bring Americans home. This is not a good way forward for any American who's being held wrongfully anywhere.
Well said, Elizabeth. I agree with you. Now, what should the Russian government do?
They should let Paul and Brittney go right away, and they should have done so from the start, which they know. But we're dealing here with bad faith, these are bad actors, right? Taking Americans is a bad faith move. I don't care which country. Iran, China, Venezuela, Syria. You're already operating in bad faith by taking Americans and using them in this manner to start with. So, to expect that Russia is suddenly going to become a good faith negotiator and not to start asking for stupid things or changing their mind or not taking part in the conversation or whatever other nonsense they've been playing at for the last three and a half years is, I mean, that's expecting too much of them. Russia should be doing the right thing and letting go people who they know that they're holding for reasons to do with coercing the U.S. But of course, they're not going to do that.
What I do hope - because not everyone in Russia is an awful person - in fact, I'm not even going to name them because I'm afraid they'll get in trouble but we've actually encountered some really good people who've tried to be helpful through the three and a half [(36:00)] years, but there are some really awful people who are operating within the Russian authorities. And I'm hoping that those people are not the ones who are going to be involved in the negotiation. And that the cooler heads, the more intelligent folk, the people who actually can see further down the line that countries were all on this one earth together, and at some point, we've got to find out ways to get along. That not holding each other's citizens wrongfully is a very good start to making sure that some type of communication line stays open into the future. So, that is my hope. Whether that happens or not, I'm not sure. I do hope that cooler heads will prevail in the long run and that we’ll see Paul and Brittney freed very soon.
What should the U.S. government be doing better?
Well, I have really been heartened by the people I've been working with within the US government especially over the last year. So, they care so much about Americans who are wrongfully detained. I think we've got a number of, maybe ingrained issues. One being that, sometimes within the State Department, relationships with the different countries seem to supersede the need to actually hold countries to account when they're doing something they shouldn't be. I think that we need to get over that and start making sure that putting Americans in front of policy and in front of relationships, is a U.S. government wide approach. Apart from that, I would say, Putin's taking up a lot of the oxygen right now and that is actually good for Paul and Brittney because they're getting a lot of the attention within the hostage enterprise, to try to resolve this. Also, I do believe that there are people within the Russian authorities who would also like this resolved.
So, that means that [(38:00)] this is a doable, solvable issue. I hope to see the same level of attention very quickly applied to the wrongful detainees in all of these other countries, that seventeen other countries where we need a similar amount of forceful attention. I know the Special Presidential Envoy for Hostage Affairs, their office has been enlarging over the last year, ever since the Robert Levinson Act went forward. I hope that Congress quickly gets the funding together to continue that, to make sure that that office is well funded, that there's communication throughout the government that the Special Presidential Envoy group can move seamlessly through all of the various different branches and departments that they need to deal with in order to effectively get the support to bring Americans home.
And I hope that this executive order that has just come out will be given teeth really quickly, because not only do we need to bring Americans home, we need to actually punish and deter those countries that are likely to do this behaviour again in the future, because that is what has incentivized hostage-taking; not continuing to negotiate, not bringing Americans home, but the fact that once we've done, we've never done anything about it. Not only this administration, but every other administration. In fact, for hundreds of years, people have done a deal to get someone home but not punished the countries that do this sort of behaviour. And so, this is what I'm looking for next, is I'm looking for that ability to bring the hammer down on these countries that are behaving in this way.
I agree with you. We have to do something to punish these countries for taking our citizens hostage. Speaking of this executive order, which was issued by President Biden on 19th of July, [(40:00)] bolstering efforts to bring Americans held hostage and wrongfully detained abroad back home. In my last episode, I interviewed John Pereira, son of Jose Pereira who has been wrongfully imprisoned in Venezuela since November 2017. He and his five American colleagues work for CITGO Petroleum and went down to Caracas for a business meeting and have been detained since. Collectively, they are known as a Citgo Six. Thankfully, earlier this year, one of them, Gustavo Cardenas, was freed.
However, the five remaining members including Jose, are still being held in prison in Venezuela. John told me that the people responsible for wrongfully detaining his father already have sanctions and travel bans imposed on them. That did not deter them from continuing this practice of hostage diplomacy. Even though the executive order is a good step in the right direction, it's not enough. More needs to be done because the only tools that seem to be in place to punish the hostage takers in this executive order are sanctions and travel bans. What are your thoughts on that?
Well, my feeling is that we're often sanctioning the wrong people. We're often sanctioning or giving travel bans to people who are too far from the point of responsibility. We're dealing mostly with authoritarian governments, and that means the power resides at the top. It's not distributed evenly amongst a government, and therefore, sanctioning somebody at the lower level is a good start. But we really need to aim closer to the top and my feeling is that we need to be a lot more personal about how we're going about it. If it's not working, then we're not really applying sanctions on the right people. We're not making it hurt enough. We're not finding out what their desires are that they that they want. Are they hiding money somewhere? [(42:00)] Are they, is it there a certain country their family members like to travel to? That it would actually be a problem if they couldn't go there.
I mean, I think we need to start dealing, not necessarily have one rule across the board for all of these eighteen countries, but get smarter about how we're approaching each individual one, how we're applying particular punishments. And I agree with you. The executive order is a good start. It is not the be-all and end-all, and in order for us to actually be able to be effective, not only does the U.S. have to be willing to really get creative about how they're going to try to deter foreign countries. We really need and I believe that Secretary Blinken is already working on this - a multilateral approach. This has to be like the sanctions that were put in place over the war on Ukraine. This has to be a situation whereby you can't get around sanctions from one country by just manoeuvring to another country instead. So, I'm hoping to see that the Western countries, seems to be mostly Western countries that are the victims of this practice, work together so that a wrongful detention basically on one is a wrongful detention of all. And that these countries are really brought to heel when it comes to wrongful detention.
This isn't going to happen overnight, but I'm just glad to see that we're making any step at all towards that. And it's a very difficult situation. There are people who are going to try to save face. People who know they could be targeted for these sanctions, who are going to try to worm their way out, by pretending to be interlocutors to help wrongful detainees, get home and hoping that they're going to sidestep any kind of punishment by doing that. And I think we have to have eyes wide open to the kinds of [(44:00)] shenanigans that we can expect from some of these countries. They're not operating in good faith. So, we have to start with that as the basis as to how we treat them. So, like I said, I don't know the details of where we can go from here, but I'm hoping that we're going to be pretty clever about it.
Out of these eighteen countries, not all of them are adversaries like Iran, Venezuela, or Russia. Some of them are actual allies like Rwanda and Saudi Arabia, and when I use the term allies, I use quotes. But in those cases where the countries are supposedly our allies or allies of the United States, there is a lot more leverage. You don't necessarily have to punish them, because some examples would be- I know there's this Australian engineer, Robert Pether, who's currently wrongfully imprisoned in Iraq. And Iraq, is frankly an ally of the Australian government because the Australian government is giving them foreign aid. So, you don't have to sanction them. You don't have to impose travel bans. You can just say, "We'll reduce the amount of money we're paying you in foreign aid if you're going to wrongfully imprison our citizens." So, it doesn't just have to be sanctions and travel bans. It's about using whatever leverage you have, and I appreciate that really works if they are an ally. It's a lot harder when it's countries that are already being sanctioned like Russia, Venezuela, Iran and Syria, and North Korea.
Exactly. But you bring up a really good point. It should not be difficult for us to be able to get our wrongful detainees home from these countries that we do give money to, have treaties or other agreements with. What is required is that, whoever is [(46:00)] in charge of those particular gifts, these gifts that we're giving to these other countries, that they are on board with understanding that they are actually helping continue the detainee of Americans, or whoever is being wrongfully held by not allowing that gift, basically, to be used as a point of leverage. And I do think of Rwanda when I think of this. I think that's a very good example of we give a great deal of aid. We certainly shouldn't have any person, who is an American, being held wrongfully in that country.
Absolutely. I've interviewed the daughters of Paul Rusesabagina. He is a U.S. permanent resident and Belgian citizen, currently wrongfully detained in Rwanda. He is a recipient of the U.S. Presidential Medal of Freedom. He was credited with saving a thousand two hundred lives during the Rwandan Genocide. He was played by Don Cheadle in the movie, Hotel Rwanda. And I'm glad that when Secretary Blinken went to Rwanda a few days ago, he publicly stated that he discussed the wrongful detention of Paul Rusesabagina, and he used words “wrongful detention” which is good. Also, I've noticed a statement that the U.S. government has used many times. That they have “no higher priority than bringing Americans wrongfully detained or held hostage abroad home”. They've been using this term, "no higher priority."
Now, when we spoke previously, you mentioned that it's very important to manage the family's expectations, and I get why, politically saying, "We have no higher priority," is a good thing. It helps politically, [(48:00)] but if the actions don't back that up, and I'm taking into account the actions that we don't see in the media. Because, I'm just thinking, if I'm in government, if I'm the Secretary of State, I'm the President, I obviously want my citizens wrongfully detained or held hostage to brought back home, but there is a lot going on in this world. There are wars, there's COVID, there's climate change, and I'd rather be honest then say something the families want to hear, because if I say something the families want to hear, like, "I have no higher priority than bringing Americans home," but I can't show the actions to prove that that is the case, then the people are not going to trust me as a leader.
And so I've seen some feedback from the families and even former hostages that say that, "Well, the government's very good at giving us platitudes and telling us what we want to hear but the actions don't back up what they say." And, yes. There may be a lot of things going on in the background, but at the end of the day, it's not just about the efforts, it's about results, and they haven't been able to bring these Americans back home. And again, taking into account what you said. It's not the American government's fault, that these individuals are wrongfully imprisoned overseas. America can't control how every other country in the world behaves, but they can be honest about what they can do and what they can't. Because I saw some articles relating to Brittney Griner's detention in Russia. They said, "Americans are now understanding or realizing the limits of American power. You can't run the whole world. You can't control how every country reacts [(50:00)], and behaves, and wrongful detention cases are good example." What are your thoughts on this statement: There is no higher priority for the U.S. government than to bring Americans home? Given that it's your brother who has been held in Russia for three and a half years, and also I appreciate he was taken during the Trump administration and President Biden came into office in 2021 January?
Well, I look at this both as a family member and as somebody who's now deeply involved in the whole hostage problem. So, I mean, as a family member, it's music to your ears, to hear that somebody cares that much about these wrongful detainees. Because to us, it's fifty-plus people. That's a large number. In the scheme of things, when you're dealing with a population of millions, that is not a large number. I think that the families of detainees realized that it's not even so much that the bringing Americans home, the individual Americans is the priority. The priority is the fact that wrongful detention is a national security Achilles' heel. This is a huge problem, that these foreign countries can take people. Obviously, it is good politically, to say we put Americans before everything else and I have been pleased with the level of transparency and family engagement that this administration has tried to have with families, but this leads me to that whole business about declassifying classified information so that we know what's actually going on, because that's what actually will prove to families that it is a priority.
Once you've been doing this for years, I hate to say it, we're often much more cognizant about some of the [(52:00)] previous administration’s legislation about various different ways. Something such as the agreements with Iran can be approached over nuclear weapons that involve bringing Americans home. We've got some really specific and often nuanced takes taking into account years worth of concentrating on this sole topic. I think, once you have that viewpoint, you want to know at that same granular level precisely how things are going, precisely what's being done. How are these agreements going to be worked? Who is going to the meetings? What are they planning on presenting? Are the names of the wrongful detainees being said? It is a platitude to say, "No higher priority." The way for families not to take it as a platitude, is for them to understand the detail of why that is the case in each individual, one of these of these cases. But I think, overall, what the problem is, is that the statement is only half of the story, isn't it? It probably is for every single one of the people who sang that one of the highest priorities. They know that this is a problem. They know it's a terrible thing for Americans to be held in this manner overseas.
I mean, basically, the hostile foreign country is waging a little miniature war with our American citizens and wanting something for it. It's a huge problem. But what they're not saying is that we are on the back foot because the hostage has already been taken. They're already - I've been using the phrase - hostage took. It's not about trying to deter future hostage-takers. These people have already been taken. We already are on the back foot, because in order to get these people back, we now have to [(54:00)] enter into a negotiation with a bad faith actor. Somebody who's already done something awful, and now we've got to try to negotiate with them. So, I think that the clarity around that is what's missing about those honest talks with Americans about what other leverage that other countries might have over us for this that and the other. But that does not play in Peoria, as they say. That does not play well politically, because that is the sort of statement that an opposing party who wants to get elected will jump on and say, "Oh, that shows weakness." And this that and the other.
But what it really shows is a sensible and rational approach to the fact that we have all of these countries on this one globe, and not everybody gets along, and not everybody has power in every single aspect all the time. That's why we need to regain the power. Work with other countries to stop this business from happening because it is an Achilles heel. And we need to cover that with some pretty strong metal, not just paper over the subject, but actually do something. And so, I think if there is that nuanced take, there's the one phrase that we hear. There's what families need to know. There's what Americans need to know, and there's what we need to do about the problem in general.
Now, what can the public do to help bring Paul and Brittney home?
Well, I'd like, basically, if you want to bring either Paul or Brittney home or both, then we need to talk about Paul and Brittney together. Regardless of what you personally might think about a person's colour, about their past, anything about what they were doing in Russia, regardless of that. The American public needs to talk about bringing home both Paul and Brittney at the same time [(56:00)] because that takes the wind out of the Russian sales. It doesn't give them any divisive options to try to use against us, and it states clearly to the U.S. government that the appetite is for bringing both Americans home. We cannot let the Russians or these other hostile foreign nations divide Americans against each other so easily. It's just ridiculous.
It's not necessary. Neither Paul nor Brittney are being held for reasons other than because Russia wants something in return. That is wrongful detention. That's hostage diplomacy. We need to make a united stand to bring them both back and quit this sniping which, unfortunately, the flames of that are fanned by Russian trolls. Unfortunately, some bad actors on our own side who would be happy to create divisive politics. We need to go beyond politics. Talk about our people as a group and support them as a group, and this also goes for those Americans who are being held in Iran, Venezuela, etc. We need all of them out of all of the countries as soon as possible. It'll be a lot easier to do if we have some unity from the American public on this.
I agree with you, and I just want to clarify one thing. I think the debate about Brittney Griner's detention in Russia isn't all about bad faith politics. Some of it is well-intentioned. Some of it is about using the media coverage around her case to influence and affect change within the United States to change U.S. policy for the better. So, I think some of the athletes have been talking about women athletes getting paid a lot less than the men, which is why Brittney had to go [(58:00)] and play in a foreign country to make a living. You can see the comparisons between Americans being held for cannabis charges in what Russia is doing. But you can also realize that, yes, American domestic policy needs to improve around cannabis use, however you feel about it.
But my point is, there are people who are using this - her detention and the media coverage around it - to shine a light on the issues within U.S. domestic politics. So, it's not all bad faith. So, I completely appreciate that because I think I was listening to Jon Stewart's podcast, The Problem with Jon Stewart and he's talking about this, and I think even Secretary Blinken and President Biden have implied this or stated this publicly that you have to be an example if you want to ask other countries to do better. You have to lead by example. And there are obviously going to be issues within the U.S. domestically in terms of politics. But I think at the end of the day, it goes to the point where we need to be able to tell the difference between a sworn enemy and an imperfect friend. So, I think I just wanted to make the point that not all debates about cannabis use and women athletes not getting paid as much as the men is meant to be divisive. It's about bad politics, or even a debate around African-Americans and stereotypical racism. I'm not saying they're all bad faith. Some of it is, but some of this debate is meant to affect change to raise awareness as well.
I do understand that. I think, however, that [(60:00)] those conversations have to be separated out from Brittney's actual situation in Russia, which is not a situation that is happening in America. It's a situation that's happening in Russia under Russia's way of doing things. And so, it's sort of comparing apples to oranges. I think the debate around those issues, like the arrests over cannabis here in the US, absolutely have to take place, and it's good to bring awareness to that. But when media coverage does not, then say, but that's not the situation that Brittney is facing. She is facing a situation where she is being held as a hostage. When that clarification between the two issues isn't made, I think it is a problem because what it does is it encourages whataboutism.
And people, rather than trying to solve the problem and supporting Brittney as a victim of wrongful detention, end up just going, "Well, what about what happens in the U.S.?" And that's a non-starter, and that is the type of troll activity that you tend to see a lot on Twitter, for example, of people just trying to use whataboutism to deflect from what the real problem is. But absolutely, I mean, there's a lot to be said about why Brittney has to play overseas in the first place. How we deal with incarceration in this country, that is not something that should stop us from dealing with the problem that we have with wrongful detention and trying to get our people home. So, I think I've definitely seen both sides of the argument, but I think I'm reacting very much to people who know Paul or know me or know my parents have been getting in touch and saying things which are really not helpful in the general scheme of things. That has got to stop. People have to be a little bit more, [(62:00)] just think a little bit harder about who might have put that idea out there, and why it could be actually playing into the enemy's hands, rather than being helpful to bringing Paul home. I think that's just a very important point.
Absolutely. So, if I'm a member of the American public, contacting the White House, my Senator, or my representative, what are the key points you want me to communicate them? Because I know I've already asked you what the public can do, but let's say I want to contact my Senator or representative, and I come into contact with them. They're only going to give me what five, ten seconds of their time anyway. So, what are the key points you want me to communicate to them? For our listeners who are in the United States? What are the key points that you would want us to communicate?
Well, I think to start it off with, if I were just a random person talking to a member of Congress, I would say, "I really want you to support, not only bringing Paul Whelan and Brittney Griner home. But also doing what you can to support any moves to deter and punish these countries that are wrongfully detaining Americans, because I think that that is part of our leverage at this point. To know that there are actual teeth to that executive order. To know that Americans aren't going to just be like, 'Okay. So and so's home. We're done.' Which is how it's gone before, and then left that country to continue that bad behaviour. This is not something that's going to get solved overnight. It needs to have members of Congress standing behind it." So, that would be one, I think very useful point to make because it helps not only Americans in the future.
It protects all of us. We should be able to [(64:00)] travel anywhere we can get a visa to go without this idea of wrongful detention, but it also points out that we can use that idea of punishment or deterrent as leverage against those who are currently holding people and up the ante on our end. We've got to be able to take control of this narrative somehow, and then I think just the expression of support for both Paul and Brittney. Just saying, "Hey, we want to see them both come home and we want to see all of the other Americans returned. That we want a forceful approach. So however, an individual wants to say that, but, basically just expressing support for Paul and Brittney and asking for continued efforts to be made to stop these countries from from doing this sort of behavior. I think those are the two key points to make right now.
We're almost at the end of our interview, is there anything else you'd like to mention?
I'm just going to check my notes. I think that one of the things that has been a little bit concerning to me is just watching this media freight train really run over my brother. First, Brittney was being arrested just like Paul Whelan to then. And there's this other American being held. To now, sometimes he's not even mentioned in a story. Paul Whelan has been held in Russia for over three and a half years. All of these breathless stories about what is life going to be like at prison Gulag for Brittney. Paul is already experiencing that. It has for two years. Trevor Reed, who has recently come home, can tell you a lot about what it's like in a prison Gulag. This business of, editors in particular, wanting those clicks and likes. Not so much the journalists themselves who often care very much about these stories.
You guys need to stop putting family members in a position of [(66:00)] being made to look as if we're speaking out against each other, as if we're speaking out against the president - if that's not what we meant - as if we're speaking out against NGOs or anyone who's trying to be helpful. The families who are involved in this process, we're not politicians or public servants, or people who are celebrities, who are used to talking to the media, and it takes all of our effort and resources to get out there and put ourselves out in front of the of the public spotlight. When you do everything you can to get your loved one mentioned at all. When finally, a celebrity like like Brittney starts to attract all this attention and all of a sudden your loved one is put out there, pushed up to a level of either being someone who has spoken about as a political object, and/or isn't spoken about at all. Because they don't have that same celebrity. This is an extraordinarily horrible situation for a family to be in.
And so, I'm going to ask all of those journalists, media, people who might be paying attention to this. Do not stop mentioning Paul Whelan when you're talking about Brittney. It's not all about the bright shiny object. These are actual Americans who are being held wrongfully against their will for years and years in foreign countries and they deserve more than just a little line at the end of a story. And I would like to see all of these other families mentioned constantly, the ones held in Venezuela, in Iran, in China, it goes on and on. I would like to see Majd Kamalmaz mentioned every single time. Austin Tice is mentioned. I would like all of the people held in Venezuela mentioned each time one of them is mentioned. These are all Americans of equal importance. They all need to be brought home. They all deserve the media [(68:00)] attention.
If you need to do a little more research and a little bit more legwork to find out what life is going to be like for Brittney, there are people you can talk to. If you want to understand hostage diplomacy better, you can either talk to different families. You can call someone like Jason Rezaian at the Washington Post, he was a captive himself. He's more than happy to educate people as to what can be done. There are resources out there and families are depending on you to tell the story properly, to tell it deeply, to tell it fully, and to tell it often. And we thank you for all of those in media who are already doing this. We ask that your editors support your efforts and thank you for what you have done to bring light to Paul Whelan’s story.
And as Elizabeth said, I mean, there's another resource. You can listen to this podcast. We're actually called Pod Hostage Diplomacy. You can listen to all our episodes to find out more. Elizabeth, I've said this many times before and I'll say it again, we'll be campaigning right by your side until Paul comes back home. Thank you for taking the time to speak to us again.
Thank you so much, Daren. You're absolutely right. I point people in the government, NGOs, and the media to your podcast all the time and tell them if they really want to understand what's going on with hostage diplomacy, to listen to these stories. Thank you again.
Daren Nair 31:17
You're very welcome. It's an honour to help. Thank you for listening to Pod Hostage Diplomacy. Thank you for giving your time and for showing these families that they're not alone, that there are good caring people out there, willing to stand by their side and help in any way possible.
Richard Ratcliffe 31:38
Because if enough people care, then the right people will care enough. This is a basic rule of thumb that is true for all campaigning.
Daren Nair 31:47
If you haven't already, please subscribe to our fortnightly newsletter called The Hostage Briefing. It's the best way to keep up to date with the cases we're working on as well as new episodes. You can subscribe to this newsletter using the link in the description of this podcast episode that you're currently listening to. Thanks again and take care.