Former Marine Left Behind As White House Arranges Release of WNBA Player Brittney Griner

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Jack Gruber-USA TODAY

As many celebrate the release of WNBA player Brittney Griner, ten months after her arrest in Russia, others are questioning why the celebrity was given preferential treatment in a prisoner swap, ahead of a former U.S. Marine who has been detained since 2018.

Dallas Cowboys player Micah Parsons tweeted “wait nah!! We left a marine?!! Hell nah.” He later apologized for the tweet after it was retweeted more than 19,000 times, saying he tweeted out of emotion because he has family members who served. He later said he was happy for Griner and should have been more educated on the topic.

Barstool Sports founder Dave Portnoy also commented on the swap, deeming it “the most lopsided trade in the history of trades,” as did conservative sports talk host Clay Travis, who called President Biden a “complete and total disaster.”

Paul Whelan, a former U.S. Marine who was born in Canada, was arrested in Russia on December 28th, 2018 and accused of spying. Whelan was swiftly convicted and sentenced to a sixteen-year sentence.

As the four-year anniversary of his arrest approaches, Whelan’s case has received heightened publicity in the wake of Griner’s arrest. The U.S. State Department mentioned to several news outlets in July that it was trying to arrange a deal that could involve the 52-year-old’s release. His family had been holding out hope that he would be included in an eventual prisoner swap.

However, Thursday, the United States reached final agreement on a deal that’s been in the works for weeks, according to CBS News. The prisoner exchange involved a one-to-one swap of Griner for Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout, who has been nicknamed “Merchant of Death.” Bout was currently serving a 25-year prison sentence that was issued back in 2010 after he faced terrorism charges following a U.S sting operation.

“We’ve not forgotten about Paul Whelan,” Mr. Biden said Thursday. “We will never give up” on securing his release. U.S. officials told the media that it was clear during negotiations that the Russians would not exchange both Griner and Whelan for Bout. One U.S. official told reporters, it was “a choice between bringing home one particular American — Brittney Griner — or bringing home none.”

Biden said he “guarantees” Whelan’s family that they will continue to work to secure his release. He said the family must have “mixed emotions” today.

Whelan’s Story

Whelan, has a history in law enforcement, reportedly serving as a police officer in Michigan for many years in the 1990s. He enlisted in the Marine Corps Reserve in 1994 and served from 2003 to 2008, including service in Iraq. Whelan held rank as a staff sergeant with the Marine Air Control Group 38 and was a part of Operation Iraqi Freedom, according to reports.

In January of 2008, he was convicted in a U.S. court-martial proceeding on several counts related to larceny. He was reportedly accused of attempting to steal more than $10,000 in 2006 in Iraq and using a false social security number to create a false account on a government computer to grade his own exams. Whelan was sentenced to 60 days restriction and discharged from the Marines shortly after for bad conduct, according to news reports.

Whelan’s Arrest

Whelan was reportedly working for a Michigan-based international auto parts manufacturer as director of global security and investigations when he was arrested in Russia. Through his work, Whelan allegedly had contacts with law enforcement in many countries, according to reports.

Whelan arrived in Moscow on December 22nd, 2018 to attend the wedding of a former fellow Marine, according to his family. Whelan’s twin brother David said Paul planned to return to the U.S. in early January. Russian media had conflicting accounts of the arrest. One site claimed that Whelan was arrested with $80,000 in cash during a customs inspection at Domodedovo Airport. Another Russian news agency, Rosbalt, said Whelan was arrested in a hotel room at the Metropol after spending the day with a Russian citizen who allegedly handed him a USB drive with “a list of all the employees at a classified security agency.”

The BBC reported that Whelan’s family members said he knew an agent of the Russian Federal Security Service, whom he considered a friend. Whelan reportedly claimed that his long-time friend appeared at his hotel suddenly and shortly after, federal authorities came to arrest him.

Whelan was convicted on charges of espionage but former U.S. intelligence officials have denied recruiting Whelan due to his blemished military record. U.S. officials have also claimed that Whelan’s arrest may have resulted, in part, due to tensions between Russia and the U.S. over the detention of foreign agent Maria Butina.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has stated in the past that Russia “will not arrest innocent people simply to exchange them,” according to reports.

In June of 2020, Whelan was convicted and sentenced in a Russian court. He allegedly said in court that the case was a sham. “We have proven my innocence,” Whelan said. “This is slimy, greasy corrupt Russian politics, nothing more, nothing less.”

The U.S. government has called his trial “unfair,” and said, as of late, that Whelan is “wrongfully detained.”

Whelan was detained at a correctional colony in Russia and later moved to a high-security prison, about eight hours from Moscow.

On July 27, 2022, reports indicated that President Biden had approved a possible trade of Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout for Whelan and WNBA player Brittney Griner. However on December 8th, 2022, news broke that only Griner was released in exchange for Bout.

Whelan has a twin brother, another brother and a sister and was raised in Michigan. His family supports the “Bring Our Families Home” campaign which works to advocate for the release of hostages and wrongful detainees.