Brittney Griner, the WNBA star who was held for months in Russian prisons on drug charges, was released Thursday in a one-for-one prisoner swap for international arms dealer Viktor Bout, CBS News learned early Thursday from a U.S. official. The one-for-one exchange agreement negotiated with Moscow in recent weeks was given final approval by President Biden within just the last week, according to sources familiar with the deal. The swap, first reported by CBS News, took place on Thursday in the United Arab Emirates.
Five former U.S. officials told CBS News the agreement had been reached as of last Thursday.
A White House official said the president spoke to Brittney Griner by phone. The call happened in the Oval Office, where the president was joined by Cherelle Griner, Vice President Kamala Harris and Secretary of State Antony Blinken. Per standard procedure for freed U.S. prisoners, Griner was expected to quickly undergo a medical evaluation.
President Biden is expected to speak at 8:30 a.m. Eastern at the White House about the prisoner swap that saw Brittney Griner released. You will be able to watch his remarks live in the player at the top of this page.
“She is safe. She is on a plane. She is on her way home,” Mr. Biden said in a tweet, which included a couple photos of himself in the Oval Office with Cherelle Griner.
To secure Griner’s release, the president ordered Bout to be freed and returned to Russia. Mr. Biden signed the commutation order cutting short Bout’s 25-year federal prison sentence.
Notably, the Griner-for-Bout exchange leaves retired U.S. Marine Paul Whelan imprisoned in Russia. Whelan has been in Russian custody for nearly four years. He was convicted on espionage charges that the U.S. has called false.
Griner was detained at a Russian airport in February and later pleaded guilty to charges stemming from the discovery of cannabis-derived oil cartridges in her luggage.
After five months of stalled diplomacy and various permutations of potential swap arrangements — including a previously unreported offer by the U.S. this past summer to send two prisoners back to Russia for the two Americans — sources say the one-for-one exchange came together over the last two weeks.
It remains unclear what led to the breakthrough, but the Biden administration made at least one concession by agreeing to reduce the swap to one American for one Russian.
At the end of November, the State Department blasted the Russian government for a failure to bargain in good faith. As recently as Sunday, on CBS News “Face the Nation,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken said U.S. negotiators were “actively engaged” with their Russian counterparts.
Asked by CBS News about reports of Russia’s desire for a one-for-one swap in spite of America’s hopes to return both Griner and Whelan, Blinken noted that any deal would be subject to mutual agreement.
“The other side gets a vote in this. It’s not just what we want. It’s what they’re prepared to do,” Blinken said, without denying the Russian reports. However, he indicated the administration was continuing to push for the return of both Americans.
“One way or another, one day or another, we’re going to see that through,” he said.
In July, the Biden administration said it had offered the Kremlin what it described as a “significant proposal” to bring both American prisoners home. The White House never publicly confirmed what the U.S. had offered, but privately, officials indicated to CBS News that initial news reports pointing to the potential for only Bout’s release were incorrect, and that the president was prepared to consider letting two Russian prisoners return in exchange for both Griner and Whelan’s freedom.
Whelan, who once worked as a corporate security contractor, was in Moscow for a friend’s wedding when he was detained at a hotel in December 2018. Russian authorities later sentenced him to 16 years in prison for espionage — a charge the U.S. and Whelan denied. This month marks the fourth anniversary of Whelan’s time in Russian custody.
Bout, who was most recently held at a federal prison in Marion, Illinois, was arrested by the Drug Enforcement Agency in Thailand following a sting operation in 2008. He was convicted of conspiring to kill Americans and began his 25-year sentence a decade ago.
Prior to his arrest, Bout was accused by the U.N. of arming Liberian President Charles Taylor during the brutal civil war in Sierra Leone. He served as the inspiration for Nicholas Cage’s character in the movie “Lord of War.” Bout’s release is sure to spark criticism from some of the DEA agents who tracked and arrested him.
Griner’s arrest coincided with the February start to Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine, and all U.S. dealings with the Kremlin have been complicated by that conflict. The U.S. has said both Griner and Whelan were “wrongfully detained,” and officials have suspected that Russia has been using the American prisoners as leverage.
Griner’s return for Bout marks the Biden administration’s second prisoner swap with Russia. In April, the U.S. traded Konstantin Yaroshenko, a Russian smuggler convicted of conspiring to import cocaine, for Trevor Reed. The former U.S. Marine had been imprisoned in Russia for nearly three years.
CBS News learned last Thursday that the Griner-for-Bout swap was in the offing but agreed to a White House request to hold the reporting because officials expressed grave concern about the fragility of the then-emerging deal.
The Biden administration officials warned that making details of the swap public beforehand would almost certainly lead Russia to pull out of the agreement and potentially endanger Griner’s well-being.
Nancy Cordes, Ed O’Keefe, Sara Cook, Camilla Schick, Tucker Reals and Haley Ott contributed reporting.