WNBA star Brittney Griner didn’t want any alone time as soon as she boarded a US government plane to take her home.
“I have been in prison for 10 months now, listening to Russian. I want to talk,” Griner said, according to Roger Carstens, the presidential special envoy for hostage cases, who helped secure the basketball star’s release and return her to the US last week.
She then asked Carstens, referring to others on the plane, “But first of all, who are these guys?”
“And she went right past me and went to every member of that crew, looked them in the eye, shook hands and asked about them, got their names and made a personal connection with them,” recalled Carstens. “It was really magnificent.”
In the end, Griner spent about 12 hours of an 18-hour flight talking to others on the plane, Carstens said. Two-time Olympic gold medalist and professional basketball star Phoenix Mercury talked about her time in the Russian penal colony and her months in captivity, Carstens recalls, though he declined to go into specifics.
“I got the impression that this is an intelligent, passionate, compassionate, humble, interesting person, a patriotic person,” Carstens said. “But mostly authentic. I hate the fact that I had to meet her this way, but I felt truly blessed to have had the chance to get to know her.”
Although Griner is undergoing a full medical and mental evaluation, Carstens said she “looked full of energy and looking amazing.”
Griner, who also played professional basketball in Russia, was arrested in February at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport after Russian authorities said she was carrying vape canisters of cannabis oil. The US State Department has stated that Griner was “unjustly detained” – a charge Russia has strongly denied.
President Joe Biden announced on Thursday that the US had secured Griner’s release. In exchange, the government offered Russia the release of notorious arms dealer Viktor Bout, who had served a 25-year sentence on charges of conspiracy to sell tens of millions of dollars worth of weapons that US officials say would be used against Americans.
But the US failed to secure the freedom of Paul Whelan, who has been held in Russia for nearly four years. Government officials have repeatedly emphasized that they are still working to release Whelan, who has been jailed by Russian officials on espionage charges that both his family and the US government say are unfounded.
“They’re holding Mr. Whelan differently because of these espionage allegations,” John Kirby, a spokesman for the National Security Council, said on Sunday. “So that’s what we’re working on right now. We are now better informed as we have clearly gone through this process over the past few months. We are better informed. We have a better sense of the context here, where Russia’s expectations are and we’re just going to keep working on it.”
Carstens, the US government’s chief hostage negotiator, said “there are always cards” to win a bid for Whelan and said he spoke with the captured American on Friday.
‘This is what I told him. I said, ‘Paul, you have this president’s commitment. The president is focused. The Secretary of State is focused. I’m definitely focused and we’re going to get you home,” said Carstens. “And I reminded him, I said, ‘Paul, when you were in the Marines, and I was in the Army, they always reminded you, keep believing.’ And I said, ‘Keep believing. We’re coming for you.'”
Carstens spoke on CNN’s “State of the Union” and Kirby appeared on ABC’s “This Week.”