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Senior White House Adviser: Team Effort Won Brittney Griner’s Release

Keisha Lance Bottoms and Brittney Griner
From left: Keisha Lance Bottoms and Brittney Griner

Keisha Lance Bottoms, the former mayor of Atlanta and the director of the White House Office of Public Engagement, on the herculean effort that resulted in Griner's freedom.

 

Finally, out WNBA star Brittney Griner is returning to the United States after a harrowing 10-month ordeal of being captive in Russia after she was detained at Moscow's Sheremetyevo Airport in February. At the security checkpoint in the airport, Russian authorities found vape canisters with cannabis oil in her luggage. She was convicted and imprisoned on drug charges.

Winning Griner's release was no small feat and involved numerous government agencies and officials who worked for months to secure her freedom.

Griner's agent Lindsay Colas released a statement Thursday afternoon saying that Griner's team has been "overwhelmed with gratitude to President Biden, Vice President Harris and the entire Biden-Harris Administration, including Secretary of State Antony Blinken, National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan and the members of The White House National Security team, along with the entire Special Presidential Envoy for Hostage Affairs team at the U.S. Department of State, led by Roger Carstens and including Fletcher Schoen.

"In addition, we remain forever grateful to Governor Bill Richardson and Mickey Bergman from the Richardson Center, and BG's tireless Russian legal team, Maria Blagovolina and Alex Boykov."

The statement added, "In return, our commitment to President Biden and to the families of Americans who are being held hostage and wrongfully detained -- especially Elizabeth and David Whelan, on behalf of their brother Paul Whelan, who remains in Russia and whose continued detention weighs heavily on our hearts -- is to continue our work in the movement to bring them home."

Keisha Lance Bottoms, who was mayor of Atlanta prior to becoming President Biden's senior adviser and director of the White House Office of Public Engagement in June, echoed the sentiment that it was a true team effort. "The effort of working toward Brittney's release has been going on since the first day she was detained," Bottoms told The Advocate. "The success of negotiations was due to the fact that everyone who could contribute, and anyone who could help, from the National Security Council to our diplomatic corps, and to President Biden worked together to make this happen."

Bottoms explained that many people perhaps got the idea that not enough was being done to ensure Griner would be released, since most of the effort occurred behind the scenes. "The Office of Public Engagement, which I lead, held private briefings throughout the process for interested parties from the WNBA to African-American leaders, and with Brittney's family, so that everyone was kept up to date on what was going on and could ask questions about what was being done. It was important for us to be as transparent as possible so that everyone was given assurances that Brittney was not being forgotten."

When asked if the administration had a message for Russia about Griner's wrongful imprisonment and the fact that she was taken for purely geopolitical reasons and not for any actual crime she committed, Bottoms talked about Paul Whelan, an American business consultant who has been detained for many years in Russia. "We are working tirelessly to bring Paul home, and I know that President Biden called the Whelan family yesterday to advise them about what was happening," she explained. "Paul remains a top priority for the president, and we'll do all we can in the face of a country that lacks human rights and the rule of law." Biden said the U.S. wanted to secure Whelan's release too, but Russia offered a prisoner exchange for Griner or no one.

In addition, Bottoms had advice for international travelers. "This situation is a reminder to check the State Department's travel advisories before you embark on a trip overseas," she said. "Brittney was detained because she was carrying cartridges of cannabis to treat pain. Granted, there's much more to her story than this incident, but safe to say that it's important to pay attention to what's going on in other countries, particularly those like Russia where there is no rule of law."

Bottoms was asked if she could put into context the importance of securing the release of a Black queer woman incarcerated in Russia, as President Vladimir Putin is unapologetically hostile toward the LGBTQ+ community. "This is extremely important," Bottoms emphasized. "As American citizens, it's imperative to understand how Russia and Putin feel about the LGBTQ community and all the laws they are enacting that make it very dangerous for anyone who is queer. We know that Brittney had a sham trial Russia and was sentenced to a Russian penal colony, which is so brutal, so we're so thankful that she got out alive, because it could not have been easy to be a Black queer woman in that environment. I'm sure when Brittney is ready, she will have a lot to say about what she experienced."

Bottoms said the president, the White House staff, and everyone involved are elated. "We know we have many others around the world that are being held against their will, so we will not stop until we bring them all safely home. Yet today we can briefly celebrate that Brittney will be with her loved ones soon and getting back to her life."

When asked if President Biden might attend her first game back in the WNBA, Bottoms laughed. "I think that's a great idea and it would be a great place for him to be."

Christopher Wiggins, senior national reporter, contributed to this story.

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