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'In the Shadows': Behind the high-stakes work to free Americans held captive abroad

Opinion'In the Shadows': Behind the high-stakes work to free Americans held captive abroad

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Excerpted from “In the Shadows: True Stories of High-Stakes Negotiations to Free Americans Captured Abroad” by Mickey Bergman and Ellis Henican.

Jon Finer looked surprised.

“Vinnik?” he asked me. “Are you sure it’s Vinnik?”

That clearly wasn’t the name the White House deputy national security adviser was hearing from the official channel at the State Department. “The Russians want to trade Bout and Vinnik for Griner and Whelan?”

“I’m sure that’s what they said. They were the ones who brought it up.”

Brittney Griner in the defendants cage

Brittney Griner, who was detained at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport and later charged with illegal possession of cannabis, sits inside a defendant’s cage during the reading of the court’s verdict in Russia, Aug. 4, 2022. (Reuters/Evgenia Novozhenina/Pool)

That’s when Guv jumped in. “Why, Jon?” he asked. “Is that a good deal? Would you take that deal?”

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Guv is what I always called my boss and mentor, former New Mexico governor and United Nations representative Bill Richardson. In recent years, he had become best known for negotiating the release of Americans wrongly imprisoned abroad. I’d learned an enormous amount working with him. Now, we’d finally found a path forward in the frustrating case of WNBA superstar and two-time United States Olympic gold medalist Brittney Griner

Finer stiffened at Guv’s question. “Of course, I can’t speak on the president’s behalf, but…,” he said. “This is very interesting, if true.”

He just let that hang in the air, as if to say, You bet we’d take that deal… without quite saying so.

Welcome to the shadowy world of fringe diplomacy, where private individuals, engaged in thorny, international crises, are achieving what government officials cannot do alone.

Here we were, Guv and I, sitting in the lavishly appointed power-breakfast room of the Hay-Adams Hotel with the Biden administration’s point man on the Griner case. And there she was, all six foot nine of her, 4,915 miles away, already incarcerated for nine months on the most trivial charges imaginable, now on her way to the Stalin-era IK-2 female penal colony in Yavas, Mordoviya, 300 icy miles southeast of Moscow, where she’d been ordered by a stern-faced judge named Sotnikova to spend the next eight-plus years of her life.

We couldn’t just let her sit there.

US VETERAN PAUL WHELAN FEELS ‘ABANDONED’ AS HE REMAINS IMPRISONED IN RUSSIA: ‘A SERIOUS BETRAYAL’

I’d just come back from Yerevan, the ancient capital of Armenia, where I’d met with people very close to Russian President Vladimir Putin. People who hadn’t been too chatty lately with anyone in the Biden administration, as war raged in Ukraine and U.S. sanctions squeezed the Russian economy. To me, the Russians sounded ready to make a deal. When I asked which prisoner they might like to trade for, they’d added the new name to their wish list: Alexander Vinnik, a Russian computer genius who’d been convicted in San Francisco in a $4 billion money-laundering scheme involving the BTC-e cryptocurrency exchange. I was in no position to say yes or no. I carried no authority from the U.S. government. But I promised to deliver the name to the White House.

Though he sounded cheered by this new development, our Hay-Adams breakfast mate seemed a bit rattled by the way he was hearing it.

“Why you, Mickey?” he asked point-blank. “Why would the Russians propose that to you?” Someone entirely outside government. With no official title or legal authority. A fringe diplomat at a tiny organization most Americans had never even heard of.

“What sense does that make?” Finer asked.

Actually, it made perfect sense from the Russian point of view, proposing deal terms through a free agent. I presume they did it that way exactly because Guv and I didn’t work for the U.S. government. We represented Brittney Griner’s family and the families of other imprisoned Americans. Unlike people in the administration, we weren’t handcuffed by all the other issues that divided Moscow and Washington. All we cared about was bringing Americans home.

DON’T FORGET ABOUT MARC FOGEL, ANOTHER AMERICAN WRONGFULLY DETAINED IN RUSSIA

Were the Russians playing us? It was absolutely possible. But just a few months earlier, a similar message had helped bring home another American imprisoned in Russia, Trevor Reed. No reason to believe this was any different.

Doing it this way also let the Russians deliver a message to the White House: We don’t always have to deal with you directly. We know some other Americans. And Vladimir Putin didn’t want to do anything that made Joe Biden look good, any more than Biden wanted to polish Putin’s war-tarnished image at home or around the world.

So we were working both sides of this murky negotiation, doing what the two governments were unable to, wielding the awesome power of fringe diplomacy, making every effort we could think of to get our people home.

It’s not that the U.S. government doesn’t try. Or try hard enough. Our government does try. Really hard. But as we keep discovering, this is extremely difficult work. Washington has complex relations with all these countries and many other things to worry about in addition to every innocent American languishing in a sordid jail cell somewhere. While Brittney Griner and Paul Whelan sat behind bars thousands of miles from home, the Biden administration was also trying to navigate all the thorny issues surrounding Russia’s costly invasion of Ukraine and the loss of nuclear strategic coordination between the two nations.

MY EXPERIENCE, AS AN AMERICAN, IN A RUSSIAN PRISON

One advantage we have: Our loyalty is entirely to the families we work with, and no, we don’t charge them a dime. We prefer to work quietly, behind the scenes, often outside the media spotlight, though we have learned that publicity can sometimes be a valuable tool, if it’s wielded carefully.

We rely on our far-flung contacts, our diplomatic experience, and our hard-earned understanding of what motivates America’s most ardent rivals. To be successful, we need to get inside the heads of some of the world’s most infamous leaders and strongmen so we can figure out how we can most effectively influence them. To tap the humanity inside them. Yes, it can sometimes be dark in there. Some of these people you wouldn’t want to invite home to dinner. But as we keep discovering, the world is often more complex than the simple dichotomy of good and evil. In fact, good and evil exist in most of us. Circumstances bring aspects of each to light. This is not meant to absolve anyone from the horrible acts they are responsible for. It is to say that accepting human complexities allows us to keep finding common ground. Seeking just the right incentives. Finding creative ways to steer reluctant leaders to yes. Not assigning blame, just bringing the innocent Americans home.

It’s a story that’s never been told before. 

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But Guv and I and a handful of others – local partners and veteran diplomats – have now won freedom for dozens of Americans in some of the toughest countries in the world, including the regimes of most of America’s fiercest competitors. Russia. Iran. North Korea. Venezuela. Somalia. Myanmar. You name it. If it’s somewhere the State Department warns Americans against going, chances are we’ve been busy there. We don’t win them all. We’ve fallen short and had some real heartbreakers. But when we take on a case, we devote every ounce of our energy and commitment. We now have the benefit of deep experience and a record of success that is second to none.

Along the way, we’ve begun to establish a whole new discipline of foreign policy that emphasizes the role of informed, engaged citizens and also recognizes how private, individual action really can change the world. 

No, diplomacy isn’t just for government officials anymore.

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Ellis Henican is co-author of “In the Shadows: True Stories of High-Stakes Negotiations to Free Americans Captured Abroad.”

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