Roger Carstens, the Biden administration’s top hostage negotiator, said he greeted Brittney Griner at the airport in Abu Dhabi with a simple message: “I’m here to take you home.”
Mr. Carstens, the special presidential envoy at the State Department for hostage affairs, laid out more details of Thursday’s prisoner exchange for Ms. Griner, the W.N.B.A. star who had been detained in Russia since February, as well as continued efforts to bring home Paul Whelan, another American currently imprisoned in Russia, in an interview with CNN’s “State of the Union” on Sunday.
He described how Ms. Griner, who had spent the last few weeks in one of Russia’s most notorious penal colonies, was “full of energy” after being released. She was active and conversational on the plane ride home, he said, asking every crew member on the flight for their name as she expressed her gratitude.
“On an 18-hour flight, she probably spent 12 just talking,” Mr. Carstens said. “We talked about everything under the sun.”
Mr. Carstens added that there was an “ongoing, open dialogue with the Russians” for the release of Mr. Whelan but declined to provide specific details on what the U.S. would offer Moscow in exchange.
“We usually have to keep our cards close to our chest,” Mr. Carstens said, adding that he was able to speak to Mr. Whelan on Friday and told him to “keep the faith. We’re coming to get you.”
Democratic and Republican lawmakers have criticized the exchange of Ms. Griner for Viktor Bout, a convicted Russian arms dealer known as the “Merchant of Death” who was serving a 25-year prison sentence for charges that included conspiring to kill American citizens. Critics have argued that trading Americans detained abroad for other prisoners incentivizes countries and terror groups to take U.S. citizens hostage as bargaining chips.
Mr. Carstens pushed back against that criticism, saying that Americans will always be at risk for wrongful detention and that, ultimately, the higher priority was bringing detained Americans home.
“It’s horrific to leave an American wrongfully detained in a foreign jail cell,” Mr. Carstens said.
A number of Americans, and particularly athletes, have continued to travel to and work in Russia, even as Ms. Griner began serving her nine year sentence after being convicted on a drug charge. Warnings from the State Department have for months advised all Americans to leave Russia immediately.