Should the U.S. trade convicted felons to free Americans held abroad?

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The U.S. has negotiated deals with Iran, Venezuela and the Taliban to free American citizens. Is that a good thing?

As long as Americans have been held as prisoners — or hostages — in other countries, American presidents have faced a dilemma: trade or negotiate in unseemly ways to bring those U.S. citizens home — or hold fast to the principle that “We don’t negotiate” with terrorists, or hostage takers, and suffer the emotional and political agonies that come as those citizens languish in faraway prisons.

These may be wrenching decisions, but suddenly it seems President Biden has landed squarely in the ransom-for-hostages camp, cutting deals with several rogue regimes to bring Americans home.

First, there was the exchange in April of a convicted Russian drug smuggler for Trevor Reed, a Marine veteran arrested three years ago under dubious circumstances in Russia. Then, in mid-September, we saw the exchange of Hajji Bashir Noorzai, an infamous Afghan opium lord serving a life sentence in the U.S., for Mark Frerichs, an American who had been kidnapped and held for two years by the Taliban. Less than two weeks later, the Biden administration announced another such trade — this time, arranging the commutation and release of the so-called “narco-nephews,” in-laws of Venezuelan strongman Nicolas Maduro convicted in the U.S. on drug conspiracy charges, exchanged for seven Americans, five of whom had been held for years in Venezuela on what many consider trumped-up corruption charges.

Almost simultaneously, Iran released an Iranian-American, Siamak Niazi, and lifted the travel ban on his ailing father. The quid pro quo in this case, if any, isn’t clear; but speculation revolves around the now-stalled talks on reviving the Iranian nuclear deal.

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And these may only be the prelude to a far higher-profile exchange. According to reports that have not been denied, the Biden White House stands ready to trade the international weapons smuggler Viktor Bout, the infamous “Merchant of Death,” for the release of two Americans — corporate security expert Paul Whelan and WNBA superstar Brittney Griner, both currently imprisoned in Russia — if only Vladimir Putin’s regime will agree. Bout is serving a 25-year term in a U.S. prison for arms smuggling and conspiracy to kill Americans.

This business of prisoner exchanges, or indeed any exchange of favors for the release of Americans “held hostage” or “wrongfully detained” (terms often used within the U.S. government) by terrorists, rogue regimes, criminal enterprises or any entity considered lawless or illegitimate, has long been controversial. And for anyone unfamiliar with the classic arguments against such dealings, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) took to Twitter to reprise them, describing the deal with Venezuela’s Maduro as “Another Biden appeasement that will result in more anti-U. S. dictators taking more innocent Americans hostage in the future.”

Even allowing for politics, there are many Americans who would agree.

Biden, for his part, is clearly unrepentant, and has actually made such efforts a part of administration policy. “To all the families,” he said Saturday, “who are still suffering and separated from their loved ones who are wrongfully detained — know that we remain dedicated to securing their release.”

A tortured history

The history of U.S. government policies and actions involving Americans wrongly held overseas is tortured and often contradictory — if not blatantly hypocritical. As a former counterterrorism official, I’m sometimes asked about the internal policy debates that must have taken place regarding the pros and cons of dealing with hostage-takers of various stripes. In fact, I’ve never seen or heard such a debate — except perhaps around the water cooler. Such decisions are typically taken at the highest levels, in places where domestic politics not only intrude but are sometimes the main consideration.

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There is something about the tearful return of an American captured abroad into the arms of a loving family that no politician — presidents included — can resist. I recall an instance in 2002, when CIA operatives and Special Forces under my direction succeeded in rescuing a pair of Americans arrested and held by the Taliban from well before 9/11. The two freed Americans had an immediate appointment in the White House Rose Garden.

A far more egregious case came two decades earlier, when American airman Robert O. Goodman was downed in Lebanon and captured by the Syrians. Despite refusing even to mention Goodman in a subsequent diplomatic exchange with the Syrians, lest the dictator Hafez al-Assad gain leverage, President Reagan nonetheless gave Goodman a very public hero’s welcome at the White House when his release was arranged by the Rev. Jesse Jackson.

At the other end of the continuum — and quite apart from the practical considerations involved in dealing with groups uniformly branded “criminal” or “terrorist” despite wide differences in their motives and methods — the political zeitgeist often demands a strong, unbending stand against negotiating. The Reagan administration was particularly strong and unbending in that regard — until it wasn’t. Integral to the Iran-Contra affair of the 1980s was an effort by the Reagan National Security Council to trade arms to Iran — a clear state sponsor of terrorism — for the release of hostages held by Hizballah in Lebanon — a terrorist organization with the blood of many Americans on its hands. Those deals were perhaps as clear a violation as any of the “We won’t negotiate with terrorists” mantra.

Case by case: What to do?

Prone as this entire issue is to cant and posturing, the practical fact is that the considerations involved in particular cases vary widely. A sensible government policy designed to discourage paying criminal organizations and pirates for whom kidnap and ransom is a business model is one thing; but that same policy is likely to create unnecessary problems if applied uncritically to entities whose motives and ability to take future hostages are far different.

In other words, one might reasonably negotiate an exchange of de facto prisoners of war with the Taliban, who managed to capture only a single American serviceman over 20 years, while actively discouraging firms from paying ransom to Somali pirates with wide access to important international shipping lanes.

And cynical political considerations aside, opportunities to secure the release of innocent Americans abroad ought not to be passed up unless there is a clear, compelling and demonstrable reason. To take the most current example, Sen. Rubio might well argue against trading Viktor Bout for Brittney Griner, on the grounds that doing so would only motivate Putin to seize another American any time a friend of the Kremlin is arrested in the U.S.; but I would prefer to wait for a compelling pattern to emerge before sacrificing an innocent American’s chance at freedom in deference to a theory, no matter how morally compelling the theory might sound in a tweet.

Long experience has taught me that rigid doctrines applied to highly disparate cases are bound to do more harm than good. The Biden administration’s — or any administration’s — judgments can and should be subject to scrutiny in any given case. It was appropriate to ask, as the Biden White House apparently did, whether the return of Noorzai to Afghanistan would result in expanding Afghan drug production and smuggling networks. (The answer, most likely correct, was “no.”) On the other hand, criticism of President Obama’s 2014 trade of five senior Taliban commanders who could, and did, return to the battlefield, for Bowe Bergdahl, an American soldier subsequently court-martialed and convicted of desertion, strikes me as far more justified.

Similarly, some observers are understandably uncomfortable with the idea of releasing legitimately convicted criminals to win the freedom of persons who’ve done nothing wrong. Such deals offend one’s sense of justice on multiple levels. But it may also be worth pointing out that Bashir Noorzai and Viktor Bout have already served 13 and 11 years in prison, respectively. And it seems unlikely that Noorzai’s release will encourage more opium production in a place where it is traditionally rampant, or that freeing Bout would somehow encourage more international gunrunning, where the barriers to entry and potential punishments are high.

In all these instances, the devil is always in the details. Any potential hostage deal should be subject to critical scrutiny. But in terms of the overall approach, eschewing sterile doctrines and glib nostrums in favor of nuanced, case-by-case judgments, it strikes me that Biden is on the right track.

Thanks to Dave Tepps for copy editing this article.

  • Robert Grenier
    Robert Grenier

    Special Contributor

    Robert Grenier served as a career intelligence officer and former head of counterterrorism at the CIA.