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NBC News has updated a story that initially claimed President Joe Biden’s administration had a choice between freeing basketball player Brittney Griner and Marine veteran Paul Whelan in the prisoner exchange for Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout.
Citing a person described as a “senior U.S. official,” NBC initially reported that the U.S. government wanted both Griner and Whelan freed as part of the swap.
“But the official said Russia has treated Whelan differently because he is an accused spy, and that the Kremlin gave the White House the choice of either Griner or Whelan—or none,” the story said.
Griner was jailed because she brought, by her own admission, cannabis into Russia. Whelan is behind bars because he was convicted of espionage. Whelan has maintained his innocence.
U.S. officials have described both as “wrongfully detained.”
After Biden spoke about the exchange, claiming there was “not a choice of which American to bring home,” NBC stealthily updated its piece without noting that it was altered, according to archived versions reviewed by The Epoch Times.
The outlet’s updated version stated, “But the official said Russia has treated Whelan differently because he is an accused spy, and that the Kremlin ultimately gave the White House the choice of either Griner or no one after different options were proposed.”
Hours later, after critics noted the stealth edit, NBC added a correction.
“An earlier version of this article misstated the choice the Biden administration was given over hostages. It was to swap for Griner or no one, not a choice between Griner or Whelan,” the correction states.
An NBC spokesperson did not respond to a list of emailed questions, including why the initial update did not include a correction and what it means when it says it “misstated the choice” the government faced.
Critics said the administration should have negotiated the release of Whelan.
“Paul Whelan has been let down and left behind at least three times by 2 Presidents,” the Bring Our Families Home Campaign said in a statement. “He deserves better from his government, and our Campaign implores President Biden to urgently secure Paul’s immediate return using all tools available.”
White House officials have backed Biden, saying the United States did not have a choice.
“In recent weeks, it became clear that while Russians were willing to reach an agreement to secure Brittney’s release, they continue to treat Paul Whelan differently, given the nature of the totally illegitimate charges they have levied against Paul,” White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre told reporters in Washington this week. “Unfortunately, the choice became to either bring Brittney home or no one.”
“This was not a choice for us on—of which American to bring home. That was not the choice. It was a choice between bringing home one American or bringing home none,” she added later. “Our choices was: Brittney or no one at all. Bring home one American or no American at all.”
A senior administration official, speaking to reporters on background, offered a similar view.
“So I want to be very clear: This was not a situation where we had a choice of which American to bring home. It was a choice between bringing home one particular American—Brittney Griner—or bringing home none,” the official said.
Whelan said after the swap that he was “greatly disappointed that more has not been done to secure my release, especially as the four year anniversary of my arrest is coming up.”
David Whelan, Whelan’s brother, said he was glad Griner was freed but relayed fresh disappointment, noting that Whelan was also not released in a swap that brought American Trevor Reed home earlier this year.
“As I have often remarked, Brittney’s and Paul’s cases were never really intertwined. It has always been a strong possibility that one might be freed without the other. The sentiments I shared in April about Trevor are unchanged: this is the event we wish for so much for our own family. She will be reunited with her family. Brittney is free. And Paul is still a hostage,” David Whelan said. “But how many more times do I need to write that?”
Other Americans still in Russian custody include Marc Fogel, a teacher who was arrested in Moscow in 2021 with marijuana, which he reportedly uses as medicine following a spinal injury.
Bout was serving a 25-year sentence for conspiring to kill Americans. He was convicted in late 2011.
Bout was described by then-Attorney General Eric Holder as “one of the world’s most prolific arms dealers.”
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