• Brittney Griner Smokes Dope for Freedom

    December 17, 2022 // 5 Comments »

    Was WNBA star Brittney Griner the subject of so much White House attention because she was an important showpiece demographic?

    Nobody can claim they are unhappy Griner is home safely in the U.S., free again to use marijuana and remain seated during the national anthem ahead of her WNBA games. No one can sit here and say she should have better been left to suffer in Russia. But at the same time Griner through all fault of her own ended up in the middle of a foreign policy struggle. In the case of Russia, the U.S. specifically warns people like Griner “do not travel to Russia due to the unprovoked and unjustified invasion of Ukraine by Russian military forces, the potential for harassment against U.S. citizens by Russian government security officials, the singling out of U.S. citizens in Russia by Russian government security officials including for detention, the arbitrary enforcement of local law, limited flights into and out of Russia, and the Embassy’s limited ability to assist U.S. citizens in Russia.”

    What did we learn from all this? It’s doubtful Griner herself learned much.

    Firstly, Americans should not be as stupid as Griner and try to smuggle drugs into foreign countries with stricter laws than here at home, whether we’re at war or not. Griner’s action was a near-Hollywood trope, all the way back to Midnight Express, the “good” kid trapped in a horrible nightmare of foreign detention. Luckily we didn’t have to watch the, um, “romantic scene” pressed against the glass in Griner’s case the way it was highlighted in Express.

    We also learned, in WNBA terms, the Biden administration has no game. They signaled their urgent desire to get Griner home so clearly the Russians knew the negotiations were going to be one-sided even before they started. If the Russians would have held out a little longer they might have gotten Alaska back in trade for Brittney. It was another reminder how bad Biden is at foreign affairs, and how transparent he is about domestic political gains however small.

    The U.S. State Department estimates Griner was just one of more than 3,000 Americans imprisoned abroad, on grounds ranging from small amounts of dope up to murder. For all but a handful, the U.S. government explicitly states they cannot get them out of jail, tell a foreign court or government they are innocent, provide legal advice or represent them in court. The president certainly is not in the habit of making calls to say the Thai government telling them to please let your boyfriend Corn Pop go, honest, he didn’t mean to have that baggie of Ecstasy stuffed in his underwear at Customs.

    Other than to be a “Brittney Griner” type, the key to getting the full force of the U.S. government on your side working for your release is to be “wrongfully detained,” a qualification which applies to fewer than 40 out of those 3,000 some Americans locked up.

    There is a formal list of qualifications to turn an arrest into a wrongly detention, but the real answer is politics. Congress passed the “Robert Levinson Hostage Recovery and Hostage-Taking Accountability Act,” named after the American missing in Iran for over 15 years. The 2020 law establishes 11 criteria for a wrongful detention designation, any one of which can be a sufficient basis to secure the detainee’s release, including “credible information indicating innocence of the detained individual,” “credible reports the detention is a pretext for an illegitimate purpose,” “the individual is being detained solely or substantially to influence United States Government policy or to secure economic or political concessions from the United States Government,” or a conclusion that U.S. “diplomatic engagement is likely necessary.” Secretary of State Blinken must personally approve such a designation, and upgrade the case from the State Department’s Bureau of Consular Affairs (disclosure: where I worked for 22 years) to the Office of the Special Envoy for Hostage Affairs.

    Take a look at two cases where the U.S. government did not step in to help Griner-style, to better illustrate the demographic politics involved.

    Marc Fogel is “the other American” imprisoned in Russia on minor drug charges. He previously taught history at the international Anglo-American School in Moscow, and was well-known and well-thought-of by diplomats not only from the U.S. but also from Great Britain, Canada, and elsewhere (Fogel is a better comparator case to Griner than Paul Whelan, whose espionage case is complicated and shares few details with Griner’s and Fogel’s dope runs.  Whelan was also passed over largely unnoticed by the media just this April in the exchange of Trevor Reed, another former Marine who had been held for more than two years over a bar fight, for Konstantin Yaroshenko, a Russian pilot serving a 20-year federal prison sentence for drug smuggling.)

    For the past 11 months, Fogel has been held in Russian detention centers for trying to enter the country with about half an ounce of medical marijuana he’d been prescribed in the United States for chronic pain after numerous injuries. He is facing down a 14-year sentence. His trial included politicized accusations of close connections to the American embassy, was confused by a visa issue and his personal friendship with the ambassador, and false claims he aimed to sell marijuana to his students. All this led to a tougher than usual sentence. But the State Department has denied Fogel “wrongfully detained” status. Why not help Marc Fogel, President Biden?

    Or consider the case in Japan of Navy lieutenant and former Mormon missionary Lieutenant Ridge Alkonis, currently locked up on a three-year sentence after two people were killed in a traffic accident doctors said may have been caused by a medical episode. Alkonis and his family hiked Mount Fuji when on the way home Alkonis blacked out at the wheel of his car and crashed, with his own family inside, in a restaurant parking lot, killing two Japanese citizens. Neurologists diagnosed Alkonis with Acute Mountain Sickness, which can cause sudden fainting up to 24 hours after rapid altitude change.

    Alkonis’s family offered $1.65 million in compensation to the Japanese family for the loss of their relatives, along with an apology. The Japanese family, however, uncharacteristically refused the settlement and instead demanded jail time for Alkonis. Senator Mike Lee of Utah claims Alkonis is being targeted as a proxy for American forces stationed in Japan, who remain unpopular among many Japanese. On the face, the case certainly looks unfair and politicized in many ways. Why not help Lieutenant Alkonis, President Biden?

    If neither of these cases catch your interest, as with Joe Biden, the State Department has thousands more to choose from. The point is not to have seen Brittney Griner suffer more; it’s to ask what makes her case special enough to warrant the designation “wrongfully detained” and the offer of a lopsided prison swap. If your answer is something other than her being a demographic showpiece, try again.

    Related Articles:

    Copyright © 2020. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity.

    Posted in Democracy, Embassy/State

    What Happens When Innocence is No Longer a Defense? SWAT Happens

    November 1, 2014 // 14 Comments »

    It all started when dad, planning to help his son with a science fair project, bought a few items at a hydroponics store. The next suspicious act was that his wife liked tea. The result: A SWAT team kicked down their door and held them and their two children for hours while ransacking their home. SWAT left, nothing was found or seized, and it cost the family over $25,000 just to learn why this ever happened. They were presumed very guilty. Welcome to our police state, were even being innocent of a crime is no defense.

    Legal Purchase = Criminal Suspicion

    Eight months before the raid, a Missouri State Trooper watched Bob Hartes make a few purchases in a hydroponics store. Though the store is legal, and many people use its products for legal purposes to grow houseplants or start seedlings indoors, the products can also be used to grow marijuana (or any other plant.) Bob Hartes, in fact, planned on growing tomatoes and squash with his son. The trooper recorded Hartes’ license plate and vehicle information as suspicious.

    Seven months after that (the reason is unknown), the information was sent to Kansas law enforcement, who ran the plate number and identified Hartes address. He was immediately tagged as suspected drug grower, and an investigation kicked off.

    Wet, Discarded Marijuana?

    Investigators first visited the Harte’s home surreptitiously one morning at 5 am, going through the trash and finding wet plant material. Despite there being no real reason why someone involved in the drug business would throw wet weed out in the garbage, police believed it was evidence of a crime. They thus returned to the scene, and, finding more wet plant material, allegedly performed a field test which indicated the substance was marijuana. The cops made a third visit, found more wet plant material, which again supposedly tested positive.

    Field tests can be unreliable; in experiments using the cop-popular NarcoPouch KN Reagent kit, 33 of 42 substances, including vanilla, anise, chicory, and peppermint, tested positive for cannabis. In Kansas the cops never sent any of the samples to the crime lab for formal confirmation. Instead, plans were made and the SWAT-led raid was executed. No drugs were found in the house, of course, because there never were drugs in the house. The police were uninterested in being told about the science fair project and brewing tea with loose leaves. The cops simply departed, after tearing apart the Hartes’ home and terrorizing them and their children. No apologies, apparently as far as the police were concerned, were necessary.


    The Hartes found themselves ostracized by their neighbors as “criminals,” and took to showing around the search warrant stating “nothing removed from the house” to try and convince them of their innocence. When those attempts failed, the family sought the police records behind the unnecessary search.

    It was only in response to the Hartes inquiries that the police sent the first samples of the wet plant material gathered from the Hartes’ trash to the lab for a formal test. Results: it was tea, not marijuana, just as the innocent family had maintained from the beginning.

    The problem was that Kansas law enforcement, likely to hide their own mistakes, refused to release the lab results– evidence of their innocence– to the Hartes. The family was forced to sue the police, at a personal cost of $25,000, to finally gain access to what had erroneously sent SWAT crashing through their door one morning.

    “This not what justice in the United States is supposed to be. You shouldn’t have to have $25,000, even $5,000. You shouldn’t have to have that kind of money to find out why people came raiding your house like some sort of police state,” Harte said.

    Related Articles:

    Copyright © 2020. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity.

    Posted in Democracy, Embassy/State