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Spotlight or Silence? A Former FBI Agent on the Best Approach to Help Brittney Griner

6 minute read

The arrest of WNBA player Brittney Griner in Russia took another turn on Thursday when Russian authorities announced that they have extended her detention until May 19 as they continue to investigate the incident.

Griner, who had been playing professional basketball in Russia before the country’s invasion of Ukraine, was taken into custody in February after authorities allegedly found hashish oil on her at an airport. Few details about the case, including where Griner is being held, have been revealed.

Much of the discussion about Griner’s case has focused on what some see as a lack of vocal outrage from the WNBA, her peers, and even the United States government. It’s not uncommon for high-profile arrests of American citizens in international territories to lead to outrage; the relative dearth of protest about Griner has been seen as a indictment of both racism and the disregard with which women’s sports are treated by the American public. However, others have argued that keeping Griner’s situation under the radar could potentially be a strategy to ensure she is not punished in a vindictive matter while actions are taken behind the scenes to ensure her release.

Tim Bradley, a former FBI agent and current security consultant for IMG Global, a travel-insurance agency, spoke to TIME about the Griner situation, the possible outcome and the nuances of the debate over shining of a spotlight on detainees.

TIME: What are your thoughts on the Brittney Griner situation overall?

BRADLEY: I think it’s right out of the Russian playbook. I have to believe that she was targeted, based on the pending invasion of Ukraine. The Russian government has a long history of wrongfully detaining U.S. citizens. It just doesn’t pass the smell test that all of a sudden an American [trying to leave Russia] would get stopped at customs for something like this. It’s not shocking that the Russian government would do this.

Read more: Putin Wants Revenge Not Just on Ukraine But on the U.S. and Its Allies

Is it odd for someone like Griner, who was fairly noteworthy in Russia as a basketball player, to be detained this way?

It probably made her an easy target for them. Who knows what the Russian government is really thinking, but they have a history of doing this. They use it as part of their diplomatic toolkit to get what they want from other countries or to show people that they are in control. So I think that her profile may have made her an even more obvious target.

In instances like this, where you have a high-profile American citizen detained in a foreign country, what tends to be more helpful: putting a spotlight on the case or staying silent about it?

To the extent that you can, shine a spotlight on it, but you have to understand the Russian government doesn’t really move by external pressure. You can witness what they’ve done with their invasion of Ukraine, and the punishing sanctions don’t seem to be deterring them too much. The Russian population is being deterred by it, but the people who are making decisions in the Kremlin don’t seem to be at this point.

If it was a family member of mine, I would continue to raise this issue. It’s going to be a hard resolution to get her out of that country. So the more pressure you can put on the Russian government on the world stage, the better.

For Griner, there appear to be both sides of that argument being made in the media recently. Is there a debate among the expert community on which is more helpful?

I think the consensus is that there should be a spotlight on [the Russians] and [to] ensure that she’s getting good treatment. In terms of what [Griner] should do, she should say one thing to them: I want to talk to a representative from the United States Embassy. Until she does that, she shouldn’t say anything. So the pressure should be coming externally, not from her.

In Russia an admission of guilt means you’re guilty, there’s no way around it. They don’t have the protections that a prisoner in the United States would have. She’s looking at a 10-year prison sentence. [Authorities] can say something along the lines of, “If you just admit to this we can let you go.” Well, you admit to it and then they say, “Now we can’t let you go.”

If I was her agent I would be on talk shows. I would want people to know about this and I would try to keep it alive. Sometimes it makes sense to stay below the radar but in this case, you’re competing with a war in Ukraine. You’ve got to keep this visible and keep the pressure up.

Read more: How China’s Response to Russia’s Invasion of Ukraine Could Upend the World Order

Are you surprised that there have been so few details about the case released?

No, not at all. The case will be done with minimal details. The trial won’t be open and if she’s convicted we’ll never know what the evidence was. More than likely it’ll be some customs officer saying “I found this in her bag and it tested positive for a controlled substance.” There won’t be a judicial review.

​​This specific situation aside, do people of color or LGBTQ+ people face a different level of risk in these kinds of situations in places like Russia?

Yes, they do. There’s no doubt about it. In our experience dealing with international travelers, we have special recommendations and guidelines that we give to travelers. It’s viewed completely differently over there. The Russian government has a very closed view towards the LGBTQ community. That could have made her a more obvious target for them.

Given the context of what’s happening in Russia and Ukraine right now, what do you think is the most likely outcome of this incident?

More than likely, they will find her guilty, sentence her to prison, and then wait for a diplomatic opportunity to exchange her for someone else. That is what tends to happen with these incidents. They view this as a diplomatic tactic. They want to have someone that they can always trade for.

I just find it hard to believe that she was taken by coincidence.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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Write to Josiah Bates at josiah.bates@time.com