Aug 21, 2010

Is the Russian government secretly financing weapons- and drugs networks?

The forthcoming extradition of a major reputed arms dealer to the United States could yield the Obama administration a treasure trove of intelligence about the networks that move weapons and drugs around the world and about the governments that secretly facilitate the traffic.

That is, if he cooperates.

An appeals court in Thailand on Friday overturned a lower court's ruling and ordered that Viktor Bout, a 43-year-old former Russian military translator, be sent to the United States, where he faces federal charges of conspiring to sell weapons to a terrorist organization, money laundering and sanctions busting. The Thai court decision, announced after months of diplomatic pressure from the United States, surprised many in the U.S. government who followed the case. Read more..

Many officials had predicted privately that the court would rule the other way.

On Friday, the acting deputy attorney general, Gary G. Grindler, said the Justice Department was "extremely pleased" with the ruling. His sentiments were echoed by the State Department.

For decades Bout, who inspired the 2005 political thriller "Lord of War," is believed to have operated as a major arms smuggler, fueling conflicts in Afghanistan, Angola, Congo, Liberia, Rwanda, Sierra Leone and Sudan.

Lee S. Wolosky, a National Security Council official during the Clinton administration, said Bout came to the government's attention because of his close ties to the Taliban in the 1990s. Bout moved weapons and cash to Afghanistan at that time, Wolosky said.

If Bout cooperates with U.S. law enforcement, Wolosky said, "he could be very helpful with respect to ongoing efforts in Afghanistan because he clearly has had a network there for a number of years." Bout's organization knew the country better than anyone, possessed the best maps and had an unrivaled network of sources, U.S. officials said.

So far, at least, Bout has given no indication that he will cooperate. He has denied the allegations against him and, on Friday, told a reporter from Russia's RIA Novosti news agency, "We will go to court in America and we will win."

The Russian government fought against Bout's extradition. Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov called Friday's ruling an "unlawful, political decision" made "under very strong external pressure," the Reuters news agency reported, adding that Moscow would continue to seek Bout's return to Russia.

Douglas Farah, a former Washington Post reporter and the author of a book about Bout, "Merchant of Death," said his reporting indicated that Russia was concerned that Bout might cooperate with U.S. law enforcement and reveal Russian connections to shady regimes. Farah's book reports that, among other ventures, Bout moved Russian-made weapons from Iran to Hezbollah forces in Lebanon in 2006.

"There have been a lot of Russians arrested around the world," he said. "But not many of them get a resolution from the Duma and are offered a place in the Russian Embassy while they await trial. The Russians are worried he might talk."

Michael A. Braun ran operations at the Drug Enforcement Administration when his agents and Thai police partnered to arrest Bout in 2008 in a sting operation.

"I think he's sitting on a boatload of valuable information," Braun said.

"There are a lot of nefarious arms traffickers out there, but there are not more than half a dozen who have the ability to acquire massive amount of arms and then deliver them around the world with pinpoint accuracy," he said.

The U.S. government might have its own motive to strike a deal: to avoid a deeper look at Bout's ties to Washington.

For several years, after the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, Bout's logistics companies were used by Pentagon contractors to move material into Iraq and Afghanistan.

In 2004, President George W. Bush issued a directive making it illegal to do business with Bout. But apparently the Pentagon continued the contracts into 2006.

"It's always been an open question," Wolosky said, "whether or not the U.S. government actually knew he was the subcontractor."

Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, August 21, 2010