Friday, March 07, 2008

Bout Face

By Cernig

I missed this one yesterday - international arms dealer Viktor Bout has been arrested in Thailand.
The U.S. is seeking the extradition of a suspected Russian arms dealer dubbed the "Merchant of Death," but for now he will remain in Thailand, where authorities are investigating if he used the country as a base to negotiate a weapons deal with terrorists, officials said Friday.

Viktor Bout, a 41-year-old whose dealings reportedly inspired a 2005 movie about the illicit arms trade, is accused of running weapons to al-Qaida, the Taliban and parties involved in bloody conflicts across Africa. He was arrested at a Bangkok hotel after a four-month sting operation by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, Thai and U.S. authorities said.
The long list of conflicts Bout has helped fuel and dictators he has armed has to be read to be believed. His customers include Afghanistan's Taliban, Anglola, Liberia, Congo, Columbia, Libya, Sierra Leone, Rawanda and of course al-Qaida. The US believes Bout's fleet of over 50 ex-Soviet military transports could transport tanks, helicopters and weapons "by the ton" to virtually any point in the world. No wonder they call him the 'Merchant of Death' and 'Man of War'.

Bout was arrested in Thailand as he was allegedly arranging a multi-milion dollar drop of sophisticated weaponry to Columbia's FARC.
Authorities in New York unsealed a criminal complaint Thursday charging that Bout conspired to sell millions of dollars in weapons - including 100 surface-to-air missiles and armor-piercing rockets - to the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC.

The U.S. considers the leftist rebels, who have been fighting Colombia's government for more than 40 years, a terror group. Bout and associate Andrew Smulian were charged with "conspiring to provide material support to a foreign terrorist organization."

The DEA was involved because, according to the criminal complaint, the FARC uses weapons to protect its cocaine trafficking business, which helps to finance its operations.
It's a bit odd, and I'm not the only one to have noticed this, because back in 2004 Bout was a sub-contractor for the Pentagon, flying supplies into Iraq. Last September I noted an interview Laura Rosen did with author Douglas Faraj, who wrote the book on Bout.
The U.S. government response to revelations of the use of Viktor Bout to fly for government contractors in Iraq (not just a few flights, but hundreds, and perhaps a thousand) has been mixed. Bear in mind most of these flights occurred after President Bush had signed an executive order making it illegal to do business with Bout, because he represented a security threat to the United States. The State Department, under a congressional inquiry initiated by Senator Russell Feingold, found it had used Bout companies, acknowledged it, and stopped. Paul Wolfowitz, while at DOD, did not respond to queries for nine months, then acknowledged that DOD contractors had subcontracted to Bout companies. Despite the public revelation, the congressional inquiry, the executive order, and a subsequent Treasury Department order freezing the assets of Bout and his closest associates, the flights continued for many months, at least until the end of 2005. The Air Force cut him off immediately, but other branches of the military continued to use him.
If he was so wanted, why did the Bush administration deal with him, in direct contravention of their own order, rather than arresting him? I find myself wondering if the U.S. wants to extradite Bout to ensure he faces justice...or if the Bush administration simply wants more control over what evidence or testimony might come up in any trial. Cynical of me, I know.

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