A fascinating and murky tale of alleged arms dealer Viktor Bout who clearly was the best friend of anybody who paid, not least the US:
Accused of a 15-year run as one of the world’s biggest arms traffickers, Viktor Bout is thought to be a consummate deal maker.
Now his future may hang on whether he can strike one last bargain: trading what American officials believe is his vast insider’s knowledge of global criminal networks in exchange for not spending the rest of his life in a federal prison.
Justice Department officials were relieved on Aug. 20 when a Thai appeals court approved the extradition of Mr. Bout (pronounced boot), a Russian, from Bangkok, where he has been incarcerated since 2008. But they are wary of declaring victory in a long diplomatic wrangle with Russia until Mr. Bout actually arrives to face charges in Manhattan, a development that could be days or weeks away.
Immersed since the early 1990s in the dark side of globalization, Mr. Bout has mastered the trade and the transport that fuel drug cartels, terrorism networks and insurgent movements from Colombia to Afghanistan, according to former officials who tracked him. And he is believed to understand the murky intersection of Russian military, intelligence and organized crime.
“I think Viktor Bout has a great deal of information that this country and other countries would like to have,” said Michael A. Braun, chief of operations at the Drug Enforcement Administration from 2005 to 2008, when the agency was engineering the sting operation that led to Mr. Bout’s arrest in Bangkok two years ago.
“It’s a question of whether he sees his wife and kid again someday, after 10 or 15 or 20 years,” said Mr. Braun, now with Spectre Group International, a private security firm. “I think there’s potential for a deal.”
Mr. Bout, who has lost about 70 pounds while imprisoned in Thailand, has shown no inclination to cooperate with investigators. In interviews, he has portrayed himself as an honest businessman who would transport whatever he was paid to carry, whether disaster relief supplies or attack helicopters. On his Web site he calls himself “a born salesman with undying love for aviation and eternal drive to succeed.”
He has labeled as “ridiculous” American charges that he agreed to sell shoulder-fired missiles to D.E.A. agents posing as members of a Colombian leftist guerrilla group known as the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC. “I have never traded in weapons,” he said in a statement released Friday. His wife, Alla, who has visited him in Bangkok with their teenage daughter, Elizabeth, has told reporters he traveled to South America “for tango lessons.”
By the mid-1990s, Mr. Bout’s growing private air force had come to the attention of Western intelligence agencies. By 2000, when Lee S. Wolosky became director for transnational threats at the National Security Council under President Bill Clinton, Mr. Bout’s web of companies was turning up in country after country, Mr. Wolosky said.
“My colleagues who worked on Africa noticed that he was popping up in each conflict they were trying to resolve: Sierra Leone, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Angola,” said Mr. Wolosky, now a lawyer in New York. “He had a logistics capability that was matched by very few nations.”
Mr. Bout developed ties with such notorious figures Charles Taylor of Liberia, bedded down next to his plane in African war zones and sometimes took payment in diamonds, bringing his own gemologist to assess the stones. His arms escalated the toll of the fighting. “Wars went from machetes and antique rifles to A.K.’s with unlimited ammunition,” Mr. Farah said.
Former American officials say they worked on a plan to grab the arms dealer and deliver him to either Belgium or South Africa to face criminal charges, a procedure known as “rendition to justice.” Before they could act, the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks made Mr. Bout a lower priority.
Mr. Wolosky said he and his colleagues were astonished to learn from later news reports that Mr. Bout’s companies were used as subcontractors by the American military to deliver supplies to Iraq in 2003 and 2004, earning about $60 million, by Mr. Farah’s estimate.
“I read those reports with shock,” Mr. Wolosky said. “Personally, I attributed it to the disorder of the Iraq war effort.”