WASHINGTON – US officials acknowledged Thursday their worry that Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout — known as the “Merchant of Death,” — would return to his former ways after he was released in a prisoner swap that secured the return of WNBA player Brittney Griner to America.
“I think there is a concern that he would return to doing the same kind of work that he’s done in the past,” a senior defense official said, referring to Bout’s work in Africa, where his client list included Liberian warlord Charles Taylor, longtime Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi and both sides in Angola’s 26-year-long civil war.
“We heard the news, and you know, every Africanist who’s kind of been working on this for — for years and years for — you know, probably had a little — a little piece, a — a flutter of — of disappointment inside,” the official added.
Bout, who also reportedly helped arm bad actors like Al Qaeda, the Taliban and Hezbollah, was arrested in Thailand in 2008 after Drug Enforcement Administration agents posing as Colombian rebels lured him there to discuss a deal to sell up to $20 million in weapons to the FARC narco-terror group, including surface-to-air missiles to shoot down US helicopters.
He was convicted in 2011 of conspiracy to kill Americans and other charges and was sentenced to 25 years in prison the following year.
“We cannot ignore that releasing Bout back into the world is a deeply disturbing decision,” Sen. Bob Menendez (D-NJ), the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said in a statement. “We must stop inviting dictatorial and rogue regimes to use Americans overseas as bargaining chips, and we must try do better at encouraging American citizens against traveling to places like Russia where they are primary targets for this type of unlawful detention.”
“I am relieved that Ms. Griner will be returned home safely,” said House Foreign Affairs Committee ranking member Michael McCaul (R-Texas). “However, trading Viktor Bout – a dangerous convicted arms dealer who was in prison for conspiring to kill Americans – will only embolden Vladimir Putin to continue his evil practice of taking innocent Americans hostage for use as political pawns.”
John Bolton, former President Donald Trump’s national security adviser, called the arrangement “an American surrender,” arguing that releasing a convicted international terrorist for a basketball player was “not a trade.”
“This is not what American strength looks like,” Bolton wrote on Twitter Thursday. “Terrorists and rogue states are smiling.”
A senior Biden administration official insisted, however, that other nations which assume such trades have now “become the norm” for the US “would be mistaken.”
“I don’t think governments around the world would be wise to draw that inference,” the official said. “But in the rare case when there is an imperative to bring Americans home – which is a real priority for this president – there sometimes are no alternatives left and a heavy price has to be has to be paid.”
“We’re going to make sure that we can defend this country against any and all threats,” National Security Council spokesman John Kirby told CNN Thursday. “And so, with Mr. Bout being back on the street, we’re going to stay focused on making sure we can defend this country.”
The Russian Foreign Ministry claimed it had negotiated with the White House to release Bout “for a long time” before Biden agreed to the deal.
“Washington was categorically refusing to engage in dialogue on putting the Russian national on the exchange scheme,” the ministry said in a statement Thursday. “Nevertheless, the Russian Federation continued to actively work towards the release of our fellow countryman.”
Bout’s mother, Raisa, thanked Russian President Vladimir Putin and the Foreign Ministry for freeing her son, according to the news agency Tass, which added that he would be invited to speak to lawmakers on the Duma’s International Affairs committee.
Video released by the Kremlin showed Bout on board a private jet en route to Russia from the swap in Abu Dhabi, getting his blood pressure checked, speaking with his family by phone and saying, “I love you very much.”
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