OPINION: This article may contain commentary which reflects the author’s opinion.
Pentagon officials are concerned that the Russian arms dealer, known as the Merchant of Death, who was traded to get WNBA star Brittney Griner back to the United States, continues to be a “grave threat.”
“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 Department official said on the condition of anonymity to Politico. “Every Africanist who has been working on this for years and years probably will have a little piece of flutter of disappointment inside. If his network … were to come to fruition, then we would definitely share the challenges of what illicit weapons or illegal weapons could mean for their prosperity.”
Even New Jersey Democrat Sen. Bob Menendez said he had concerns about Bout being free.
“We cannot ignore that releasing Bout back into the world is a deeply disturbing decision,” he said. “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.”
Bout is particularly notorious for his role in the first and second Liberian civil wars, which killed 250,000 people and destroyed much of the country. Between 1989 and 2003, Bout sold arms to warring factions in the conflict, most notably to corrupt former President Charles Taylor, violating several United Nations arms embargoes.
In addition to Liberia and Afghanistan, Bout was also active in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Colombia, Angola, Yemen, Somalia, and the former Yugoslavia. Bout was arrested on March 6, 2008, in Thailand in a sting operation by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency. If Bout were to return to his old work, the U.S. military would focus on relaying to allies in Africa that he does not have their best interests at heart, the senior DoD official said.
Former DEA official Derek Maltz said that the trade was a “blow to the rule of law.”
“Americans should be very careful traveling around the world,” he said. “This decision has put Americans at a huge risk.”
Months ago another former DEA official sounded the alarm on the potential trade.
Rob “Zach” Zachariasiewicz wrote an op-ed for USA Today and warned against making a trade of Bout for Griner.
“Bout, who is known as the “Merchant of Death,” provided the fuel for conflicts across the globe. He was a critical player in the global illicit arms trade not because he could obtain weapons but because he could deliver his destructive cargo anywhere in the world through his control of a private fleet of military aircraft. And he did just that,” the former DEA agent said.
“A tremendous amount of resources and political capital were spent on the critical national security investigation into Bout’s actions. Lives were placed at risk, and tireless efforts were made. Now many voices are not being adequately considered in these deliberations over whether to free Bout in exchange for an American. Those voices include an entire generation of maimed and orphaned inhabitants of war-torn countries throughout the world, especially in Africa,” he said.
“In a recorded undercover meeting, he declared to persons he believed to be terrorist facilitators that the United States was his sworn enemy. He offered them, as part of an extensive arsenal of heavy weapons, hundreds of surface-to-air missiles to be used against U.S. military advisers and the Colombian military,” the former agent said.
“Negotiating for Bout’s release is a feckless and shortsighted foreign policy. Such actions merely encourage our adversaries to engage in the kidnapping, illegal detention, and ransoming of American citizens throughout the world. Organizations such as Hezbollah, drug cartels, and the Russian Federal Security Service are emboldened when their criminal actions are rewarded. We must make abundantly clear that there is nothing to be gained by engaging in these criminal actions,” he said.