WikiLeaks: How the U.S. Helped Bring in a 'Merchant of Death'

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SAEED KHAN / AFP / Getty Images

Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout in 2008 following his arrest in a sting operation led by US anti-drug agents in Bangkok.

Not everything coming out of Cablegate is unflattering. Documents released by WikiLeaks this week have pulled back the curtain on the high-level coordination between the State Department, Department of Justice and the White House to bring alleged arms dealer Victor Bout — the so-called global "merchant of death" — to trial in the United States, including the existence of a dedicated "Bout team" within the U.S. embassy in Bangkok. As the case shaped up into a test of wills between Washington and Moscow, the embassy noted in February of 2009 that Bout's Thai extradition proceedings "have required constant nurturing by our DOJ and DEA personnel every step of the way."

Thai authorities had arrested Bout in Bangkok in March of 2008 while he met with informants working for the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency. But Bout's extradition proceedings dragged out for more than a year before he was brought to New York to face trial in federal court in Manhattan, where he was charged with four terrorism conspiracy counts related to a DEA sting in Thailand.

After a Thai judge ruled against Bout's extradition in August of 2009, the U.S. ambassador to Thailand warned the newly endorsed Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva of a potentially "major setback" in U.S. relations if "corruption and undue influence" had an impact on the case. Faced with the prospect that Bout could be released and allowed to return to Russia, Ambassador Eric. G. John recommended that both the State Department and U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder call in the Thai ambassador to Washington to push for Bout's extradition. It was suggested that a senior DEA official join Attorney General Holder in that meeting to emphasize "the extensive U.S. commitment of law enforcement resources to Thailand" and "massive DEA commitment to Thailand." The ambassador also recommended that the governments of Colombia, Sierra Leone and Liberia weigh in on Bout's case to the Thai government. In an Aug. 13, 2009, cable, ambassador John noted "We believe POTUS [President of the United States] involvement on Bout would have significant effect here."

Bout had long been in the crosshairs of the U.S. government. Over the course of the 1990s and early 2000s, U.N. investigators linked Bout's fleet of aircraft to arms shipments in Liberia and Sierra Leone. In 2004, President Bush signed an executive order placing sanctions on Bout and his business associates with ties to the United States. Shortly thereafter, Treasury Department officials froze any assets and financial transactions within U.S. jurisdiction. But Bout eluded arrest despite being the subject of a sealed indictment in federal court in New York for violating those U.S. sanctions.

Ambassador John acknowledged at the time that the alleged arms dealer's case "is at heart a U.S.-Russian matter." That is probably why the U.S. used their considerable political influence in Bangkok to try to push the extradition forward. As they did, Russian associates of Bout, according to two cables from the Bangkok embassy, allegedly bribed a Thai naval officer to testify falsely during the proceeding. In an August 2009 meeting, the U.S. ambassador, accompanied by a DOJ aide, delivered a list of the individuals allegedly involved in paying off the witness to Prime Minister Abhisit, who offered to deal with the matter through "appropriate channels."

Getting their man was never assured. The U.S. government was prepared for the possibility of Bout's release. The American ambassador suggested that in that case the U.S. should press for the Russians to prosecute him or "at the very least perhaps we could force the Russians to publicly refuse to do so" — which would embarrass Moscow diplomatically. It s unclear whether President Obama ever intervened directly with Moscow in the Bout case but the Russian citizen was finally extradited to the U.S. last month. The Russian Foreign Ministry was quick to voice its displeasure, calling the move "a consequence of unprecedented political pressure exerted by the U.S. government and judicial authorities on Thailand... All this can be characterized only as interference in the administration of justice."

"The U.S. government did everything they could possibly do to try to affect the outcome of the extradition process," said Douglas C. McNabb, a criminal defense attorney specializing in extradition matters. McNabb, however, disapproves of Washington's strong-arm methods, saying the cables were both "enlightening and disappointing." He criticized the U.S. government for "the extents that it went to [in order] to impact the decision-making process of judicial authorities in another country." But Washington did get Bout.