An Arms Dealer's U.S. Ties

U.S. officials are thrilled about the arrest in Bangkok of accused Russian arms trafficker Viktor Bout following a lengthy undercover sting by the Drug Enforcement Administration. Dubbed the "Merchant of Death," Bout had been a top target for years. But if, as expected, he is extradited to New York, where he faces charges of conspiring to provide weapons to Colombian guerrillas, the case could also embarrass some U.S. government figures. As recently as four years ago, Bout's companies were employed by the Pentagon to fly troop supplies for the Iraq War into U.S. military bases—an issue he will likely exploit at his trial. "This shows the incompetence of the way the war was being run," said Lee Wolosky, a former White House national-security aide who led efforts to apprehend Bout during the Clinton administration. "While Bout was being pursued by one part of the U.S. government, another part was rewarding him with fuel agreements and subcontracts."

Bout's Iraq work continued even after President Bush signed a July 2004 order forbidding U.S. citizens from doing business with Bout after he allegedly supplied weapons to Liberian dictator Charles Taylor's regime. (Bout has not yet been assigned a U.S. lawyer. His brother told a Moscow radio station that he was a "simple businessman" who "only transported cargo.") But in a 2005 letter to Congress, the then Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz confirmed that "both the U.S. Army and Coalition Provisional Authority did conduct business with companies" that had subcontracted with Bout. Among those firms: Halliburton, the oil-services giant formerly headed by Vice President Dick Cheney. Pentagon records show Bout's aircraft landed 149 times at U.S. bases. A Pentagon official, who asked not to be identified discussing sensitive matters, said the firms flying into U.S. air bases had not been officially linked to Bout; the department revoked their landing rights later in the summer of 2004 after they refused to disclose who employed them. The arrangement, this official said, reflected the Pentagon's thinking at the time. "It was a case of, 'If the troops need it, get it to them and we'll clean up the paperwork later'." DEA operations chief Michael Braun said he's not worried about the prospect of Bout's raising at trial his past work for the U.S. government. "We're just happy we took his butt off the street," he said.