Obama Administration Wins One in Thailand

The Obama administration is being so heavily hammered politically—with declining poll numbers and out-of-control debates on Manhattan mosques—that officials appeared stunned when the administration scored a foreign policy coup early Friday.

The victory came when a court in Thailand ruled that Victor Bout, an accused Russian arms trafficker nicknamed the "Merchant of Death," should be extradited to the U.S. within three months to face numerous charges related to his alleged arms-dealing career, including conspiracy, money laundering, and wire fraud. Over a period of months, numerous senior U.S. officials including Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Attorney General Eric Holder personally lobbied Thai authorities on the matter, and their efforts appear to have produced a major diplomatic success.

As we reported on Thursday, administration officials had been deeply concerned that the Thai court hearing Bout's appeal against extradition would rule in his favor, ordering his permanent or temporary release, which U.S. authorities believed would result in Bout's immediate disappearance.

Last year, a lower Thai court had ruled that the principal U.S. extradition case against Bout—based on a "sting" operation in which the Russian allegedly conspired to sell millions of dollars in weapons, including surface-to-air missiles and plastic explosive, to buyers who he believed represented the Colombian narco-terrorist militia FARC—was invalid because FARC wasn't really a terror group. (The FARC reps Bout was dealing with turned out to be undercover Drug Enforcement Agency operatives, who were working with the cooperation of Thai authorities.)

In the wake of that ruling, and with the belief that Russian authorities were exerting high-level pressure on the Thai government to free the well-connected Bout, many U.S. officials appear to have believed that it was a foregone conclusion that the Thai appeals court to which the extradition case was referred would somehow decide to let him go.

Instead, according to news reports from Bangkok, the Thai court ruled that FARC was indeed a terrorist group and therefore Thailand was obliged to honor the American extradition demand. But the court apparently also directed that Bout would have to be released if he were not transferred to American custody within three months. A U.S. official said American authorities did not know what this meant in practice, and that U.S. government lawyers were still poring over the details of the Thai court ruling.

The official, who asked for anonymity when discussing sensitive information, said that it was the U.S. understanding that there is no higher judicial authority in Thailand to which Bout could make a further appeal, although the Russian's lawyer has indicated that Bout will try somehow to continue to fight extradition.

An Obama staffer confirmed that administration officials had been putting their own high-level pressure on the Thais to move ahead with the extradition. "Senior administration officials have been actively engaged with their counterparts in Thailand on this issue for many many months," the official said. Both State Department and Justice Department officials were involved in discussions with the Thais, including Secretary of State Clinton and Attorney General Holder. At the White House, National Security Adviser James Jones and counterterrorism czar John Brennan also appear to have taken a close interest in the case.

Bout, alleged to be one of the most active black- and gray-market arms dealers in the world for decades, has been a bête noir for years for U.S. investigators, who say that on some occasions he sold arms to both sides in Third-World conflicts, just to make a ruble. One official said that the investigation which led to Bout's arrest originally was instigated by National Security Council officials in the Clinton administration, but also pursued aggressively by aides to George W. Bush.