Is It Time to Free the “Merchant of Death”?

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Mary Harris: The Brittney Griner trial in Russia has developed this cadence. The American basketball star walks in heavily guarded. She’s often led by an officer with a fierce looking dog, and then she’s put in a cage right behind her lawyers. Sometimes as things get started. She’ll hold up pictures of her wife of her WNBA teammates. It seems like she’s saying, I’ve got people out there, don’t forget about me. Griner has already pleaded guilty to drug charges. She got caught carrying vape cartridges filled with cannabis oil. And that’s part of what makes this spectacle so strange. This trial, it’s going forward even though the Russian government has already won.

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Speaker 2: So I think what the Russians are looking for is a political win on the propaganda side.

Mary Harris: Former journalist Doug Farah has been following Griner trial from afar.

Speaker 2: The pictures are very impactful and I think she looks like a prisoner and for someone in the cage certainly conveys that she has no way out.

Mary Harris: But what if Brittney Griner did have a way out? Overseas now where WNBA star Brittney Griner was in court today testifying about her drug charges that the State Department has made an offer to Moscow to bring her home and former Marine. In the last few weeks, American diplomats have all but confirmed that they’ve offered Russia a deal, a prisoner swap who might be exchanged for whom remains a little unclear. In addition to Brittney Griner, the U.S. is said to want another American freed Paul Whelan. But one name keeps coming up again and again. Russia has long sought the release of Victor Boot. Victor Boot is a notorious Russian arms dealer. He’s serving a 25 year prison sentence for conspiring to kill Americans and to provide material support to terrorists. Do you have a favorite nickname for Victor Boot?

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Speaker 2: No. You know, he was dubbed the Merchant of Death by a British parliamentarian. And that stuck, I think I think is accurate.

Mary Harris: Part of the reason Doug Farah has been so interested in the Brittney Griner case is that he’s a Viktor Bout expert. He literally wrote the book on him. It’s called Merchant of Death.

Speaker 2: I think he preferred to call himself a taxi driver, that he was simply ferrying goods.

Mary Harris: In the taxi driver.

Speaker 2: But his argument was that a taxi driver doesn’t know what his passenger is carrying, and therefore he didn’t have any responsibility to know what was in the planes he was moving, that he was simply ferrying products from point A to point B and therefore.

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Mary Harris: Like woops, I have some AK 40 sevens in this cab.

Speaker 2: Well, it’s not his responsibility to know, right, that that’s what his brother Sergei argued in his defense. So I prefer to think of him more it more in those lines, which I think is absurd, but probably how he actually views himself.

Mary Harris: Doug Farah has called Viktor Bout evil, and he’s seen the cruelty of what boot’s done firsthand. But watching Brittney Griner trial, he’s found himself in the funny position of advocating for boots release, asking Americans to consider what action here is going to do the least harm. I wonder if you look at the idea of trading Viktor Bout for Brittney Griner and you think it’s a fair trade?

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Speaker 2: Well, I think it’s fair now because Viktor Bout is no longer, I think, relevant in the international arms trade as it once was. I think five years ago I would have felt very differently because I would have felt that Viktor Bout had not paid his time. There were still options for him to have perhaps plugged back into his former network. I think all of that is gone now. And so I think it’s it may not be fair, but I think it would be a merciful thing that would not cause further damage.

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Mary Harris: Today on the show, we’re not going to tell the story of Brittney Griner potential release. Instead, we’re going to tell the story of Victor Boot and talk about why someone who chronicled boots atrocities thinks this may be the moment to send him home. I’m Mary Harris. You’re listening to What Next? Stick around. I asked Doug Farah to start out by giving me Viktor Boots origin story. For Doug, it goes back to the early 2000s. Back then, he was a war correspondent for The Washington Post. He was covering conflicts in West Africa, and he started to notice something.

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Speaker 2: The groups in the Democratic Republic of Congo and elsewhere suddenly went from having hunting rifles and machetes to having AK 47 light anti-tank weapons, rocket propelled grenades.

Mary Harris: And were you basically like, where did those come from?

Speaker 2: Exactly. We’re like, what happened? Why are we suddenly seeing this enormous transformation in the amount of damage that can be done by these people?

Mary Harris: Weapons were coming in by plane that Doug and his colleagues were able to figure out. Then the U.N. started looking into who was sending these planes, and that’s how Viktor Bout emerged as a suspect.

Speaker 2: We started hearing the name Viktor a lot. Most people didn’t know his last name and that whole context of what was happening in these really bloody wars. It took the really strong reporting of some of the U.N. investigators on the ground. It took incredible luck because they found some folks in the really remote landing strips that had actually kept records of the airplanes that had landed for some reason. And so we sort of all put the pieces together in different ways and came to the conclusion it was Viktor Bout in his aircraft.

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Mary Harris: And was he literally landing the planes?

Speaker 2: In some cases, yes. He often flew also in helicopters around to supervise where weapons were being delivered or go with his trusted cadre of inner circle people to fly around and see things or meet with the president and say this is what we want to do and collect the money.

Mary Harris: So he was a hands on guy. He wasn’t just sitting back in an office somewhere telling other people what to do.

Speaker 2: No. And what people say repeatedly about him is that he really liked being hands on that that’s the part that that he he really liked.

Mary Harris: Before running his taxi service for weapons of war, Viktor Bout had been a Russian spy. For him, the end of the Cold War had been a business opportunity. He snatched up military supplies from satellite countries and gave them new life all over the world.

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Speaker 2: He grabbed aircraft out of the former Soviet Union. He started grabbing their weapons and he realized there was this enormous market for them in different parts of the world. And I think he was clearly an incredibly smart, visionary person. I think he just used his vision for something that probably enormous destruction and death rather than something that could have been more positive.

Mary Harris: How big did his operation get? Like at its fullest force. How many weapons are being exchanged? How many aircraft were flying around?

Speaker 2: Well, he had more than 50 aircraft at its peak. And what he discovered, I think, was in a continent the size of Africa with so little infrastructure that any time you flew an airplane, you could make money. You never had to fly empty. So you could fly in weapons and then you could fly out timber. You could fly out almost anything else that could move. He was taking gladiolus and chicken from South Africa to the United Arab Emirates for a while, and in the mix of everything else he was doing, he was flying U.N. peacekeepers because there was no other way to get them into the areas where they were needing to go. So it was it was just this vast assortment of aircraft that would fly anywhere under any conditions with anything in their hold.

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Mary Harris: So he just kind of had the stones to do it, basically where other people didn’t.

Speaker 2: He had the stones and the vision. I think it it takes a certain level of, you know, genius almost to say, okay, we have weapons here, we have peacekeepers here, we have diamonds here. How can I bring it all together and make money? And he was very young. I mean, he was in his early thirties when he started all of this. And he was it was quite amazing.

Mary Harris: It’s funny because you’ve already said how Boot was also ferrying people from the U.N.. I think I read that he was also working in Iraq for the U.S. so he was deeply enmeshed, it seems like, with all kinds of countries and conflicts.

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Speaker 2: The really interesting thing over time was the finding that he was supplying multiple sides of the same conflict in Angola. He was supplying the UNITA rebels while he was supplying the government with weapons in the Democratic Republic of Congo. He was supplying the Bhutto who was the dictator who was fleeing. And Jonas. And the rebel forces who were coming across the Congo to defeat him. And then in Afghanistan, he dealt with the Northern Alliance and then began supplying the Taliban. And then in Iraq, he began flying to the U.S. and the British in significant ways. So he was really, you know, an opportunist of the first degree.

Mary Harris: So how did these people he was doing business with, like the U.S., come to see him as a target?

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Speaker 2: Well, there were two tracks going on sort of for a number of years. One was the European and U.S. investigations into the weapons trafficking and and the diamond illicit diamond trade that was driving so many of the conflicts in Africa. And one of them was the imperative. If you’ll recall, when we were going into Iraq and in Afghanistan, we had very few logistical pillars we could rely on there. And so when someone showed up with aircraft and said, you know, I’ll I can fly and I will do this for you guys, a lot of the Americans knew it would take them time.

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Speaker 2: They understood over time who they were dealing with. They viewed his ability to deliver ammunition and other material to their troops on the ground in combat zones is more important than trying to shut him out of the trade because of other things he had done. So it became this really tricky balance between dealing with the criminal who was helping them in very specific time with great need and really going after a criminal.

Mary Harris: Did it surprise you when he was arrested?

Speaker 2: It surprised me so much that our book was literally our our book, Merchant of Death. I wrote with Steve Braun about Viktor Bout Boot was being printed the day when he was arrested. And we called the publisher and said, Please give us a couple of days to write the epilogue. This this literally your book is being printed. We never thought he would be caught. And my book literally ends saying essentially he’ll probably never be caught. So, yes, I was surprised.

Mary Harris: When we come back, why Viktor Bout may be released back to Russia 14 years after his arrest. You’ve chronicled all of the awful things that Viktor Bout did, but also clearly how he was connected to lots of other people in power. I don’t know. You said five years ago you wouldn’t have thought he would be. Someone you should exchange with Russia. You should let go, essentially. Why did that change? Was it just time?

Speaker 2: I think it’s mostly, yes. For me, it’s time. I think he knew he needed to serve a substantial sentence in my mind, without a doubt. I don’t think if he had been in two years or three years and coming out, I think it would have been, you know, for me, much more problematic. So it’s been a little over ten years. And I think looking back as I continue to work in the world of organized crime and weapons trafficking, etc., I think to me it’s clear that those networks that he had built up were entirely based on trust in his ability to have access to specific things in the former Soviet Union that he no longer has access to. He doesn’t have access to abandoned aircraft. He doesn’t have access to armories that were abandoned, that he could just sort of collect and move out and sell. And he doesn’t have any of the contacts left in that world that would make him a threat to the United States or to or to anyone else.

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Speaker 2: So I think in that sense, he’s, like I say, a spent force, but I do think it’s very important that he also do time for what he did. I mean, I came across him in refugee camps dealing with children who had their arms chopped off by the forces he had empowered. You know, they had their legs chopped off. They had entire villages burned to the ground. And there’s nothing redeeming about what happened in any of the conflicts he was involved in. But I’m not sure that another few years in a U.S. prison would be particularly useful to him.

Mary Harris: You’ve said that Viktor Bout is a spent force, that if he got out, he wouldn’t have some of the resources he had before he went in access to weapons and aircraft. The trust of the people he did business with. But is he really I mean, I can’t see this guy going back to just a normal, everyday life. Wouldn’t he just get out and cause chaos? Isn’t that a possibility?

Speaker 2: I think it’s a possibility, but I can’t in my mind imagine where he would go, where he could do that. He’s now permanently branded as the emergence of death. He will be under the strict surveillance of the Russian intelligence services. They’ll have him on a short leash. Can he help the Russian state figure out how to do certain things logistically, perhaps. Can he go out himself and create a network again and start moving stuff? I don’t think that’s possible.

Mary Harris: In that case, why is he valuable to the Russians? Why would they want him back?

Speaker 2: Well, I think that’s a really important question and one that I don’t understand Russia well enough to feel fully confident in answering. But I think there is certainly an element in the Russian intelligence structures that feel that they lost one of their own and they want to bring one back. And also, I think that there is enormous propaganda value unrelated to whether he comes back or not and saying here we have this Russian innocent Russian citizen being held in terrible conditions in a U.S. prison and all of these things that they can use in their own propaganda machines to make the U.S. look in their mind as bad as Russia looks to the outside world and people like like Griner. So I think that in that sense, he’s an enormous propaganda boon for them. And I’m not sure it’s not clear to me in watching how this is going that they have any interest in actually recovering. Victor Boot in this trade. I think that that’s the big question. They’ve they have not taken a deal that was put on the table.

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Mary Harris: So maybe they don’t want him or not enough.

Speaker 2: I think that’s right.

Mary Harris: Hmm. When you wrote an op ed advocating for exchanging Viktor Bout for Brittney Griner. It sounds like you got an earful from your contacts in the DEA. What were they saying to you?

Speaker 2: Both DEA and State Department colleagues, folks that I had known for many years, were very upset because they felt it was a betrayal of the rule of law. Their point is something that I think a lot of people and I think it’s a strong counterargument is does this empower Russia or others then to grab more Americans for future bargaining chips? I don’t think that in this particular case that that is true. And I do think Brittney Griner is an unusual case in that she had nothing else going on for being in Russia other than to play basketball for a Russian team that had invited her there, signed a contract with her, and was carrying derivatives of marijuana that she had been prescribed. So there’s nothing nefarious or possibly nefarious about her presence in Russia, whereas many other people can say, well, what were they really doing? Did they have intelligence contacts? They felt that it just was a really bad idea to even consider exchanging good for anyone ever.

Mary Harris: Hmm. Seems like a little pride going on here, too.

Speaker 2: Well, I think, you know, and the DEA people pointed out and that it’s also true that they had people involved in the operation of getting Victor Boot, who operated a tremendous personal risk. And I think that that’s true and that’s also fair. But I also think that at a certain point in time and I don’t think you can say on this specific moment that a certain point in time, continued presence in a U.S. prison, when you have someone else suffering whose suffering could be alleviated and you are not achieving anything further by keeping that person incarcerated. Maybe it’s time to think again.

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Mary Harris: Yeah. I mean, you’ve also said you worry for Brittney Griner because she’s gay.

Speaker 2: Russia is extremely anti-gay leadership, at least. And we we’ve seen the persecution of the gay and LGBTQ communities in Russia. So I think that of the many people that Russia is holding illegally, someone like Britain is probably in more grave danger of not being let out under any circumstances because of the anti-gay sentiment that permeates it. We know the upper echelons of least of Russian society and the court system that Putin clearly controls. So I think that that is a valid concern for her safety and her well-being.

Mary Harris: Do you worry that the U.S. tipped its hand too much? Like it was a little too thirsty to exchange Viktor Bout. And that’s part of why Russia seems less excited right now about the possibility.

Speaker 2: I do. And I told a friend of mine at the State Department, even as a former journalist, having been at The Washington Post for 20 years, I’m kind of appalled at how public this became and how this has become now almost political theater, as opposed to being a quiet, serious negotiation that could have resulted in something perhaps much more quickly and with much more utility. I think now both sides are in a mode where they have to portray strength and they have to portray pride and they have to portray all of these things that are done quietly out of the public view. Initially, at least, it would have been much easier to do.

Mary Harris: Doug Farah, I’m really grateful for your time. Thank you for joining me.

Speaker 2: Thank you. I appreciate it. And thank you for the opportunity.

Mary Harris: Douglas Farah is the co-author of Merchant of Death Money, Guns, Planes and the Man Who Makes War Possible. And that’s our show. What next is produced by Elina Schwarz, Carmel Delshad, Madeline Ducharme and Mary Wilson. We’re getting help from Jared Downing and Anna Rubanova, and we are led by Alisha Montgomery and Joanne Levine. And I’m Mary Harris. Go track me down on Twitter. I’m at Mary’s desk. All right. Thanks for listening. Catch you back here tomorrow.