With Russia’s arrest of Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich, U.S. officials are accusing Russia of using Americans as “political hostages.” That may well be true, but while the U.S. government acts like an innocent, the fact is that it plays the political-hostage game as well as Russia. In fact, the U.S. government might well be the one that started this vicious political game with Russia.
On March 6, 2008, a Russian arms dealer named Viktor Bout was arrested in Bangkok, Thailand, on criminal charges brought by the U.S. government. The U.S. government sought Bout’s extradition to the United States, which he fervently opposed. The extradition proceedings took two years, during which time Bout was incarcerated in a Thai jail.
A Thai district court denied the U.S. extradition request, but the ruling was overturned by a Thai appellate court. On November 10, 2010, Bout was extradited to the United States to stand trial.
The Russian government vehemently objected to Bout’s prosecution, much as the U.S. government is vehemently objecting to Evan Gershkovich’s prosecution. But U.S. officials steadfastly ignored Russia’s objections to Bout’s prosecution as much as Russia is ignoring U.S. objections to Gershkovich’s prosecution.
Bout was an international arms dealer. He sold weaponry to all sorts of groups around the world. U.S. officials condemned him for his profession, while ignoring one great big important fact: The U.S. government is the biggest arms dealer in the world, also selling arms to all sorts of groups around the world, including tyrannical regimes that use such arms to suppress their own citizenry.
It’s worth noting that Bout wasn’t the only international arms dealer. There were lots of them around the world.
Nonetheless, U.S. officials decide to target him with criminal prosecution. Why would they select him out of all the other international arms dealers? My hunch is that there were two reasons: (1) As the biggest arms dealer in the world, the U.S. didn’t like the competition that Bout provided; and (2) More important, Bout was a Russian citizen, and it was during this period of time — 2008 — that the Pentagon was proceeding apace with its long-term plan of reinvigorating its old Cold War racket against Russia. By targeting a Russian citizen — especially one with close ties to Russian president Vladimir Putin — with arrest, prosecution, and incarceration, the Pentagon knew that that could go a long way toward reestablishing hostile relations and a renewed Cold War with Russia.
But there was one big problem: Bout hadn’t violated any U.S. laws.
So, what does a regime do when it wants to target a person who hasn’t committed a crime? Answer: It simply makes up a crime. And that is precisely what the U.S. government did to get Russian citizen Viktor Bout. U.S. officials used a concocted, made-up crime to get him.
Here’s how their scheme worked. U.S. officials assigned the dirty deed to the DEA. Yes, you read that right — the DEA. Now, keep in mind that the DEA stands for the Drug Enforcement Administration. The operative word in the title is “Drug.” The DEA is charged with enforcing one of the U.S. government’s biggest and oldest failed and destructive government programs — the war on drugs.
Thus, notwithstanding that the DEA’s bailiwick is drug enforcement and not arms enforcement, the DEA was charged with the task of coming up with a concocted, made-up crime relating to the sale of weapons in order to get Viktor Bout.
The DEA enlisted the assistance of two Columbians to serve as secret agents of the DEA. Acting as agents of FARC, the Marxist-Leninist guerrilla group in Columbia that U.S. officials have designated as a terrorist organization, the secret DEA agents contacted a man named Andrew Smulian, who was a friend of Bout. The secret DEA agents falsely told Smulian that FARC wanted to purchase arms from Bout.
Smulian contacted Bout and told him about the proposed deal. Bout agreed to meet with the secret DEA agents in Bangkok. During that meeting, which was being secretly recorded, Bout and the secret DEA agents struck a deal in which Bout agreed to sell them a large quantity of armaments. At that point, the Thai police, which were working with the DEA, swooped in and arrested Bout.
U.S. officials charged Bout with “conspiracy” to sell armaments to a U.S.-designated terrorist organization. During the negotiations, the secret DEA agents had said that they planned to use the weapons to kill U.S. drug-enforcement officials operating in Columbia. Bout remarked something to the effect that he didn’t care, given that the U.S. was an enemy to him as well. Based on that remark, which was made in the context of sales negotiations in response to what the secret DEA agents had said to Bout, U.S. officials ended up charging Bout with a “conspiracy” to kill U.S. officials.
There are few things that stick out in this scenario.
One, Bout never entered the United States. His actions in attempting to sell arms to what he was led to believe was FARC took place entirely in Thailand, which is about 8,500 miles from the United States.
Two, there is no legal reason why any Russian citizen is bound by some designation by the U.S. government that some foreign entity is a terrorist organization. At the risk of belaboring the obvious, Russian citizens, like other foreign citizens, are not bound by laws or edicts issued by the U.S. government, any more than U.S. citizens are bound by laws or edicts issued by the Russian government or some other foreign government.
Three, Bout never sold any arms to FARC because FARC wasn’t part of this deal. It was the DEA that was secretly acting like it was FARC.
The question naturally arises: Why does the U.S. government have criminal jurisdiction over a Russian citizen’s decision to sell weapons to a group in Columbia, especially given that the Russia citizen never sets foot in the United States?
Knowing that they would have problems proving that Bout sold weapons to FARC, which he clearly didn’t, U.S. officials decided to rely on a “conspiracy” charge against him. A “conspiracy” is an agreement to perform a criminal act. It has long been an easy way for U.S. officials to win convictions when all else fails.
But a “conspiracy” requires an agreement between two or more people. It is difficult to understand who Bout supposedly agreed with to sell the armaments. He couldn’t be charged with conspiring with those secret DEA agents to sell arms because conspiracy law requires that he enter into an agreement with someone else — i.e., not the government — to perform a criminal act. That is, under the law of conspiracy, Bout cannot be charged with conspiring with those secret DEA agents to sell the arms.
Moreover, he didn’t conspire with his friend Smulian because Smulian wasn’t selling the armaments. He was simply acting as a go-between who got the two parties together, much like a real-estate broker does in a sale of a home. When Bout met with those secret DEA agents in Bangkok, he agreed on his own to sell them the weapons. Thus, who did he conspire with?
Of course, none of this mattered when Bout was brought to trial. He was a Russian and an international arms dealer. He was convicted and sentenced to 25 years in jail. Not surprisingly, his sentence was upheld on appeal.
It was all based on a made-up crime, one concocted by the DEA. But it served its purpose in helping to fulfill the Pentagon’s long-term aim of bringing about hostile relations between the United States and Russia and reinvigorating the Pentagon’s old Cold War racket against Russia.
After being forced to serve some 12 years of his life in a federal penitentiary (and two additional years in a Thai jail) for committing a made-up, concocted, fake crime, on December 8, 2022, Bout was traded for U.S. citizen Brittney Griner, who, ironically, was caught in Russia violating the war on drugs, which the Russian government enforces as fiercely as the DEA does here in the United States. As far as I know, the DEA has never issued an official opinion on the Griner-Bout trade.