Some Pentagon officials expressed concern over the release of convicted Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout. The Thursday prisoner swap for Brittney Griner left officials worried Bout may return to illegally trafficking weapons, fueling existing conflicts abroad.
Bout, nicknamed the "Merchant of Death," was serving a 25-year prison sentence in the U.S. for conspiring to kill Americans, delivery of anti-aircraft missiles and aiding a terrorist organization.
"I think there is a concern that [he] would return to doing the same kind of work that he's done in the past," said one senior Defense Department official, who spoke anonymously.
National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said that "our national security interest is not going to change" with Bout back in Russia.
"We're going to make sure that we can defend this country against any and all threats," Kirby said to CNN on Thursday. "And so, with Mr. Bout being back on the street, we're going to stay focused on making sure we can defend this country."
Sen. Bob Menendez, the Democratic chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said the trade was far from equal.
"We cannot ignore that releasing Bout back into the world is a deeply disturbing decision," he said in a statement Thursday. "We must stop inviting dictatorial and rogue regimes to use Americans overseas as bargaining chips, and we must try to do better at encouraging American citizens against traveling to places like Russia where they are primary targets for this type of unlawful detention."
Bout was a former Soviet military officer who launched a cargo airline, Air Cess, with a small fleet of Russian planes in 1995. Bout's airline armed conflicts across the African continent and Afghanistan, sometimes supplying arms to either side of the conflicts and even civil wars.
"If I didn't do it, someone else would," Bout told the New Yorker in 2012.
In the early 2000s, British officials sounded the alarm on Bout as their soldiers in Africa came under attack in Sierra Leona and Angola.
"Viktor Bout is indeed the chief sanctions-buster and is a merchant of death who owns air companies that ferry in arms and other logistic support for the rebels in Angola and Sierra Leone and take out the diamonds which pay for those arms ... aiding and abetting people who are turning their guns on British soldiers," Peter Hain, the minister of state for Africa in Britain's Foreign Office, told the House of Commons in 2000.
Bout is notorious for his role in the first and second Liberian civil wars, which saw 250,000 casualties and the destruction of much of the country. Between 1989 and 2003, Bout supplied arms to warring factions, including the corrupt former President Charles Taylor.
Bout's work was not only in Angola and Sierra Leone but also the Democratic Republic of Congo, Colombia, Yemen, Somalia and the former Yugoslavia.
The senior DOD official said that if he were to return to his old career, the U.S. would focus on its allies in Africa.
"Every Africanist who has been working on this for years and years probably will have a little piece of flutter of disappointment inside" that Bout was released, the individual said. "If his network ... were to come to fruition, then we would definitely share the challenges of what illicit weapons or illegal weapons could mean for their prosperity."
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