We’re honored to have Michael Busch dissecting the latest WikiLeaks document dump for Focal Points. This is the thirteenth in the series.
Leaked cables from the US embassy in Bangkok shed light on the extent to which the United States and Russia were willing to go to win their diplomatic tug-of-war for alleged arms trafficker Viktor Bout.
In one dispatch dated February 2009, Ambassador Eric John reveals forthrightly that since “Bout’s arrest in Bangkok almost a year ago [March 2008], moving towards a successful extradition to the United States has been at the top of our bilateral agenda here.” The matter was so sensitive, in fact, that “President Bush raised it with then-Prime Minister Samak during his August 2008 visit to Bangkok.”
John notes that while extradition proceedings had been progressing smoothly, if slowly, evidence had surfaced to suggest Russian tampering with the case.
There have been disturbing indications that Bout’s xxxxxxxxxx and Russian supporters have been using money and influence in an attempt to block extradition. The most egregious example was the false testimony of xxxxxxxxxx that Bout was in Thailand as part of government-to-government submarine deal.
Suspicions of corruption and perjury drove the ambassador to raise these concerns directly with Thailand’s prime minister, Abhisit Vejjajiva.
Despite assurances from Bangkok that every effort would be made to ensure fair legal proceedings in the extradition process, a Thai court ruled against Washington’s request six months later. A determined John fired off another cable two days later, laying out “a multi-pronged effort to seek a successful reversal during the appeals process.” Underscoring the argument that securing Bout’s extradition was a matter of priority for American interests, John urged pulling out all the stops.
Beyond his embassy’s own efforts to voice displeasure at the ruling with top Thai authorities, John requested that
Washington strongly consider the following actions: — In addition to the Department calling in the Thai Ambassador, we recommend that Attorney General Holder also call him in. AG Holder could point out the extensive U.S. commitment of law enforcement resources to Thailand (DEA and other), as well as our judicial training efforts, and that a statement from the RTG as outlined above would be very helpful as the U.S. decides where best to commit its law enforcement resources around the world.
But John doesn’t stop there. He also suggests that President Barack Obama personally call the prime minister and have
a serious discussion of our concerns over the implications of the Bout verdict, as outlined above. We believe POTUS involvement on Bout would have had significant effect here.
The ambassador also floats the idea that it may be a good to explore
the possibility of whether governments whose citizens have borne the bloody results of Bout’s activities over the years, such as Sierra Leone, Liberia and Congo, would be willing to publicly express dismay/engage the Thai government on the verdict and whether any affected government would be willing to ask for his extradition.
At the end of the day, however, John notes that Thailand should not exclusively consume efforts at putting Bout behind bars. The affair, the ambassador notes, “is at heart a U.S.-Russian matter.” In the event that the so-called “Lord of War” were to walk, John recommends that the State Department
make clear to Moscow our concerns on Bout’s activities and seek assurances that they will cease. Also, we should consider asking the Russians to prosecute Bout… At the very least perhaps we could force the Russians to publicly refuse to do so.
Whatever action was eventually taken in the Bout affair, it worked. In early October, Thailand’s Criminal Court handed down a ruling that paved the way for his extradition to the United States. A month later, Bout was being held on American soil. As WikiLeaks documents continue dripping into the public record, we’ll hopefully be treated to more cables offering a blow-by-blow account of the lengths to which Washington went to secure sole authority over the Merchant of Death.