The harm in trading Viktor Bout

Thank you, covert negotiators.  You've traded Viktor Bout.  I want to believe there's wisdom there, some even deeper deal afoot within the diplomatic back channel.  Except, so far, it only signaled us as meek...while simultaneously derailing other high-value prisoners from cutting deals as cooperators.  And, not to be outdone, you've all but made ransom targets of any visible well-to-do or celebrity who vacations overseas.

Viktor Bout had been an international arms-trafficker extraordinaire whom we succeeded in taking off the world's violent game board.  DEA agents and officials, both quietly and out loud, seethe and grumble at the trade.  After all, they're from the agency that captured and convicted him.  They know all too well whom they caught and locked away — he furnished weapons for terrorism, skirmishes, and wars across no fewer than four continents. 

Bout's moniker as "the Merchant of Death" may resound cartoonish.  Except it isn't.  He's the real deal.  And our covert negotiators let him go, with good odds of him returning to his notorious ways of work.

To be clear, I don't begrudge WNBA player Brittany Griner getting out of Russia's clutches.  She was bamboozled.  Shanghaied.  Dragged through the grist of communist kangaroo court that totalitarian countries orchestrate best.  But there is no circumstance where Viktor Bout should have been a chip on the prisoner-swap negotiation table. 

For Griner, the back channel could have coordinated with, say, Israel or Ukraine to dispatch (completely unofficially) an ops team to rescue her.  Assuredly, she'd be at a prison labor camp they could helicopter into and bust her out from — one that's undermanned and far from Moscow, one reliant on desolation and sheer cold to all but quash escapes.  And then maybe Griner inexplicably reappears at some "coffee shop" in Amsterdam, waking from a daze, unaware how she arrived, but ever-grateful to be there.

If that sounds outlandish, the DEA (those guys again?) did it in 1985, of sorts.  Their determination came after the Guadalajara Drug Cartel kidnapped and killed DEA agent Enrique "Kiki" Camarena.  Maybe you've seen Narcos: Mexico on Netflix.  They say the episodes are dramatized for TV.  This one, not so much.  In real life, the cartel's deeds went beyond unheard of to near-unspeakable to enlisting a doctor to keep Camarena alive to continue being tortured.

DEA agents assembled within Mexico, then hunted for the doctor and dragged him back to agents waiting with a warrant across a U.S. border fence.  So to say actually, feasibly, these things can't be done — they already have been. 

Instead, with this prisoner swap, our covert negotiators signal to high-value criminals that a trade not only is possible, but has been done with Viktor Bout.  Now any hope of negotiating directly with that criminal for a reduction in sentence — with client lists and implicating co-conspirators and detailing supply chains and the foggy business fronts that may have been used to hide the operation — becomes far less attainable. 

And finally, but not least, is the signal beacon you've activated and flag waved to every single wannabe and upstart kidnap crew who now sees fortune in auctioning off some starlet or pop star who safari-vacations or humanitarian-helps in the distressed corners of Europe or Africa or Asia.

Thanks again, covert negotiators.  You've unleashed the Merchant of Death upon the earth again.  And for all the rest of us living pedestrian lives in search of hope or adoration, now none of us wants to be mistaken for an actor or a rock star, especially away from home and on vacation. 

Jason James Barry is an award-winning journalist and essayist.  He previously served as a special agent for the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.  He contributes writing to American Thinker, with other works in syndication for a variety of media, including and  Email Jason at

Image: DEA.

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