By Kathi Lynn Austin, Special to CNN
Editor’s note: Kathi Lynn Austin is a former U.N. weapons inspector and executive director of the Conflict Awareness Project, an NGO that investigates and documents major arms traffickers. The views expressed are her own.
Viktor Bout, the poster boy for international arms trafficking, is back in the news.
Last week, Bout’s legal defense team submitted an appellate brief to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit. It claims Bout was wrongly convicted of five counts to commit conspiracy and terrorism. It asks for his 25-year prison sentence to be overturned, based on a list of complaints he has repeated before.
So what’s the news here?
Ironically, Bout’s appeal helps us better understand specific weaknesses in the U.S. approach for containing the world’s worst arms traffickers – those that intentionally enable terrorists, perpetrators of atrocity and U.N. sanctions-busting.
So thanks are due to Viktor Bout for highlighting, through the thematic headings of his own appeal, some useful tips for combating illicit arms trafficking.
Contractual Relations with the United States. Bout asserts that the United States was lax in its pursuit of him for international arms trafficking activities because his planes were being used during the Iraq war by both U.S. private security firms, such as Halliburton, and the U.S. Department of Defense.
These alleged mistakes, if true, could be in danger of being repeated. Thinking it has tackled Bout’s network by cutting off its top leader, the U.S. appears to have slacked off from oversight of American companies simultaneously serving U.S. national security operations and international weapons dealers.
As demonstrated in my August 2012 report, “Viktor Bout’s Gunrunning Successors: A Lethal Game of Catch Me if You Can,” two of Viktor Bout’s former associates, Sergei Denisenko and Andrey Kosolapov, reportedly recently circumvented U.S. law by attempting to acquire aircraft and maintenance services from U.S. entities for illicit trafficking in Africa. This operation allegedly included U.S. licensed pilots based as far afield as Alaska and Uganda, a U.S. pilot training academy in Minnesota, and a U.S. aviation leasing and aircraft servicing company with offices in Ventura, California and Bangor, Maine.
Significantly, the same U.S. aviation company implicated in that global arms network is currently contracted for U.S. national security operations. And even as these U.S. security operations are underway in Africa in the very place where the Russian traffickers determined to ply their illicit trade, no one has been held accountable.
So recommendation number one is: Given there is a grave risk of blowback, the U.S. needs to quickly act against any form of illegal collusion between its private contractors running U.S. covert operations and outlawed arms traffickers.
Bout is Placed On Specially Designated Nationals (SDN) List. Once the U.S. put Bout on its official sanctions list, it became illegal for any U.S. entity to do business with him. Nonetheless, as the Bout appeal brief alleges, his companies were able to obtain U.S. Defense Department contracts.
Currently, Sergei Denisenko is on this same SDN List, which is publicly available on the U.S. Department of Treasury web site. And yet, Denisenko’s companies reportedly recently contracted the American entities listed above, one of which, again, is a U.S. Defense Department contractor.
Interrelated recommendations are: The U.S. Department of Defense should strengthen regimes to vet, alert and oversee sanctions compliance by its own contractors. The U.S. Department of Treasury should investigate potential violations, since it has administrative oversight of the SDN list through its Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC).
Congressional Investigation. Thanks go to Bout for illuminating the role that the U.S. Congress can play to support transparency. Bout claims that in 2004, when a major newspaper reported on the use of his planes by U.S. government subcontractors, the very next day, the Deputy Secretary of State and of Defense both were called before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. It took seven more months, but ultimately the deputy secretary of defense appears to have admitted such use by government subcontractors.
Where is Congressional oversight now when it’s needed? A U.S. defense contractor, pilots, and a U.S. flight training school recently were allegedly co-opted by Bout associates looking to disguise their illicit operations behind the cover of U.S. legitimacy.
Recommendation three: At the very least, a Congressional hearing should be called to examine the failure of American oversight over U.S. defense contractors. A more forward-looking approach would require examination of the loopholes that permitted a transnational criminal outfit to use U.S. assets counter to U.S. law, U.S. national security interests, and UN sanctions.
My bi-partisan dream team would include Senators Dianne Feinstein (D. California) and Susan Collins (R. Maine) on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, as well as Congressman Ed Royce (R. California) and Congressman Eliot Engel (D. New York) on the House Foreign Affairs Committee.
Get Viktor Bout! Bout’s defense claims U.S. law enforcement relentlessly pursued him after a New Republic article embarrassed the U.S. government for its complicity with Bout and a scapegoat was needed.
I would be pleasantly surprised to learn that the 2006 New Republic article I co-wrote with Doug Farah had prompted U.S. law enforcement efforts against Bout.
I would derive more satisfaction if U.S. law enforcement pursued to its fullest extent the collaborators involved in the arms trafficking pipeline that aimed to enable atrocities and U.N. sanctions-busting illuminated in my August 2012 report. The Mauritius government is the only country to my knowledge that has launched an official investigation.
So recommendation number four follows on number three: Relevant U.S. law enforcement and government agencies should assist the Mauritius authorities and cast a wider enforcement net to dismantle the entire arms trafficking network formerly connected to Viktor Bout.
Jurisdiction/Nexus. Last, Bout’s defense raises concerns about how extra-territoriality is applied under U.S. law. He claims he could not have reasonably anticipated being tried in a U.S. court for his overseas conduct, since neither Russian law nor existing laws for the international sale and distribution of arms would have prevented his weapons business with the narco-trafficking Colombian rebels, the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC).
This is instructive in two ways. It strengthens the case for a robust Arms Trade Treaty (ATT), requiring countries to adopt consistent and tougher regulations. With extra-territorial reach, this could make it more difficult for arms middlemen to weaponize the perpetrators of mass atrocities. ATT negotiations resume this March at U.N. headquarters in New York.
Second, Bout’s argument points to weaknesses in the enforcement of international law and transnational crime.
Recommendation number five is forward-thinking: To better empower law enforcement agencies and atrocity prevention entities, the active arms networks affiliated with Viktor Bout should be re-designated under U.S. law as transnational criminal organization (TCO). And to better protect U.S. national security interests abroad, the U.S. government should play a leading role at the ATT negotiations in March backing the strongest international arms controls possible.